LIVE: Highly Suspect @ Oslo, Hackney

By Yasmin Brown

It’s 8:33pm on the dot, and the New York raised, LA based Highly Suspect take to the stage accompanied by two things you would never expect to exist in the same place: Elton John’s ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ and an overwhelmingly strong stench of marijuana. 

It’s a total paradox – am I in a Disney movie or The Pineapple Express? – and until you see the familiar faces of Highly Suspect emerge from backstage (front man Johnny Stevens wearing what appears to be every piece of the band’s merchandise ever made) you’d be forgiven for wondering whether you had, in fact, bypassed both Seth Rogen and Simba and instead walked directly into The Twilight Zone. As the band high fives one another, as though meeting for the first time that day, this bizarre introductory scene somehow perfectly defines the band we’re all here to see:

A little bit of weird, a fair dose of chill, a sprinkle of emotion, and a whole load of brilliant

The show is intimate – the smallest they’ve played in a long time if Stevens’ humble brag is to be believed – and the moment the first notes of ‘Bath Salts’ kick in, bodies use what little space they have as a launching pad to determinedly propel themselves against one another. As pint cups are thrown into the air with the impact, it’s clear that if you’re able to leave the venue at the end of the night without being completely doused in beer, you’re one of the lucky ones. 

Sweat, however, is unavoidable. This 300 capacity venue is packed to the walls, making even the should-be simple act of manoeuvring your way to the bar or the bathroom seem like nothing less than a Tetris puzzle. Not even a full song in and the air is sticky, our t-shirts stuck to our backs with relentless perspiration. It’s uncomfortable and pretty disgusting but Highly Suspect are just getting started. 

Over the next two hours (yes, two entire hours of Highly Suspect, how did we ever get so lucky?), we’re to be treated to the best of the band’s three-album discography, with extended intros, intermissions, and outros aplenty, highlighting that not only are they great songwriters, but unstoppable musicians, too. Stevens’ fingers move faster than your eyes can keep track of as he rips through riff after riff, and drummer Ryan Meyer smashes his drums at such a pace that it makes you dizzy. While this is a band that’s capable of playing main stages at festivals across the world, it’s clearly these tiny club venues are where they’re best able to thrive. 

As well as the mind boggling talent that radiates from this band, there’s a personal element to this show that makes it even more special and facilitates the closeness between fan and band. From sharing a joint with the kid in the front row (these are LA boys now, after all), to the apparent delight at being able to look each of us in the eyes (“I can see you,” comments Stevens), this show is an intimate rarity when it comes to Highly Suspect. It’s an intimacy that’s only amplified as Stevens shares some of his most vulnerable truths, commenting on the ups and downs of life and his own struggles with depression, anxiety and bipolar – three things that, going off the mumbles of understanding, many fans in attendance have also experienced in their lives. These speeches come before a handful of songs, including brand new tracks – the anecdotal ‘These Days’ and the heartbreaking yet hopeful ‘Fly’, providing more context to these already well-loved tunes.

The latter is by far the most touching performance of the night, as Stevens takes a break in the first chorus to let the 300 fans take over, singing “Dear Johnny be honest, you can change if you want it / And let me tell you something else that’s true, there’s no one else that’s just like you” directly to him as his head hangs and his hand sits on his chest in humble appreciation. We can only hope he believes us.

Despite the back chat and the air of confidence that often surrounds him, it’s moments like this that offer an insight into the arguably less prominent side of Stevens that many may not necessarily see, bringing us ever closer – particularly considering the fans in attendance were fast enough to sell the show out in mere seconds. These are the people that aren’t messing around when it comes to Highly Suspect; they’re the ones that live by the band’s mantra, MCID (or ‘my crew is dope’), the ones who can sing or rap every word, and the ones that will never place expectations on, or reject any, creative direction the band chooses to take. In short, these are the ones that really care.

The whole show has been chaotic, but the real mayhem starts during ‘Look Alive, Stay Alive’ when the band members themselves take it in turn to show us how to crowd surf before the audience starts to join in, creating a messy sea of bodies flailing in all directions. It’s a madness that continues throughout both encores (because one is so cliché), during which we also see a costume change (jumpsuits and fluro, anyone?) and a semi-disguised appearance by the band’s good friend Frank Carter during the Young Thug collaboration, ‘Tokyo Ghoul’. 

The night draws to a close with a bang, following a stunning performance of the band’s newest single ‘16’, wherein the crowd is given another opportunity to take the wheel, singing along to the song as though they’ve known it their whole lives. After a quick pause to ask everyone to request ‘16’ on the radio, Highly Suspect launches into 2016’s ‘Serotonia’, where we indulge in our acceptance of just being good enough, before closing out with one last opportunity for the band to put their all into extended instrumentals. 

As the final notes play out, Highly Suspect finish up leaving no doubt in our minds that they are one of the best bands in the world, and this has been one of the best nights of our lives.