Spiritualized: Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space at the Vivid Sydney festival

Vivid Sydney is this city’s annual festival of “light, music and ideas”. I can agree with the first two, at least, as I was down at the Opera House last night. There are coloured, moving projections of light all around Circular Quay. Lit installations and warm glows are everywhere you look down there at the moment. It’s very pretty, very cool.

Inside an Opera House covered in huge, moving patterns of luminescence, though, was the music I’d come to see: Spiritualized. The UK cosmic-rock act led by J Spaceman is one of my favourite bands anyway, so I’d have gone to see them (for the fourth time) in any case. But last night – and repeated again tonight – they were playing the entirety of their perfect 1997 album,Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space.

Not only was there a six-piece rock band that took the stage, there was also a 9-person choir and a substantial orchestra behind. If you know Ladies And Gentlemen… you know those are essential to reproducing it live.

The Spaceman was in sitting-down mode tonight. I was in the third row, right next to him. God, he’s thin and pale. His ever-present sunglasses kept him from us. Not that he looked out into the audience anyway: he always faces across the stage when he sits like that. He looked weak and shaky, a vulnerable man in a white T-shirt, separate from the black-garbed band, almost like he’d rather slip back with the ivory-robed choir.

With no prelude, the album began. If you know Spiritualized, you know their drug-hymns, their space-rock noise-dirges to love. This album is a perfect combination of sounds about love, in fact: love that makes you weak, and drugs that you love that make you weak, all wrapped up in the sounds of gospel and choirs, but that eventually must descend into sonic chaos. On this album, Spiritualized were Punk Floyd.

The reproduction on-stage was perfect. There’s zero antics. Apart from frequent strobing lights, it was all sonic waves, song after song of loss, crashing over us. J’s voice was as plaintive and mournful as on the albums. Every throbbing bass note, muted trumpet blare, choir keen, and guitar scream was delivered as it is when you’re listening to Ladies And Gentlemen… on your own, in the dark of your bedroom, with headphones.

“Come Together”, “I Think I’m In Love”, and “Cop Shoot Cop” (all seventeen minutes of it) were amazing highlights. J got up to say thanks at the end, as did the assembled Opera House. They came back for just one more, Let It Come Down‘s “Out Of Sight”, which was equally powerful. I’m glad they didn’t overdo it, and – apart from that one encore song – let the album stand on its own.

I’ve seen many of these songs performed before. But seeing them all performed together, in order, in the dying format that is the album, was pretty powerful. Pretty vivid.

The Man In Black: The Johnny Cash Story at the Sydney Opera House

The Johnny Cash biopic of a few years ago, I Walk The Line, showed that there’s great appetite for the man, his music, and his story. The Man In Black, which is finishing a run of several weeks at the Opera House and has played elsewhere in Australia, tells the same story in a live show. I saw it with a number of friends last night.

It was not a play, nor a musical. The performers read through some text about Cash’s life, from boyhood to death, and then launched into songs. They weren’t in character except when they sang, so it wasn’t cheesy. It was a two-hour show, with intermission, and they covered a lot of songs.

Johnny was played by Tex Perkins, who’s been a frontman of a few bands here, including the Beasts of Bourbon and The Cruel Sea. His rich, deep baritone – or, at least, his ability to sing in one – makes him sound just right when he does Cash’s songs. But he hasn’t stopped there; he wears black, strides the stage, approaches the mic, and wears his guitar high and to the side, just like Johnny. His backing band, The Tennessee Four, were able to lay down that rolling train sound, and also to rock it up a bit. Rachael Tidd did the June Carter bits, and told much of the story as well.

It was a light-hearted celebration, but they were very respectful of the music. The songs sounded note-perfect to me. They played a lot of less-famous songs; I laughed out loud (yes, I lol’d) to hear “Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog”. I shivered when they did an excellent version of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” But the better-known songs were spot-on too: “Ring Of Fire”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Walk The Line”, and so on. They also did several of Johnny’s cover songs: T.J. Arnall’s “Cocaine Blues”, Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire”, and Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”.

It was a great singalong, a warm basking in music that – as Perkins said last night – feels like it’s always been there.