Liveshot: Declan McKenna blends experimental British rock, alt-pop with Southern blues at Empire Garage concert

Mirya Dila, General Life&Arts Reporter

Inside the tightly packed Empire Control Room and Garage, fans pressed together against the barricade craned their necks in hopes of catching a glimpse of headliner Declan McKenna before the start of his show.

After the brief-yet-high energy opening act by Casino AM, who stepped in at the last minute, the crowd began chanting for McKenna. Chants erupted into cheers as the singer’s distorted acapella rendition of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” echoed across the outdoor venue, transitioning into the introduction to “Beautiful Faces.”

His band took to the stage, clad in cowboy hats, boots, vests and bandanas, before being joined by McKenna himself, who donned a pair of patchwork denim jeans, a button-up shirt and a black cowboy hat. 

Neon yellow stage lights moved to the tempo of his opening song, reflecting off the venue’s disco ball and onto the energetic crowd, who raised their arms along with the singer as he melodically sang the lines, “Lift your hands up” throughout the song’s chorus.

“Austin, it’s amazing to be back,” the British singer said, taking the time to talk about his tour for Zeros, an experimental album that plays into themes of chaos and destruction.

Overall, McKenna’s blend of the traditional indie pop songs from his first album, What Do You Think About the Car? with the more experimental retro futurist sounds from Zeros during his set demonstrated his immense vocal and stylistic range. His electric rock performances of “Rapture” and “You Better Believe!!!” complemented slower acoustic songs like “Make Me Your Queen” and “Listen To Your Friends,” in which he belted out high notes with ease.

McKenna also pandered to his largely Texan audience, leaning into the Southern aesthetic and intermittently tipping his cowboy hat to the cheering crowd.

“We’re going to slow things down for y’all, is that okay?” McKenna said in an exaggerated Southern drawl, swapping out his glittering gold electric guitar for a semi-hollow during “Emily” and using a blues plucking style throughout the ballad.

At times, the crowd seemed split between die-hard fans singing along to every song and others who rhythmically nodded to the music while waiting for the artist’s bigger hits. However, McKenna’s dynamic stage presence garnered cheers and applause as he flung himself around the stage and performed cartwheels during the extensive electric synth sequences present in many of his songs.

After a stunning closing performance of “Be an Astronaut,” McKenna satiated the crowd’s chants for more songs, returning to the stage once more for a five-song encore. While both “Daniel, You’re Still a Child” and “Why Do You Feel So Down” didn’t necessarily serve as the strongest selections for his extended encore performance, McKenna still kept energy high with his impressive executions of his vocally challenging fan-favorite songs “Eventually, Darling” and “Brazil.” He finally closed his show with an explosive performance of “British Bombs,” where, in true rock-’n’-roll fashion, he smashed a guitar with a United Kingdom flag design against the ground before jumping off the stage to run around the barricade.  

Bringing his performance to a chaotically satisfying close, McKenna returned to the stage to play a series of discordant keyboard notes before making his exit, once again tipping his cowboy hat in thanks to the cheering crowd.