• Archive by category "Gigs"
Header

Blog Archives

8 Reasons Why Japanese Music Festivals are Unlike Anywhere Else on Earth

 

japanese-music-festivals-summersonic-stadium

Thinking of hitting up one of the Japanese summer mega-festivals this year? Here are a few things you might want to know before springing for a ticket.

 The world’s biggest music festivals are massive, global events. If it’s a killer international line-up and an audience the size of a small city that transforms a music festival into a place of pilgrimage, Japan’s gargantuan summer festivals should surely share the mythic status of say, Coachella, Glastonbury or Primavera. Yet non-Japanese travellers who make the trek to Fuji Rock or Summer Sonic won’t find too many fellow foreigners in the mosh pit. Why is it that these two unequivocally enormous events aren’t on every festival fan’s radar? Should they be? What is it that makes a Japanese music festival so unlike any other in the world?

 

  1. Everyone is shockingly well behaved

We all know the Japanese are ridiculously polite. You would think though, that the celebratory, free-spirited nature of a music festival would encourage the locals to let their hair down a little. And they do, sort of. There’s fist-pumping and adoring applause aplenty, and when it’s time to dance, there’s dancing. But if you spot anyone running around acting like a shirtless madman, chances are, it’s a foreigner. Miraculously, people refrain from pushing in and barging their way through the crowd, and there’s a genuine respect for personal space. Audience members are even reluctant to leave halfway through a band’s set if they’re not feeling the vibe, because seemingly, that would be impolite.

japanese-music-festivals-summersonic-audience

  1. You can actually hear the music

Firstly, the sound quality at Summer Sonic kicks serious ass and from all reports Fuji Rock boasts a similar high calibre, despite being largely outdoors. The tickets for these fests are definitely on the pricey side, but at least a good chunk of your hard earned cash goes towards some pretty phenomenal sound gear and stage setups.

Secondly, another plus for super-polite Japanese audiences – they aren’t disposed to having full conversations at the top of their lungs and drunken shouting matches in the middle of the crowd, right when the band is playing your favourite song.

 

  1. The line-ups are eclectic, to say the least

The ginormous Summer Sonic festival held in Tokyo and Osaka is by far the largest international music festival in Asia. It offers the best chance for Japanese music fans of all ages and aesthetic persuasions to see a huge number of global acts in one place. So, as distasteful as it might sound to some people, Summer Sonic is a non-discriminatory celebration of music of every kind. There are no limits on genre or perceived coolness, and plenty of room on the phenomenally enormous line-up for local Japanese acts, teenybopper pop stars, aging rockers and the latest indie darlings alike. Avril Lavigne, Megadeth, the Pixies, Azealia Banks, Robert Glasper, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and a Chinese punk band all on the one line-up? Yes, this has actually happened. No one is going to start a petition to boot Kanye West off next year’s Summer Sonic line-up, guaranteed.

 

  1. The food selection is crazy, and awesome

It’s Japan. There’s amazing food everywhere, and festivals are no exception. Unlike the slim pickings at the majority of Australian festivals, in Japan, a vast portion of the festival venue is given over to the food vendors. It’s almost like an entire gourmet market in the middle of a music festival, and the choices are endless. Hot steaming bowls of ramen, curry on rice, fresh grilled yakitori, okonomiyaki and sushi bento boxes? At a festival? You betcha.

japanese-music-festivals-food-court

 

  1. The toilets are clean

Every festival-goer knows that the sensory assault of the portable pee pods is the biggest buzzkill ever. Not so at a Japanese festival. There are actually staff, as in proper, paid cleaning staff, ensuring the toilets remain spotless around the clock. And, having high regard for cleanliness and hygiene instilled in them, people are just less likely to wee all over the floor in Japan.

 

  1. Pachinko is everywhere in Japan, even at music festivals

Pachinko, the Japanese version of a slot machine, is so pervasive in Japan that even music festivals can’t escape them. Having rows of gambling machines that turn you into an anti-social zombie, fixated for hours on tiny silver balls while rapidly losing all your money seems counter-intuitive at a music festival, but something’s gotta help pay for the planeloads of bands, amazing stage setups and slick facilities that make these festivals such high quality events.

japanese-music-festivals-summersonic-pachinko

  1. Drugs. Nobody is on them.

Whatever your stance on illicit party enhancements, you can’t deny they add an entertaining (and occasionally alarming) element to the atmosphere of a music festival. Blissed out trippers and hyper, bug-eyed raver kids do make for amusing people watching. But in Japan, where even among most young people drugs are deeply taboo, you’re not likely to be greeted by the familiar smell of maryjane wafting through the air, or become the sweat soaked meat in a pill-induced cuddle sandwich. The scarcity of drugs certainly adds to relatively subdued atmosphere of a Japanese festival. If you need to pump yourself full of chemicals to have fun at a festival, the Japanese variety is not for you. Booze however, is very available, and pretty cheap too. Just remember, the sheer scale of a Japanese festival can make it super-exhausting, so observe the relative moderation of most of the locals. If you’re stumbling drunk by midday, you might not make it to the finish line.

Or, you could just find a spare spot somewhere and take a bit of a nanna nap, like these pooped-out punters. Yes, this is normal, and apparently, safe.

japanese-music-festivals-summersonic-nap

 

  1. They’re very, very Japanese

The big Japanese festivals may be global events, and they are attracting more and more overseas revellers every year, but in certain ways they do lack the worldwide attraction of the better known festivals in Europe and the US.

If your primary goal is to see to an incredible variety of bands with pristine sound and minimal hassle from drunken bros and  inconsiderate dickheads, Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic might be right up your alley. But if you crave the barely controlled chaos that characterises the music festival as we know it, the Japanese ones might be a little tame for your tastes.

While you’ll undoubtedly see a few unhinged antics going on (more often than not from the bands than the audience), the crowds do seem a little held back by their cultural deference to politeness, as well as an assortment of security directives and loudspeaker PSAs about orderly behaviour that basically make you feel like you’re under surveillance by the Japanese Fun Police. Either way, a Japanese festival is a culturally unique experience, a treat for genuine music lovers, and certainly worth any globe-trotting festival connoisseur’s time to check out.

 

japanese-music-festivals-summersonic-stadium-daytie

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

 

DAngelo_OperaHouse_Mar16_lowres_IMAG0907_20160321-640

 

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

Calexico_ByronBay_Mar16_lowres__DSC0878_20160309

 

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.


Calexico_ByronBay_Mar16_lowres__DSC0841_20160309

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.

 

Calexico_ByronBay_Mar16_lowres__DSC0822_20160309

 

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.

 

Calexico_ByronBay_Mar16_lowres__DSC0860_20160309

 

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.

Calexico_ByronBay_Mar16_lowres__DSC0899_20160309

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

sk-review-mar6-2016

 

“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.

My slight overanalysis of The Replacements reunion tour

 

 

I read that the recently ‘reunited’ Replacements might be added to the bill for 2014’s Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival, meaning that their first ever Australian tour could be in the works. My immediate response to this was fuck off, I don’t want to know. Yeah, there’s been a tonne of controversy about the integrity of reunion tours in general, and (probably) the Mats one in particular. Is this really a reunion or is it just two guys from The Replacements and two other guys flogging some old Replacements songs in order to momentarily revive their careers? Their legendary original guitarist, Bob Stinson, has been dead for 18 years, and the two reunited members, Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson, admitted they didn’t even ask original drummer Chris Mars to rejoin “because we knew the answer… he’d say no”.  Maybe that’s why despite the initial hype, they’ve kept it pretty low key, only making a handful of North American festival appearances so far.

Whenever I get asked what band I’d like to go back in time and see live, I usually say The Replacements, circa 1984. Back then, their live shows were notorious. You never knew if you were going to get a blistering display of raw energy and emotion that’d leave you bruised and battered and your heart smashed to pieces, or be confronted by a bunch of insolent, drunken punks out to (supposedly) sabotage their own chances of success with wilfully bad performances, bizarre antics, on-stage fights or an endless setlist of inappropriate cover songs. At the time, if you caught them on a shitty night, you’d probably walk away feeling pretty jipped, but in retrospect, their defiant unpredictability was a huge part of the Mats personality cult.

The Replacements captured the disaffection, rage, hope, joy and uncertainty of adolescenthood with a potency few other bands have ever matched, and their best songs are still just as achingly compelling as they were back in the day. The band were the essence of youthful rebellion, and the further away they got from youth, and rebellion, the less interesting they became.

Since they’ve been broken up for so long, there’s a pretty specific sort of mystique surrounding the Replacements. They were almost defined by the sheer volatility of their inter-band relationships and always seemed like the semi-legendary 80s band who would absolutely never get back together. It seemed pointless on so many levels.

So who really wants to see if good old Paul and Tommy can perform the songs they wrote 30 years ago with anything even close to the conviction they did back when both the band, and their audience actually lived those songs? Well, I kind of do. The songs are just too damn good to miss the opportunity to experience them collectively with a room full of people who share the same overwhelming, joyous obsession with them that I do. But on the other hand, once I see them live, the dynamic of fandom has changed forever. A little bit of the yearning, romance and mystery that endears them to me is gone. Plus, there’s a good chance that they might suck. But at least in that regard, The Replacements haven’t really changed a bit.

Old school Replacements goodness. Live in ’81

Footnote: There are a few reviews floating around on the Mats reunion shows so far. Most reports suggest a fittingly semi-professional performance, plenty of good humour all round and super pumped up audiences. I think I might be coming around. But if they don’t make it to Australia, I’m still quite not sure if I’ll be disappointed or relieved.

 

James Blake – Sydney Opera House 29/7/2013

James Blake live at the Sydney Opera House, 29 July 2013

It’s taken less than four years for James Blake to go from being just some guy DJing in sweaty London nightclubs to playing sold-out concerts at the Sydney Opera House. Taking the stage in the illustrious Concert Hall, we see him not just as a producer, but as a composer, a gifted singer and an extraordinarily accomplished performer.

Listening to Blake’s acclaimed 2011 self-titled debut, it’s difficult to decipher how the record’s ultra-minimalist aesthetic – its choppy beats and distorted vocal samples – could translate effectively to a live format. The unique way that it does is precisely what makes Blake’s live show so enthralling.

There’s a startling, compelling intimacy to James Blake’s music, which concievably, isn’t easily transferred to a large, reasonably impersonal live venue. Where Blake’s Sydney performance triumphed was in his ability to make the cavernous Concert Hall feel infinitely smaller, through nothing more than the captivating sincerity in his soul soaked voice (with perhaps a little extra help from some truly gorgeous stage lighting.)

Blake spent most of the evening hunched and semi-obscured behind a rack of synthesisers. He is politely engaging, humble and soft spoken in between songs. His lack of showmanship, in favour of a quiet, focused intensity only added to the intimate feel of the performance. It’s fascinating to watch Blake’s digital compositions unfold in an organic way, with his vocals being recorded in real time then fed into a continuous loop and layered beneath his live singing to dramatic effect. Deftly working background noise and washes of synth over minimal beats, Blake’s impeccable sense of timing was on full display, combined with the sublime balance between his soaring, gospel-tinged vocals and his skilfully restrained falsetto.

Blake’s prodigiously talented live band, consisting of long-time mates Ben Assister (drums) and Rob McAndrews (samplers, guitar) bring an entirely new dimension to the solo producer’s sound. With Assister’s cutting live drums and McAndrew’s multi-layered bass samples, sparse album tracks are reinvented into something much richer and fuller. During moments where the band would lift songs into a chorus of crescendoing synth chords, plummeting bass lines and out-and-out dance beats, the room would suddenly seem to open out, and you could look around to witness a strobe-washed sea of 2000 fans, bouncing and foot tapping involuntarily in their seats, swept up by the dark, danceable rhythms that define many of Blake’s earlier electronic endeavours.

In between old school tracks like CMYK and Klavierwerke and the throbbing Voyeur off Overgrown, Blake turned to the audience to describe us as “caged birds”. He suggested it was something of a shame we had to stay seated through his festival-friendly, dub-techno jam mid-set, and he was right. Still, there’s something quite satisfying about knowing the Opera House had probably just been subjected to the gnarliest low frequency drops its sound system has ever had to contend with. In fact, the amplified Concert Hall delivered the physical, sub-bass hits of I Never Learnt to Share and Limit to Your Love’s shuddering bottom end beautifully, and this, surprisingly, could count among the best sounding non-classical concerts the Opera House has played host to.

It was at the very end of the night that the true fortuity of seeing James Blake at the Opera House was revealed. He rounded out the set with Once We All Agree, a wistful, delicate ballad generally reserved for the most acoustically pristine venues, followed by his thunderously applauded ‘hit’, Retrograde. As the band departed, the stage crew raced out to lug the Concert Hall’s grand piano to the front of the stage. Blake’s cover of A Case of You has become a much-loved encore, but played on a real piano it’s a rare treat, one that few other venues can afford. At last, our lanky hero emerges from behind the wall of synths,  and his delight in playing a beautiful instrument in such a majestic setting is clearly apparent. Blake’s plaintive croon recalls all the bittersweet yearning of Joni Mitchell’s folk classic, offering an elegantly fitting finish to the night.

While he’s known for his techy production and avant-garde arrangements, Blake’s music, like Ms Mitchell’s, has at its distilled essence, a sense of the soul being laid bare – aching, vulnerable, uncertain and hopeful. Monday’s performance at the Sydney Opera House captured that essence with moving intensity and a mesmerising display of rare talent.

The Shins – Hordern Pavilion 25/7/2012

Let me start by saying I’m one of those rarely encountered casual fans of The Shins. There are many thousands of Shins lovers with much more love for The Shins than I, and although for many years I held a slightly fearful belief that listening to Oh, Inverted World in its entirety more than three times would turn me into a Shins fanatic, I’m reasonably happy to report that it hasn’t, and I exist in a contented place between total indifference towards the melodic folk-pop stylings of The Shins, and worshipping at the altar of James Mercer.

I like the music of The Shins very much, and Mercer, who these days essentially is The Shins, is the biggest stumbling block between like and love. As frontmen go, Mercer has always been relatively aloof in live situations, and I can’t help but feel a little frustrated by a sort of mismatch between my initial perception of him as indie rock’s warmly accessible everyman, and what he’s actually like on stage.  Watching last Wednesday’s show at the Hordern, I would have liked to see Mercer show a little more willingness to engage with his audience, but I don’t doubt his aura of shy brilliance is incredibly appealing to others.

All the same, seeing the prodigious singer-songwriter and his newly assembled band was an unexpectedly delicious treat. Nothing reinforces just how sensational songs like Saint Simon, Port of Morrow and 40 Mark Strasse (one of the highlights of the night) are than hearing them played by a band at the absolute top of their game. Each song was given a tight, confident, finely-nuanced treatment by the sextet – a well-oiled machine bringing The Shin’s lush layers and lovely, wandering melodies together with precision and grace. There were sublime moments when Mercer’s coolnesss would dissolve and his impassioned vocals commanded absolute attention – in the crescendoing final chorus of Simple Song, the gently stirring September, or during the band’s rollicking, muscular performance of So Says I. Mercer’s match on stage is his lead guitarist Jessica Dobson, effortlessly firing off thick, shimmering riffs, owning each moment in the spotlight with a glowing, masterful stage presence.

The encore was rounded out with a swirling, spacious, extended  jam on One By One All Day that clearly wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but for someone still coming around to The Shins, it was an impressive show of musicianship that made for an inspiring end to the evening.

Sound-wise, The Shins are pretty damn close to flawless, but helmed by an overly reserved frontman, their audience’s attention was left flagging at times, bringing the overall mood of the show down with it. While the acoustics at the Hordern were unusually outstanding, it was clear this wasn’t the ideal venue for a band like The Shins. A more intimate setting, where Mercer’s subtleties could be better appreciated, would have turned a fine show into a truly memorable one.

Prince – Allphones Arena, Sydney, 11/5/2012

Prince encore at Allphones Arena, May 11th 2012

 

With a discography that spans 32 years of enormous hits and colossal misses and a predilection for bizarre, grandiose public announcements, Prince is an ego of mythic proportions. Prince is still waiting for the rest of the world to realise, like he has, that the internet is a ridiculous fad.  He thinks suing his fans for taking photos of him is an OK thing to do. He thinks people should be banned from covering his songs, yet a significant proportion of his catalogue is considered borderline unlistenable by most sane people. But hey Prince, it’s cool, you can say whatever you like, because you’re a freaking genius.

There was an intense feeling of fanlove in the crowd at Friday night’s Welcome 2 Australia concert at Allphones Arena. When the beglittered one finally emerged from within the Love Symbol shaped stage, 40 year old women shrieked like schoolgirls. All of us were there because we love Prince and wanted to tell him so at the top of our lungs. But, speaking purely for myself here, as someone with tremendous admiration for his musical talents and an affectionate fascination for his egotistical rants, I really don’t believe he has any obligation to tell us that he loves us back.

Prince proved he is still one of the world’s most formidable performers. No, he’s not the limber purple pocket rocket he was 20 years ago, but he still struts, he still swaggers, and when he rips into bangin’ versions of Jam of the Year, Mountains and The Cool he still funks the house down like nobody else. What sat uncomfortably with me was Prince’s insistence on patronising, stereotypical stage banter. Sure, he appreciates his fans in his own way, and he probably figures he’s just dishing out what the crowd wants to hear, but his straight-faced “we love you”s and his repeatedly insisting that “Sydney, we on a first name basis tonight” just felt kind of insulting, and the audience quickly seemed to tire of it.

When Prince isn’t singing, dancing, or shredding (and by God, to watch him manhandle that telecaster is to bear witness to one of the true wonders of nature) his stage presence is flat out weird. At one point, about a dozen audience members were invited on stage to dance, and by Prince’s total lack of interaction with any of them, it was clear they had been warned to keep a respectful distance from him. Awkward. You get the feeling the man is constantly conflicted by a sort of throwaway contempt for the large majority of his fans, and the burning need to evangelise to us. He prostheltyises to us in the form of Love Thy Will Be Done, the unremarkable gospel song he wrote for Martika in the early 90s which would have been one of the low points of the night if it wasn’t so amusingly overzealous.

It’s these odd, somewhat ill-timed song choices that made the flow of the evening falter a little. Gold is a big, burning stadium ballad, but it wasn’t the jamming hot opener everyone was hoping for. The 10 or so minute sans-Prince intro to Purple Rain was truly agonising, but when Prince finally took the mic, he sang it as well as he ever has, and his soul searing guitar solo made the wait oh so worth it.

The best bits of the night were the parts that were pure posturing, pure tremble-before-me, ego stroking indulgence. “How many hits Prince got?” he boomed as he triggered a string of backing tracks to hit songs from his disco light flashing, piano shaped synthesiser. “These songs can’t be recreated by a band… because I am that band” he proclaimed, launching into a medley including When Doves Cry, Hot Thing and Sign O The Times. The band returning to the stage to bust out the deliciously spare funk of Kiss to a display of age defying Prince dance moves will go down as one of the most exhilarating concert moments of my life.

He may be past the days of singing lewd, cuss-word peppered sex anthems, but when he’s on stage, in complete control of his band and his own unparalleled musical prowess, Prince is still a total badass. He made us wait almost 20 minutes in the dark for an encore – a rocking but all too brief version of Peach. But in exchange for almost 3 hours in his awesome presence, it’s the sort of punishment I’m more than willing to take.

Prince, we’re not worthy! You don’t need to pretend to suck up to any of us – just play the hell out of those songs, and nobody will forget you’re still the funkiest MF around.

The Mountain Goats – Metro Theatre, Sydney, 6/5/2012

Years of incessant touring have not wearied the Mountain Goats or their fans. Since 2003 the extraordinarily prolific John Darnielle has toured Australia (rotating troupe of band members in tow) as regularly as he’s put out albums, and on Sunday night’s show at the Metro there were no shortage of fans seeing him for their fifth, sixth or seventh time. Two things were apparent by the end of the Mountain Goats’ set – that John Darnielle is a performer of extraordinary generosity, and that his fans are more than willing to take everything he’s giving and make it their own.

At what other gig will you see blokes fist pumping and finger pointing with furious conviction to acoustic guitar driven folk rock, and friends swaying, arms around shoulders in the wide-eyed crowd, singing along with joyous abandon to darkly anthemic ballads about child abuse, mental illness and domestic rage?

The audience’s devout adoration is palpable the second Darnielle appears on stage and begins with the warm, gentle build-up of For Charles Bronson. Between every line his smile beams through the crowd and by Damn These Vampires and Birth of Serpents, he is bounding around the stage with barely contained energy and joy. The fervent admiration of the audience has ramped up and imploded into sheer elation, the crowd now feeding off each other as much as they are off the band. Darnielle looks at the audience through geeky glasses and sweat soaked hair and shakes his head, grinning. “Seriously, great fucking audience… I’m gonna be telling people about you guys for quite sometime”, he says, and he sounds utterly sincere.

It’s this sincerity that endears his fans to him. His anecdotes, some metaphorical, some candid, all of them touched with his poignant humour, flow generously throughout the night. There is plenty of laughter, and an intensely observant silence as he shares several new songs with us from the piano – the solemn White Cedar and the exuberant The Diaz Brothers, which he explains was inspired by watching Scarface with his infant son.

Darnielle has an incredibly rich catalogue of songs to delve into, and at one point he digs out 1994’s Love Cuts the Strings for the die-hards, but for the most part this was a please-all set drawing heavily from The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee, two of The Mountain Goats’ finest moments  The bleak, gorgeous Game Shows Touch Our Lives is startlingly triumphant, the crowd roaring the lines “People say friends don’t destroy one another / what do they know about friends?” back at Darnielle with telling veracity. By the time he’s wrenched the desperately passionate last lines of International Small Arms Traffic Blues from his vocal chords, the set is coming to its close, but the energy in the room is at fever pitch. The encore is rapturous – three all-time favourites ending with The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton.  Darnielle pummels his guitar to exhaustion, inciting the crowd to raise Satan’s horns to the high heavens during that delirious “HAIL SATAN” refrain.  Looking around for something else to do with all his manic energy, he leaps behind the keyboard, bashes the final chords of the song out of it, then takes a last look at the audience, smiles his wide crazy smile, and leaves.

The Metro show was one of those rare events where audience and performer both, at times, seemed equally overcome with gratitude for the other’s presence. Even if, or perhaps especially if you were seeing John Darnielle for your eighth time that night, you were left astonished by just how damn much this guy gives. His immeasurable generosity manifests itself in a contagion of joy, and in those moments where every strained lyric and every fist pump expresses the singular, shared experience of everyone in the room.

Food Challenge: Fermented Fish Innards Soup, Thanon Khao San, Haymarket

It’d been awhile since I’d had a meal that really challenged my senses. If you count last month’s chilli hot wing eating contest at the Northbridge Hotel as a ‘meal’, then it had been about a month. Ben and I have a not-unwarranted reputation for eating, or at least attempting to eat almost anything put in front of us that could be vaguely interpreted as ‘food’, so after a lengthy easter weekend of terribly tame fare like chocolate eggs and barbecued chicken, it was time to give our taste buds a good Asian-style ass whuppin.


On Tuesday Ben and I ventured over to Thanon Khao San on the ‘Thaitown’ end of Pitt Street for some authentic street-style Thai cuisine. We’ve had good experiences with the restaurants around here (we love Saap Thai and Thainatown especially) since the area has become an eating-out hotspot for the Thai student population in the last few years. I’ve spent many months eating in homes, market stalls and festive banquets throughout Thailand, so when it comes to Thai food, I’ll admit I’m a little fussy.

Although it’s named after Bangkok’s incredibly daggy backpacker precinct, Thanon Khao San reminds me very much of the young, buzzing Thai bars/eateries found in cosmopolitan, semi-hip Bangkok neighbourhoods like Pra Athit and Ratchatewi. Thai pop music blares from the bar at the back of the dining room, and there’s a very cool ‘Khao San’ street sign and an actual Thai tuk tuk parked out the front. There’s also a wonderfully authentic hawker stand facing the street, tempting passers-by with colourful, glutinous and gelatinous Thai sweets.

We order a few “safe” dishes – a slightly too sweet beef massaman curry with lovely Thai style roti and khao kaa moo, a sweet, fragrant dish of beautifully soft steamed pork with rice, cabbage and soft-boiled egg. What we’re really here to try is kaeng tai pla, an extremely pungent, salty and spicy soup from southern Thailand made from fermented fish innards. When we order the tai pla our waiter stares at us in surprise and at first tries to prevent us from proceeding with the order.  Eventually he gives in but warns us that we can’t send it back if we don’t like it.

The kaeng tai pla comes with kanom jeen, squiggly white noodles made from rice flour. The smell hits as soon as the dish arrives at the table. This stuff reeks. It has a very potent fishy odour with a sour, heady whiff of fermentation. There are various, mostly unidentifiable scraps of things bobbing around in the muddy, soupy stew. I recognise the miniature Thai eggplants and the chunks of fresh bamboo shoot, and the rest of the floaters I can only describe as random, entraily bits and pieces. The primary taste of kaeng tai pla comes from a curry paste made from the preserved contents of the fish’s belly and it’s an extremely overpowering flavour. It tastes exactly like what you’d expect fermented fish guts to taste like. It’s still however, an extremely clean fish flavour and although tai pla is sometimes translated as “rotten fish”, there’s (thankfully!) no hint of putrescence in this dish.  It’s very, very salty and there is a tonne of hot, hot chilli in the stock as well as lots of sour tamarind and lime to cut through the tastebud–walloping, pickled organ cocktail. We use lots of the Thai basil, bean sprouts and fresh, bitter chopped cabbage provided to try and temper the taste of the soup and we manage to get through most of it. It’s definitely a taste that takes a lifetime of snacking on stinky dried Thai fish jerky to acquire. It was kind of hard to eat, but for me there’s something thrilling and evocative about experiencing such an intense inundation of flavour. I don’t think I’ll order kaeng tai pla from Thanon Khao San again but somehow it has made me love Thai cooking even more.
Thanon Khao San on Urbanspoon