Mad Racket pres. Peven Everett @ Keystone Festival Bar, Sydney (25/01/2012)

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If it’s raining, it must be the Festival Bar. That’s how it feels, anyway – it seems all of my memories of January nights spent partying under that marquee are soaked with rain. But in this Year Without a Summer, the weather gods have been especially cruel; and as I grimly made my way to Hyde Park on Wednesday night through another in a seemingly endless series of downpours, it was easy to wonder whether it would dampen Mad Racket’s annual Sydney Festival event.

Turns out I was wrong, at least as far as attendance. Whether because it was the eve of Australia Day, or because of the Marrickville mob’s promotional savvy and the loyalty of their following, the place was surprisingly packed and buzzing when I arrived. These people were not going to let a bit of rain get them down where there was a party to be had.

Noting again with dismay that the bar’s beer selection was limited to Budweiser and Hahn Light – an amazing triumph of sponsorship over quality – I grabbed a shiraz and made my way to the dancefloor. The marquee was far more full than it normally would have been this early due to the shelter it offered from the weather, but there was not much dancing. It had the feel of a cramped art opening, with cool kids standing around in clusters sipping drinks and straining to make their chatter heard over the music.

Whether or not the cool kids were paying attention, Ken Cloud was dropping some scorching tunes. Of all the DJs in Sydney, I can most relate to the Mad Racket guys. They come from my generation, my school, and they play my kind of music: that perfect blend of deep house and soulful techno, a timeless sound that always uplifts. Tonight, Ken was tasked with warming up for Chicago soul man Peven Everett, and was working a warmer, housier vein, with an emphasis on funky percussion and melodic basslines.

Everett took the stage without much ado, sitting behind a simple set-up of mic, keyboard and laptop. I Can’t Do Without started abruptly, a backing loop with no intro or buildup. Everett accompanied the track with only a few keyboard flourishes; his vocals seemed strangely subdued, as if he was rehearsing. I could see a few fans getting into it up front; but the rest of the crowd was being merely polite at best, and nobody was dancing.

After this inauspicious beginning, Everett stood up at the front of the stage and sang Gabriel, his most-beloved hit, over nothing else but a stripped-down breakbeat. Suddenly a good deal more spirit surged into the proceedings; the crowd began to sway a little and a few people even raised their hands or clapped along (lest it be said Aussies are entirely soul-challenged). Peven’s vocal performance was much grittier than on Roy Davis’ ‘live garage’ version, taking it back to its gospel roots. It made my hair stand up when he did a vocal scat of the trumpet melody familiar from the song’s refrain. For a minute I thought the minimal approach was going to work.

But that turned out to be the highlight of the show. Peven sat back down at his keyboard, and the energy seemed to leave him and the crowd at the same time. Thanks to the tropical monsoon outside it was really hot and humid under the marquee, and he seemed to be suffering, wearing a dinner jacket (albeit a very stylish one) under the hot stage lights. Wiping his face with a towel, he told us he’d just arrived in Sydney for the first time in his life a couple of hours before, and warned that he might be a bit exhausted and out of it.

And so it was. The backing loops started and stopped in jarring fashion, the hipster crowd’s attention drifted, and the star all but slumped in his seat, clearly unable to put his all into it. Once there was a cringe-inducing pause while he fiddled with the laptop.

Worse, I couldn’t hear much; the sound was really off. I’ve wondered before why such a vast marquee has sound at only one end. Andrew Weatherall overcame it at the Picnic gig, whether through audio savvy or just cranking it up; but tonight the sound was muddy and did not carry into the middle and back reaches of the place at all.

After only 40 minutes, Peven got up and left the stage without so much as a goodbye (unless it was inaudible over the poor sound mix). Couldn’t exactly be upset at the guy – no doubt the jetlag and humidity did him in. The hipsters hardly seemed to notice.

It’s a shame that a talent as huge as his did not get a better showcase in Sydney. At his best, Peven combines a garage and deep-house sensibility with proper soul in a smoking-hot live show featuring a full band; he’s something of a contemporary heir to Roy Ayers – a far cry from the imploding spectacle witnessed on the night.

Ken Cloud was back on in a hurry, alternating with partner Simon Caldwell for some typically excellent house grooves that picked the party up a bit. I had to leave early, but from reading the forums, it seems Caldwell’s closing set was a great one, and the after-hours at the Spice Cellar even better. Too bad the headliner did not live up to it.

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