Devon Welsh isn’t just looking for applause at the end of a Majical Cloudz song. He’ll gladly accept it, nod his head a few times, and give the audience a hint of a smile, but for Welsh, the Majical Cloudz live set is about much more than that.
“When you play a show, you want people to feel something,” Welsh told Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly in a recent interview. “It’s much better to communicate something than for people to just be like, ‘Oh this is cool.'”
As Welsh performs — he’s strictly the lead singer of the two-piece group that includes Matthew Otto on synth and sound mixing — he slowly rotates his gaze throughout the crowd, moving at a snail’s pace from left to right and then back again. You won’t see him shutting his eyes or staring off into the distance, because his priority is ensuring that each word coming out of his mouth is fully digested by the crowd. He doesn’t just casually look out into the crowd to gauge his audience, either. He stares into the eyes of every onlooker, and when his pupils fall on you, it feels like an intimate and intensely personal performance.
August 27th, 2013 @ The Echo in Los Angeles, CA
The Majical Cloudz stage is about as barren a stage you’re likely to see in this day and age. Otto is stationed behind his synthesizer, grooving to every tune. To his right, Welsh stands in his white shirt and black pants, grasping nothing but his microphone. There aren’t any Majical Cloudz banners decorating the stage, and you won’t see any light displays to help enhance the music. Welsh doesn’t want any of those gimmicks – because again, it’s all about communicating the words and the emotions behind those words, above anything else.
You also won’t see him explore very much of the stage throughout the set. He mostly stands in one position, and when he has a brief vocal break during a song, he continues scanning the crowd while pumping his microphone to the beat. In-between songs, he always makes sure to thank the audience. Then he awkwardly tries to crack a few jokes, maybe get some laughs here and there, and then apologize for attempting the joke. The dichotomy between the conversational side of Welsh and the vocalist Welsh is really fascinating because you see a vulnerable, uncertain man seamlessly morph into a confident, seductive messenger within just a matter of seconds.
“Sometimes music becomes a way to live out things you’re too afraid to do on your own,” Welsh explained in his Pitchfork interview.
All in all, Welsh delivers a captivating performance that bears little resemblance to that of any other vocalists I’ve ever seen.
After having a series of artistic identity struggles in the past few years, the Montreal-based duo solidified the Majical Cloudz niche with May’s release of Imposter, the group’s second album. It’s a 10-song, emotionally charged saga filled with honest confessionals and nostalgic ballads. In Welsh’s words from an interview with Stereogum:
I wanted to make music where I can use the music — the words — to describe my psychological circumstances, and then have the instrumental aspect of the music be as non-invasive as possible. Like, the song is not attacking you. I want to hear music like that when I listen to music, so I found myself naturally making decisions with regard to writing songs where the music wasn’t attacking me when I was making it.
Welsh’s mission isn’t something entirely unique, as a great deal of artists in the last half-century have been primarily focused on the clarity of their words over the melodies behind them. However, the singer-songwriter’s troubled, haunting, and mesmerizing voice is what really propels the band. Welsh frequently hovers in the lower octaves with a sort of crooning-quality to his vocals, but he has no trouble escalating to higher notes, which he does to perfection in “Silver Rings”. The minimalist production style on Imposter also helps mold the perfect vehicle for Welsh’s vocals to flourish.
The duo opened their set at Los Angeles’s Echo with the title track from Impersonator, an eerie, somewhat discomforting song that uses almost exclusively vocal loops as the melody. After that, they dove right into one of the most penetrating songs on the new album, “This is Magic”, where Welsh’s vocals carry with devastating sustainment over a simple synth melody. There’s a sense of helpless urgency to just about every phrase on “Imposter”, like Welsh is slowly decaying while in need of some self-defining epiphany that’ll never fully satisfy him. Nowhere is that quality more apparent than on “This is Magic,” where Welsh confides, “If this is all that I am, if this song is the last thing I do, I feel so good that I sang it.”
The audience was fully immersed in the show from start to finish. Welsh requested the crowd’s participation before the performance of the song “Mister”, asking everyone to start jumping during the song’s breakdown. Two minutes into the song, as he led the charge while singing “I’ll fall down,” everyone began stomping, or jumping up and down. The shaky floor became the perfect complement to the uneasiness of “Mister”, and Welsh was extremely grateful for the engagement of the crowd.
Almost every song from Imposter was performed, and the duo concluded their set with the heart-wrenching “Bugs Don’t Buzz”, a song that begins with the line, “The cheesiest songs all end with a smile/ This won’t end with a smile, my love.” Like most of the songs from Imposter, “Bugs Don’t Buzz” is slow-paced, tragic, and openly honest, but it builds better than any other Majical Cloudz song to date. The melody is based around a single, heavy piano chord that solely strikes on beat. As the song begins, the piano carries the entire melody on its back, but it slowly gains support from resounding bass drops and eventually an eerie synth effect that caters the song’s breakdown.
Welsh and Otto offer an extremely unique set that — if nothing else — will undoubtedly stand out as something different than most live acts you’re used to seeing. Watching Welsh pour all of his energy into every syllable is a mesmerizing experience. Although clapping along with the rest of the crowd may be your gut reaction, Welsh’s passionate words will likely trigger a few more emotions inside you while delivering a performance that you won’t soon forget.