Image: The Boar / Ollie Hotchin

Reason to Stay: Olivia Dean holds Birmingham spellbound

O2 Institute Birmingham, 29 April 2024

A few days ago, my girlfriend sent me a TikTok (in itself, nothing out of the ordinary). The clip featured a gloriously blue sky backdropping a throng of festival-goers soaking up Somerset’s most famous summer attraction. Captivating the crowd, Olivia Dean strutted about Glastonbury’s Lonely Hearts Club stage. It very much looked like a vibe.

A drizzly, grey evening in April just a stone’s throw from Birmingham’s Moor Street Station didn’t have the same aesthetic value. But then there wasn’t a lot that Dean could do about that.

What was in her ability to control, however, was a tightly packed set, just over an hour in length, played to 1500 people desperate to assuage their Monday blues with all things Messy.

It’s hard to picture someone happier on stage

There is no time wasted. As the lights come up from the opening blackout, Dean and her ensemble of various jazz, guitar, synth, and drums beam headfirst into ‘UFO’ – its slightly eerie vocal-reverb effect heightened by the stripped-back set, replete with a full mirror. With no pause, Dean’s debut album’s opener rolls into two singles: ‘Okay Love You Bye’ and ‘Echo’. Both are upbeat; samba-ish elements cut through in the former, while the latter gives Dean a chance to properly showcase her incredible voice for the first time in the evening.

Taking a pregnant pause, the chance for Dean to address the room is met with thunderous approval. Her sweet introduction strikes authenticity, “We’re going to have fun, and might cry!”

With that she spins on, bopping through the reggae jazz ‘Danger’, her arms cyclically contorting into coils before straightening out again rhythmically, charmed by her own melodies. It’s hard to picture someone happier on stage. The big drums accompanying the slower, earnest ‘Cross My Mind’ conspire to create a fantastic sound. ‘Be My Own Boyfriend’ – one of the 25-year-old’s personal favourites, we are told – once again spotlights Dean’s soulful, melting vocals with its more muted backing. Even the brief prologue to the track about self-love being the healthiest type doesn’t feel trite, with the London-born artist’s warmth shining through above all else.

The Amy Winehouse-esque ‘No Man’ blossoms out of the darker, purple-smoke-lit ‘What Am I Gonna Do On Sundays?’. Before the crowd knows it, the album’s eponymous ‘Messy’ signals we’re halfway through the evening. While the song may describe the realities of love and its learnings, it could also chart the three-minute onstage journey through a melange of instruments we lay witness to. The drummer shuffles from his kit to keys to guitar back to drums again; Dean experiments with the gamut of handheld percussion – all laid out neatly on her little desk. All of it is fun. All of it works.

As the opening to ‘Ladies Room’ crescendos across the triple-tiered venue, the mood is back up

And Dean’s musical carousel doesn’t stop there. In the unreleased ‘Touching Toes’ she takes to the guitar as if she’s already been playing it for the entire set. ‘Everybody’s Crazy’ sees her pivot to keys where she stays for the slightly mournful ‘Dangerously Easy’ and the cute, gently audience-backed ‘I Could Be A Florist’ (which she insists contains no hidden metaphors, despite the best work of online forum sleuths).

With her ivory tinkling time up, Dean floats back to the central mic stand beckoning her presence. As the opening to ‘Ladies Room’ crescendos across the triple-tiered venue, the mood is back up. Feet stomp and hands clap; the jazz is loud and the drums are louder. A huge round of applause then follows ‘Reason To Stay’ – the Brit’s staccato first single detailing her heart’s frustrations at being toyed with, and put out into a pre-Covid world.

‘The Hardest Part’ promotes more punter choral interaction; the song’s conclusion is met with another heartfelt outpouring of affection as it becomes apparent time is running out.

[ ‘Dive’ ] is triumphant and strong, joyous and honest, and it lands superbly

Just two crackers remain. ‘Carmen’ is a beautiful tribute to Dean’s grandmother who made a solo trip to the UK aged just 18, raised her and whose bravery Dean insists she is a product of. On the night, the song is dedicated to “any immigrant who moves somewhere” – its shaking, big drums finish is genuinely moving.

In the jazzier finale, ‘Dive’, an exercise in “letting yourself be loved and loving back”, we are treated to our final bit of evening escapism. It is triumphant and strong, joyous and honest, and it lands superbly.

This year Dean will be back at Glastonbury, trading up Lonely Hearts for the iconic Pyramid Stage. With four Brit Award and Mercury Prize nominations and the worth-its-weight-in-gold Elton John seal of approval from just one album, the sky is the limit. As for what’s next in the pipeline, navigating the music industry is never straightforward; but it’s okay if it’s a little bit messy.



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