Sydney Festival: Osaka Monaurail at Town Hall

Last night was another music event for this year’s Sydney Festival. Like last weekend’s Kashmere Stage Band show this one was all about funk and was held at the great performance space in Sydney’s Town Hall.

The first act was Saskwatch. They’re from Melbourne, and are a nine-piece funk and soul band. I’d heard them on the radio and they sounded OK; live they were a whole other deal. They laid down some pretty good grooves. But the absolute star of this band is singer Nkechi Anele. Oh. My. God. She was passionate and powerful. Her voice was so strong, her soul sound so intense. And she moved and danced like no performer I’ve ever seen. She was a non-stop dervish of hip-shaking sexiness. Her moves punctuated her singing which punctuated the band’s songs. Saskwatch are amazing. Watch and listen.


Then were the headliners: Osaka Monaurail. They’re a Japanese funk band, and they live and breathe it. Lead singer Ryo Nakata has run this band for 20 years, with a rotating cast of musicians, but this one – like all of them – becomes a full-on ’70s-era funk machine. If you closed your eyes you would be entirely forgiven for thinking you were at an early James Brown show. Nakata grunts and yells; the horn players spin their trumpets on their fingers like pistols; the guitar players come up for solos. They were seriously tight. And when Nakata was in full flow he could shimmy, sing, bounce his mic stand, and do the splits in his dapper suit right on cue.

We got a surprise visit from UK-born, Melbourne-based Shirley Davis, with whom Osaka Monaurail made a single. She was a burst of vocal energy and jazz into the proceedings, a nice change of pace.

The one down side of this set was that Nakata’s in-between-songs shtick, storytelling, and joking with the horn section would sometimes go on uncomfortably long. This did make a few crowd members restless. But when the band kicked back in they killed it, with a fun, genuine, soulful set.

Sydney Festival: Summer Sounds in the Domain – Sing the Truth with Angélique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright

Last night was our first event for Sydney Festival 2013. It was one of the free weekend concerts they stage in downtown park The Domain. It’s always a great excuse to pack a picnic and stake a grassy spot with friends while hearing some great tunes. That’s just what we did.

It was busy by the time we arrived in the early evening and we had to get our earlier-arrived friends to come get us to get in an area reasonably close to the front. I’m always pleased to see so many people come out and take advantage of these free music shows.

The opening accompaniment to our sausage and cheese and wine was Sydney group Slowpoke Rodriguez. They played very mellow, groovy jazz. It was good background music.

The main event were three performers who could each do a fantastic show on their own: Angélique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright. These ladies met on the jazz/R&B/soul/world music circuits and found they really enjoyed performing together. So last night we got all three.


And they were great. They sang songs that influenced them, including many soul and R&B classic, Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”, Bob Dylan’s “Gotta serve Somebody”  and a few of their own. They were soulful, enthusiastic, and charming. Their voices covered the whole range. Some songs were done solo, some as duets, some with all three.

It was perfect music for a gorgeous Saturday night in the park with a few thousand other festival fans. And it was a great start to the festival.

Sydney Festival: 41 Strings

Last night was another Sydney Festival event: 41 Strings, an orchestral piece by Nick Zinner, guitarist of the rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs, based on Vivaldi’sFour Seasons. I know that’s a lot of cultural references to take in at once, but bear with me.

It was at the Opera House. It started with a drum piece, IIII, created by some of the drummers that also perform with Zinner. It’s also based on Four Seasons. There were a couple of dozen percussionists and two synth players, all arranged in the round. And my god, it was a thundering, impressive bit of playing. The rhythms weren’t super complicated – I imagine that would be hard with such an ensemble – but they were mesmerising. There was a lot of heavy crunch from the synths, of the sort that the Brooklyn bands have been producing in the last couple of years. It was cool and heavy and jubilant and compelling. I loved it.

Then came Zinner, his 40 other stringed accompanists (including a large contingent from the Australia Youth Orchestra) and a few drums. The four pieces were a blend of classic and contemporary – the lead guitar unmistakable Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound – and none were dull. In reflection perhaps it could have had more slow, quiet pieces. But it was certainly a big, lush sound, and one that was easy to engage with.

I liked both pieces, but I think that IIII affected me more. There’s something about that many drums, that much booming rhythm, that affects me primally.

Neither work instrumental work overstays its welcome; the whole show was over in 90 minutes, including an intermission. But that worked for me. Any longer would have devolved into stuffiness.

Sydney Festival: Band of Gypsies

Last night was a hyper-joyful night of Sydney Festival folk music at the Enmore Theatre.

The first act – which I did not know about – was of a style called Shangaan Electro, hyper-fast electro dance from South Africa. The group of four dancers and singers, and one DJ, carried on the most hyperkinetic dancing I’ve ever seen for a solid 30 minutes. It was dizzying and tiring to watch. The dancers moved with such joy you couldn’t look away; it also helped that the men wore orange jumpsuits with ridiculously fake beer bellies. The beats flew at breakneck speed. It became almost psychedelic.

The main acts, collectively named Band of Gypsies, were comprised of Romanian folk troupe Taraf de Haïdouks and Macedonian brass band Kočani orkestar. They played song after song of gypsy music: wild violins, three accordions, tubas, clarinets, and lots more. It was a Balkan/middle eastern/Slavic/Latin amalgam of high-energy Romani epics. Bows were flying, fingers were snapping, trumpets were blaring. Everyone took their solos, and a few would occasionally sing. It was irrepressibly jubilant. It was the gypsy spirit.

It’s hard for me to imagine seeing either of these sort of acts here at any other time. Way to go, Sydney Festival.

Sydney Festival: Asa and Féfé

Last night was my third Sydney Festival event. It was a gig, part of the festival’s So Frenchy, So Chic series, and took place at the Keystone Bar at Hyde Park Barracks. I like that as a festival venue: it’s downtown and feels busy, and has a good mix of semi-indoor (in the tent) and outdoor areas that flow very well.

First was Asa, whose gentle, jazzy set was pretty average for the first few songs. But the groove and impact picked up as she went on. Her soulful songs – part R&B, part rock – became catchier and punchier. And she’s irresistibly likeable herself: she dances, she plays the trumpet, she chats with the front row, and she looks like a funky librarian.

Soon followed Féfé. He and his band were fun from the start. They play hip-hop with lots of pop and funk. And he will not leave the crowd alone: the (moderately obliging) assembled listeners had to do our fair share of hand waving, clapping, jumping, singing, running left and right, and screaming. That almost all of the songs were in French was fine. Between Féfé and his DJ there was lots of energy going on, and the point was clear: have fun.

Sydney Festival: Los Lobos in the Domain

Every Saturday night during Sydney Festival there’s a free concert in the Domain. Last week was Emmylou Harris, whom I didn’t go see because I already had tickets to see her elsewhere.

Last night was Los Lobos. In fact it was a whole evening of Mexican music, and we got there to camp out at about 5:30pm. Several friends came to join us during the night; it’s a great weekend fun vibe at these shows. Los Lobos started gently, playing several acoustic folk songs. But they soon started rocking out, as those of us who know them for more than their “La Bamba” cover expected. By the end several thousand people were all dancing under the starry Sydney sky.

This is just what Sydney Festival is all about, for me. Sydney coming together, all at once, to enjoy the arts.

Los Lobos in The Domain. Photo from gematrium via Creative Commons license

Sydney Festival: Rogue’s Gallery LIVE

Last night was our last Sydney Festival 2010 event. It was Rogue’s Gallery, a live performance of many of the songs recorded for a 2006 album of the same name. We heard sea shanties and pirate ballads, sweet and bawdy. It was an unusual event, that’s for sure.

It was held outside, in front of the Opera House. This would normally be a good location, as the performers and audience could all see the harbour and the boats to-ing and fro-ing. Last night, however, it pissed down rain for about an hour just before and during the performance. Despite some flimsy rain gear we got fairly wet. We spun that as optimistically as we could, saying that it promoted the idea of a life at sea.

The performers were a motley crew: Marianne Faithful, Todd Rundgren, Peter Garrett, Tim Robbins (huh?), Sarah Blasko, Baby Gramps, Peaches, Liam Finn and others. Few sang sweetly; there was much more rough-and-ready growling. Some of the songs worked brilliantly, some were fun, some were downright weird. A couple were so raunchy – to be expected from sailors’ working songs, I guess – that the performers asked for forgiveness beforehand.

It was two and a half hours of reworked maritime singalong history, and an obvious labour of love for those involved. It wasn’t smooth. Much of it was cheesy. Some was too bizarre to enjoy. But it was fun and varied and completely unique. Those last two things are key to the Sydney Festival being a showcase for all sorts of interesting art, and so bravo.

Photo from Diamond Geyser via Creative Commons license

The Decemberists at the Sydney Festival

Another Sydney Festival event last night, this time time at the Beck’s Festival Bar, a big tented area at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum. It was a nice open feel (and it helped that it was a fine night), though as a venue it was a bit on the long and narrow side. And you can’t get good rock sound in a semi-open tent, but the Sydney summer vibe counts for a lot.

I only caught the last two songs of local openers Bridezilla. I can’t say that I was fond of their jazz-fusiony ruckus, but I didn’t get to give it a proper chance.

The main act was Oregon folk-rawkers (though I think they often play something more like folk-prog) The Decemberists. The indie college-kid faves have never been to Australia before this tour, so plaid shirts and thick-framed glasses were notable by their crowd presence. The band wisely didn’t try to break through the crowd’s cooler-than-thou shell right from the start: they slid into a suite of storybook tunes, one after another, for the first few songs, as if warning us that this was going to be difficult.

I like this stuff, by the way, and would love to hear The Hazards of Loveplayed complete and in order.

The Decemberists

Photo from Anirudh Koul via Creative Commons license

Later, though, frontman Colin Meloy started engaging the crowd more. Everyone – even many cynical twentysomethings – loves a singalong, and arms went up and voices were raised. There were fewer key changes, more hand-clapping fun, and the capacity crowd had a good time. It was a good journey, in fact: some obscure tracks, some crowd-pleasers, and everyone goes home happy. As long as The Decemberists continue to make music that’s both catchy and clever, there’s no reason why crowds shouldn’t continue to walk out with a smile.

In the interest of openness: I was a guest of Decemberists bassist Nate Query for this show. That hasn’t coloured my view of the show. I haven’t even mentioned Nate’s phenomenal playing, nor that woman he saved from choking.

Now, how does The Crane Wife start agai…waitaminnit, THAT WOMAN CAN’T BREATHE! OUTTA MY WAY!

Photo from joshc via Creative Commons license

Neko Case at the City Recital Hall

At the first of several ticketed events I’m attending for the Sydney Festival, last night I caught American songstress Neko Case at Sydney’s City Recital Hall.

It was my second time seeing Neko, and she and her band delivered much the same level of show as last time: a meditation on gentle humour, clear-voiced melodies, country roots musicianship, and poignant songwriting. She seemed plagued by a dodgy amp and an acoustically unresponsive Hall, but it still felt like a friend had come over to your house just to play a few of her (awesome) tunes. No shocks, and only a couple of boosts of adrenaline; last night was all about songcraft.

It’s also easy to see why Case is so often mistaken for a Canadian (she’s from Virginia). Not only does she frequently collaborate with Canuck band The New Pornographers, but her drummer and guitarist are both from the Great White North. She also had an EP called Canadian Amp (which contained covers of Canadian artists). One of the songs they played was  tune they co-wrote withThe Sadies, and one of their covers was by Sook-Yin Lee (“Knock Loud”, which was on Canadian Amp).

Neko plays the City Recital Hall again tonight (Tuesday 12-Jan-10).

Neko Case photo from Chad Wadsworth via Creative Commons license