Jon Hopkins is not so much a polarising figure as one whose music can appeal to people for precisely opposite reasons. As beloved to Lost Village-going hedonists as he is to middle-aged 6 Music devotees, he drew a crowd perhaps better represented by the latter to the Brighton Dome on Sunday the 15th of March; this fact, coupled with the Dome’s being an all-seated concert hall, might have led many to expect a decidedly restrained variation on Hopkins’ live show, which has usually skewed towards the more rave-ready dimension of his music. The whole arrangement was a far cry from the ‘festivals and… standing crowds and intoxicated people’ towards whom he acknowledges his sets to have in the past been geared.
And indeed, when Hopkins takes to the stage he situates himself not behind the decks portentously set in the middle of the arena but behind the piano to the left of them. 20 minutes of pensive tinkling follow. The retinue expands in degrees: a guitarist takes his place and begins to strum almost inaudibly. A cello and a violinist join them, their rumblings ponderous and sober. Though the music itself could largely pass for a non-descript “emotive” movie soundtrack, it has a captivating effect on the audience, and those who dare dispel the trance and clamber their way towards the toilets suffer disapproving scowls.
There’s a noticeable sense of intrigue as Hopkins rises from his stool and pads behind the decks for the first time. His fellow performers continue as before, now joined by occasional electronic flourishes which become more and more pronounced until the strings are once again relegated to the background. When the intensity reaches crackling new heights, two girls near the front of the hall are inspired to get to their feet; whether their courage came in liquid form or whether they’d been waiting for Jon to be done with his chamber-minimalism all along, it’s a fearless statement of intent. Their laboured dance moves are met with more widespread amusement than approval.
Yet as Jon continues to dial up the amplitude, these two courageous pathfinders steadily begin to accrue a gang of acolytes. Every thirty seconds or so, with each fresh injection of urgency, there’s a little ripple in the crowd as another three or four reticent audience members uneasily shed their inhibitions and stand up to dance. Before long half, the theatre is on its feet. The tables have turned: those who scoffed at the first few adamant partiers are now the prudish minority, and what began with classical ambience is fast approaching the ecstatic. Remarkably, the shift has been entirely fluid, right up until the first real “drop” of the evening prompts widespread delirium.
Before too long the trance has subsided and Hopkins brings the show to its first real pause. He settles back in front of his piano and the audience to their seats, but the mood has tangibly altered. The crowd is more of a collective for its shared pilgrimage from modesty to abandon, and we sink into our second dose of atmospheric piano considerably more at ease. The more subdued material is, again, pleasant enough and true to Hopkins’ recorded output, but the feeling in the theatre soon becomes one of restlessness. There is anticipatory whooping and applause when he assumes his position behind the decks for the second time: we know what’s coming now, and we aren’t disappointed.
Jon expends less effort engineering a seamless segue between calm and dissonance this time, and it takes little provocation for the audience to get to their feet again. By the time Open Eye Signal reaches its throbbingly exhilarating climax with dizzying light show to match, everyone with functioning limbs is wildly putting them to use within the confines of their designated seat number, and the art deco pomp of the Brighton Dome feels less appropriate as a setting than a cavernous warehouse or a festival stage open to the stars.
The concept promised by the Polarity tour was a unification of ‘the two disparate elements of harsh and fragile’ in Hopkins’ music, and its (undoubtedly successful) execution makes for a singular, at times curious, but certainly memorable live experience. He moves between these two poles with remarkable fluency, though the quieter sections function better as a foil to the euphoria than as concert pieces in their own right, and whilst I couldn’t help but wish to be in a standing venue when he did really ratchet things up, watching a stiffly seated audience gradually disburden themselves of their collective inhibition was a unique form of shared catharsis. With the following European leg of the tour cancelled, it was fortunate that the gig happened at all, and it was probably the last live music anyone in the room would see for the unforeseeable future: how fitting, then, that it should embody in such extraordinary fashion the sort of communality of sensation that only the best concert experiences can inspire.