Caroline Polachek at the Apollo with guest Brìghde Chaimbeul

Live Review: Caroline Polachek at Eventim Apollo, London – February 14, 2023

Desire Day. It was always meant to be this way: Caroline Polachek releasing her hotly anticipated new album Desire, I Want To Turn Into You on Valentine’s Day and celebrating it by playing to a sold out crowd, in one of her biggest solo performances ever, in a city that has been a second home to her in the last few years. Originally intended to be taking place at Brixton Academy but forced to move due to that venue’s extended closure, it seemed all too perfect that the show could seamlessly move six miles west to a venue of almost identical proportions, without having to change the date – clearly, even fate knew that nothing could stand in the way of the star’s inexorable rise.

That auspicious aura was carried into Polachek’s performance and augmented with every new banger she pulled out as the evening progressed. Exploding onto the stage with Desire album opener “Welcome To My Island”, the connection between performer and audience was immediately forged in screams, tears and a sea of illuminated phone screens, the crowd roaring back the chant along “hey hey hey hey!” of the irresistible chorus right from its first appearance. This euphoria turned to heartbreakingly, joyously earnest melodrama as Polachek segued into Pang favourite “Hit Me Where It Hurts”, the crowd sliding down the spectrum of emotion with her to the point where we all felt like butterflies inside of planes.

Across the night, Polachek played all 12 tracks from Desire, a justified showing of confidence and pride in her excellent new album. While it was released on the day of the performance, many of the new songs were still relatively unfamiliar to the crowd, but as the early drop of “Pretty In Possible” showed, they were all along for the ride, gliding mentally with the crystalline beats and fluttering vocal lines. They were then rewarded for their attentiveness with the appearance of “Bunny Is A Rider” surprisingly early in the set, which ensured that anyone who hadn’t yet found their groove was jammed right into it. Polachek’s trademark saunter-stride around the stage was in full flow, prowling up and down throughout, with some well-placed twirls and hip shakes along with the song’s sassy lyrics.

Along with her rising stardom and wider appeal, Polachek has now been afforded a three-piece band to back her up, and their added oomph made the peaks and contours of her songs pop all the more. A rapturous reception and singalong to “Ocean Of Tears” was capped off with the band putting emphasis on the rocking finale, the guitar riff propelling Polachek’s wordless vocal arabesques to the heavens. On “Fly To You”, the most outrageous performance was not Polachek singing all three parts flawlessly (with Dido and Grimes there “in spirit”) but the drummer’s airtight replication of the song’s skittering future house beat.

So, without Grimes and Dido showing up on the night, whom did Polachek have as her special guest? Scottish bagpiper Brìghde Chaimbeul, of course, whose 2019 album The Reeling was one of Polachek’s obsessions during the creative process for Desire and who appears on album highlight “Blood and Butter”. Introduced before the performance of the song, Chaimbeul perched on her stool with her bagpipes throughout the track like a timebomb we all knew was going to explode – and when it came time for her to drop her solo, it was undeniably epic. As Chaimbeul’s instrument filled every corner of the venue, it was impossible not to marvel at Polachek’s ingenuity to bring this unconventional sound so perfectly into her idiosyncratic pop solar system.

Approaching the end of the evening, Polachek started letting her overwhelming emotions show through a bit more. Her excitement got the better of her as she let slip that Dua Lipa was in the house and prior to the main-set-ending “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” she declared her love for her boyfriend Matt, also in attendance, for inspiring the song during their long-distance early days. Coming out in the encore, after a lengthy break for a costume change (of course), she was almost overwhelmed by feeling as she thanked producer, confidante and partner in crime Danny L Harle for helping her reach this point. “Sometimes you meet the right person to bring the potential out of you,” she said, before using her quivering voice to perfection on her torch song to potential, “Hopedrunk Everasking”. 

This pinched-nerve feeling carried into “Door”, her breakthrough solo hit, and it all came pouring out in a flood of feeling, about the past, the future, and most importantly for everyone in attendance, the present. She could have easily finished there, but with one Desire song left to play, Polachek sent us out buzzing with “Smoke”, its danceable beat and simple earworm “na na na” hook working to devastating effect. If Polachek had been starting to feel like London was a home away from home in recent years, then the homecoming reception she received on this night can only have sealed it.