A common paradox of music lovers is that we readily embrace the unique, but we struggle to digest the unfamiliar. The initial shock of something outside of their comfort zone can be hard to accept at face-value, yet after careful thought and processing, one can realise that they were in fact confronted with creative genius.
I felt this throughout the dazzling, abstract performance by Ngaiire on Friday night in Sydney. Creative yet confronting, skillful yet strange, inspiring yet disorientating. It was a show that stepped outside the creative norm of a standard national tour, exploring different ways of presenting songs and utilising all available musical resources and theatrical creativity.
Opening the night was New Zealand-born soul singer-songwriter Wallace. I remember reading once that Dave Grohl suggested an artist should avoid having support acts who could potentially be better than you. It might seem like simple logic, but Ngaiire and co. sure ran it close to the line tonight in choosing to book Wallace as an opener. The singer swayed through a collection of electro-soul numbers that displayed incredible rhythmic intricacies (props to the incredible skills of her drummer, Tully Ryan,) dynamics and overall groove. It was refreshing to see a support act enjoying the occasion for what it was, and taking the moment to jam and enjoy.
After a brief changeover, Melbourne-based Woodes took to the stage. Wearing a sort of wooden crown composed of what seemed to be carefully carved branches, Woodes presented a collection of wispy, floaty, synth-based tunes that evoked feelings of walking through a forest. Whilst Woodes is certainly gaining an impressive hold on her craft, her far more tender music brought the energy down in the room after the impressive opening from Wallace. Perhaps it would have been better to switch the supports around, but Woodes still put on an impressive set of synth-pop and a collection of Anderson. Paak tunes on the P.A helped to pick the energy back up in the room before the main act.
A lengthy pre-recorded spoken word intro courtesy of Ngaiire herself heralded the arrival of the headliner for the evening. The venue, now just over three-quarters full, was rapt with attention and erupted with sounds of adoration when the singer slowly walked up to the mic. She opened proceedings with a slow, theatrical chorus from House On A Rock before breaking into the first full song for the night, Around.
From the opening, things didn’t feel like your average gig. The backing singers wore gold garments and performed choreographed dance moves, while each member of her band wore large gold chains around their necks emblazoned with the word “BLAST!”, referencing the title of her 2016 ground-breaking album Blastoma. Instead of merely performing, Ngaiire would direct traffic onstage, motioning to different performers when it was their time to shine. More the director of a production than a performer, the show had a sense of choreography not often seen in mid-sized shows like this.
The music itself was well executed given the complicated instrumentation. Cruel faltered at the beginning but Ngaiire appeared unphased, calmly restarting the song and pulling off a seamless vocal duet with her synth player and collaborator, Jack Grac. Feature slots seemed to be the order of the evening (albeit the tour, given the singer had performed with Flume that morning on Like A Version), with both backing singers taking the spotlight throughout, the main highlight being Dirty Hercules which saw her backing singer, Billie McCarthy unleash with a furious chorus, “if you wanna pick a fight, then why don’t you?” The song descended into a vocal battle between Ngaiire and the backing vocalists, showcasing the extraordinary abilities of all onstage.
Anchor saw the introduction of two black-clad dancers to the stage, who returned for main closer Diggin’ to add an extra visual element to the show. Show closer Fall Into My Arms saw the singer further use outside resources, inviting both Wallace and Woodes onstage to join in the slow-burner to see the night through. Her main cuts were memorable, but the little additions added to the lesser-known tunes felt even more special.
Ngaiire is an art-pop performer who has crossed over to a more streamlined audience through the help of radio. Whilst some might snub their noses at this, the fact remains that, despite the increased audience to her music, she has remained uncompromisingly creative and abstract in the way she presents her art. Her show at the Factory Theatre, one of the blander venues Sydney has to offer, showed the effect of some simple creativity to the overall feeling of a show. Not just your ordinary night out.