Vivid Sydney daily report #3: Seekae and Janelle Monae
Mon 28th May, 2012 Newsin
Night three of Vivid gave Sydneysiders a host of good reasons to get harbourside, not least the line-up of concerts at the Opera House. Jim Poe saw electronic adventurers Seekae wow the Opera Theatre, while Caitlin Welsh caught back-to-back shows from two dazzling performers: My Brightest Diamond and Janelle Monae.
We also spoke to music guru Keebz talks about his work with will.i.am on the music and loops for the interactive light display on the Museum of Contemporary Art. The shifting shapes and patterns on the façade of the gallery were just one of the arresting light shows we saw around Circular Quay last night. Pack a coat and take an after-dark stroll to see Customs House lit up with 3D image-mapping and various light sculptures around the concourse.
Seekae – Jim Poe
Day three of Vivid, and I’m once again headed down to the Opera House. I must say I’m not tired yet of the light shows that pulse and dance on building facades all around the Quay and in the city beyond – some simply colourful, some truly enormous and dazzling – and I don’t think I will be. If you ask me it should be like this all the time. Easy to love this town on a night like this.
There’s more local love in store, as Sydney electronic exemplars Seekae are performing in the Opera Theatre. It’s my first time seeing the trio live, and I’m pretty keen as I’ve heard nothing but good. The ‘uptown’ setting at first seems to inhibit the audience, mostly twenty-somethings who probably don’t find themselves in the Opera House on a Sunday night all that often.
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 a relief to realise the trappings of the theatre have lent a special vibe to the gig. Whereas at a club the crowd might be standing with folded arms and doing the white-boy head-nodding thing, or milling about and looking at their phones, tonight all attention is focused on the music (especially as the band don’t have much showmanship as such).
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, especially with the string players – like a really ambitious music student’s thesis performance, except the booze isn’t free.
My Brightest Diamond and Janelle Monae – Caitlin Welsh
One of the best things about having Vivid Live at the Opera House is how theatrical the whole experience is. Not necessarily the performances themselves, but the atmospheric difference 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. It also enhances the effect of “extras” like costumes and props, of which my entertainments for the evening are both particularly fond.
Shara Worden, who performs and records as My Brightest Diamond, tiptoes 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.
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; but even when she sings wrenching lines like “Shara, this is going to hurt/Be brave, dear one”, she does it with joy. She’s also incredibly funny and charming, so that the show’s performance-art weirdness can be glossed over, and even takes on a different resonance.
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 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; 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.
I wonder how many people saw both shows and pondered the contrasts between Monae’s era-hopping monochrome showiness and Worden’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 to her 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.