Vivid Sydney Day 3: Seekae, My Brightest Diamond, Janelle Monae
News posted Monday, May 28 2012 at 03:00 PM.
Related: Seekae, Vivid Sydned, My Brightest Diamond, Janelle Monae.
CAITLIN WELSH and JIM POE report on day three of Vivid Sydney, which saw Seekae's Opera House debut and back-to-back shows from My Brightest Diamond and Janelle Monae. Meanwhile, in the video below, US DJ Keebz talks about the music and loops for the interactive light display at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Photos by DANIEL BOUD (Janelle Monae) and PRUDENCE UPTON (My Brightest Diamond, Seekae).
JP: It’s Seekae’s first hometown gig in a while, and they’ve reportedly put together an extra-special show to match the up-market Opera Theatre setting. Joined onstage by an eight-piece string ensemble, I wonder whether we’ll be seeing them in their proper element, or whether the occasion will overwhelm their music. But this is what a festival’s all about – taking risks, experimenting in public, making weird connections and seeking elusive magic
Not that Seekae play it safe anyway. They offer a plethora of different takes on contemporary electronica, sometimes venturing into dark, glitchy, abstract territory reminiscent of Casino Versus Japan, and then back out again with bright little jewels of burnished, shimmering electro-pop à la Dntel or Caribou, with energetic bursts of Four Tet-like brilliance to tie it together. There’s a welcome live feel to the proceedings, especially with the dynamic drumming, and the string ensemble add an impressive dimension.
The “uptown” setting at first seems to inhibit the audience, mostly 20-somethings who wouldn’t ordinarily don’t find themselves in the Opera House on a Sunday night. They’re unable to get up and dance, of course, but they’re also a bit shy about making lots of noise. However, as the night goes on, it’s clear the trappings of the theatre have lent a special vibe to the gig. Tonight all attention is focused on the music, which envelopes the room completely. It’s like sitting in a comfy place with friends and listening to an entire album on some really awesome speakers.
That clarity is both good and bad – it reveals the flaws in the music as well as its strengths. Seekae’s songs sometimes feel incomplete or half-formed – lots going on, lots of ideas, but lacking the killer hooks and transcendence that characterise their influences like Boards of Canada or Gold Panda. And the show feels a bit cerebral at times, especially in the polite setting and with the string players; like a really ambitious music student’s thesis performance, except the booze isn’t free.
About halfway through the show, the string players abruptly get up and leave, but having the stage to themselves loosens the band up a bit – as if they were trying a bit too hard with the traditional instruments looming behind them. Two terrific new numbers feature delicate vocals and haunting synth lines, coming across with a bit of the soul and mystery of James Blake. Vocals are new to the Seekae game, but it was an impressive addition anyway. As things wind down, the show picks up with favourites from 2008 debut *The Sound of Trees Falling on People and last year’s +Dome.
My Brightest Diamond
CW: One of the best things about having Vivid at the Opera House is how theatrical the whole experience is. And it’s not just the performances themselves – although being in that building seems to make every act think they have to bring an orchestra (or at least a horn section). There’s a significant difference in atmosphere between standing around with a beer through an OK local band at the Metro, and filing into your assigned seat to watch a single, self-contained performance here.
It gives a certain atmosphere to certain shows – instead of just “seeing a band” you are in a tiny theatre, or a coffeehouse, or Vegas. It puts up a fourth wall that the performer can choose to break or not. It also enhances the effect of “extras” such as costumes and props.
Shara Worden, who performs and records as My Brightest Diamond, tip-toes onstage after her band with a Pixar-esque mass of orange helium balloons in her hand (delightful!) and a decidedly unnerving, moon-faced mask on (creepy!). Her feet and her band are black-clad – everything else is pink, yellow, blue or orange. Her dress is a mass of various bobbles and felt, her cheeks pink, her amp orange, her hair done up in neat asymmetrical rolls and neon pompoms.
But for all the weirdness (the mask returns, there’s some business with black sheets I don’t grasp the point of), Worden is so funny and charming that the show’s art-school strangeness can be glossed over. It even takes on a different resonance. Her songs are raw little stories of family, pain and faith, ranging in sound from the cartoonish and jazzy to sparse, experimental arrangements and simple lullabies. Even when she sings wrenching lines lik, “Shara, this is going to hurt/Be brave, dear one”, she does it with joy.
Worden’s also incredibly funny. She uses odd voices to tell a story about Laurie Anderson giving her song ideas; gleefully kicks balloons into the audience; and makes up a slinky funk ditty about tuning her guitar. Her voice, too, is stunning: a full-bodied instrument capable of careful melisma, sultry whispers, operatic flights.
Exiting on a reverbed, surprisingly garage-y ‘Tainted Love’ (forgoing her signature cover, ‘Feeling Good’), she performs just one song for the encore – a devastating, hopeful lullaby addressing her child and her own mortality. The overwhelming feeling is of a sweet, sad clown, using bright colours to illustrate and cushion hard truths.
CW: Janelle Monae was supposed to make her Australian debut at Good Vibrations a few years ago, but having now seen her stage show in all its overblown glory, it’s hard to imagine how it would have translated to a festival stage at five in the afternoon. It’s intended to be an immersive experience, soaked in the mythology of the ArchAndroid persona that drives all her music, but also in African-American culture, Hollywood, pop music and the places where they intertwine. (The program encourages audiences to wander the venue imitating Stevie Wonder and John Williams, and warns them that not only may “leaveweave” and “electrobutt” result from “jamming too hard”, children conceived within 48 hours of the show will be born with wings. The performers, of course, take no responsibility for such consequences.)
The show begins with a melded triptych of the cinematic ‘Suite II Overture’ and the rapidfire funk of ‘Dance or Die’ and ‘Faster’. Monae is, predictably, revealed halfway through ‘Dance’ to be one of three hooded figures at the top of the centre-stage staircase (nobody else on that stage is five foot nothing in spats). But when she ditches the hood to tap down the staircase, all eyes and flashing smile, her hair rolled forward into that enormous trademark quiff, it’s still exciting.
She’s created a unique iconography about herself, down to the band’s monochrome suits, and is committed completely to providing an all-encompassing live pop experience, the same way idols like Michael Jackson and Prince made their names. It does feel like a concert in a future or alternative world where these songs are already classics, and that’s part of the charm. But it can also make it feel odd, disconcerting, as if you’re at the wrong party.
The numbers that work best are ones that play on familiarity or sheer energy or both. ‘Smile’ is a warm, approachable ballad that showcases her classic soul phrasing. Epic closer ‘Come Alive’ rides a nervy bassline halfway between Cab Calloway and the Violent Femmes for close to 15 minutes as Monae spasms on the floor like Little Richard and rubberises her knees and voice like Elvis. While the one-two punch of ‘Cold War’ and ‘Tightrope’ (the latter fanfared by white-confetti cannons) have the manic energy of a finale, when they’re only the end of the first half.
A couple of savvy covers lift the energy and highlight her influences even more: a faithful version of the Jackson Five’s ‘I Want You Back’ and a double-barrelled Bond interlude of ‘You Only Live Twice’ and ‘Goldfinger’. How many pop singers can nail both the womanly gusto of Shirley Bassey and the chirpy effervescence of 12-year-old Michael Jackson? And for that matter, how many sing live while painting in a cape, or using a Cyclops-style visor to fight hooded figures in Commedia masks? It’s not perfect and it’s not even all hers, but the scope and cohesion of her vision and aesthetic are incredible, and unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year. Next time she’s here, it should be in a stadium, and she should emerge onstage from a huge gilded figure of her own head. (It’s a shame she had to kill the vibe by ending with a cover of the most inane #1 in recent memory, Fun’s ‘We Are Young’, which is even boring when she sings it. It would be nice to see her get to the top of the charts on her own merits asap.)
I wonder how many people saw both Monae and My Brightest Diamond, and pondered the contrasts between the former’s era-hopping monochrome showiness and the latter’s homespun, art-school/pre-school neons; between the former’s confetti cannons and the latter’s fake snow flung from a hard hat. Both subvert the performance of femininity: Monae by appropriating the classic male performer’s uniform (the tuxedo); and Worden by making everything from her hair to her boots and pom-pom-covered dress a little off-kilter, like a child allowed to dress herself. They create themselves as deconstructed archetypes, making audiences both recognise these characters and question them.