Sunday, March 25, 2012

Live Review: NICK LOWE

Forum Theatre

Facing Stiff competition tonight from Gareth Liddiard, Electrolane and Aleks and the Ramps, the audience drawn to the Forum is one of the smallest, oldest and most myopic audiences the venue has ever seen. With a curtain sectioning the front third of the venue, and the 100+ crowd happily chattering, it’s without a word of introduction that Nick Lowe, sporting a Gibson Jumbo, a thick thatch of white hair and Buddy Holly glasses, strides to the microphone. 'You practiced and rehearsed it / But in your heart, you know it’s too late' he sonorously intones, as he pulls the tarp off a heartbreakingly version of ‘Stoplight Roses’.

Lowe’s phenomenal lyrics, lingered on with a sincerity and touch of slap-back reverb that reinforces his selection of spectacles are, if possible, even more acidic and evocative now than in his heyday. “Sales are up,” he says drily of his latest album The Old Magic. “They could be up-per. Influential dudes on the radio have been saying nice things about it’, he says of famously Lowe-obsessed film critic Mark Kermode before deadpanning “You know, if you cut me open you'll find one word written through me like a rock: ‘quality entertainment’.”

And he’s not wrong. Continuing apace with Heart from his revered 70s band Rockpile and the searing What a Lack of Love Has Done, his easy appropriation of 50s rock, country music and pop is at once derivative, but used in a wholly original way. The artful mundanity of I Let Things Slide and the euphoric harmonies of Raging Eyes highlight the strength not only the lyrical prowess, but also the setting of the song. He favours sparse instrumentation from his adept backing band, though the occasional bright noodling from guitarist Johnny Scott sets instrumental passages alight. Occasional dips into his past are rewarded with cheers from the entranced audience. His biggest hit Cruel to be Kind seems to break the rules of songwriting with its dangerous mix of disco and country, I Knew The Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll) mixes 12-bar blues and pop nous and still sounds as timeless as it did on its release.

Looking like a cross between Gary Oldman and Colonel Sanders, Lowe pauses to announce: “Now is the time to break out the sandwiches and thermos!” before introducing the band and leading them into I Read A Lot another deft account of being 60.

Keyboardist Geraint Watkins is invited to play the first encore Lowe is cheered back for, and his Only A Rose threatens to steal the night so unexpected is his emotive voice and so powerful the song’s emptiness. When I Write the Book and a gossamer-light version of What’s So Funny ‘bout Peace Love and Understanding? bring the audience to their feet. Bellowing and stamping eventually brings Lowe back for a second and final encore (“I’m quite moved!” he smiles), where he silences us all with his stunning take on a song he produced, Elvis Costello’s Alison.

In this mixed up word of slash genres, irony and cash-driven collaborations, Simple, unfussy pop tunes, and a masterclass in showmanship is more than welcome.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Pure Pop
In the small courtyard to the rear of Pure Pop are assembled the lucky few who grabbed one of the 50 tickets made available for this unusual and special occasion. Famous for being a founding member of Magazine, short term member of The Birthday Party, long-term member of The Bad Seeds, but mostly renown for his solo and soundtrack work, Barry Adamson is an unpredictable creative force. Tonight he’s showcasing the first Australian screening of his directorial debut Therapist, a 40-minute short film that, true to form, is dark, bizarre, difficult to explain and totally compelling.
Once the schmoozing dies down and MC Dave Graney takes to the stage to introduce the film, we go from boozy hubbub to reverential silence. The film itself concerns a filmmaker seeing a therapist to help with his suppressed fears, while the film he’s writing (entitled The Gemini Complex) or flashbacks he is having, are playing out between these highly stylised scenes. About 20 minutes into the film, during a scene in which a traumatic rape may or may not be happening, a woman in the front row collapses with a heart attack, is lead out by her neighbour, and followed by most of the front row. In this alternate psychological reality Adamson seems to broadcast from, it seems a reasonable response to the questions raised. His musings on memory, identity, duplicity, how a character is created and how they splinter under analysis is done in using lingering shots, stilted dialogue, chiaroscuro lighting and his trademark neo-noir moodiness. It’s powerful stuff.
While no one pretends to understand it (in a pre-screening interview Adamson states: ‘it’s a hard story to explain, that’s why I made a film about it,’) we’re all rapturous in our appreciation. It is incredibly stylish, well acted, and Lynchian in its obsession with the extrication of the macabre from the mundane, which, as one audience member points out ‘is great, because David Lynch hasn’t made enough films, so even something like one of his films is a good thing’.
Following an illuminating Q&A, Adamson performs three songs acoustically, all of which are featured on the forthcoming album I Will Set You Free that he’s promoting in May with a backing band at the Corner. Irritating feedback aside, The Sun and The Sea is a song that doesn’t relate to any previous concept you may have about Barry Adamson. It’s a sprightly pop number concerning optimism and transcendence of the mundane and, like the following songs, highlights his wonderfully warm, expressive and remarkably young-sounding tenor. A powerful instrument that occasionally slips into a near-vampiric basso profundo that Dario Argento could base an entire film around.
Which is nothing compared to the song he is most proud of, a piano ballad entitled If You Love Her, which Seal could probably cover and make Adamson a millionaire from if he so chose. Hearing this sort of naked emotional soulfulness that has previously been channelled into complex arrangements, crafted into the soundtrack to a fictitious film or used to offset some frantic chase music, is a revelation. Quite how his following takes it is another thing, but it’s unlikely he cares, or should care. True to the form of an auteur, he’s already drawing from the next creative well and it’s bound to be just as fascinating, personal and bizarre.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


Rod Laver Arena

Hordes of chattering fans crowd outside the arena, as attendants spray Taylor’s custom perfume on proffered wrists, and lightbulb-lined mirrors reflecting excited tweens getting makeovers. The atmosphere is one of a fairy tale coming true and it’s very hard not to be caught up in the excitement.

Inside, the stage extends over the seats, a Juliet balcony hangs high beneath the roof and a pop quiz about Taylor Swift is projected on looming screens. Lights dim, massive red velvet curtains part and the - largely female -audience drown out the first 30 seconds, as the star herself appears meters from the front row, rising through a trapdoor amidst gusts of dry ice. Before ears can comprehend the music, the eye is struggling with the sheer volume of exploding glitter, the Venetian staircases, balustrades and bridges, erupting fireworks, an interpretive dance troupe that burst from trampolines beneath the stage and dance in a way that is wholly too enthusiastic for country pop, a nine-piece band, massive back-projected screens showing animated videos and the gold sparkly dress Swift strides about in. Despite the scale and jaw dropping logistics required to make such a show work as seamlessly as it does, it never for a moment feels alienating. Swift constantly sings about personal connections, and we respond in kind.

Opening with Drop Everything Now, she moves on to latest single Mine, the first of many country pop songs about of small-town girl falling for or getting over a cute guy. She then tells us that this is the second last date of her world tour and spends several minutes explaining in a refreshingly unrehearsed way, what she loves about Melbourne and us.

Tap dancing, ballet, acrobatics, elastic trapeze and many massive, briefly used props spell out songs’ themes and explain why Swift was the highest touring earner of 2011. This bizarre combination of Andre Rieu’s stupendously opulent sets, Cirque de Soliel’s atmospheric dance pieces and the cheery Grand Ole Opry shouldn’t work, but does. The entire scene shifts from minute to minute, as if each song has its own live video acted out onstage. ‘I'm not a princess, this ain't a fairytale’ she sings in White Horse, while wearing a gorgeous dress and living every girl's dream.

Balancing this out are the periods in which Swift brings it back to just her sitting on stage with a banjo, or walking through the audience to sit, mid-crowd, underneath a rotating luminous tree where she talks to us about writing songs about friends, and strums a guitar. Her she plays Ours and Last Kiss before returning through the hordes for You Belong With Me, still one of the best pop songs of recent years. Her song Safe & Sound from the Hunger Games soundtrack and Fifteen close the show, as she circles over our heads on the Juliet balcony. Throughout, her warm, unaffected voice softens and humanises everything she says, and it this plainness that makes her songs’ PG-rated drama all the more real and affecting. Wasn't My Girl a more honest and heartbreaking story of relationships than 500 Days of Summer?



Despite the challenges a concert at the Wesley Anne often presents you (terrible sound and a PA that cuts out at 87 decibels), tonight’s performers succeed through sheer charisma and positivity, mainly down to the creative force behind The Gallant Trees, Joel Stibbard.

Having played more shows in the last twelve months than almost any other performer in Melbourne, the constant communication with the crowd and resultant inclusiveness, unabashed honesty and a refreshing lack of self-consciousness. Stibbard is one of the great iconic local troubadours, and his set is an unmitigated triumph.

Vicuna Coat are reliably excellent protagonists of heavy, jangly indie rock, and the acoustics of the venue are unkind to the subtleties and melodies that drive a lot of their songs. Pulling out sitar and ukulele and actually knowing how to use them is a bonus and helps express their distinctive personalities; the bashful warmth of singer and multi-instrumentalist Kat Winduss, and the lackadaisical talents of guitarist and vocalist Gordon Blake.

Launching their debut album Music For Frustrated Ornithologists, the self-described ‘avian rock’ band The Gallant Trees are in fine form tonight. Welsh flag dangling from his back pocket, singer/songwriter Joel Stibbard leads the band through highlights from the album, a lineup that includes deftly impressive guitarist Richard Jefferies, drafted in days earlier due to a broken finger. Opening with Little Rainbird, the love in the room for these songs and musicians is instant and almost tangible. Mistakes are all but impossible, with the several occasions of the PA cutting out only leading to massive impromptu singalongs, with some off-mic belting from Stibbard and bassist Tim Woods and drummer Chris Chinchilla.

Few other bands could engender love like this, so it’s just as well the songs are as strong as they are. Stibbard’s sister Beth is brought up to sing her effortlessly moody To Have You (original title Mother Nature is scrapped for being ‘too mung-bean hippy’). Her powerful untrained voice silences the room in seconds and it’s a crime she’s not performing more often. Visit Me Pelican and Roy the Renegade Seagull are clear rousing highlights that give the audience ample opportunity to contribute to the songs, something Stibbard clearly loves. The closing, nightmare-ish Birds With Fangs sees a mosh and some serious wailing before a raffle winds things up in another unpredictable but personal and positive example of communal celebration.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

WINTER IS HERE - An interview with Will Daunt of ZULU WINTER

With only two songs released and British media exploding with proclamations that they’re the 'Next Big Thing', this year’s 'Saviours of British Indie' and 'Destined for Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage', Will Daunt of ZULU WINTER allows ANDY HAZEL a glimpse into the calm before the storm.

In what has to be one of the least ‘rock’ introductions to an NME-hyped act ever, Zulu Winter singer Will Daunt laughingly apologises for doing housework while being interviewed. “Err…I’m rooting around in my fridge and making herbal tea before I go to bed. We’re going to America for three weeks on Monday,” he says calmly “We definitely aren’t foolish enough to set ourselves for this ‘new British hope conquering America’ nonsense. It’s a big place and it’s so exciting to go so early in our careers; we’ve only released two songs,” he says sipping his tea.

“We’re a pretty likeminded, democratic band, so there’s no leader or decision-maker, just five strong-minded people who argue a lot to make a collective decision. Because of the way we’ve gone about things, I don’t feel like we’re part of any scene,” Daunt explains carefully. “We locked ourselves away for a long time and just wrote, we didn’t really come out of or join a London scene or a UK scene. We’ve seen a lot of bands go out and play the songs they’re putting on their records a lot of times, but we didn’t,” which is unusual given the suitability of their widescreen indie rock for a live setting.

Already having drawn hundreds of thousands of views since being uploaded, Zulu Winter’s two songs We Should Be Swimming and Never Leave are also glimpses into their forthcoming album Language, the recording of which was completed in February. The wildly enthusiastic responses from blogs as well as established media outlets aren’t phasing the band at all. “It’s nice, but you can’t listen to it,” says Daunt over further sounds of housework. “Part of the reason we decided to do all the writing first was to avoid the rush that bands find themselves in when that they get a deal then have a month to write the record so everyone panics. [Australian label] Dew Process saw us in rehearsal and off the back of that, they said ‘we believe in you guys’ which was great. It was their suggestion to come over, and the more people we can play to outside of the UK and Europe the better. Apart from anything else, coming to Australia will be a great break from winter. We’re only there for two shows, but we’ll be back for a festival at some point,” he reveals suggestively.
“To a certain extent, the main reasons is because we love playing together and we love music, and to have our music bring all these people around us – these influential people and pacemakers - their saying we’re going to be the next big thing, it’s flattering,” he continues keenly. “There is a certain amount of pressure on us, but if you pay attention to that then you can go wrong.”

What seems inevitable about listening to these two songs is that they’re tailor made for massiveness. Despite the soaring choruses, danceable beats, shimmering guitars and plaintive vocals, Daunt insists that the band are ‘just fans of good pop music with a bit of depth and interest’. He explains further: “We are excited about how we’re doing and it is nice to be getting this sort of hyperbole, but we’ve never had a ‘fuck yeah, we’ve just written a number one!’ moment. We just wrote some songs and obviously I’m the singer and as far as lyrics and core structures and melodies go, I’m contributing more than the other members to that, but we just want to create something we’re all proud of. It would be nice to have people acclaiming the album as being great and worthy of attention from other people, but there was never any aim to headline the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury or any nonsense like that. If journalists want to say that [and they have] then fine, but that’s definitely not coming out of our mouths.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012



Aunty, the godmother of Meredith and Golden Plains, has established such a strong and unfussy reputation for delivering festival after festival of all round excellence that the brand has overtaken the bands. It’s a safe bet more people are coming to Golden Plains than just to see Bon Iver, and that is surely a good thing in a season in which it seems another festival is against the wall with every week. The reason for their success is apparent everywhere, attention to detail. The smells of the various food stalls, the tanks of town drinking water, the feeling of drying hand sanitiser, the sound of complementary foam earplugs gently expanding to block nearby chattering campsites are tiny experiences that are uniquely Golden Plains’.

But if there is one thing that unifies the fantastically disparate range of music, personalities and weather, then this year it’s Golden Plains’ drug of choice, LSD. From Bonnie Prince Billy’s shout out of ‘who here is on acid?’, and the several hundred people who enthusiastically raise their arms before sheepishly lowering them, to the headlining set from Rock’s Greatest Acid Casualty Roky Erickson’s, and the exuberant response received by every late night performer, it and it’s effects were ubiquitous.

Fields of cars, tents, Eskis and lounging punters ring the amphitheatre, which glows beneath overcast skies as the first band of the festival follow on from the traditional Opening Ceremony. Local Triple J Unearthed winners Hunting Grounds are given the coveted opening slot which sees a rowdy group of several thousand respond warmly to their take on epic rock. Balancing the earthy integrity befitting a band Aunty Meredith chooses for Golden Plains, with the sky-high aspirations of a band that secretly aspire to be The Black Keys.

Rather than wearing the influences of 90s bands on their sleeve in their exploration of the darker side of garage rock, Total Control take things further back and revel in the late 70s post-punk take on that most beloved of styles. Dan Stewart’s lyrics are lost in the amphitheatre and the force of the music takes over, which may have suited a late night slot better.

Perfectly suited to their slot however are the first international band of the festival, New Jersey’s Real Estate, who put in a set about as interesting as their name. Smooth, anodyne and almost offensively pleasant, there is so little to recommend in their blog-vetted, engine-chugging niceness that their songs slip by with an innocuousness that is almost commendable. While their bouncing melodies and smart lyrics are one thing to listen to at home or while sitting in an ergonomic chair, at Golden Plains, their lack of charisma and manifold subtleties of songs like It’s Real and Out of Tune are lost and they come across like a more expensive version of Augie March.

While the weather takes us into a brighter, warmer realm, the music moves back to a time that Melbourne seems obsessed with revisiting; community radio endorsed, rockabilly-infused 50s rock chic. Lanie Lane has a voice to command attention and the songs to hold it. The simplicity of her songs and the talent that extends beyond ability and seems to have evolved, CW Stoneking-like, out of a lifestyle finds a perfect home on a summer’s afternoon. Songs like What Do I Do, Betty Baby and a cover of The Black Keys’ Gold on the Ceiling are fun, deftly rendered, and allow Aidan Roberts’ Gretsch to get a workout, which is always a good thing.

As the first of a billion bubbles makes its way across the crowd Wild Flag take to the stage and unleash a riotous racket that sounds as if it’s been beamed in from the Pacific Northwest circa 1995.  Though the supergroup’s members seem to have taken the formation as a chance to revisit their halcyon days, it’s the audience that show the most excitement at floor-tom-laden, guitar chugs into brighter times. Romance, Short Version and Black Tiles generate the first moshing of the fest and their set takes a turn for the more upbeat and interesting as it reaches its end that may be as much to the band easing up as to the songs themselves.

As good as the preceding bands have been so far (and programming is almost uniformly brilliant throughout the weekend), the consistently unpredictable, eminently watchable and surprisingly effeminate Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti provide the early highlight with a set that epitomises everything that is good about using the sounds of pop music in a very non-pop setting. Boasting the charisma machine that is Lost Animal’s Shags Chamberlain on tambourine and ‘vibes’ (at one point described by Pink as ‘Shags. My Teddy Ruxpin’), the tight and textured sounds are bent through a number of songs, many of which seem new or obscure (and see Pink singing from a lyric book), but it’s the high points from Before Today that get the biggest response.

Playing the most divisive set of the fest Bon Iver enters to huge cheers and a heavy, noisy reinterpretation of Perth the first track from his most recent album. Soon descending into a free jazz spiral from which emerges Minnesota, WI, his crack band clearly have most of the audience on side from the outset, and use the freedom to have fun between moments of familiarity. Justin Vernon’s familiar falsetto pierces the cold night and silences the crowd during Holocene which is no mean task considering the sheer volume of empty cans at the end of his set. Perhaps predictably, the first and largest giving of ‘The Boot’ goes to Skinny Love. The Boot is described on the festival website as when ‘the whole of The Amphitheatre unites in appreciation of something that has wildly exceeded expectation’, which Vernon’s straight performance of patently didn’t do, still, the relaxed vibe, the near-full moon and the rapidly cooling evening combine to make a set a special one.

The cold comes in with sharp snap, and local cover band Kisstroyer follow in what is billed as a brave piece of festival programming. Their video pyrotechnics bathe the several hundred fist-pumping members of the 9000-strong crowd familiar with Kiss songs that aren’t I Was Made For Loving You Baby and the closing I Want to Rock and Roll All Night. The rest of the crowd show interest for the first few songs before dissipating and songs such as Shandi and a one-note bass solo barely register a response at all, which cannot be said about the ‘interstitial music’ DJs whose song selection provokes a bigger response than some of the bands.

Dexter takes over and any fears of him mimicking preceding festival slots exit stage left as he proceeds to pump out a set heavy on loping 90s west coast hip-hop and tick off reggae, ragga, ragas, drum and bass as he builds, cuts, detonates and scratches his way through his 55 minutes in fine style. There is still so much other DJs can learn from his seamless treatment of music and how identity can be projected by simply recontextualising rather than rearranging or reconstructing the music you choose.

By the time Seekae pull out their set of effervescent tones and immersive textures which triumphs over the alcohol and drug-fuelled distractions, still lower temperatures and tough timeslot the site is littered with cans, plastic crap, broken chairs, scrunched picnic blankets and passed-out twenty-somethings. The band however, sweeps all who pay attention into a rapturous zone that almost undoubtedly enhances the psychogenic experience being had by many. Doubling as a mellifluous lulling balm for those lying sundazed in their tents, they almost drown out the car alarms, late-night Cranberries’ singalongs and alacritous, plaintive cries of partying friends.



Guest speaker Barry Hickens is, as is unsurprisingly by now, a well-chosen and perfectly judged twist in a unpredictable rollercoaster of a festival. Taking a willing crowd on a surreal, comedic ramble through religious history, philosophy and the constabulary travesties of Melbourne’s inner north, pearls like ‘All art is meaningless unless it’s from Reservoir,’ ‘1966 the year was charged with vagrancy,’ and ‘history is a dream, it’s not a lecture’ keep everyone interested and several people enthusiastically so.

Taking the high-stakes early Sunday morning slot and running with it come Harmony, one of the most unusual and exciting bands 2011 offered up. Combining post-punk massive atonal riffs and three-part gospel harmonies, singer Tom Lyngcoln’s warm valve-infused guitar crunches heave people up from their tents before howls them into morning sun to be soothed by the warm tones of singers Maria Kastaniotis, Quinn Veldhuis and Amanda Roff. Songs bludgeon then soothe, though primarily, it’s the atonal force and lack of repetition that keep the songs wholly unique and the show somewhat akin to watching a spider consume a butterfly.

If any band is capable of following on from the blasting that the amphitheatre has just taken it’s the fucked up holiday vibes of Lost Animal. Spector-al (and spectral) chords announce the backing band’s arrival, while a jaundiced dystopic swagger accompanies singer/songwriter Jarrod Quarrell. Another of 2011’s great Australian triumphs, Lost Animal’s expropriation of nostalgic 80s sounds and their subversion them into a ebullient bitterness is a masterstroke most people aren’t ready for this early in the day. Much of their Ex Tropical album gets an airing with Cult of Nature and the formidable, boot-worthy Lose the Baby being clear highlights.

First Aid Kit’s set does provoke some enthusiasm from fans huddled around the stage, but how anyone can get worked up about the overwhelming niceness of their flawless harmonies is beyond me. Consensus seems to return to the term ‘pleasant’, and ‘attractive’, though to these ears their act seems so carefully schooled and calculated, from their dedication of a song to Johnny and June, Gram and Emmylou, to their too-neat clothes, that while it’s impossible to disagree with them, it’s hard to remember them too.

‘Hi! We’re a Buck Cherry tribute band’ laughs Endless Boogie frontman Paul Major by way of introduction. This is music made by music nerds for music nerds. For people who love a guitar solo that uses more minutes than notes to make its point. Fortunately, a lot of music nerds are present and their brand of chugging blues jam finds a very warm reception. Most of those who didn’t raise their shoe for Bon Iver last night do so for Endless Boogie’s closing song Smoking Figs in the Yard that lasts an astonishingly brief eight minutes…

…About as long as it takes The Celibate Rifles to roll out half the side of an album. One of the very few punk rock bands of the early 80s to a) still be playing, and b) still be making music worth hearing. Never content to wallow when there is shit to charismatically celebrate, their arresting set takes in ‘the first song from our first album in 1983’ (Killing Time) to 2004’s We All Moved to Buttland. As the show progresses, the audience evolve to become mostly male, mostly thirtysomethings and exclusively bearing beers and happy expressions.

Which bears almost no resemblance whatsoever to the crowd that welcomes the late additions, Melbourne’s nine-piece Saskwatch. Announcing to the crowd that they ‘just want to get along’ before playing some damned proficient funk grooves, vocalist Nkechi Anele joins and matches the band for style and proficiency. Like a local Dapkings, the band is tight, smooth and everything else they want to be, except capable of transgressing the fact they’re a talented bunch of musos having good clean fun, which is fine, it’s just that they’re probably the only ones.

Thankfully, rescuing us from playtime at the conservatorium is the walrus of woe, Bonnie Prince Billy, who spends a good ten minutes gazing at the crowd, most of whom are writhing away to the DJ, who takes the opportunity to air some 70s funk. Billy is displeased. He and the band wait for their cue and he slips on some reflective shades to make sure we can’t gaze back at him. “As boys we fucked each other / As men we lie and smile” he solemnly intones by way of welcome. Playing with The Cairo Band, the talent on stage is dauntingly adept, the harmonies sublime and the effect oddly reverential. Their slow, confident delivery and its spell is broken only by Billy’s cry of ‘anyone got some acid? The best thing to do on a day like today is to take acid and have sex.’

Words taken to heart by the next act, the survivor many never thought they’d see, the forefather of psychedelic rock, the legendary and leonine Roky Erickson. As his six-piece band dive into a take on Bo Diddley, Erickson is ushered on stage where he stands awkwardly with a guitar before being given a plectrum. It’s a sad and conflicting sight, he occasionally hacking inaudibly at the guitar and looking to guitarist for a reminder of what they’re playing and what to play. However, as soon as he opens his mouth, his voice shatters any illusion of frailty. It’s a strangely howling rasp and a mighty instrument. His solo song Night of the Vampire, Bleib Alien’s Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer) as well as his 13th Floor Elevators Classic You’re Gonna Miss Me all provoke wild adoration from the first few rows.

Roots Manuva is a wildcard here, which doesn’t stop his beats from seeming ageless, his band tight and from generating one of the best sounds of the festival. Though punters leaving to stand in queues at the food courts ignore a lot of his set, Witness the Fitness earns several dozen boots as Roots moves into the Zion-loving sweet vibes of Heal Your Mind, which allows a nice bout of bass-assisted digestion.

Prime disappointment of the weekend goes almost unanimously to Urge Overkill who seem to have never ventured beyond whatever distortion pedal setting they stumbled on in 1993. Songs blend together, vocals are indistinct and the one saving grace of their set, the triumphant Sister Havana dies a linger death, with neither singer nor crowd able or willing to actually sing the hook. It’s a strange, vaguely depressing experience.

Thank the Lord then, for the pure soul and almighty power of Charles Bradley. With a backing band that look like the contents of a Northcote cafĂ© on a Sunday afternoon, the sexagenarian owns Golden Plains from the moment he stands beneath the small chandelier that crowns his show. With a face that seems perpetually on the verge of ecstasy or crying, it’s impossible to look away as he throws James Brown move after some hilariously goofy dance break, the band perfect and freeing him to go where he will, an unmitigated highlight and revelation.

Chic somehow manage to follow this slice of brilliance with a setlist that can’t be topped and a one-man promotion machine in the form of Nile Rogers. Opening with a sparkling Everybody Dance, Dance Dance Dance and I Want Your Love the set shifts from stone cold disco classics to whatever Rogers feels like reminding everyone he wrote/produced. Moments like Let’s Dance sung by drummer Ralph Rolle are almost overshadowed by the sheer exuberance of the crowd’s response which culminates in a minor stage invasion and Nile Rogers uttering the words ‘we’ve got fucking gnomes on stage!

As the final night winds in, Naysayer and Gilsun decide that if minds haven’t been sufficiently blown by seeing Nile Rogers sing INXS, then blasting us with a cultural filter that is, like most of the festival’s acts, set to ‘nostalgic’, then sampling without regard for genre should do it. Scenes from Pump Up The Volume, The Slap, Garden State and Lost in Translation are accompanied by punters squealing in recognition, and a hefty dose of hip hop, drum and bass, and icy laptop rock. It’s a brilliant way to pull together the disparate experiences spiralling amidst these performances.

Canyons may not be breaking new ground in their vast synthscapes and cruising BPMs, but it’s certainly no bad thing. The French new wave feel to the melodies and the disco-rhythms win over most of a by-now very vulnerable crowd who like the simply assembled and smartly dispatched tunes (despite a few wayward shifts in rhythm). Sometimes straying into a percussion lead Pigbag-ish party vibe, Canyons seem more concerned with mood than getting to a point, which, at 3AM, is just fine.    

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Live Review: APHEX TWIN

Palace Theatre

Once anticipatory cheers have replaced Tony Pritchard’s dark, industrial, and almost poignant opening set of drill and bass, the crowd settle into rowdy euphoria. Within seconds of Pritchard leaving the stage, a deep, colon-bothering bass loop stretches the flapping PA speakers while dry ice spritzes across the stage. Fifteen minutes before he’s due, a familiar silhouette appears at the back of the stage triggering deafening cawing from the crowd.

Lurking behind a black fortress of gear clad in a metallic screen that offers fleeting footage of the crowd unceremoniously appears the man behind at least a dozen aliases, the cause of countless nightmares, millions of ‘what the fuck!’ reactions, and the master of turning profound bafflement into ardent love; Richard D James.

In typically atypical form, James begins with dance music based on soul samples with a touch of bubbly tech-trance. The vague possibility of listening to a fax machine mating with a lawnmower recorded through a full can of lager is clearly an outdated dream, still, this provokes some cramped dancing, and a lot of cheering. The front few rows mug for a roving video camera that gives a feed, via a processor manned by someone seemingly working their way through every Photoshop effect, to the screens on stage. We bathe in the sounds of 90s optimism. For a man who apparently invented ‘intelligent dance music’ and epitomised a dystopic future better than anyone in musical history, it seems as if he’s in whatever mood he was in when he released 26 Mixes For Cash

Despite using the heaviest bass since Sunn O))) nearly demolished the Hi-Fi Bar in 2007, and bringing in the occasional high, lost melody to amplify the oceanic depth of the beats, it’s the visuals that capture attention. Images of James that seem as though they've (literally) passed through Chris Cunningham and a 3D printer, grace the screens along with occasional fractured close ups of excited punters. All lights are trained on the audience. Lasers rip across the crowd, turning the air above us into a psychedelic loom.

A cavalcade of beats with slippery stabs of glitchy electro follow, soon subsumed by shimmering 70s synth lines. Sometimes it sounds like a 1990s version of the future, sometimes like 2090's, either way it is, somewhat disappointingly, always a regular coasting 120bpm; something 90% of his output has never given a shit about. Just as you’re thinking; ‘this has to be a set-up. Any second now he’ll kill the beats in a squelchy, sickly death and some atonal horror will take over and his sly evil grin will occupy every screen in a grotesque reassertion of control’, then that exact fantasy occurs, precisely half an hour in. 

Surprisingly, something familiar emerges and the song Fingerbib (a highlight of the Richard D James album) sends everyone nuts before disappearing underground into a seismic pulse. At this point, every face in the crowd seen on the screens is overlaid with his. Soon most internationally famous Australians, then pinup models, then children’s characters, have their face clumsily, hilariously and scarily, replaced with James’s manic grin. 

Now we get the unpredictable and fun Aphex Twin; music you can't dance to without a fistful of datura and some seriously reconfigured neurochemistry. The rhythm track of Didgeridoo and some wriggly synth lines explode around us, accompanied by garish visuals and blinding lights. Even brighter though is the intense fluro orange sportswear worn by Die Antwoord who burst from nowhere for some insane yet reverential freestyling. Rapper Ninja crowd-surfs while screaming ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie / Oi Oi Oi’ as Aphex intensifies the sound of a malfunctioning forklift played on a skipping CD. Once Die Antwoord leave it’s time for a genuine old school headfuck. Huge distorted drill and bass rhythms, vacillating tempos and a ceaseless intensity of carefully channeled noise beat us senseless. Fittingly, the screens show sickeningly granulated visuals interspersed with labyrinthine patterns and a cubist nightmare in red and black. Like a grumpy old guy having a rant, these dark spiraling sounds end on the stroke of 11:30. Shut down. 

We cheer, stamp, and clap but to no avail. The screens briefly flicker ‘Keep calm and fuck off’, ‘Kill yourself.’ On come the house lights, it’s game over but no one is listening. There is genuine disbelief, more cheering and louder stamping ensues, sometimes turning to anger, then to a cheer that suggests he’s returned, but no. This continues at near-deafening levels for 10 minutes after the stage manager motions no more, the stage lights flicker on, and the equipment begins being dismantled. Finally, we leave to board trams abuzz with conversations about the show, of how expectations were and weren’t met and how lucky we were to see it.