Is it possible for an artist to convey their art in a festival setting, or do munters just wanna have fun?
I was asked by Soul of Sydney to review Good Vibrations 2011 “as an artist”. I took that to mean: “Don’t pretend to be a music journalist, just write as someone who makes music.” I know, for myself at least, that festival gigs are very different to pub or club gigs, in many ways. Subtlety can go right out the window, messages tend to be dumbed-down, and holding the crowd can be like riding the tide. For me, Good Vibrations 2011 was a mixed bag of wave-riders and wave-makers – and a non-stop rainy day that turned my fingers to prunes…
I arrived just in time to catch Aloe Blaac, who has honey for a voice, a dress sense I approve of, and a slinky backing band. Every second song was a soul classic, given the lite-and-easy treatment, including ‘Love And Happiness’ (minus the swagger) and a slow-jam version of ‘Billie Jean‘. I’m not sure what Aloe Blaac’s ‘Soul 101’ show does with or for the genre, and it didn’t engage me here any more than it did at Sydney Festival a few weeks earlier, but it seemed to go down a treat with this festival crowd.
At the other end of the spectrum was the one and only Erykah Badu, the single reason I (and, apparently, a lot of other people) was even at the festival. From the moment she stepped onto the stage (after 15 years and 20 minutes), everyone single excited one of us in the audience knew we were in the presence of not merely a singer, but an artist. Even with her own extensive catalogue, Ms Badu delves into her musical influences like veering off on tangents in a conversation. Ms Badu, who was an MC long before she came to prominence as a neo-soul singer, references old-school hip-hop in the middle of edgy renditions of her own tracks, both older (‘On & On’, ‘Danger’) and newer (‘Window Seat’). What’s most fascinating about Erykah Badu’s performance is the organic way she pulls those hip hop samples into the mix of her own output, driving the show less like a singer and more like a DJ. If you can’t see Erykah’s hands, you’re missing the show: remixing her own songs on the fly, directing her tight-as band to stop on a dime, jumping back and forth between different sections of different songs seemingly on a whim, even playing drums on her MPC – everything on that stage, from her amazing voice to her storytelling to her body, is a tool she picks up and uses sparingly, as the moment dictates. The effect of all of this is that you cannot take your eyes off her: this is a true artist, a woman celebrating her femaledom as much as her love of hip hop (and what a sight it was, watching her drop the entire Ice Cube verse from NWA’s ‘Gangsta Gangsta’, repeating the line “life ain’t nuthin’ but bitches and money” with who-knows-how-much irony, if any). It’s that same spontaneity that saw her suddenly launch into a diatribe about ‘Occupation’ toward the end of an already-running-late set – but dammit, folks been waiting a long time for her to come out here only to play the one show, and she was clearly making the most of it.
I’m no stranger to the jam-heavy live show (to say the least), but Fat Freddy’s Drop took a while to get warmed up, even for me. There were some overly long stretches of little more than a sequenced beat and that tasty horn section just kinda hanging out, but with little real movement. Singer Joe Dukie’s sublime voice graced the set right off the bat with ‘Flashback’, but his butter was spread too thinly across that raggamuffin (see what I did there? Yeow – that’s why I’m no music writer…!).
By contrast, musically an ocean apart while physically only a stage apart, the segues in the Bag Raiders set reached their destination almost before they’d begun. These are a couple of music geeks who can really play and can’t really sing, and are having fun with both of those attributes – and without a laptop in sight. In between singles ‘Shooting Stars’ and ‘Sunlight’ were some moments that were downright ultra-lounge-karaoke. Their live set felt like a peek into their bedroom jam session: two mates who could be making any type of music they chose, they just happened to choose sweet dance pop.
Nas and Damian Marley made being epic look effortless. Backed by a full band, including a guy whose only job was to wave a giant Lion Of Judah flag throughout the set, Nas and Damian Marley put on a powerful show with a message that permeated every song without ever becoming preachy. Apart from some “When I say ‘Hip’, you say…” action from Nas early in the set, there were no cliches here, everything familiar but nothing obvious, and they owned the crowd from the (late) start to the (even later) finish. Tracks from their ‘Distant Relatives’ collaboration were interspersed with each of the artists dropping hits from his individual catalogue. The crowd blew up when hit with modern classics ‘Hip Hop is Dead‘ and ‘Welcome To Jamrock’; and there was no less fervour for newer tracks like ‘As We Enter’, one of the many examples of the fresh reggae/hip hop crossover these guys have been lauded for creating. If I weren’t an Erykah fan, I’d say Nas and Damian Marley’s set was the best thing that happened on this day – I was so moved, inside and out, that I completely forgot to check out Kelis. And as if they hadn’t rocked my world enough, they closed their set with Damien Senior’s “Could You Be Loved”, only one of the most glorious songs of all time.
Oh that Ludacris, such a character… I was curious to see how his larger-than-life persona would translate to his stage show. His set was an abridged Ludacristory, comprising a verse and a chorus of every single song he ever released. Good for fans and short attention spans – which, by this late stage of the day, was probably as much as many folks could handle.
Phoenix, that charming Frenchy fivesome (I’d thought there were only four?), offered up a yum-cha selection of tracks from across all their albums, against a dynamic black-and-white backlit setpiece that showed off just how much of an animal their drummer is. You may be wondering, “Why is this guy reviewing a synth-rock band in a soul/hip hop blog?” The two brothers from Phoenix are actually soul music connoisseurs; you can hear it across their albums. Ironically, I missed ‘Too Young’ coz I’m too old, and therefore too tired to stay at Good Vibes any longer, and not long after ‘It’s Never Been Like That’ I finally called it a day.
Many thanks to Soul of Sydney for this opportunity – and for my first-ever Good Vibes experience.
Ray Mann bids a fond “Farewell Australia” with one huge night, featuring The Ray Mann Three performing live, with some very special guests, followed by an all-night party – all under the one roof: Melt Bar, in Sydney’s Kings Cross. After national tours with Al Green, Tori Amos, and a successful debut tour of Japan, Ray Mann is taking the plunge and to pursue his musical career in other parts of the world. Come celebrate Ray Mann’s big move with a night not to be missed!