Live Review: Gabby Young at London’s Koko (10/13)

Photo by Saul Photography

Welcome to the pleasure dome. Koko dates back to 1900 when it opened as the Camden Theatre. Renamed the Camden Hippodrome in 1909, it became a variety theater where Charlie Chaplin was a noted regular. Following stints as a cinema and BBC TV theater, it was turned into a music venue in the ’70s known as The Music Machine and later as the Camden Palace, becoming the home for New Romantics. After a refurb in 2004, it re-opened as Koko, playing host to special shows by luminaries like Noel Gallagher, Coldplay, and Madonna, as well as high-profile, up-and-coming bands.

Photo by A R Harvey (c) 2011

The history lesson is important, not only because it’s an achievement in itself to get a gig here, but also because the venue offered a perfect backdrop for Gabby Young & Other Animals. The splendor of this palace of red and gold with its deep stage, large open floor, and ornate tiered balconies is tailor-made for a theatrical performance. And boy, was this pure theater. Opening with her eight-piece band augmented in samba style, a barefoot Gabby Young strode onstage like a porcelain princess with her trademark umbrella, yet in an innovative, short, black-piped, white dress. She similarly meshed the traditional with the avant-garde throughout the evening. Launching into “Umm…” from her 2009 debut, a novel take on how couples communicate, Young displayed some remarkable vocal acrobatics amid a hubbub of syncopated jazz rhythms and Gypsy swing.

Spinning through two more album cuts spanning vaudeville and Cossack dance, Young then debuted a quieter new song, “Male Version of Me”. The song moved from a solo to a duet with her guitarist partner, Stephen Ellis, with the band then joining in its slow refrain. It was a feast for eyes and ears; behind them, two aerial artists worked their lithe bodies up and down lengths of red silk dangling from the ceiling. As the show progressed, each song was presented as carefully designed theater. A brass band and a gospel choir came on for individual songs. Dancers performed freestyle during the 1920’s cabaret of “Ones That Got Away” when it might have been easier to do the Charleston. Throughout, Gabby Young addressed the audience like good friends with a mixture of humility, wonder, and girlish exuberance.

There were any number of highlights, simply because of how well everything was staged and the variety of styles shoehorned into the music. The new songs were well-received by an enthusiastic audience, some of whom were made or dressed up to rival the stage performers. Gabby Young’s songs have unexpected twists and turns. They explode into fast segments punctuated by sudden pauses. The lilting picked guitar that opened “Maybe” and was soon accompanied by quietly mournful accordion hardly prepared you for its frantic Cabaret-style crescendo, which resolved into a quiet enigma: “Maybe I’m a little erratic, but I have this fear that my bath is running over.” Here, and on other occasions, the white space tricked the audience into offering premature applause.

Photo by Saul Photography

Deeper into the set that saw a halftime costume change for Young into a gorgeous, floaty, long dress, the packed crowd began to demonstrate more and more participation, calling out, wildly singing, and dancing in response to the excitement of it all. The singer, band, and motley cast equally responded with showstopping performances. Young was heard to great effect on a new song, “Honey”, her vibrato shimmering and wavering almost like a musical saw. Pitch-perfect all through, she coped with the self-inflicted complexities of her music admirably. The show reached a crescendo with “We’re All in This Together”. Opening with plaintive guitar and banjo, the song showed off the softer side of Young’s vocal range, with its control and impassioned command. A barnstorming, sing-along “Whose House” ensured two fully merited and disparate encores, after which the crowd still called for more.

On the surface, Gabby Young’s music is not what you’d normally call commercial, but played out live it is compelling and wonderfully creative. I have rarely seen a band and audience in greater consort, and when it works as well this, you feel privileged to be part of it. One suspects that Gabby Young may have truly arrived, and with her talent and creativity, she will go on to grace bigger stages than even this fabulous venue.

You may like to take a look at this short video, which gives some sharp insights into the buildup to this gig.

Photography by Saul Photography and A R Harvey.

Ladies of the Lake
Ask You a Question
Male Version of Me
In Your Head
Goldfish Bowl
Ones That Got Away
We’re All in This Together
Whose House

Curtain Call
Two by Two

Gallery by  Saul Photography and A R Harvey

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