LIVE REVIEW: Herbie Hancock @ Sydney Opera House

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Herbie Hancock
Sydney Opera House, June 10th 2019

Herbie Hancock has been playing jazz onstage for nearly sixty years and even though this was his second show of the day in the Opera House’s Concert Hall, the septuagenarian seemed to have boundless energy as he took the audience through a spellbinding two hours of jazz fusion.

Hancock has always been one to evolve with the times and branch out from traditional be-bop jazz into soul, funk, classical and more. Tonight he was still sounding like he was channeling the future with a lineup of Lionel Loueke (electric guitar), James Genus (electric bass) and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) and himself on piano, synth and keytar. At one point he introduced a song as one he wrote in the ‘70s and as the audience cheered he added – “2070, I’m ahead of my time!”.

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The focus of the set was firmly on songs he wrote as technology was changing and electronic music was becoming established and often taking the lead in jazz, funk and soul music. Actual Proof was a real highlight. Hard funk and ridiculously virtuosic soloing from the band, especially Colaiuta on drums. What made the band so impressive was their ability to work as a cohesive, fluid and rhythm-based unit and then pull things back to spotlight individual solos that never outstayed their welcome. These were some of the finest players in the world yet there was very little ego emanating from the stage. Hancock was flashing grins and kicking out his leg from beneath the piano, clearly revelling in the musical interaction with his band. As he introduced them he seemed genuinely and humbly in awe of their talents.

Hancock himself divided his time between his various instruments, pacing himself before going deep on a solo, notes near flying off the keys in a blur of fingers, whether it was light, dancing runs or heavy, slamming chordal accents. He remains a dazzling and inventive player, still taking his music to thrilling and otherworldly places.  For the most part the set was upbeat and constantly in motion. A comparatively quieter moment came with the soulful Come Running To Me featuring Hancock’s synth-manipulated vocal adding yet another element to their sound.

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Late set highlights came in the form of two of his masterpieces and most recognisable compositions in Cantaloupe Island, recorded in 1964, and the closing future funk encore of Chameleon, from his 1974 album Head Hunters. Hancock took centre-stage with his keytar, swapping solos with Loueke and at the age of 79, leaving the stage with an airborne jump to signal the final note as the audience rose to their feet in unison. 

This was no artist playing it safe at the tail-end of his career, this was a celebratory night of music and creative spirit par excellence, from a true innovator and legend of modern music.

Chris Familton

LIVE REVIEW: Ben Frost, Tim Hecker @ Sydney Opera House (11/01/15)

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Experimental electronica, avant garde, instrumental composition, sound art… all these and more were at play when Canadian Tim Hecker and Australian native, now based in Iceland, Ben Frost brought their immersive and extreme synthetic music to the magnificent surrounds of the Sydney Opera House as part of the Sydney Festival.

Tim Hecker performed his set in near darkness, the only visible objects were two red guitar amp lights and two faint spotlights pointing upwards, intersecting in a swirl of fog high above the audience. The lack of lighting gave weight to Hecker’s collage of textures that were built on dense and grainy drones, swelling and retreating in his on-stage mix. The volume was possibly the loudest I’ve heard at the Opera House, another key factor in translating Hecker’s music from headphone listening to a primal and physical sensory experience where the actual shifting of air was important as the fragmented melodies and screes of interweaving digital noise. Over the space of an hour the impact of Hecker’s set became diluted by a lack of variation. There was little sense of narrative or journey and that combined with the darkness resulted in quite a claustrophobic mood.

Ben Frost’s career has seen him rise from independent releases to internationally acclaimed albums, soundtrack and theatre work in the space of a decade and it was that inter-medium experience that gave his performance such expansive and detailed qualities. Twin towers of guitar amps, one guitar and a table of laptops and other digital ephemera were Frost’s instruments as he set about creating a journey through sci-fi, cinematic composition. There were percussive explosions that rippled through the audience’s bodies, bass drones that blurred vision and layered on top of those weapons were sharp hi-res detailed snatches of sound, rippling keyboard notes, and genuinely disturbing snarling wolves. Frost’s use of sustained tension combined with hypnotic repetition made for a cerebral experience where the listener could be willingly disorientated by 60 minutes of strobe lighting or close their eyes and be transported elsewhere. Either way Frost’s was a majestic and magnetic display of sensory overload, right on the cusp of art, rock and futuristic experimentalism.

Chris Familton

this review was first published in The Music

LIVE REVIEW: R.I.P Society 5th Birthday @ Sydney Opera House (24/05/14)

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The Dead C

Vivid Live deserves a pat on the back for inviting Nic Warnock’s R.I.P Society label to celebrate their 5th birthday with a stylistically varied lineup of a dozen acts that have been released on the label or share its open-minded and independent approach to music.

Things started off skronky and dissonant with Ghastly Spats before frontman Lincoln Brown ditched his guitar, picked up a new band (Housewives) and straightened the music into gonzo punk territory. With the audience attention switching across the room to another of the three stages they found Rat Columns playing their debut show and they were a real highlight. Tight, melodic, urgent and melancholic guitar pop that perfectly balanced mood, sonics and songwriting. As quickly as structured pop/rock songs appeared they were dissected and interestingly mutated by the jazz and dub inflected Cured Pink. Warnock’s own band Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys, who surprised and impressed many with their debut album, played a great set that retained the record’s suburban ennui in a low key and jovial manner.

Hobartian duo The Native Cats probably won the most new fans. Utilising bass, vocals and programming they mixed electronica and post punk, like Shellac cosying up to New Order, to great effect. There were two other electronic acts on the bill, the textural experimentation of Half High and the hypnotic dance music of Holy Balm who created the most celebratory vibe of the night. Rounding out the party were three quite different bands – Woollen Kits and their emotive jangle pop, the seminal feedtime who delivered the heaviest, most pummelling set and one that showed just why they are deemed so influential and finally the finest exponents of deconstructed rock music – New Zealand’s The Dead C. They took all the music that preceded them and sonically disintegrated it into absorbing experimental fragments. R.I.P Society deserved such a eclectic celebration of their diverse roster and all bands delivered appropriately fine and unique performances.

Chris Familton

this review was first published in The Music

LIVE REVIEW: Zola Jesus, Light Asylum, Forces @ Sydney Opera House Studio (31/05/12)

by C. Familton

Forces were up first in this evening that showcased the darker side of contemporary electronic music. The Melbourne duo made great use of the Opera House’s exceptional sound quality and seemed to win over a large portion of the audience with their industrial post punk electro set. They combine a bunch of sounds from the past, particularly the early 80s, yet it conjured up a dystopian futuristic mood of the kind that Cabaret Voltaire excelled at.

Light Asylum have a reputation for bringing intensity to their live shows, something that is often lacking with live electronic music. They did just that with Shannon Funchess proving to be a formidable front-person both in voice and presence. Unfortunately she wasn’t helped by her vocals being buried too low in the mix, a crime when her voice is their main weapon. She made up for it though, with a magnetic performance that saw her stalking the stage, wildly flailing limbs and drumsticks, getting in the faces of those in the front row and generally bringing an intensity that drew the audience into her music. Bruno Coviello was Funchess’ silent synth partner, happy to let her command the limelight while he maintained the intensity on highlights like Dark Allies and tracks from their new album like A Certain Person and IPC.

The impression that Light Asylum made was soon eclipsed by the brilliance of Zola Jesus and her trio of musicians. She was nothing short of a revelation both in terms of her visual presentation and the power and passion she conjured up with that voice. It was quite astonishing how someone so small in stature could project such a powerful sound. She traversed the scales from low brooding notes all the way up to exultant screams and near operatic wailing. At the same time she skipped around the stage and through the audience, threw her body into musically triggered convulsions and showed a real devotion and skill at performing her songs rather than just standing and singing them. Mainly playing tracks from her last two albums she gave us the percussive Vessel, the uplifting pop feel of Sea Talk and a magical take on Night that encapsulated her exceptional ability to create and sustain tension in her music. The serene visuals of slow moving white smoke and droplets of water completed what was a mesmerising performance from Zola Jesus.

 this review was first published in Drum Media

NEWS: 2012 Vivid LIVE Festival Program Announced…

This year the Sydney Opera House based festival Vivid LIVE has done away with a guest curator, in the past using Lou Reed & Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno and others. From 2012 onward the festival will be overseen by the Sydney Opera House’s programming team, led by Head of Contemporary Music, Fergus Linehan as Festival Director.

The full line-up for this year has been announced today and it feels like there is a decidedly contemporary if not futuristic angle to much of the music.

  • Karen O and KK Barrett’s Stop the Virgens
  • Florence+the Machine
  • The Temper Trap
  • Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, and Bryce Dessner
  • Janelle Monae and the Anchandroid Orchestra
  • Amon Tobin’s ISAM
  • Efterklang and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra
  • PVT
  • LCD Soundsystem’s Shut Up & Play The Hits (Australian Film Premiere)
  • My Brightest Diamond
  • Seekae
  • Nights Like This w/ Danny Brown and MED
  • Modular Night w/ Tom Vek, Jonathan Boulet, and Kindness
  • FBI/Penny Drop Party w/ Zola Jesus, Light Asylum, and Forces
  • Imogen Heap
  • Good God Danceteria!
  • Future Classic Party – line-up TBA

Vivid LIVE takes place at the Sydney Opera House 25th May – 3rd June 2012.

LIVE REVIEW: Legends of New Orleans @ Sydney Opera House, 28/09/11

written by Chris Familton

The Sydney Opera House is always a venue that delivers on quality sound and a comfortable environment for experiencing live music but sometimes the music that it hosts doesn’t quite connect with the surroundings. That was one of the concerns ahead of this triple headline show featuring New Orleans legends Jon Cleary, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the great Allen Toussaint. For the most part those concerns were allayed but there was a niggling suspicion that it would have been a much more celebratory and immersive experience if it had been at a smaller venue.

Jon Cleary opened the evening with his trio of piano, upright bass and drums and with his infectious manner and playful approach to blues, funk and jazz he set the upbeat tone for the rest of the night. He showed his versatility with covers of Professor Longhair and Jelly Roll Morton alongside more soulful 70s ballads that verged on easy listening – like the tribute to the missing folk of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The band were super tight but had a sense of fun too – playing with the dynamics of the songs just on the right side of showing off. The standout was When You Get Back that flowed effortlessly and rode that fine line between too smooth and gritty funk.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band took things to another level entirely with their set of Mardi Gras funk that was all about partying. It took a bit of coaxing but they managed to get the entire Opera House audience on their feet to clap and dance along. It was nice to see a crowd willing to get involved and cut loose from their comfortable seats, if only for a few songs. Numbering seven members, the core of the band have been playing together for 34 years and it showed with an almost telepathic sense of playing off each other, sharing solos and indulging in good natured humour. The sousaphone player Kirk Joseph in particular showed enormous endurance on the massive horn, filling the role of bass player and nailing the music to the floor. The band know that a solo can easily outstay its welcome so they kept things short and to the point most of the time, playing up to the Mardi Gras heritage with a rousing rendition of When The Saints and a brass cover of James Brown’s Super Bad that kept the crowd on their feet to the end.

Allen Toussaint was never going to match the celebratory vibe of the previous act but when you are a legend such as he is you don’t need to compete. He followed his band out in a resplendent sparkling, sequined suit with a grin a mile wide. Toussaint is an exquisite pianist, able to play fleeting runs up and down the keys with a lightness of hand before dropping hard hitting funk chords that are as brutally rhythmic as they are melodic. Choosing to mix a few slower tunes into his set meant that the fervor created by Dirty Dozen Brass Band dissipated somewhat and a small number of people with either low attention span or an urge to avoid another hour of parking charges  scuttled towards the exits. Toussaint played a brilliant medley of A Certain Girl, Mother In Law, Fortune Teller and Working in a Coalmine. It showed what a stellar songwriter he is, having penned numerous songs made famous by others. Case in point was Get Out of My Life Woman with Toussaint playing the best version of it that I’ve heard. Bass and guitar solos showed the brilliant playing abilities of his band but it was clear that Toussaint was the man that deserved all the plaudits both for this performance and his career. If there were any faults with the evening it was the us and them feel of the show and the running order of the acts. Dirty Dozen Brass Band would have provided a much stronger finale in terms of bringing the jazz, funk and soul to a heady climax.

this review first appeared on FasterLouder

LIVE REVIEW: Spiritualized @ Sydney Opera House (28/05/11)

written by Chris Familton

If ever a band is going to successfully transition from playing clubs and theatres to the iconic surrounds of the Sydney Opera House, Spiritualized would be high on the list. The music of Jason Pierce (J. Spaceman) is perfectly suited for a a seated audience who can sit back and soak up the epic wash and dark psych bruises that populate his songs. Though Spiritualized is head music it is also physical in the way it works its way under your skin through repetition and drone and has you swaying and nodding in sonic agreement.

Spiritualized were playing their iconic 1997 album Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space in full. Though full album concerts are commonplace these days, this particular record is ripe for live performance with its theme of a shattered relationship and the emotional turbulence of its aftermath. The overarching mood is one of someone struggling to come to terms with what has happened and live that perception was enhanced even more vividly.

With an impressive live setup that included close to 30 players we were treated to a gospel choir, horn and string sections and of course Spiritualized the band. The members looked rather low key, emotionally neutral and workmanlike in appearance but they were all well schooled in the music and their playing was well balanced between studious precision and free jazz wanderings.

Pierce presented as a thin, lanky figure dressed in white with sunglasses protecting himself from the lights and perhaps any direct contact with the audience. Seated side of stage he came across as part author, part conductor and both incidental and integral player. There was no communication with the audience save for a cursory thank you and returned applause at the conclusion of the show but it mattered little as the personal connection came via the songs and the exceptional playing and the venue’s quality of sound.

Ladies And Gentleman… consists of two types of songs; the slow and mournful pleading moments like Stay With Me, All Of My Thoughts and Broken Heart where it felt like the spotlight was more on Pierce and his aching paeans to lost love. Broken Heart in particular was dramatic with its swelling strings and laid bare lyrics like “I’m crying all the time” and “I’m wasted all the time, I’ve gotta drink you off my mind”. The near perfect sound mix in the theatre allowed for Pierce’s lyrics and voice to ring clear and loud while every other instrument (apart from the bass on a few occasions) sat in just the right place in the mix.

The flipside to the slow meandering songs was the rush and controlled chaos of songs like Electricity (the one song that felt a bit flat and without the oomph and crackle it needed), the deconstructive skronk of The Individual and the spy thriller drama via post rock clatter of No God, Only Religion. The peak of the show inevitably came with the album closer Cop Shoot Cop in all its epic glory. Its verses were like some late night Doors jam with bent notes and voodoo shadows. When the band hit their pedals for the amphetamine rush of the heavy passages it felt like the air in the room compressed, like a sugar rush at high altitude and it felt like it could have (and should have) kept going forever.

With a standing ovation Pierce and band left momentarily before returning with their one encore song – a wonderfully edgy take on Out Of Sight from Let It Come Down. The gospel choir was used to full effect, as were the horns and all the other instruments. Musically it felt like a perfect and uplifting footnote to a performance that exceeded expectations and delivered both sonically and emotionally at an iconic venue. You can’t ask for much more than that.

this review first appeared on FasterLouder

Setlist & video from The Cure’s 4 hour Opera House show…

Setlist: The Cure, ‘Reflections,’ Vivid Live Festival, Sydney Opera House, 5/31/11

1st Set: Three Imaginary Boys
1. “10:15 Saturday Night”
2. “Accuracy”
3. “Grinding Halt”
4. “Another Day”
5. “Object”
6. “Subway Song”
7. “Foxy Lady”
8. “Meathook”
9. “So What”
10. “Fire In Cairo”
11. “It’s Not You”
12. “Three Imaginary Boys”

2nd Set: Seventeen Seconds (w/ Roger O’Donnell)
13. “A Reflection”
14. “Play for Today”
15. “Secrets”
16. “In Your House”
17. “Forever”
18. “The Final Sound”
19. “A Forest”
20. “M”
21. “At Night”
22. “Seventeen Seconds”

3rd Set: Faith (w/ Lol Tolhurst and Roger O’Donnell)
23. “The Holy Hour”
24. “Primary”
25. “Other Voices”
26. “All Cats Are Grey”
27. “The Funeral Party”
28. “Doubt”
29. “The Drowning Man”
30. “Faith”

1st Encore:
31. “World War”
32. “I’m Cold”
33. “Plastic Passion”
34. “Boy’s Don’t Cry”
35. “Killing An Arab”
36. “Jumping Someone Else’s Train”
37. “Another Journey By Train”

2nd Encore:
38. “Descent”
39. “Splintered in Her Head”
40. “Charlotte Sometimes”
41. “The Hanging Garden”

3rd Encore:
42. “Let’s Go to Bed”
43. “The Walk”
44. “The Lovecats”