Noah and the Whale, Rough Trade East, 7 March

In celebration of the release of their third album, Last Night On Earth, (and, of course, as a ploy to persuade fans to buy it) Noah and the Whale are this evening doing an instore performance at Rough Trade East.

Come 7pm the shop is filled with far fewer teenage girls than one might have expected. In fact, this is your typical Rough Trade instore crowd: tall, cool and almost impossible to excite.

The lights go out and the room falls dead silent. Noah and the Whale walk onstage and quiet applause breaks out: you could cut the tension in this room with a knife. “That was a strange walk-on,” says lead singer, Charlie Fink, in a vain attempt to break the ice. He announces they will be playing with a drum machine tonight, because the stage isn’t big enough for a kit.

They launch into one of the new album’s best tracks, Tonight’s The Kind Of Night. It’s a stiff performance, but that’s forgivable under the circumstances: it’s as if no one has even noticed they’re onstage yet.

Even when it comes to their hits, the audience is cold. “This one’s called Blue Skies,” says Charlie. No one bats an eyelid. But this time, the non-reaction is justified. An electric guitar replaces Tonight’s The Kind Of Night’s acoustic, with disastrous consequences. All sound quality goes out the window as the incompetent speakers strain under the volume. Everything now sounds slightly out of tune, and is hardly helped by the now over-bearing drum machine. If Rough Trade want to continue with these instores, it is vital they invest in decent equipment and a qualified sound technician.

Mercifully, the acoustic is back for another new track, Waiting for My Chance to Come. A bunch of sixth formers arrive at the front and immediately start dancing, which does something to ease the awkward vibes in the audience. The sound is slightly better now, but there is still that crackly overtone you get when you play very loud music through shit speakers.

Noah and the Whale are starting to loosen up. On the excellent Life is Life Charlie passionately furrows his brow, as if to say the words about thinking you can start your life over are ironic. You can tell this is one of his favourites. Unfortunately, he tries again to get a laugh: “Playing this song with the MPC [drum machine] is the first step towards us making a hip hop record.” Let’s hope not.

They play 5 Years Time, but next to the new material it starts to sound rather negligible – a silly little song they wrote when they were young. They’ve obviously learnt a lot since then.

Suddenly we are filled with dread as the electric guitar comes back for L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N. But amazingly, this turns out to be by far the best performance of the set. The band are warmed up, the sound is now balanced enough to be tolerable, and even the audience are starting to bob their heads in recognition. On top of that is Tom Hobden’s ever-impressive talent for singing backing vocals while playing a violin still wedged under his chin.

Tonight is proof that crowds don’t get much tougher than those at Rough Trade East, but Noah and the Whale made it through. The new music showcased tonight was of real quality, even if the sound was not – proving this to be one of those rare bands that gets better with age.

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