Alasdair MacLean is not your ordinary kind of frontman. For one, he graduated from Edinburgh University with a first-class degree in English literature in the early 1990s and now mixes touring, recording and songwriting with endless hours spent at an easel. The lyrics he brings to his band, the Clientele – a four-piece comprising two guitarists, a drummer and an organ-player-cum-violinist-cum-xylophone-player, Mel Draisey, who also plays with Peter Bjorn and John – are impressionistic, and also reveal a predilection for quoting 1920s French surrealist poetry.
Such past times might suggest intensity, and MacLean reveals that kind of demeanour tonight. The band had just returned from a tour of the US, where they have a greater following than in Blighty, and MacLean curses his way through tuning episodes between songs, explaining, incongruously, that he's feeling really nervous – "sweating with fear" – self-deprecatingly referring to the group as "amateurs". Such swipes are clearly delivered with a sense of self-knowingness. The others simply smile. Draisey explains that she's lost her voice. Drummer Mark Keen jokes, "I lost my dog the other day." The atmosphere is convivial, with a crowd mainly made up of a thirtysomething fan base, who spend much of the gig shouting for the band to perform their 2003 track, "House on Fire" (they oblige, later).
The majority of the songs are taken from the 2009 album, Bonfires on the Heath. Unlike the baroque, layered nature of their recorded work, in a live setting the sound of MacLean's vocals and guitar somewhat drown out Draisey's own vocals and keys, lending a more poppy, Shins-esque feel, which occasionally segues into long, repetitive, sequences.
The night is opened with "Since K Got Over Me". Other tracks include "We Could Walk Together" ("And watch the fools go rolling on through still fields as the darkness falls on England green"), "I Know I'll See Your Face", "Here Comes the Phantom", "Bonfires on the Heath", "Never Anyone But You", "Harvest Time" and "Reflections after Jane". Arguably the band's biggest hit, "Bookshop Casanova", is preceded by a dedication to US singer-songwriter Alex Chilton, who died last month, and whose material the band sometimes cover. MacLean gyrates and contorts his mouth when singing and moves his guitar like he's panning for gold. It's a degree of care that invariably speaks of lost love or an Albion-esque vision of lost Britain. Tonight, this view is completed by the sight of Peters Sellers and Cook hamming it up on a background projection of Jonathan Miller's 1966 television play, Alice in Wonderland. It all adds a ghostly, dream-like quality to MacLean's reverb-rich guitar and breathy vocals. Especially since the film seems to end almost immediately as the band leave the stage. It's both a kiss goodnight and a glance at a nation we'll never see again.