Having completed my final semester of university with modules on punk history and queer arts, it was fitting that I rounded off my end-of-assessment celebrations by attending Chicago rocker Ezra Furman in concert at the Dome, a highlight of this month’s Brighton Festival. Combining garage punk with undertones of chamber pop and contemporary psychedelia, Ezra epitomizes the duality of chaotic creativity and emotional turbulence at the heart of the LGBT+ community, and indeed of so much of the radical experience.
Yet, the musician’s floral purple blouse and skin-tight black trousers are a more subdued presentation than his regular attire of flamboyant mini-dresses and bright lipstick – a reflection of his more sombre latest album Transangelic Exodus. A striking black and white set signals too this diversion from the euphoric silliness audiences have come to associate with his performances. Before us is a constant balancing act between anarchic artistic power and emotional fragility that Ezra captures astoundingly well.
Alongside four-piece band The Boy-Friends, Ezra breaks into ‘Cherry Lane’, the finale to his 2013 album Day of the Dog, which sets the scene to the soulful, meandering journey for identity that Exodus embodies. From this, he delves into the distinctly punk ‘I Wanna Destroy Myself,’ with its piercing guitar riffs and shrieking vocals. In its aftermath he tells his audience that this is what his music is all about: “destroying the old, creating something new.”
Fittingly, we then embark on a series of his newest releases. There’s the insatiable rocky energy of ‘Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill,’ followed by the stripped-back ‘Psalm 151,’ with Ezra switching to acoustic guitar and singing a splintering falsetto. “Words fail me now,” the song confesses sliding between agony and the salutation offered by faith, companionship and the little comforts of the natural world. From this, the iconic tribal drumming of ‘The Great Unknown’ starts up – this short and catchy anthem is Exodus’ ode to love and the strength it offers in times of strife. There’s a rousing energy to its heavy percussion and The Boy-Friends’ deep, shouty vocals, that stir a sense of optimism in the crowd.
Centre-stage, a huge white orb seems to resemble the stretched skin of a drum, so central to the raw energy of Exodus. Upon it are projected low-fi flickerings of old footage and a spooky, luminous image of the moon. A number of songs are styled with scrawling black and white animations, like those of a flip book, reflecting the music’s D.I.Y. aesthetic and frantic creativity. In a sinister rendition of ‘No Place,’ which Ezra dedicates to the plight of countless refugees worldwide, we rush frenzied down a highway, a featureless figure repeatedly nearing us and rising overhead – an angel transcending into the heavens or a body flung over the bonnet of a car?
Similarly powerful is Ezra’s rendition of his 2015 hit “Ordinary Life,” a painedly raw personal account of feeling utterly disillusioned and apart from the ruthless banality of the world. “I was so sick of ordinary life,” he shrieks, protesting “The human mind gets sick real easy/ The human mind gets way fucking sick of beauty.”
The performance is not without its joy – a particularly upbeat number is ‘I lost my innocence’, a jubilant romp around the ecstasy of teenage sex. With its triumphant saxophone and playful tinkering vocals, Ezra is aglow with the frenzy of liberated pleasure. In its wake he comments earnestly, “this is so fun! You should join a band! Make it a good band!” Another highlight is his cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love,” to which he saunters slinkily about the stage, revelling in feminine sensuality.
In spite of a number of technical glitches, the band hold it together with their dynamism and good humour. The audience cheer and sigh at the journey of a non-cooperative saxophone that Ezra announces must visit the ‘hospital’ backstage. He ponders too on the irony of proudly announcing at his 2014 Brighton appearance that it was “our first show where nothing went wrong.”
Rounding up with his unapologetically poppy “Restless Year”, a hook-heavy bop from the joyous opening to 2015 album Perpetual Motion People, the crowd are left giddy and reeling with the band’s intoxicating energy. In a darker incarnation of his playfully anarchic, unique style, Ezra brings a kind of hope to all that today’s conformity and mundanity attempt to destroy.