Live Review: Christine and the Queens at Usher Hall, Edinburgh – September 8, 2023

On a balmy Friday night at the start of September, Edinburgh has a strange presence – or rather there’s a strange lack of it. Thousands of Fringe performers and accompanying visiting tourists now absent from the Scottish capital, the city has something resembling normal capacity (at least before a new cohort of students start arriving next week). Eager Rugby fans with eyes glued to the World Cup games were occupying most of the space in the city’s bars, so the packed interior of the Usher Hall felt like something of a respite – at least from the warm weather, if not the bustle of cheers when a try was won by a favoured team.

Audience members filtered into the grand hall as supporting act Rhodes began the night’s music. Lit with a lone spotlight, the English singer stood and sang with a grateful tone. With nothing but an electric guitar accompanying him, there was the potential for his intimacy to be swallowed by the size of the venue and the chattering patrons. On the likes of closing number “Toothpick” this did happen, turning him into an inoffensive sort of background music. But on a couple of tracks his voice rose impressively above the murmurs of audience conversation. Like a Bends-era Thom Yorke, his voice resonated with a familiar lilt as he stretched out his syllables. “Never give up,” he earnestly sang out on “Breathe”, his hand reaching out between each strummed chord. Trying to connect with the crowd with a sweet shy boy energy, one had to wonder if the sentiment was more for himself than anyone else.

Guitar amps were replaced with statues of angels and lions, a small section of a spiral staircase appeared under dim blue lights, and a series of wooden chairs sat vacant. Christine and the Queens on stage has a theatrical nature that arguably is lost on record. Chris’ latest album, Paranoïa, Angels, True Love, is their manifesto for the evening. Taking the audience through the majority of the album’s 20 tracks, Chris led the audience through his landscapes; these are occasionally peculiar places to visit. The yearning trip hop of “Tears can be so good”, enacted overtures, the Johann Pachelbel-sampling “Full of life,” and the immense behemoth of noise that is the eleven minute “Track 10” (which was much more ferocious and powerful than on record).

Critical reception points to the material on the Angels In America-inspired Paranoïa, Angels, True Love not being the absolute strongest in Chris’ discography, especially if you’re not sold on the widescreen storytelling on the 96-minute album. They are trying new guises, mining territory that previous work only hinted at. Its ambition is impressive on paper but on stage the end result is missing something. Tracks are vacant of that effortless allure, and only occasionally do the audience start swaying along to the music.

“True love” evokes the light flutter of “Tilted”’s drum track, but its vocoder vocals and stabs of thorny guitar waft it off in a less seductive direction. Somewhere in the middle section of the set list attention wanes, worn down the story that has drifted off into corners not fully understood nor entirely cared about. Even as Chris’ voice rises like that of Zola Jesus’ amidst gloomy synth surroundings (see “Shine” or “Big Eye”), the sentiment and detail is lost in a swirl of commotion. 

This is not due to lack of trying though. Chris is the show’s ringleader. He struts about with the confidence of Jagger, embraces the theatrical flair of Mercury, and swirls in his own glitchy spirit, making for a concoction that is inebriating to take in. Say what you will about the overall quality of the material that Chris and his band played, he was immersed in each second; to Chris these were the most important songs ever that simply must be heard. Like a possessed preacher saving souls, he pounced and danced across the stage, posing bare chested like a professional wrestler under skittering spotlights. This wasn’t performance to him, it was feeling and being. Reacting in the moment and expressing everlasting emotion in every direction. 

He adorned himself with a variety of costume pieces, including a deep red ball gown skirt, the arm from a suit of armour, and an impressive tuxedo jacket with accompanying black wings. “Yes, I am insane and I am proud of it! Have you seen the world?!,” he explained into an echoing microphone. Even as he rambled about the healing properties of water, hope, and… Megatron, it was impossible not to fixate on him, even if the music washed over your head.

The only challenger for attention was the lights. Lasers and spotlights aplenty, a dazzling display of illumination cast Chris and his band in what felt like a Fever Ray show. Occasionally other musicians took centre stage for a stodgy solo, and or to join Chris on the wooden chairs for a spoken word interlude. At one point the drummer stepped away from his kit and dealt out white masks to his fellow bandmates, which were placed on their faces in a synchronous motion. Combined with Chris’ delirious and enrapturing movements, this felt like a ritual as opposed to a regular gig. 

As “Big Eye” ends the album, it closed the gig too. Some 90 minutes after the band took the stage, the crowd were itching for a little something else though. A brief encore outing of “Tilted” or “iT”; a small, sweet dessert after a hearty and hefty meal. There were no such offerings. Paranoïa, Angels, True Love was all that mattered, an important document for Chris to tell to the world. Nothing else for him to say, the lights came up and the ritual was complete.

The crowd spilled out onto the city streets outside the Usher Hall. The night time temperature was still warm for what should be the start of autumn as the crowds mingled and mixed with Friday night revellers and homeward-bound rugby fans. Edinburgh felt full and bustling for that brief moment again. You would think it was August from the look of it.