“Vermont, you’re fucking beautiful,” Declan McKenna told a sold-out crowd at Burlington’s Higher Ground on July 15. McKenna, a 24-year-old singer-songwriter from London, skyrocketed to fame with his 2015 hit “Brazil,” a political commentary backed by a catchy tune. On his current “The Big Return” tour, McKenna is set to perform across North America between June and October.
Before McKenna even took the stage, the audience’s energy had built to a fever pitch. Fans had waited hours outside, with a line wrapping around the parking lot to get into the venue, and the room filled up within minutes of doors opening. Flashes of disposable cameras in every direction proved the youthfulness and trendiness of the crowd.
Opener Eli Smart brought a mellow energy, an impressive vocal range, and truly unique guitar riffs. Smart, accompanied for all but one song by percussionist and vocalist Jordan Paul, seemed to be having a truly good time on stage. On his last song, Smart brought out a special guest: his grandmother Denise Kaufman, or as Smart affectionately calls her, Tutu. As Paul, Kaufman, and Smart performed, one audience member said, “I think she’s all of our grandmother now.”
The anticipation continued to build with a pre-show playlist featuring Britney Spears, Fleetwood Mac, and Madonna. By the time McKenna walked on stage, preceded by his band, the audience was warmed up and ready to dance.
At the best shows, the relationship between performer and audience is reciprocal, and this show proved that to be true. Throughout the night, McKenna accepted a variety of gifts from the front row: a friendship bracelet, a paper seagull, a pride flag. Several times, McKenna hopped off the stage to climb onto the barricade for an up-close and personal guitar solo, and he traversed the edge of the stage to play directly to his crowd. “I like your energy,” he told the crowd at one point.
Performing a set list that spanned his discography, McKenna kept the audience hanging on his every move. After opening with “The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home” off of his 2017 debut album What Do You Think About the Car?, McKenna performed several tracks off of 2020’s Zeros – “Beautiful Faces,” “Daniel, You’re Still a Child,” and “Twice Your Size,” to name a few – as well as a string of fan favorites from his first album. “Isombard,” “Why Do You Feel So Down,” and “Paracetamol,” all of which are among McKenna’s most streamed songs on Spotify, had the audience screaming lyrics back at McKenna. And when the first notes of “Brazil” echoed out, hands flew into the air, while some audience members scrambled for their phones to take a video.
With a casually loose yet fiercely emotional stage presence, McKenna seemed incredibly devoted to his craft. At one point during his newest single, “Sympathy,” McKenna quickly handed off a guitar to a stagehand and sprinted to the piano, all without missing a beat. In addition to McKenna on vocals, guitar, and piano, his band featured Isabel Torres on guitar and vocals, Linus Fenton on bass and vocals, Ben Limmer on drums, and Henry Pearce on keys and synth.
It’s worth noting that I’ve never seen someone do an encore like Declan McKenna. After the band exited the stage following “Brazil,” the requisite “one more song” chants brought them back out. McKenna, whose shaggy hair and blazer were already reminiscent of an early Beatle, leaned into the similarity by launching into a roaring cover of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.” With stagehands holding his guitar cables high, McKenna ventured into the audience before returning to the stage for one last song: a guitar-heavy version of his single “British Bombs.”
It was clear that Burlington had been waiting for this night for a long time, and as fans clamored at the barricade for a shot at a guitar pick or set list, it appeared that Declan McKenna had given a performance that was not soon to be forgotten.