Words cut. Words save. Words revive. (On dan le sac vs. Scroobius Pip)
A Review of at O2 Academy Oxford

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In the bathroom of the O2 Academy, I squinted at myself in the mirror and thought about who I was when I first heard of dan le sac vs. Scroobius Pip. I was 15. It was spring in Boston and I had bleached my hair and then dyed it dark again but the strawberry blonde kept peeking through like it was who I really was. (In the mirror now my hair and skin look like they’re set to high contrast.) It was the last year of my life that I wasn’t in love with anyone or anything. On the wall of my bedroom at Andover I had OXFORD written across six post-it notes, in capital letters. (Life’s like that. Pay attention. Your future’s probably written on a post-it note right now.)

I was a boarding school girl in a button-down shirt taking music suggestions from a boy with a car. Seven years later, I was a woman in red pants and a leather jacket, about to see le sac vs. Pip live. I lifted an eyebrow at myself, then went out into the venue to watch the crowd.

Nearly all of the men had beards. Some wore them very poorly. I wondered if any of the tall ones were actually Scroobius Pip himself.

I watched a girl with streaky hair giddily instruct her friend how to take a photo on her phone. She walked up to one of the bearded men – oh, I thought, that’s the one – and asked him for a photo. Then everyone started taking photos with him. In each shot, Scroobius Pip had the same expression: penny-circle eyes wide and staring, his long Egon Schiele face unsmiling. It didn’t seem like he was trying to be funny. It looked like a face trying to wash itself out. His fans grinned at their thousands of Facebook friends through the iPhone flash, then laughed nervously and scampered away.

I asked myself if I wanted a photo with Scroobius Pip. Decidedly no. Taking a photo with him would feel like snapping a selfie with the doctor checking your pulse when you wake up in a hospital.

Waiting for dan le sac vs. Scroobius Pip to come on stage was like waiting to fall in love. You know it’s going to happen, because it has to happen – right? – or do you just think it’s going to happen because someone told you it would? I had a spot on the rail, in the front row.

The first half hour of waiting seemed reasonable as two stagehands lugged a blue couch on stage and putzed about with the mics. But as time continued to pass, the space filled with grainy radio music and I began to worry: did Scroobius step outside for a cigarette and get hit by a bus? Was he bleeding out backstage? My mind goes to morbid places because I’ve read too many novels, but just like waiting to fall in love I knew it was going to take longer if I treated it like waiting, so I turned my back to the stage, leaned against the rail and took in the people around me. The venue was full now, with clusters of bearded boys drinking fat cups of cider; a handful of 30-somethings, either drunk or on dates; a crew of Alice in Wonderland girls (striped tights, curly blonde hair). The crowd was less restless than flustered. The technician was enjoying himself.

On stage, next to the couch, there was an upright leather suitcase and a bottle of Barefoot rosé.

Like a riddle, or some kind of inside joke.

It was some time after 9 p.m. when dan le sac and Scroobius Pip took the stage, and, like love, their arrival completely erased the long stretch of time spent waiting. They were here. That’s all that mattered.

Dan le sac wore a trucker hat and truckstop facial hair. He looked like an American on a sitcom about a loveable everyman with a hot wife and annoying kids. I liked that he looked this way. This was the man who created some of the most incredible beats to ever vibrate my eardrums. I thought: Would you look at that? Where else is beauty coming from in this world, unsuspected?

Scroobius Pip wore a letterman jacket with no letters, all black fabric and leather. He walked up to the mic. I KNOW IT SOUNDS WEIRD, he began, I DO WANT YOU TO LOOK BACK ON THIS AND SMILE, BUT—

I KIND OF WANT THAT SMILE TO BE THROUGH TEARS.

Dan le sac got to work. The whole crowd thrust into gear. I’M NOT SHOUTING AT YOU, I’M SHOUTING TO YOU. HELLO DARKNESS MY OLD FRIEND LET’S TURN YOU INTO FILTHY LUCRE. I shrugged out of my leather jacket. I wanted these words on my bare skin.

“Stunner,” from their latest album, was an excellent choice to start. Like almost all of their songs, it’s a love song. Except, not a love song like a sonnet. A love song like a dirge.

I WORE MY HEART ON MY SLEEVE, AND YOU STOLE MY FUCKING SHIRT.

THE WORLD DON’T REVOLVE AROUND YOU BUT IT SHOULD. AIN’T SAYIN’ YOU’RE PERFECT BUT YOU’RE REALLY REALLY GOOD. AIN’T SAYIN’ I LOVE YOU BUT I PROBABLY COULD. A beat – then, HAVE.

Everyone knew the chorus. Everyone shouted it back. A mosh pit started to form. I’d never been near one, before.

The second song of the night was the first of theirs I’d ever heard, The Beat That My Heart Skipped. It’s kind of manifesto. Give it a listen here.

I could barely keep my toes on the ground. Scroobius lifted the mic up on its stand and held it out to the audience, AND THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED SOUNDED LIKE THIS—

We all bum-ba-dee-bummed back. His lips moved casual and confident, his voice fast and clear.

Sick Tonight, off their second album, had a more Ritalin-speed beat and the mosh pit continued to grow. “How are you feeling, Oxford?” Pip asked. We cheered. Already I felt my voice going. “’Cause I feel sick tonight.” I believed him.

Above all else, Scroobius Pip is bloody honest, in both the British and the American sense.

Look for the Woman speaks to the moment when you know you still love someone, and you’ve loved them for so long, but you’re tired. Dan le sac vs. Scroobius Pip recognize that the heart doesn’t just run between two poles, skipped beats and shattering breaks – there are also anticlimaxes, and tenderness met with mundanity, and difficult decisions to make. Love you too much to leave, don’t like you enough to stay.

In between songs, le sac played the joker. “Build ‘em up, slow it down, build ‘em up, slow it down, build ‘em up – just like with the ladies.”

Throughout the night, the duo praised the audience for getting “rowdy” – Pip seemed particularly surprised “rowdiness” could happen in Oxford. Pip extended his long arms out over the crowd, “There were sort of two different mosh pits, and they started to move towards each other, and it was quite pretty.”

Pretty. I wondered if le sac vs. Pip seemed as marvelous to British kids who are used to their accents. I thrilled at every word they spoke.

Pip took a sip of his Barefoot rosé straight from the bottle. One of the Alice in Wonderland girls screamed up at the stage. Pip turned to face her, “Can you have a sip of my wine?” – he took another swig – “No! You could be underage. You could be undercover. You’re a cop.”

A little past the halfway point, the crowd fully moshed and muddled (I kept my spot at the rail, leaning back into the outer membrane of the pit when it swayed my way), Pip took a seat on the Freudian couch, opened his suitcase and took out a picture book. It was storytime. He began to read, Terminal. This was the heart of the concert. Put this on, close your eyes, and listen. I promise you will not be disappointed.

(If you are, write me an email and I’ll buy you a coffee. But I won’t have it with you, because if this song doesn’t get to you, I don’t think we’d get along. Because you have no soul. No offense.)

At the end, my heart was pounding in my chest. One, then two, then five tears slipped down my face. I let them dry in the humid air. Somehow, I wasn’t sweating. The whole night, my skin just hovered there, at the edge of sweat.

After nearly losing his breath with their collaboration with Flux Pavilion, Gold Teeth, Scroobius Pip took a moment to show Macklemore how it’s done. Get Better is an anthem for kids in the UK. Not in a “Same Love” way, but in a – no, you know what, there’s no comparison I can really make. We don’t have a dan le sac vs. Scroobius Pip in the U.S. Thank god for the Internet.

YOU WILL SEE ME is the ultimate break up song – I almost wished I was going through a break up right then so I could hear this song with that energy in me. When Pip beats this sorry, sorry ex’s name out on the side of his body, you can almost read the syllables between his palm and thigh.

Necessarily, they played Thou Shalt Always Kill, their “big break” song. Pip seemed pretty tired of it but the lyrics are so alive even a half-hearted delivery still sears. In my mind, I was back in Nick’s car, in 2008. “This is so good,” I’d said, “Who is this?” “Dan le sac vs. Scroobius Pip,” he said, “They’re English.”

I’d never been to England. I’d never been to Europe.

But I like to think my future was sitting with me there, in the Massachusetts woods. And I like to think that when I opened my eyes and returned to the concert, I was fulfilling some future I had carried with me for so many years. I wondered — I wonder — what I’m carrying with me still.

After the encore, dan le sac stayed on stage and took the audience to a higher place while Scroobius Pip exited. A few moments later he emerged from the side door, head down in a hoodie – no one noticed, really. I watched him from the corner of my eye. When the music stopped I wanted to get out of here, get away from all these people, listen to these songs over and over again in my bed, in my little attic room with my knees pressed up against the frosted window.

But leaving just then would have felt like failing to say thank you. So I waited, and waited, as girl after guy after girl after guy took selfies with him, got his signature.

 “Can I just kiss you?” a girl asked, leaning over the merchandise counter, and before he could answer she took his face in her hands and kissed him on the side of his beard.

Everyone waiting in that crowd to see Scroobius Pip felt like they knew him, wanted him. I didn’t want him but I felt it too, felt like he must know me in some way, from all those hours I’d spent in bed with his voice.

As I finally approached the counter I used all of what was left of my voice to say, “I’m from Chicago, I’ve been listening to you for seven years.” “Chicago,” he said, “We’ve played Chicago,” and he mentioned some venue I’d never been to and I wanted to say, no, no, I didn’t mean to say “I’m from Chicago,” I meant to say: You’ve saved my life two or three times.

I meant to say: Thank you.

And maybe that’s why great art that is made up of words – poetry, rap, whatever you want to call it – is so much harder to come by, and so much more powerful when it comes. For the vast majority of our lives, words will fail us, fail to say what we are trying to say, fail to get us what we want or where we need to be, fail to win us love or hurry love onto the stage.

But then you see dan le sac vs. Scroobius Pip perform, and you let Pip tell you stories of anger and beauty and the insane effort that this life takes, over and over again, and you hear it all layered over le sac’s beats, beats that soak straight into your bones. And you know that he’s getting it right, that he’s worked really damn hard to get it right, and sharp, and beautiful.

And you know: words will fail and fail and fail. But when someone gets them right: words cut. Words save. Words revive.

And so I dropped all of my cab money and all of the coins in my bag onto the wooden counter and took a sweatshirt and said, Thank you, even though I meant Thank you for something else entirely, and I set out on foot.

It was a 20 minute walk back to the High Street. I was home in 7.

photo credit: Exeter Phoenix 

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