It was no surprise to see the average age of the heaving crowd at the O2 Academy Leeds firmly reflecting indie weirdos Kula Shaker’s mid-nineties heyday, but it wouldn’t be fair to lump them in with the merry-go-round of touring nostalgia bands on a mission to top up their dwindling bank balances. This show was far more about celebrating the timelessness of a truly unique 90s album than harking back to the debauched days of Britpop.
The grass roots blues of sole support act Rudy Warman and the Heavy Weather fittingly reflected the folksy direction of Kula Shaker’s 2016 album “K2.0”, and despite a slightly confusing aesthetic – bassist Shane Warman’s Sgt Pepper-esque jacket seemed at odds with his Head from Korn nu-metal dreads – their enthusiasm for creating a wholesome and slightly psychedelic din was infectious.
You can always tell when Kula Shaker are ready to take to the stage because the pervading stench of stale beer is overtaken by the far more enticing scent of burning incense. Crispian Mills, who could rightly claim the title of wiriest man in rock, bounces on to the stage with all the enthusiasm of a lead man half his age, and they immediately launch into a sweetly funny version of The Beatles’ ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, before quickly following up with the oddball ‘Love B (With U)’ from recent aforementioned comeback album “K 2.0”.
Mills then invites us to ‘travel back in time’ with them to 1996, a year when a 13-year-old me became obsessed with their debut album “K” and the rest of the UK reacted with a combination of bemusement, curiosity and ridicule. As they perform the album in order, starting with the still phenomenally energetic ‘Hey Dude’ and continuing through classic psychedelic rock-riffed tracks ‘Knight on the Town’ and ‘Smart Dog’, it should be clear to even the most sneering indie snob that this was always a band happy to do their own thing and still sticking to their guns 20 years on.
Despite the absence of crowd-pleaser ‘Govinda’ in the album run-through – we are assured they’re coming back for it later – it’s still the most heavily Indian-inspired numbers ‘Temple of Everlasting Light’, ‘Magic Theatre’ and the game-changing ‘Tattva’ that demonstrate just what made this band stand out from the tracksuit wearing, boozed up laddishness of Britpop in the first place.
It might have been easy to dismiss Mills and his band of troubadours as posh boys on a gap year back at the height of the working class mainstream indie revolution, but the musicianship of Mills, keyboardist Harry Broadbent, bassist Alonza Bevan and drummer Paul Winterhart feels fresh and exciting, and not at all tainted by the kind of jaded ennui affecting most nostalgia tours from the same decade.
The band bring the “K” celebration to a close with the fantastically out there ‘Grateful When You’re Dead/Jerry Was There’, the subtly brilliant ‘Start All Over’ and they even throw in ‘Hollow Man’, a throwback to the pre-digital age of hidden tracks.
They could have called it a day there and the fairly inebriated crowd would have gone home happy, but there’s still more in the tank, including touching new folk ballad ’33 Crows’ which showcases Mills’ delicate voice, the mosh pit-inspiring Deep Purple cover ‘Hush’, and K 2.0‘s stand-out track ‘Infinite Sun’, which whips the crowd into something of a trance with its Hare Krishna-style chorus mantra.
The triumphant set comes to a close with a sing-a-long to ‘Govinda’, the only UK top ten hit to be sung entirely in Sanskrit – an accolade unlikely to be shared any time soon. It’s not clear how many in the well-voiced crowd know that the lyric they’re gleefully belting out – ‘Govinda jaya jaya’ – literally translates as ‘Krishna glory glory’, but then that’s the nice thing about Kula Shaker. For a brief period in the 90s they brought a little bit of magic and mysticism to the at times bleak realness of British pop, and it seems like the country might just be ready for their brand of escapism once again.