When you imagine a Biffy Clyro concert what comes to mind? Massive singalong’s? Thundering guitar riffs? Maybe some pyro or showers of confetti? Almost certainly something loud and epic. With over two decades of touring under their belt, the Scottish band have rightly earned a reputation as one of the best live acts the UK has seen in a long time. The trio, consisting of frontman/guitarist Simon Neil and drummer/bassist twins Ben and James Johnston, have played some of the biggest gigs possible in this country, having headlined Reading & Leeds, Download and the O2 Arena among many others. But what happens when such a live powerhouse is stripped of all its bells and whistles? We had the chance to find out when Biffy brought their MTV Unplugged Tour to St. David’s Hall in Cardiff.
As with the recently released live album/DVD MTV Unplugged: Live at Roundhouse, London, this tour saw Biffy trade their usual incendiary live show for a more laid back affair, with the band members (and audience) spending most of the show seated. The various plants and greenery on stage helped to create a rustic vibe, as if we were gathered in a cosy forest clearing, or as Simon remarked at one point “someone’s living room.” An apt comparison, although we’re not sure how many living rooms have a great big tree in the middle.
After a brief introduction, the band launched straight into the opening lines of 2009 hit ‘The Captain’, immediately starting how they meant to go on. With the song’s signature bombastic riffs gone, the focus was purely on the band’s unrivalled ability to lead a crowd in a rousing singalong. Within minutes the crowd were singing at the top of their lungs and this carried through to other huge hits like ‘Biblical’ and ‘Mountains’ dotted throughout the set. By transforming these rock anthems into tender, acoustic tunes Biffy demonstrated more clearly than ever that one of their key strengths is writing an unbelievably huge chorus, something that shines through even when the songs are reduced to their bare bones.
As well as stripping down some of their biggest hits, the band also used this as an opportunity to perform some deeper cuts in a way that wouldn’t fit into a ‘normal’ Biffy show. The addition of a cello player transformed classics such as ‘As Dust Dances’ and ‘Justboy’, both already emotional songs, into even more gorgeous versions. Touring members Mike Vennart and Richard ‘Gambler’ Ingram (both formerly of Oceansize) helped flesh many songs out with additional instrumentation; mainly via acoustic guitar and piano respectively, with a lap steel guitar solo from Vennart giving sombre B-side ‘The Rain’ an extra level of moodiness. On the other hand, a much more sparse arrangement really brought out the raw emotion in tracks like ‘Folding Stars’ and ‘Machines’, during which you’d have struggled to find a dry eye in the room.
Despite Simon’s invitation to the audience to get up and dance if they wanted to, most of the room remained relatively sedate during the performance, contrasting greatly with your average Biffy gig. It remained this way until near the end of the set, when the undeniable banger that is ‘Bubbles’ prompted the crowd to erupt into life. Even in acoustic form, there’s something special about this song that means you just can’t stay seated, and so the room was filled with people singing, dancing or emphatically clapping along. Soon after, it was reluctantly time to say goodbye to our Scottish friends, but not before ending the night in style. While full-blown Biffy gigs tend to finish with a bang in the form of ‘Stingin’ Belle’ or ‘The Captain’, a night like this could only end one way: in one monumental singalong. And there’s only one song fit for this occasion – the iconic ballad ‘Many of Horror’, which had every person in the room singing their hearts out.
With Simon commenting that they may never do this sort of tour again, it seems like Biffy will soon return to their hard-rocking ways. This is by no means a bad thing, however this brief glimpse of a more serene, intimate side of the band has us not-so-secretly hoping to see more of this in the future. If the handful of new songs we heard in Cardiff are any indication, then Biffy Clyro will continue to not only punch us in the face with riffs, but also hit us right in the feels for many years to come.