Monthly Archives: March 2016

D’Angelo – Sydney Opera House Concert Hall – 21/3/16




Excess is not a word I associate with the music of D’Angelo. When the extraordinary Black Messiah was released at the end of 2014, it was the arrangements that had me instantly intrigued and enraptured. As rich and multi-faceted as the instrumentation was, it was its meticulous, unorthodox treatment that made each song so compelling – intricate, restrained, purposeful and and so intently conscientious you knew these songs were the work of a truly masterful musician. So much of that record could have veered towards excess, and yet nothing on it feels out of place.

So here I was, at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, the perfect venue, one would think, to experience D’Angelo’s razor precision, but in the context of arranging a live performance. Not having sought-out many of D’Angelo’s live recordings of late, I guess I had the wrong impression.

Is letting your audience wait an hour and 45 minutes after the advertised playing time excessive? Maybe not if you’re Madonna, but the D’Angelo I’m here to see ain’t no diva. Or is he? I figured he must be working away backstage, making some last minute perfectionist’s tweaks.

The pre-show DJ fortunately had the crowd pretty well primed by the time D’Angelo hit the stage. Clad in a white hat and shiny black feathers, the singer had the punters up and dancing in an instant to the deliciously sinister mid-tempo funk of Devil’s Pie. The music didn’t stop as D’Angelo sidled backstage and bounced back sporting a glam metal silver and black guitar and ripped right into a ball tearing cover of Funkadelic’s Red Hot Mama. It seemed the infamously elusive, genius R&B songwriter is was in full rock star mode, telling the crowd “I know this is an opera house and all, but we came here to rock your socks off”. Hordes of excitable fans responded ecstatically.

Seven of D’Angelo’s Vanguard collective shared the stage, including two back-up singers and another two guitarists. That’s a lot of amped in, amped up musicians, and acoustically, the Concert Hall just ain’t built for hard rocking funksters. What came blaring (very loudly) out of the speakers was soul, R&B and funk with fat slabs of guitar and a shiny rock star veneer.

When D’Angelo’s stripping off various items of clothing and fist bumping the front row, his adoring fans are beside themselves. It’s a lot of fun for the first few songs, and the Concert Hall is positively pumping – an awesome sight, for sure – but, isn’t this supposed to be about the music? The music of one of the great R&B songwriters, multi-instrumentalists and producers of the last two decades. And with three overdriven guitars all vying and occasionally clashing with each other for attention, and the singer’s frequent Prince-channeling-James Brown yelping, the more cryptic melodies of songs like The Charade became virtually unintelligible under a cacophony of collective noise.

With its ponderous proportions designed primarily for orchestral music, volume has always been a massive problem with rock bands at the Concert Hall, and with eight dudes on stage blissfully cranked to the max, the sheer amount of decibels at times became overbearing.

And when it’s D’Angelo’s music that’s being compromised, that’s a real shame. There is so much subtlety and complexity to his work, and unfortunately, it was the venue’s sound, and the format of the band itself, that sometimes stripped away the most intriguing elements of his songcraft. Even the beautiful classical guitar that takes centrestage in Really Love sounded drowned out, relegated to the background.

But we get it, tonight was a party, a chance for a mysterious studio magician to step up and become an entertainer. And party the audience did, even if there were visible moments of boredom or confusion when they weren’t exactly sure what they were partying to.

After a long wait for an encore, (during which the sound levels seemed to have been successfully tamed somewhat) D’Angelo returned, sitting solo behind a piano, teasing out a few notes of Untitled (How Does It Feel) before faux-temperamentally walking away, leaving the audience baying for more. This went on, until we’d all cottoned on to what was about to happen, and then the band reappeared to turn his classic neo-soul masterpiece into a soaring 15-minute epic, where no drawn out chorus or heartfelt guitar howl felt excessive. This, this was the moment. This was glorious. No outlandish outfits or rockstar posturing made me feel like I was in the presence of a genius like this did. This was the music I had come to hear. Powerful, impassioned, brilliantly improvised and yet utterly effortless.

The encore continued for several more songs, finally finishing with a dramatic James Brown style rock n roll ending that proved that even the most lauded and elusive of musicians enjoy the chance not to take themselves too seriously once in awhile. Overall, it was a fun, frustrating, strange and occassionally exhilarating evening. I would give my right arm to see D’Angelo in a fine arts venue again with a completely different live arrangement, but the rock n roll façade at times did his songs a serious disservice.









Calexico – Byron Theatre – 9/2/2016



A 200-odd capacity theatre in a small town Community Centre is not exactly the place I’d expect to see an international touring band, especially one as renowned as Tuscon, Arizona outfit Calexico. Their blend of indie rock, folk, country, mariachi and continent-crossing Latin American influences span some 20 years of acclaimed albums and globe encompassing tours. Granted, this is Byron Bay we’re talking about, a town with a not to be overlooked musical heritage of its own. Yet even so, for this Sydney reviewer, who enjoys the privilege of a considerable roster of overseas musicians passing through her hometown, the combination of ‘famous, important’ band and ‘tiny, intimate’ venue is something of a novel experience.

The Byron Theatre puts on a diverse array of productions and can be configured to accommodate an eclectic range of artistic performances. Tonight, there’s tiered seating and no stage at all – no lofty divide between audience and band members.

While Calexico’s sound in such a pocket-sized venue lacks some of the swirling expansiveness of sets they’ve played in grander venues, like the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, the show certainly doesn’t suffer in terms of acoustics. In fact, the sound in the Byron Theatre is impeccable, with just the right proportions for the human voice to carry across the room with its natural warmth and raw distinctiveness intact.


The band open with Coyoacan, a sweeping, multi-part instrumental, inspired by their time in Mexico City. With seven players on stage, the room is engulfed in an enveloping, exotic soundscape, and we’re immediately transported to colourful, historic streets of the famously artistic Coyoacan district. At several points throughout the show, the songs are so evocative, the pristine acoustics so immersive, I honestly forget where I am for brief moments during the set.

Two things bring me back to earth. The eruptions of applause from the small but enormously appreciative audience, and lead singer Joey Burns’ captivating grin. I have never seen anyone who looks as totally stoked to be on stage as Joey Burns. He’s the consummate band leader, someone who takes great delight in every moment playing with such effortless cohesion with musicians of the Calexico collective’s calibre, and if his mind ever wanders elsewhere for second, his on-stage expressions betray nothing. He is an absolute joy to watch. If the audience is loving the show half as much as he is, we’re doing good.

Tonight’s show feels tailor made for the space, and for the local music lovers of Byron Bay, who it seems the band have gotten to know over several sojourns there over the years. Lengthier epics that are regular additions to Calexico’s setlist are trimmed down or omitted, and the set leans more towards the more upbeat, Latin-flavoured cuts from their multifarious catalogue.

Cumbia de Donde, a track from the latest album comes early in the set, and already several audience members (some already liberated of their footwear) are dancing in the aisles or up-front just few metres from the band. As a Sydney-sider, with our sometimes too cool for school audiences, this is not something I’m necessarily used to seeing in a relatively formal theatre space, especially two songs into the set. The band is visibly delighted.




Fitting in with the largely Latin-themed setlist tonight, long-time Calexico trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela gets two songs penned by him, Inspiracion and No Te Vayas thrown into the mix, his voice carrying with a strength missing from the recorded versions, interspersed with long, brooding trumpet solos that the audience responds to with audible ‘wows’.

The trumpets are true stars tonight, and during the opening strains of Minas de Cobre, both horn players abruptly stroll off the stage and start making their way up the stairs to the left and right rear doors. When the mariachi-flavoured trumpet riff kicks in, the players point their instruments into the centre of the room, and boom, stereo trumpets! Well played, boys.

The setlist is mostly cuts from the latest album, Edge of the Sun, and classic crowd favourites, with Soledad a big, brassy take on an old Colombian cumbia, being the only real surprise. Jairo Zavala lets up his muscular lead guitar playing for a few brief moments to take lead vocals on this one. On this tour, they’ve been joined by bass player Scott Colberg, who adds a sinuous jazz solo on double bass to the rousing Stray. But its founding member and drummer John Convertino, comfortably perched in the back, who’s playing captivates most – extraordinarily inventive yet beautifully restrained, his playing as deft and elegant and mesmerising to watch as ever.




The band cap off the evening with Crystal Frontier and most of the audience filling up every available free space to dance and fist pump to the trumpet bits, before the loudest demand for an encore I’ve ever heard from a crowd of 200. We’re treated to Guero Canelo, which is extended out with singalong grabs from Manu Chao’s Deseparacido and Buena Vista Social Club’s Candela, before the band bows out to rapturous applause.

When it’s all over, my urge to dance is at its peak. It feels short (it actually was, slightly) for a Calexico show, with all its pace and energy, but more exciting, more engrossing, and more fun than any single show I’ve seen for awhile. And for that, I have both the band to thank, and the music lovers of Byron Bay. So, muchas gracias, mis amigos de Byron Bay, for showing this city slicker how it’s done.


U.S. Girls / Sleater Kinney – Sydney Opera House Concert Hall 6/3/2016



“We don’t talk much”. Meghan Remy is pointing out the obvious when she explains her lack of banter mid-set. Rhemy is main vocalist and producer behind the U.S. Girls moniker and tonight, the opening act for the Sydney leg of the recently reunited and enormously celebrated punk pioneers Sleater-Kinney. Along with her bandmate, backing vocalist Amanda Crist, they stalk the stage of the Concert Hall with audaciousness and intent, tiptoeing a line between disarming cheekiness and something far more weighty and severe. Remy leans out to scan the room and the Concert Hall’s conspicuous number of empty seats as if passing judgement, and then continues to strut, sashay and swagger about the oversized stage, while triggering backing tracks consisting of warped, sludgy samples of obscure 60s soul and deep disco.

On the surface, it’s a straight-up sampler and vocal performance, sounding swampy and alien in the huge and formal Opera House. The overcranked sampler just manages to keep from drowning out the two women’s vocals, which switch from soulful crooning to shrill and savage in an instant. In the hollow acoustic space of the Concert Hall, the sound coming from the lone sampler, all noise-and-reverb-soaked and way-too-loud, sounds monochrome, brutalist, almost ugly. It’s a harsh, brazen performance, best illustrated by the moment, during the piercing, sinister, New Age Thriller, a lone male guitarist in a bombastic white cowboy hat appears out of nowhere, playing a brief but comically labourious solo while Rhemy performs pelvic thrusts and crotch-grabs with wild abandon in case anyone takes their eyes off the show-stealing intruder for a second. It’s meant to be a moment of lighthearted fun, as well as a dig at the exaggerated masculinity of rock performance, but the fact that a respite from the weight of the band’s weirdness and intensity brings such a palpable sense of relief is telling.

Rhemy otherwise chooses not to interrupt what is basically an unrelenting wall of noise with small talk, but she does offer this towards the closing end of their set – “I first saw Sleater-Kinney when I was 14. Now I’m 30.” No further explaining is needed. The breadth and scope of Sleater-Kinney’s influence is immense.

While U.S. Girls undoubtedly left certain audience members in a state of befuddlement, there’s no confusion over the level of anticipation that grips the crowd tonight after Sleater-Kinney’s nearly 10-year absence from both recording and touring.

It’s basically impossible to have a conversation about tonight’s performance without a discussion about the venue itself, a subject that has been questioned and contested by a number of Sleater-Kinney’s Sydney fans over social media. Is the Sydney Opera House ever a truly appropriate venue for a high energy rock show?

If there’s an air of fervent excitement in the room tonight, it’s hard to tell as the seated audience wait patiently and placidly for the hugely hyped return of their favourite post-riot grrrl trio. Just as U.S. Girls’ Meg Rehmy was so affected by her experience of seeing Sleater-Kinney, it’s hard to underestimate the level of vehement fandom contained within the Concert Hall tonight. And yet the audience seems unable to overcome the staid history, the proscribed formality of the space. There are whoops and cheers as the band steps on to the stage, but still, the butts of around 2000 presumably highly enthusiastic fans remain firmly on seats.

And then Sleater-Kinney bring the noise. The band come rearing out of the gates with an unrelenting energy, ferocity and pace that barely lets up for the entirety of their set. From the pounding opening beats of Price Tag, nothing in the universe seems more captivating, more searingly badass than Janet Weiss pulverising the drums, Corin Tucker’s wailing vocals blistering through the cavernous space of the Concert Hall with shattering force, and Carrie Brownstein’s guitar, its deceptively simple hooks wrenching each song towards a tumultuous crescendo as they descend into an overdriven chaos of screeching solo riffage and guttural howls. The physicality of Brownstein’s performance has been much-admired over the years, and here at the Concert Hall, even in the face of a largely static audience, it’s as joyously unhinged and animated as ever, all slashing windmills, gravity defying high kicks and hair flying, often accompanied by a totally uncontained and utterly infectious grin.

The band’s contagious energy finally starts to seep into the crowd, and by the time a couple of songs from 2005’s monstrous The Woods are unleashed, most of the audience members, gingerly at first, are up and dancing, with more spirited pockets of the crowd spilling out into the aisles, jumping and flailing the way they might have seeing Sleater-Kinney years back at the Big Day Out or the Gaelic Club. And just like back then, the interplay between Tucker and Brownstein is the centre of attention, their contrasting vocals expanding each song’s emotional and dynamic range, the interplay of their twin guitar riffs as jolting and jarring as often as they are harmonious. The camaraderie between them, the playfulness and affection that shines through the barrage of a pummelling punk soundtrack is a magnificent thing to witness.

Around eighty minutes flies past and by the time the audience is baying for an encore (Modern Girl, a wonderfully warped Sleater-Kinney audience singalong, and an old school favourite, Dig Me Out) the Concert Hall is reverberating with thunderous applause. But given how profoundly personal, even transformational, Sleater-Kinney’s influence has been to so many of their fans, there’s a certain electricity that feels absent – a lack of connectedness and acknowledgement of some deep, shared experience within large parts of the audience. While to the Opera House’s credit, the band’s sound managed to be both appropriately loud and flawlessly balanced, the venue itself presented an emotional obstacle, that sadly, much of the audience never seemed quite able to overcome.

But the band’s performance itself? Phenomenal.