Report: Melbourne Festival 2011
This year’s Melbourne Festival was an excellent showcase of eclectic artists from around the world. The only thing lacking: Melburnians. EDWARD SHARP-PAUL reports.
The Melbourne Festival. Not underground film, not independent film, not comedy, fringe, writers, just an all-encompassing festival of Melbourne. Sans Melburnians, obviously. While understandably erring on the side of international prestige, it was still disappointing to see so few locals sneak onto bills, except as support acts.
This is a music site, so we’ll try to keep the musical side of the festival program, but first an honorable mention must go to the giant demon babies that colonised the CBD’s lower half. The six metre sculptures courtesy of Russian art collective AES+F, provided perhaps the biggest “holy shit” moment of the program. What’s more, they were seen by hundreds of thousands of people over the festival’s duration; a feat, quite naturally, unmatched by the festival’s other events. Anyway, the music.
Curators of the music program – Tom Supple and Hannah Fox aka Supple Fox – have stuck to the theme of eclecticism that characterised last year’s show, again at the expense of some bigger names. Eclectic, of course, means bands from all over America, and a couple of “world music” acts for balance. Oh, and a woman from New Zealand. Also like last year, the festival opened at the Forum with a cult Japanese band, performing with extra players.
And so we come to Mono. If there’s a better way to kick off a cultural festival than with Japanese post-rock, I’m yet to hear of it. Melbourne’s Wintercoats played an excellent, if ill-fated set to open up proceedings. Lovely though it was, James Wallace looked very alone in the vastness of The Forum, and no amount of looped violin was able to fill up the venue. Having said that, his hypnotic miniatures made for an ideal overture for the main event.
Accompanied by the 23-piece Holy Ground Orchestra, Mono eased into ‘Ashes in the Snow’ from 2009’s Hymn To The Immortal Wind, by way of opening. It was exactly what one would expect; a gently picked guitar melody, a slow, stately chord progression, building to a crashing, screaming crescendo, all feedback and catharsis, then down again. It was oh-so predictable, and yet it was stunning.
Just to be clear: post-rock is daggy. It’s faceless and sexless, it’s static, and formulaic. However, Mono are very good at it. They use every trick in the book - well, control, musicianship, and sheer volume - to elicit an emotional, cathartic response. This allows them to reach a point of connection beyond dagginess and coolness. You might see it coming, but it’ll hit you anyway.
The Holy Ground Orchestra played their part, too. Rather than serving as billowing, saccharine window dressing, they were given a chance to engage with the compositions, altering them with their interventions. Their added complexity carried the set through its slower, piano-driven moments, which – though necessary – did reveal Mono’s compositional weaknesses. When the band played to their strengths though, as on the oceanic ‘Halcyon (Beautiful Days)’ - how about these titles? - their combined power was formidable.
The same venue, similarly groovy crowd, one night later. This time it was the dense electronic experiments of Brooklyn’s Black Dice luring the patrons, with San Franciscan art-droners Lucky Dragons in tow. Lucky Dragons were as good or as bad as the audience wanted. Not exactly a confrontational band, they set up their dandelion backdrop and their ultraviolet light bath, and proceeded to unfurl their gentle improvisations. If one chose to engage with their slow-burning drones and twinkles, the rewards were there. Sadly, the performance was so passive, so unassuming, that they drifted by, largely unnoticed by the sparse crowd.
Black Dice emerged, clad in white T-shirts and partially stained by the molten-VHS projections that looped throughout their set. As they launched into their set, the performance resembled a strange pantomime; the heads-down knob-rocking of the players seemed unrelated to the soupy, glitchy beats that emanated from the PA. Sonically, they created a heady mix, but one lacking for dynamics and variation, and with a strangely weak beat underpinning everything.
Like Animal Collective at the same venue two years ago, the sense was of a musical form that gained an unexpected cultural currency, growing beyond the context of its birth, and looking a little lost. Black Dice do basement k-hole rave music, and it just didn’t quite translate to the Forum; Just because something is strange and good doesn’t mean it ought to be put in a museum, or a coliseum for that matter.
Incidentally, it was when Black Dice put away the tin-can beats and started to build something a little more measured, more expansive, that the show finally came together. The second half of their set brought a noticeable improvement, the beats were pared back, and the band seemed more interested in following tangents to their (il)logical endpoint. They seemed to smarten themselves up in response to the grandeur of the venue and the occasion; also, people didn’t have to try and decide whether or not to dance anymore.
A week later, and Okkervil River were looking like Melbourne Fest’s odd ones out; a kinda popular, straight-up rock band. To be fair though, the expectant audience were looking like they didn’t care. With Roller One’s low-key set out of the way, the opening salvo of new single ‘Wake And Be Fine’ and Black Sheep Boy’s ‘For Real’ captured the check shirt-heavy audience almost immediately. However, Sheff and company seemed to operating a credit system; for every crowd pleaser, the audience got two slow numbers.
Will Sheff is an energetic, whole-hearted frontman, but he’s not charismatic. His songs live and die on their words and composition. He differs to someone like Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, of comparable, perhaps inferior ability, but with a more compelling presence that sells even the dodgiest of lines, and draws the listener in. With Sheff, when the quality of the songs slipped, as they must, the show sagged.
The slower songs, nominally playing to their strengths, were let down by Sheff’s inability to truly hold the audience. It could be that the disjuncture between painstaking construction and impassioned delivery rang false. Or, perhaps the Forum was seeing the torpor of a band that’s been going a bit too long, for too few rewards. Regardless of what caused the flat spots, they were forgotten when the band demonstrated their mastery of anthemic indie-alt-country, to my knowledge a one-band genre. ‘Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe’ and ‘Lost Coastlines’ triggered a surge to the finish line, ending a mixed night on a high.
Kimya Dawson and Aesop Rock? Just dumb enough to work, right? A nursery-rhyming, anti-folk literalist, and a mind-melding, surrealist MC, finding middle ground that none knew existed. But what the hell does it sound like? When the two strolled out unaccompanied, the shape of their set seemed to reveal itself. And so it was, Dawson’s acoustic picking and little-girl-lost voice, and Aesop Rock’s sleepy flow, no more. At times, it worked nicely, with Aesop entering the frame of Dawson’s confessions like a strange, omniscient narrator. Unfortunately, there was a lot of standing around before and after these interjections; the guy just didn’t look comfortable. Something as simple as a chair would have improved the show out of sight. Or a beat. A beat would have been better still.
After a few songs, the MC departed, leaving Dawson to do her thing. She obliged the audience - which was split pretty evenly into two camps, Rockers and Dawsonites - with a fairly typical set. There were songs from her kid’s album Alphabutt, from her upcoming Thunder Thighs, and older favourites like ‘Loose Lips’. The style was constant, dense torrents of words, full of plain-English insights, delivered in a high warble over repetitive acoustic songs.
Aesop returned for the second burst, featuring the intense ‘Walk Like Thunder’, where both told tales of illness and death. Probably the high point of the night, it nonetheless put one in the mood for some light relief.
At this point the hip-hop fans were getting decidedly restless, but were soon to be relieved at the sight of Dawson departing, to be replaced by Rock’s entourage – and what an entourage. As my companion said, “Hip-hop’s not dead, it just got eaten by some fat white guys.”
Aesop, his corpulent DJ Big Wiz and his even more corpulent sidekick Rob Sonic waddled on, and launched into their set. Aesop Rock looked for all the world like a coiled spring, and ran his mouth at a ludicrous pace. When you could catch what he was saying, it was brilliant. When you couldn’t, it was still pretty good. The highlights were generally the more collaborative efforts; the two MCs combined to particular effect on Hail Mary Mallon tracks such as ‘Poconos’, ‘Meter Feeder’ and the stoned, gloriously stupid ‘Breakdance Beach’. All in all, a strange, worthwhile night.
At this point we relocate to the smaller, but still quite classy Toff, for a Rat vs Possum and Bachelorette double bill - or as I call it, Ratchelorette. Opening with ‘Never Die’, off the forthcoming Let Music And Bodies Unite, it became clear that RvP have cleaned themselves up for festival consumption, less chaos, more krautrock. They came on like an acid-fried LCD Soundsystem, with new member Adrian Tregonning’s autotuned vocal just heightening the glowstick feel. Much of the show went this way, including new single ‘Fat Monk’. I guess repetitious, long-form synth jams are the new repetitious, long-form drum jams. You can’t really knock a band for having its shit together, though. It was also interesting to note that these one-time pioneers of floor tom proliferation had only a single additional drum in this occasion. Sign o’ the times? Austerity measure? Hard to say.
Bachelorette’s set spluttered into existence almost against its own will, with Alpers bickering with her sound guy like a matron with a cold latte, even breaking off her second song, ‘The Lightseekers’, due to an unsatisfactory mix. After a number of complaints about the “low end” in ‘Seven and eight’ (to be fair, there was a distinct rumble that kept popping up), the set, and the sound, finally stabilised.
Having heard a plenty bizarre descriptions for her sound, it should have come as no surprise that Alpers isn’t a female Animal Collective, or a New Zealand Pikelet, or a robot band-leader. She is, however, a very gifted electro-pop musician. Her painstaking constructions are built on stacked vocal harmonies, synth pillows, beats and guitar, all looped or triggered, but never straying into “look what i can do with a loop pedal!” territory.
The set’s highlights were largely taken from her excellent recent album Bachelorette, included the wonderfully self-referential ‘Digital Brain’ (“In my mind/they keep repeating/constantly looping”), and the kaleidoscopic ‘Blanket’. However, despite the quality of her songs (and her consistently awesome, sound-triggered projections), Alpers is by no means a natural performer. She spent the whole show carrying a look of mild anguish on her face, with her terse “banter” (“Did you know that your country is the most financially secure in the world? Don’t leave.”) failing to put people at ease. I’m sure that pulling off a one-woman show of such complexity is taxing, but geez.
After a brief re-acquaintance with Ms Alpers, this time back at the Forum, it was time for the don’t-even-bother-with-a-genre stylings of Konono No. 1. They are Congolese, they have three percussionists and three thumb-pianists. Amplified by home-made pick-ups, the thumb pianos - likembés to be precise - don’t sound like anything else, at best bearing a passing resemblance to distorted guitar harmonics. Now you know as much as I do.
Their first song was an absolute revelation, as absolutely new things can be. Over a slippery polyrhythm, the likembés weaved a dense web, all constant movement and embellishment, repeated until a trance-like state was achieved. As absolutely new things can be though, it was bewildering after a while. Things like kick drums, bass lines and chord progessions are taken for granted by the contemporary Australian music fan, and withholding them completely is like being robbed of one’s musical compass. People continued to groove away all around me, either hearing something I couldn’t, or making believe that they could.
Lack of whitey-friendly sonic elements aside, there was plenty to get into, as the band’s schtick was something to behold. Augustin Makuntima Mingiedi, the venerable bandleader - they’ve been playing since the ’60s or late-’70s, depending on who you believe - stalked the stage in a broad-brimmed hat. glowering like a schoolteacher. Alongside him, occasional percussionist Pauline Mbuka Nsiala took any opportunity to abandon her instrument and break out some downright saucy dance moves for the benefit of the front row.
Though repetitious, Konono’s ability to lay down watertight grooves for a solid 90 minutes was damn impressive, and along with the sheer spectacle of their performance, it was enough to break down my initial skepticism.
And so to Saturday, a slightly incongruous evening of spoken word with Jello Biafra, “hardcore’s biggest star” (what about “hardcore superstar”?). Armed with a loud shirt and his slightly comical, rounded, lisping voice, Biafra proceeded to give a tutorial on how the world got fucked, culminating in the Occupy movement (Jello is a fan). His charisma was such that even those who had already heard the story he was telling got caught up in his polemical info-tainment style. As Michael Moore showed in his brief moment of cultural relevance, there’s something very seductive about blaming “them”. However, to do so involves cutting through all the chaotic interrelationships of contemporary society and making like it’s still the 1930s.
The first 40 minutes flew by, but thereafter Biafra was treading water, working ever-duller variations on the “rich guys stole your money!” theme. Quips about the “Barack-star” and the “Obamanation” - and an incredible riff on Australia and its lizard prime ministers - kept the mood up, but there is something inherently suspicious about someone that joins all the dots, and people were starting to wonder.
After a short interval and a set change, Biafra returned to continue his diatribe with life-size cut-outs of Steve Kilbey, Dave Graney and SLAM rally organiser Helen Marcou for company. It was painful. After about 20 minutes of non-stop Biafra, Kilbey was asked a question about iTunes. What followed was a bizarre rant, punctuated by not-unwarranted heckles, that culminated in Kilbey explaining reincarnation, and cleansing of the soul, but not iTunes. The rest was like students trying to impress the cool new English teacher. Questions went ignored, agendas were ruthlessly pushed, it was excruciatingly poor entertainment. Dave Graney looked on helplessly. At least Steve Kilbey was weird.
As far as festivals go, this was a pretty good series of gigs. Not only that, but Melbourne became a more interesting place for three weeks, and that’s pretty cool. At a prosaic level, interesting performers and worthy acts received greater exposure through their association with the festival, and Melbourne got its name next to some credible acts, kinda like Tony Blair in charm-offensive mode.
PHOTOS: Roller One, Okkervil River
PHOTOS: Mono, Wintercoats