Vivid Sydney: Sounds of the South at the Sydney Opera House

Alan Lomax was a folklorist and collector of American field recordings. Any student of US roots music will know his name: the music and stories he collected in the ’40s and ’50s for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress was a driving force for the popularity of blues and folk music in the ’60s.

A collective of musicians from America (and one from Canada) played two concerts on the weekend as part of the Vivid festival that paid homage to the music that Lomax uncovered for us. That show was called Sounds of the South, and I caught the Sunday afternoon show.

The collective included Megafaun, Matthew E. White, jazz group Fight the Big Bull, Bon Iver frontman and founder Justin Vernon, and former Be Good Tanyas member Frazey Ford.

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The assembled 13 musicians played a set of songs inspired by the Alan Lomax recordings. Almost none were straight covers; they were, instead, rocked-up, jazzed-up, or psyched-up. Almost all worked really well, resulting in blues-, gospel-, or folk-based tunes that showed how these themes have influenced modern music. They were exciting. There were multi-part harmonies. There were tales of sadness, and sung prayers of joy.

The middle section didn’t work for me. It got a little too free-form and discordant. I was constantly reminded of Spinal Tap’s jazz odyssey.

But most of it was really good. Vernon and Ford’s singing were highlights, as were all three brass players in Fight the Big Bull. They (mostly) found a great balance of homage and reinterpretation. And they encored with The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”.

It was the sort of rare event that keeps me coming back to Vivid.

Here’s an excellent video of one of the songs – performed a few years ago – that was one of the highlights the other night; Vernon singing Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “When You Get Home Please Write Me A Few of Your Lines”. It starts as a near-acoustic cover, then morphs into a jazz-rock groove.

Vivid Sydney: Kraftwerk The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 at the Sydney Opera House

Vivid Sydney is one of my favourite annual events in this city: a festival of music, lights, and ideas just as autumn turns into winter.

My first event this year was seeing electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk live. Their performance is called The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. In it they play two shows a night for four nights, with each performance focusing on playing live the entirety of one of their most influential albums (Autobahn (1974), Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man-Machine (1978),Computer World (1981), Techno Pop (1986), The Mix (1991) and Tour de France (2003)) followed by whatever hits are left over. They’ve done this in recent years in Germany, the USA and the UK, and now it’s Australia’s turn. Demand was so high people had to enter a lottery just to be able to get thechance to buy tickets.

A mate and I put in for two different nights, and I was lucky enough to get one. With my four ticket limit purchased, we saw them play Radio-Activity on Friday night, the second show on the first night.

Heineken at the 2008 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival - Day 2

Wow. It was far more engaging and interesting than you’d expect four middle-aged German guys standing behind podiums playing minimal electro could be.

Kraftwerk are called seminal for good reason. They practically introduced electronica to the public, or at least were certainly the first to make it popular. Despite it being minimal, repetitive, and half in German, it was fascinating. They always focused on themes, especially the way that technology is changing our lives, so there’s meaning there to grab hold of. And they created all the necessary pop elements with their device sounds, transforming machine noise to songs. Watching them play live was very much like watchingBlack Sabbath or The Stooges recently: I was awestruck to witness the artists who invented a musical form.

The songs were so cool, and sounded great in a theatre specially wired for 5.1 surround sound. Crisp audio precision and lush synth sounds filled the room, immersing us in the techno world of these visionaries. You could hear echoes of all the electronic music that’s been made ever since.

What made it extra-exciting was that the music was accompanied by a full-on big-screen 3D video presentation behind the band. Every song contained visual elements bursting out at the audience, as we wore Kraftwerk-logoed cardboard bi-colour glasses. Cars and spaceships and computers all whizzed around our heads. What a treat.

They first played all the tracks from Radio-Activity, an exploration of broadcast communications as it was in the mid-’70s. This album really got them going down the electro-robot music path, and I find it one of their darker and moody ones. It was excellent.

Then they rolled out just about every hit the assembled crowd could have asked for from across the rest of the albums that they’d play in their entirety on other nights, plus a few others. We got “Autobahn”, of course, plus “Trans-Europe Express”, “Spacelab”, “The Model”, “The Man Machine”, “Computer World”, “Numbers”,  “Musique Non-Stop”, and “Tour de France”.

But nothing surpassed the cold machine funk of “The Robots”. It was a super groove, electronic blip elements that you recognise immediately from having been sampled so much, and freaky 3D visuals. Listening to the track alone just isn’t the same, but here it is.

Kraftwerk themselves barely moved, and only really showed their humanity – a few words, bows, and smiles – at the end. But that’s all we wanted from them. These guys are true artists. I’m so glad that they’re still able to package an amazing and inventive performance.

Kraftwerk – The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 for Vivid Sydney

Following sell-out performances in New York, Düsseldorf and London, electro-pop music pioneers Kraftwerk are bringing their eight-album cycle of shows to the Vivid Sydney festival.

They had a random ballot to allocate tickets and I’ve been successful for the show I put in for. A few mates and I are therefore going to see the live performance and 3-D show of their Radio-Activity album on May-24. If one of them is also lucky we may be catching The Man-Machine as well.

This is very cool.

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Vivid Sydney: The Temper Trap at the Sydney Opera House

My second Vivid Sydney gig was last night, back at the Opera House.

The first act was a bloke called Chet Faker and his band. Chet plays gentle, groovy indie. It’s sort of like nu-trip-hop, delivered with breathy, raspy, soft vocals. Chet is, it seems, blowing up. It wasn’t the sort of thing to get you amped up, but it was pleasant enough. The highlight for me was definitely their cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity”.

The main act was one of the biggest Australian breakouts of the last few years, The Temper Trap, in their first of two Opera House nights for Vivid. “Sweet Disposition”, from first album Conditions, was a pretty bit hit in several parts of the world, and was used all over movies and TV. I liked Conditions a great deal, and with their second, eponymous album out soon, it seemed like a perfect show to go to.

It was pretty good. Mostly.

The Temper Trap

Look, if you’ve heard “Sweet Disposition”, which is likely, you’ve heard everything that’s fantastic about The Temper Trap: the joyous guitars, the upbeat rhythms, and Dougy Mandagi’s soul-lifting falsetto. But they’re a one-trick pony. It’s a very good trick, make no mistake. Listening to their first album at home is a great experience because if it starts sounding a bit familiar it slips into background music. But at a live show you want more than a one-trick pony.

I detect a little change in the new album’s songs, but it’s still quite similar. Each song heard on its own makes you think WOW THIS IS FANTASTIC. And it is. But each one’s a little too much like the last fantastic song you heard from them. Mandagi has just one wonderful, thrilling, uplifting mood when he sings. The Temper Trap is like Coldplay, but good.

One other quibble: the light show was big time overkill. There were lots, very bright, pure white, right behind the band, blasting right into our eyes. I love a good light show so I’m not being a fuddy-duddy here. Last night was distracting, annoying, painful, interruptive, and way too much.

I think that I was probably very spoiled by seeing the phenomenal Janelle Monae in the same hall a few days ago. That show was full of dynamics and showmanship.

I’ll continue to play The Temper Trap a lot at home. And I’d welcome them at a festival slot where I got just a handful of wonderful songs. But seeing them play such similar tunes song after song starts to have a numbing effect, which is unfortunate. I look forward to hearing their sound diversify further.

Check out a couple of the new songs from The Temper Trap below.

The Cure, live at Sydney Opera House

I was never a goth.

I was also never a big fan of The Cure. Sure, I thought they were okay, but I never owned any of their albums until just last year. Too many of their tunes were simply gloomy, rather than moving, to me.

But I came to appreciate their good stuff recently. By “good stuff” I do not, obviously, mean “Love Cats”. God, I hate that song.

Tonight I saw the second Reflections show by The Cure. These are two-nights only performances of the band’s first three albums, with original band members, performed at the Opera House as part of the Sydney Vivid Festival.

I don’t know if the people at the show have, like me, never been goths, but surprisingly few of them belonged to that grim culture now.

The show was four hours of The Cure. There was no opener, but there were two brief intermissions. That meant a lot of music. We got the full rock show, lights and smoke and big bass stances and Robert Smith sounding as good as he ever has on record.

First were the albums. Three Imaginary Boys was the first. I thought it was the best set of the night. These songs were so poppy, so exuberant. And the band can now deliver them with such skill and power. It all really worked for me, especially “Grinding Halt” and “Fire In Cairo”. We even got final, short, instrumental blues track “The Weedy Burton” which Smith said was an omission from the first night.

Second (proper) album Seventeen Seconds sounded good, and the crowd loved “A Forest”, of course. But the gloomy Cure sound was still developing when they wrote and recorded these tracks. To me that made them a less interesting listen, as a complete album. Like I said above, I never contemplated suicide by eyeliner while listening to this album while young.

Third album Faith was, surprisingly to me, even worse. I really like this album, but live, played all in a row, the tunes were all just too same-y. Too little variation in the depressing shades of grey from song to song.

During the encores, though, things really kicked in for me again. The first ramped the energy back up immediately, with some early B-sides, “Boys Don’t Cry”, and “Killing An Arab”.

The second encore kept things intense, with “The Hanging Garden” a highlight.

And then we got a third encore, still powerful and energetic, with “Let’s Go To Bed”, “The Walk”…

…and fucking “Love Cats”. Oh well.

Although the middle bits were just alright, the start and finish of the show were immense. It was a real event, too, and something I’m glad that I saw.

Two final notes about the people that were on either side of me:
1. To the guy on my right: you really should have checked the scalped ticket you bought off the guy out front more closely. He was obviously an asshole: seeing the first night’s show and then selling you the used ticket for the second night. You’re lucky the ushers didn’t notice the date, as you hadn’t, and let you in. You’re also lucky there was space to hide at the back, as it was a sold-out show. Still, I’m glad you got to see the show, as you were obviously a big fan.
2. To the women on my left: why would you come to a gig just to have a four-hour conversation? Your insanely loud and brainless chatter spoiled the show until I and the guy in front told you to shut up. Three times. I hope the rock gig didn’t ruin your chance to gossip. Idiots. Desperate Cure fans missed out on that show because you bought tickets. Well done.

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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.