If ever there was a time for a pleasant, distracting Sunday afternoon gig it was this weekend. Royalty and politics were forgotten for a highly entertaining hour at The Southbank’s Purcell Room. ‘Gig’ is definitely the word. Hero & Leander, Or, I Love You, But Everything’s Under Water is billed as a theatrical performance of sorts but in reality it was a relatively straightforward concert. One that, perhaps, felt a bit muted thanks to the afternoon’s flat matinee crowd. I can picture a stonking, killer evening performance that might have rocked the joint and raised the roof. As it was, polite applause was the order of the day, which seemed rather a shame.
Fortunately, the five musicians who make up the company, including Jack Dean and the utterly delightful, honey-voiced Siân Keen taking lead vocals, threw themselves into proceedings with gusto. Hero & Leander is a well-drilled and tight piece of work that’s reminiscent of fabled concept albums of old. It’s a good one too, fitting in a space that, perhaps, Led Zeppelin might have occupied back in the day. Especially if they’d adopted the sea shanty as a form and abandoned the coke and arrogant bombast. Hero & Leander oozes nothing but charm, humour and good vibes along with its easy-on-the-ear tunes.
Like many a concept album before it, it tells a meandering narrative. A Greek myth no less. Truth be told, the plot is not really that strong or compelling. Hero is a feisty, well, hero. Leander is dogged. Poseidon pops up. Aphrodite flirts briefly. This may be fun if you know the story already. You might need to brush up on the details if you don’t. There’s some acting but it never ventures beyond the broadest of choices and costume changes. A hat and sunglasses do almost all the heavy lifting. Beyond that, we’re not actually sure who everyone is. It’s not clear why they’re telling a Greek myth at all really. Why refer back centuries? Why not tell a contemporary tale of young love? None of this actually matters, because it is, ultimately, the music that impresses.
While there is not exactly a ‘hit’ or standout melody that you’d leave the performance humming, the effect is cumulative and the quality is high. The songwriting reminded me of 1990s clubs and hoovering up The Cure and The Smiths, but I’m showing my age and not being entirely fair. Musically, everything feels a broader, more up-to-date, genre defying mish-mash than that. Proper English folk mixes with enthusiastic hip-hop beats and light indie rock. It’s all tied together with choral harmonies to die for. You might accuse the latter of leaping on the sea shanty social media bandwagon. I suspect, however, Jack Dean and his colleagues were there first; cool cats who set trends rather than follow. Feeling cool ourselves, my plus one and I went on to have a beer or two or three after the performance. Aside from making this review a tad blurrier than it ought to be, this does suggest that the best way to enjoy Hero & Leander might be to reject the formality of a venue like the Southbank’s Purcell Room. Finding it, like a real music fan, in a festival tent or at a sticky-floored pub would go down a treat.
Written by Jack Dean
Composed by Jack Dean & Company
Hero & Leander played at Southbank Centre on 11 September. Check Jack Dean’s website for further tour dates here.