Nashville Nights: Declan McKenna @ Mercy Lounge

Declan McKenna has done a lot of growing up since the single that launched his career five years ago. 

The now 20-year-old British musician spent Sunday night at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge with his first show this year as a full band, and the only U.S. performance in 2019. 

Before doors, the line outside seemed like a living advertisement for Vans and Doc Martens. Glittered cheeks served as a common denominator for most, and some fans even wore plastic tiaras in anticipation for McKenna’s song “Make Me Your Queen.” A surprising number of parents also joined the line, since some fans claimed to travel as far as 12 hours for the show. 

McKenna shared the stage with local indie-punk outlet and DRKMTTR regular, Tummyache, the brainchild of songwriter Soren Bryce and friends. The two met at SXSW and quickly established a connection. “He was like 16 and played right after me, and I remember watching his set and thinking ‘oh my gosh this kid is going to do such huge things,’” Bryce said. “It’s so nice that it finally worked out that both of our bands could play together.”

When fans walked up the stairs into the venue, the first thing most saw was the band’s stage banner, which was a spray painted sheet with their name in all caps. Vases of plastic flowers adorned the stage, making it feel like a punk version of grandma’s living room. This mix of edgy elements and sweet additions carried over into the band’s performance, which began with the members smiling and blowing kisses to each other to kick off the night. The band showed an undeniable amount of chemistry and performed like there was truly nothing they’d rather be doing. 

Bryce’s strong, smooth vocals warmed up the crowd for the night, but quickly shifted from what could have been an indie, sad-girl set to a fully punk performance. They introduced their song “Machine” — a guitar-heavy, rebelliously earnest anthem — as a song about friends and asked the crowd to give the people they came with a high five. 

Later in the set they launched directly from a slow, heavy song about forgiveness, to an upbeat track that got the audience moving. As the venue continued to fill and people started jumping, the room quickly became a giant sauna that kept getting hotter as the night went on. 

Tummyache closed their set on a slower note that quickly became much louder and angrier, and even introduced the chorus with a growl. This brought loud cheers from the crowd as the excitement for the remainder of the night continued to build. “It was really cool to play to a bunch of kids because we’re usually playing to like punk audiences of 20 people,” Bryce said at the end of the night. “It brings a lot of hope to me for what I’m doing with the project.”

During the set change, security guards passed out water as the temperature of the room continued to rise. When Tummyache’s banner came down to reveal McKenna’s glitter-coated sign, people in the audience squealed with excitement. When McKenna and his band took the stage, he immediately set the energy level for the set by standing on the drums in his black mesh shirt and gold glitter cheeks. He opened with the acoustic-driven indie anthem “Make Me Your Queen” as the crowd became a sea of iPhone cameras to capture the first chorus. 

After the danceable tune, “Why Do You Feel So Down?” he had a chance to catch his breath and chat with the crowd. He expressed his gratitude that Brandon Rhodes, Tummyache’s bassist, who stepped in to play with them because their bassist had messed up visa applications. He thanked the crowd for singing over the songs since they hadn’t done this in a while, and the crowd erupted when he explained that they’ve all been in Nashville for a month recording a new album.

McKenna then gave the crowd a taste of the new music. The untitled track was moody and theatrical, serving as proof of his growth since the last album. The sound was entirely his own, just a bit more grown-up. 

The theme of maturation could be seen throughout the performance, as McKenna performed his original songs with a bit harder spin. Even with the slight changes, the crowd sang and danced along to the point where McKenna barely had to sing “Bethlehem” because the audience had him covered. 

For one of his most emotionally-moving tracks, “Paracetamol,” McKenna swayed around the stage holding a rose. People threw balloons into the venue as the crowd harmonized on the last few words. 

After a quick guitar shred, McKenna left the stage to cheers and chants. When he returned, he said the next song would be released the next day, titled “British Bombs.” But the crowd had to hold onto the excitement as his guitar string broke immediately on the first try, then came unplugged on the second.

The third time was truly the charm, and the audience experienced the guitar-driven, upbeat single exactly as intended. The politically-charged song seemed to be both a cry of anger and optimism for the end of war and weapons trading, especially in the context of the British.

Finally, just as the crowd thought it might not happen, McKenna played the first few chords of his first-ever single, “Brazil.” He ended the night with a crowd surfing session, then turned the typical on its head by tossing flowers from the stage into the crowd. 

Fans can look forward to new music from both bands in the coming months to relive a truly electric night.

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