By Tony Inglis
Barrowlands, Glasgow, 24 November 2017
The first time I saw Mac DeMarco play live – a few years ago, in Glasgow’s now shuttered iconic club venue, The Arches – kids literally hung from the rafters as Mac and his band closed out their set with a raucous, hilarious, ingratiating rendition of Metallica’s classic ‘Enter Sandman’, as was their wont to do at the time. The wild atmosphere belied the sweet, self-aware songs he wrote and recorded; his lackadaisical guitar playing seemed more to invite a sense of calm than of party. But he had a reputation of indulging in eccentric, bordering on wild, stage theatrics, and he seemed happy to play the comedian.
The second time I saw Mac DeMarco play live was at the brink of this year’s summer at Primavera Sound in Barcelona, Europe’s (the world’s?) best festival. His drummer played butt naked, and Mac almost ended up the same way by the end of the set. The songs were great, the guitar comfortingly familiar, the words contemplative and melancholy. But the messing around seemed to overpower the music and I left wondering if it was more annoying than funny.
Now, Mac returns to Glasgow, to play yet another iconic venue, the Barrowlands. His popularity has spiked, the mini-Mac clones are out in force, rushing from cloakroom, to toilet, to bar, and the prospect loomed of this particular place bringing out the best a performer has to offer. The question was whether that best referred to tunes or antics. This all off the back of the release of This Old Dog, perhaps Mac’s most insular, personal, and moving album. If any of his music contradicted his stage persona, it was this.
The night starts off with low-key opener ‘On the Level’, the synth-led stand out from his aforementioned new album. The vibe is electric in the ballroom, but the start of the show is calm and measured. It seems apt – the songs on this record are reflective, about growing older and coming to terms with it, and how love and family changes as you do. Of course, Mac is drinking a bottle of Scotland’s national alcoholic beverage (no, not whiskey), which he dedicates a short, off-the-cuff ditty to, so he’s not all stoney-faced, nor would I wish him to be.
Actually, the main portion of the night is surprisingly lean and streamlined. There is very little chat between songs, and he and his band storm through his best work to a rapturous reception. He is, as always, a fun and engaging presence, welcoming the crowd, hoping that they have a fun and safe time – it is a pleasure to be in his company. Oddities are scattered throughout – chief among them a cover of ‘The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)’ from Star Wars, after a crowd member throws a rucksack in the shape of Jar Jar Binks’ head up to the playing band – but these range from throwaway fooling around (another cover, this time of the spoof song ‘Harley David (Son of a Bitch)) to laugh-out-loud funny.
‘Ode to Viceroy’, one of Mac’s most memorable tunes, where he sings of his love for a specific brand of cigarettes, inspires a few in the crowd to (perhaps against their better judgement) light up one of their own. Some are well-concealed; others are not so lucky, and probably don’t see out the remainder of the night indoors.
After ‘Moonlight on the River’ swirls to a cacophonous climax, and a sing-a-long to perhaps Mac’s best song, ‘Chamber of Reflection’ from Salad Days, the night seems to be coming to an end with his usual set finisher ‘Still Together’, where he, his band, and the majority of the adoring audience follow along with glee as Mac, endearingly out of tune, shrieks “togeeeeeeeeeether”. The night seems to have been devoid of the laddish behavior that some critics have grown to find tiresome and irritating.
However, what is a sub-four minute song on record, at the Barrowlands becomes a forty minute detour through multiple, at best silly, at worst self-indulgently tedious, covers. In Barcelona, not many months ago, the song was punctuated simply by a jam. But here, Mac takes to the drum kit and they run through a confusing grab-bag of songs by other bands and artists: the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Under the Bridge’, 50 Cent’s ‘In Da Club’, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, The Proclaimers, ‘Day Tripper’, Van Halen, amongst others too numerous to care to remember. After a few, it was a bit of a laugh; what felt like an eternity later, I was checking my phone.
If the show had ended after ‘Still Together’, I would not have felt short-changed – it was great, the hits were played, along with some less popular, under-appreciated stand-outs – and obviously Mac and his pals were having a great time up there. But, this section of the gig felt so utterly unnecessary that it turned what was a nearing on triumphant performance into something that left me bemused.
However, after this misjudged series of songs, they broke back into the chorus of the set closer and we were given an ending befitting the evening. After moving off stage for a couple of minutes, Mac returned with one other band member, and requested that the audience sit down for one last number. All obeyed (which is, in hindsight, quite the feat, considering the sticky mysteriousness of the Barrowlands floor). In what was a melancholy and, for me, moving left turn, Mac played This Old Dog’s last track, ‘Watching Him Fade Away’. Here, as on the album, the simplicity of this song, about Mac’s complicated relationship with his father, and coming back into his life after hearing that his dad was fighting cancer, rendered me, and it seems a lot of my fellow audience members, speechless. The Barrowlands emptied out muted. For me, it was the strange gut punch of how the show ended; for others, perhaps, it was the difficulty in summing up an even that was equal parts enjoyable and frustrating.
It seems that Mac DeMarco is at a bit of crossroads as a performer. There is a kind of split in his personality – on one side, the intelligent and thoughtful songwriter; on the other, the loveable goofball who, on stage, seems immature and puckish. Sometimes it can be hard to see how the two sides can work in tandem – the former feels so honest, and the latter more like a performed character. Of course, for many, it does work. However, there feels the inevitability of a backlash in the air that is already taking hold – This Old Dog was less well received than his previous work, despite being of equal quality and greater depth, perhaps because critics are over Mac’s shtick. On the evidence of tonight, it’s apparent that a balance must be struck between those opposing sides of his personality moving forward. The real Mac is in his songs, and that’s what I want more of.