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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Kitty Empire

Feist review – indie shapeshifter gets conceptual

Feist at the O2 Victoria Warehouse in Manchester.
‘Gleefully toying with preconceptions’: Feist at the O2 Victoria Warehouse in Manchester. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

Leslie Feist is scrabbling around on the concrete floor, attempting to bury her jewellery. A circle of respectful audience members look on; the rest of us are watching a live feed of her mimed efforts projected on to the main stage curtain. A man we’re calling “Kyle” – he’s not really called Kyle – is livestreaming the action on an iPhone. Kyle divides his time between tracking the Canadian singer’s movements and wandering about, collecting ambient shots: closeups of fabric patterns, or at Feist’s request, the crowd’s own phone footage of whatever “got them through lockdown”. Mostly, Kyle’s phone films snaps of pets and loved ones. Someone offers up footage of sheep.

This is the tour for this year’s Multitudes album, in which a winsome singer-songwriter – or alternatively, a “hardened rock dog”, “30 years deep” into touring – goes a little rogue (it’s Feist’s last UK date, so spoilers are incoming). This Feist is gleefully toying with preconceptions, mixing everyday chat about grief and emojis with high-concept suspensions of disbelief. It’s a daring and wonderful production – and also hokey and baffling at once. Kyle is supposedly a random audience member that Feist instantly entrusts with her personal space, and her phone. Uh-huh.

Back on the venue floor, Feist mimes planting all her jewellery in the soil for a song called I Took All of My Rings Off, a significant staging post on that celebrated recent album. In the track’s lyrics, trees grow from her rings, underlining the circular nature of everything. In her prelude, Feist talks about the cycle of the seasons that lockdown allowed her to witness “for the first time in my adult life”; there’s birth and death in there too.

The song begins with her singing a cappella on a small round stage mid-crowd, the climax of a short solo acoustic set opening the show. These are songs delivered up close, in the round, with a bank of effects pedals and a loop station to keep things interesting.

Watch the video for Of Womankind, from the album Multitudes, by Feist.

But I Took All of My Rings Off ends with Feist transitioning to the main stage, where the curtain falls to reveal a full band taking up the tune. A drummer and keyboard player flank two multi-instrumentalists on more keys, bass and violin. Things get louder and gnarlier. The setup inverts a common arena band trope (main stage, then an acoustic encore on a B-stage). And the two contrasting settings also provide a salutary reminder of how many different Feists existed before this subtle artist titled an album Multitudes, to reflect the new selves that had come along recently. Feist became mainstream-famous on the back of a cute, breezy bagatelle repurposed as a 2008 iPod Nano advert – 1234, which we hear later, artfully deconstructed.

As the glove-puppeteer Bitch Lap Lap, however, Feist had previously been part of a wilder crowd that included the artist Peaches and rapper turned pianist Chilly Gonzales – fellow Canadians who lit up the margins of the early 00s with mischief. Feist had also spent time in one of Canada’s longest-running indie bands, Broken Social Scene; her own solo work, across six albums, has consistently used the springboard of delicate vocals and intricate guitar to explore a wide range of moods, often wrongfooting expectations. One of the best passages on offer tonight is In Lightning, a full-band outing from Multitudes in which her expressive vocals are offset by heavy percussion, fidgety rimshots and stormy atmospheres – the very antithesis of her more pensive, polite work.

Feist in Manchester.
A feast of Feists in Manchester. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

“Mother” and “bereaved daughter” became the latest two Feists to toss on to the pile of identities. During the pandemic, she locked down with her baby daughter, adopted in 2019, and her abstract expressionist artist father, Harold; he died suddenly in 2021. At one point, Feist confides that the emoji she now uses most often is “shrugging woman”, given all that she – and we – have been through. A lively discussion ensues about what the emoji means, and whether it’s an absolution of responsibility. (Feist confides that she also likes to think of it as “a little brunette tree, waving at the other trees”.)

At its best, then, this is a gig heroically unlike normal gigs. Feist’s brave production – in association with Rob Sinclair, who designed David Byrne’s knockout American Utopia performances of 2018 – packs in much emotion, and some genuinely audacious stagecraft. Less impressive is the conceit in which Kyle allegedly filches a notebook from someone in the crowd, with Feist fretting about looking inside it. She needn’t have been concerned – it’s clearly her own notebook, with her lyrics in it.

Emotion and stagecraft act in tandem, though, when Feist wells up unexpectedly while tuning her guitar, telling us about her musician uncle, a mentor who supported the young Leslie when she was in a high-school hardcore band, offering words of wisdom when her first-ever appearance in Manchester went badly.

He is gone now; we raise our glasses to his memory. Feist launches into Become the Earth, a Multitudes song that takes comfort in the return of dust to dust. As layers of disembodied Feist vocals amass, suddenly the big-screen live feed shows the venue we are standing in completely empty, with no one there. The footage cuts to an empty stage, and a microphone with no singer – a chilling, beautiful moment whose effects will linger long in the memory.

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