Self Esteem — Pleasure in the Riot at The Fleece, Bristol
Self Esteem | Bristol
Photos: Molly Davies
29th November 2021 - Self Esteem at The Fleece
Part of me hated Self Esteem when I first discovered them.
It wasn’t conscious, but instead anger disguising pain. Pain from having to conform to certain standards of womanhood that were restrictive, misogynistic, and wrapped in shame. When I first heard Self Esteem’s now #1 song of the year, I Do This All The Time, I was confronted with an impression of a woman free from the shackles of shame, fully embracing prioritising herself and her pleasure. The knee-jerk reaction was anger at the sheer audacity to enjoy oneself so much without caveats, without pandering to the idea of what a woman should be. When I realised this reaction was from internalised conditioning rather than what was in front of me, and when I finally listened to Self Esteem’s Prioritise Pleasure properly from start to finish, I knew I had to see her live.
When I arrived at Bristol’s The Fleece, a legendary venue in an old Victorian wool hall in the heart of the city, the room was overflowing with people of all ages. There was a thrum of anticipation, a resounding excited chatter. Was Self Esteem going to live up to the hype? Is Self Esteem truly Britain’s most compelling new pop star? In short, as I was later to discover: Yes.
The band peel onto the stage, adorned in leopard print outfits, each tailored to show a flair of the individual whilst remaining cohesive as a group. Lastly, Rebecca Lucy Taylor, the brain behind Self Esteem, arrives on stage in an all-hot-pink ensemble that would make the straightest of women weak at the knees. The group launch into the opening track of Prioritise Pleasure, I’m Fine. It’s the perfect intro. At the end of the song when Taylor and her backing singers - Mags, Seraphina, and Levi - start howling like dogs, the audience barks along with them. It’s primal.
Hearing this live rendition of Prioritise Pleasure has me enthralled and, like most of the set, the song passes in a shimmering blur. Taylor and her team of dancers have their entire performance down to a fine art, each move so well practiced that it has become muscle memory, and there is room to enjoy the performance. “This song is about shagging straight women!” Taylor announces, contorting herself over her backing vocalists into a line, bending over one another. They get about two bars in before a comment from multi-instrumentalist Sophie Galpin, that unfortunately gets lost in the wind, throws the whole performance out of whack. Taylor breaks down laughing. “Alright stop. Start again. This song is about shagging straight girls. Alright Bristol? Rita Ora.” This time Girl Crush comes off without a hitch, the crowd screaming whenever Taylor commands it. I’m surprised that only one person shouts ‘lick my pussy’. The request is met with a grin.
The set is full of powerful tracks, not lulling for at least the first 50 minutes of the set. When Taylor announces that Fucking Wizardry is next, the room crackles with excitement. Mid-way through Taylor goes full noughties pop classic. The lights come up as she screams “OK Robbie Williams!” and the crowd, that stretches from the barriers to the door, chant ‘My hunger times my impatience / Makes me feel reckless / So I let ya, let you be selfish / And careless with my head’. It really is some fucking wizardry that anyone managed to mess with such a creative and emotionally intelligent force, but everyone has their lessons to learn.
There’s something exquisitely naughty about transitioning from moving from a prayer pose to transitioning into Moody. The girls know how to strike a pose and the disparity between praying and the opening lyric - ‘sexting you at the mental health talk seems counterproductive’ - is deliciously paradoxical. I sneak to the back of the stage to get a better look.
From the back of the stage I get a full view of the red-hot chaotic magic that is a Self Esteem show. How Can I Help You feels like a riot with Taylor screaming ‘I don’t know shit!’ at a crowd that is frothing at the mouth at this point. The stage lights paint the front row crimson. Flashes of faces can be seen, contorted in the red light with emotions running from overwhelm to rage.
When the song ends, a single shrill voice carries on shouting ‘I don’t know shit’. The first time is funny. The second less so. The third, it’s clear someone has had too much wine and thinks themselves a comedian. “Can you hear that? It might just be in my mind.” muses Taylor. “Speaking of my mind, here’s a song called The 345.” The track is rich with 6 layers of vocals harmonising. It’s emotive and after the chaos that was How Can I Help You it feels like a cool stream of ice cold water, a reset. I use the lull in energy to sneak back into the crowd, and am caught off guard by the mid-track. “It all ends mid paragraph,” sigh’s Taylor, “The bottom of the mountain is when you're born, the top is when you die." She speaks as if reading from a diary before launching into an almost operatic vocalisation that lifts The 345 to a religious space.
“This is our last song, we definitely don't come back on and do two more.” announces Taylor to a hushed audience, “It's the number one song according to The Guardian.” The rendition of I Do This All The Time is flawless and the perfect closer to the set. There is no way someone could write a song such as this without a period of massive growth and a burning desire for change. The performance seems cleansing as if every time Taylor sings ‘it was miserable to love you’, the misery seeps further away.
Taylor and the band head off stage and everyone dutifully claps, cheers, and screams - the unspoken price for the last two songs. After telling some people to quit nattering at the back of the room by the loos, the crowd is silent and for good reason. The first encore is performed entirely acoustically without even mics for the vocals. The magic happens when the six vocals come in together transforming The Fleece into a cathedral. The crowd miraculously stays silent. “This is genuinely the last song. Thanks for a right massive laugh. See you next year.” says Taylor, then gestures to her dancers, “I think we should squat this way then that - This is The Best”. The Best feels like a suitable celebration of the night. I sneak out the back just before the end of the set, out of the normally drafty venue that’s been so packed it’s nearing on claustrophobic, and into the freezing Bristol night air, buoyed by the experience of having seen something truly feminine and sensational.
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