LIVE: Real Friends / Grayscale / Belmont @ Club Academy, Manchester

By Gem Rogers

Despite their location at the far end of one of the city’s most obscenely lengthy roads, the four Manchester Academy venues are something of an institution among Northern gig goers. Tucked away in the basement of the university’s student union, the 650 capacity Club Academy has the intimate feeling of a much smaller room and is quickly filling with eager pop punk fans as, after almost two years away, Real Friends finally make their return to the city.

Opening the evening are Chicago newcomers Belmont, who released their self-titled debut album last summer. Although they get the crowd moving pretty damn quickly, what initially seems like fairly generic pop punk doesn’t really have an instant ‘wow’ factor – vocalist Taz Johnson brings enough energy for the whole band, but his vocals lack a distinctive quality and the hooks are never quite big enough to appeal. Where Belmont do stand out, though, is when guitarist Jason Inguagiato takes the lead, with some sublime and technical lines rarely seen in this genre. His work elevates the set to a higher level, but ultimately Belmont don’t seem to have yet found the spark to make a bigger name for themselves in a competitive scene.

Following Belmont are a band who definitely have found that spark, and their presence on stage is the kind that cannot be ignored; opening with 2019 single ‘In Violet’, Grayscale sound crystal clear and upliftingly triumphant as the crowd instantly join in to sing along. It’s the band’s first trip to the UK since the release of sophomore album ‘Nella Vita’ last month, and there’s plenty of time to dip toes into these newer waters in this 40 minute set, with singles ‘Baby Blue’ and ‘Painkiller Weather’ appearing alongside ‘Old Friends’ and set highlight ‘YOUNG’. The handful of older tracks making the cut still more than hold their own, though, and anthemic closer ‘Atlantic’ is the perfect way to round off this vibrant performance. There’s an infectious youthfulness and optimism surrounding Grayscale, and this could easily have been a headline set; from their clear popularity with tonight’s crowd, to the slick and stylish delivery – especially from drummer Nick Veno and vocalist Collin Walsh  – there’s no doubt this is a band we’ll be seeing at the top of the bill in rooms like this very soon.

Real Friends are the kind of band who, once heard, never really leave your mind. Although the pop punk label is usually applied, there’s a charm and roughness to their sound that feels particularly unique, extending their appeal to anyone with a need for music that lifts the heart and soothes the mind. In this live setting, that appeal is magnified tenfold, and the energy is cranked up to eleven to boot; as ‘Get By’ kicks into gear, it’s hard to say whether anyone standing at the back of the room can hear the band above the sound of the crowd, and a space is immediately vacated in the centre for quite possibly the happiest pit the world has ever seen.

Front man Dan Lambton is, and always has been, particularly open about his mental health struggles –they’ve seen the band need to pull out of and postpone UK dates in the past – and this openness translates into their music. Tonight, Lambton seems incredibly comfortable up on stage as he shares his innermost feelings in song, darting around the stage with an energy to match that of the fans, and there’s an intense sense of catharsis to be found in this evening. From the front to the back, the overwhelming sense is of love; not just for the band, but for each other, as friends stand with arms linked and heads thrown back in song.

The – comfortingly lengthy – setlist dips and dives through the band’s discography, with older songs like the clearly adored ‘I’ve Given Up On You’ and ‘Late Nights In My Car’ generating huge reactions. The everlasting relatability of the immensely popular ‘Mess’ also goes down a treat, and the glowing of hundreds of lights during ‘Sixteen’ make for a touching moment towards the end of the set, but it’s the turn of latest album ‘Composure’ to shine tonight – and shine it does. From the effervescent ‘Smiling On The Surface’ to the powerful, anthemic ‘Stand Steady’, Real Friends sound better than ever before, and the love continues with a “wall of hugs” during ‘Me First’ (walls of death are, apparently, not allowed).

‘From The Outside’ closes a night filled with joy, exuberance, and defiance against the things that trouble us, cultivated by a band who represent an extended family to their fanbase. Real Friends manage difficult and emotionally intense subjects in such a way that the resulting mood is purely uplifting – yes, it’s an emotional show, but at the same time it is one of life’s beautiful moments, where strangers come together in a network of support. It may be a while before we see these five again, but one thing’s for sure – it will always be worth the wait.