Laneway Festival is currently touring the country, and with it come a flurry of sideshows. As a result, I found myself at a gig every single night this week. Covering all bases, we caught noise rockers Health, hip-hop’s man of the moment Vince Staples, jazz/hip-hop/soul wizard Thundercat, noise trio METZ, and pop/electro-R&B upcomer Shamir.
Here’s what we thought about each one.
Monday night: Health at Oxford Art Factory
I have been a fan of Health since about 2009, but having skipped them at Laneway last weekend, this Monday night was the first time I ever had the pleasure of catching the LA four-piece in the flesh. Last year they released their newest, and perhaps best album Death Magic, and I was really keen to hear it live – it’s the kind of music that might not be the most enjoyable to listen to on a morning jog or a bus home from work, but when it’s right in front of you, it truly is something else.
Opening for Health was Marcus Whale, who you may know from electronic two-piece Collarbones. Backed by two viciously talented drummers, he delivered a really riveting performance – give or take a false start or two. Having debuted his thundering new single My Captain earlier that day, I have no doubt that he won over a few new fans in his opening set.
Health took to the stage without much further ado, immediately sending the entire room into a trance, hypnotised by the abrasive music which thrashed and convulsed it’s way through the night, topped off by some incredible on-stage headbanging. With a setlist that featured a fairly even offering of new tracks and material from their previous two albums, it was a sight to behold – both for the fans and the newly appointed. Sure, their music isn’t for the faint of heart – the majority of their pieces, especially the particularly spasmodic, strobe-illuminated experience of tracks like Salvia and Courtship parts I and II (from Health and Death Magic respectively), it’s one hell of an industrial, distorted, noise-filled spectacle – with brief moments of aural solace permitted on the lighter, synth-based moments on tracks like LA Looks and recent single Stonefist. A show that I would’ve happily continued watching all night in spite of the intensty, there’s nothing quite like a Health show.
Tuesday night: Vince Staples at Max Watts
Vince Staples released one of the best hip-hop records of last year with Summertine ’06. Hip-hop shows tend to be either phenomenal or a complete flop, but needless to say, I had a good feeling about the night.
The audience were well and truly hyped up by opener B Wise, and Staples took to the stage shortly afterwards. From the first beats of Lift Me Up, the 22-year-old from Long Beach, California commanded the crowd. The gig predominantly featured music from Summertime 06, but not without a healthy second helping of some of his earlier beats – the crowd were instantaneously frenzied when he launched straight into 65 Hunnid and Fire at the very beginning of the show, before exploding into Birds & Bees, one of my person favourite tracks from the new record.
His show was electrifying. Powerful and wild-eyed, it was loud, sweaty and aggressive – everything you want in a hip-hop show. On stage, his flow and delivery were no less slick than they sounded on record, but with a fresh, impulsive energy injected into his poison-tipped lyrics.
The music itself was tremendous, but the most interesting moments came in between the songs. Speaking casually, he reacted directly to crowd members – most notably, the almost exclusively white audience. It’s something I’ve always thought about – African American rappers performing to white crowds in Australia and other countries around the world. It typically flies completely unacknowledged, regardless of the lyrical content, including the amount of “n*gga”‘s and social commentary hurled at the crowd. It’s almost always the elephant in the room that we just don’t talk about. Not Vince Staples. Staples shot to kill, pointing it out numerous times, diffusing the awkwardness and replacing it with a fairly uncomfortable sense of self-awareness, including searching through the crowd for a single black person, and heckling a guy who got kicked out about being white with dreadlocks.
Also, he spent a fair amount of time in between tracks talking about throwing stuff on stage – which had happened at least twice by that point in the show. Switching between being funny and serious, he essentially warned the audience to not throw shit at him or on stage, why it’s a bad idea, and exactly what he’ll do if it happens again. It wasn’t pretty. But he made an excellent point – one that’ll hopefully be adhered to.
Bringing down the house with a spitfire encore of Blue Suede, I can safely say this was the best hip-hop show I’ve been to in months. A diamond in the rough, Vince Staples is an absolute treasure – and I’m so excited to follow the rest of his career.
Wednesday night: METZ at Oxford Art Factory
The walls of Sydney’s Oxford Art Factory could hardly contain the sonic assault thrust from METZ. The Canadian power-trio squared off with an adoring crowd, who were eased into the evening by beloved local offerings Low Life and My Disco. Though the attendance was skewed slightly to the wrong side of ‘Sold Out’ there was a certain comradely amongst us; the odd moments of eye contact, which read, “Yeah, we know what’s up.”
With a setlist jacked up on two studio albums and a 7”, the show felt more refined – more thoughtful – than their last Sydney gig at FKA GoodGod Smallclub. As if the countless hours now logged on stage had afforded them newfound foresight, the trio delivered a well-rounded blend of older and new material. While knowing to address 2012’s Headache immediately, it was more recent moments like Spit You Out, Eraser and stand out single Acetate – which was dedicated to a very stoked birthday girl in the audience – which brought forth previously unfound energy from the crowd. That said, the mosh pit appeared continuous and contagious given those within its periphery were clearly unable to stop themselves for swaying back and forth in time (more or less.)
Though abrasive as fuck and riddled with the squeals and hums of thrashed instruments, it didn’t feel overwhelming for one moment. There was something hypnotic about the flailing of limbs on stage, and the hurricane of sweat beads that made it hard to look away. It was controlled and contained chaos and we couldn’t get enough of it.
What sounded great on the albums sounded even better reverberating off the bodies in the room. Moments of what seemed like clutter on II made perfect sense. The first thing I did when I got home was put the album on and found even more bliss within its cyclonic drama.
Also did anyone see the security guard moshing? Please tell me someone else saw the security guard moshing.
Wednesday night: Thundercat at the Basement
For those unaware, Thundercat, or 31-year-old Stephen Bruner, is an extremely talented bass player who, on top of a growing number of incredible solo releases, was heavily involved in two of 2015’s greatest records – Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp A Butterfly and Kamasi Washington‘s The Epic, as well as being a frequent Flying Lotus collaborator and beyond – notably including a lengthy stint in Suicidal Tendencies.
So it’s safe to say he’s a talented dude.
Here to promote his third solo release The Beyond/Where The Giants Roam, which came out last year and was produced by Flying Lotus, the bassist took to The Basement, one of Sydney’s best venues, for a tremendous headline sideshow.
Opening for Thundercat was Sydney rapper Sampa The Great, who in my opinion, is the best hip-hop artist that Australia has to offer. Filling the cramped stage with a complete band including three backup vocalists and two drummers, Sampa’s opening set drew an almost full audience – a clear sign that she’s a force to be reckoned with. From the sultry Lauryn Hill-esque vibes to nasty, almost Angel Haze-level aggression, to the phenomenal composition and intricate jazz and blues backing instrumentals, every single thing about Sampa’s show is accomplished and impressive, topped off by how obvious it was that she was loving every moment. I could’ve watched them play for hours.
Thundercat’s technical prowess is genuinely unparalleled – something many may not realise when listening to him on hip-hop or R&B or thrash punk tracks. And not only can he master the monstrous five-string as if it were a banjo, but he can sing, too. His gorgeous vocals, with their D’Angelo vibe and their raspy soars, added but another element to the virtuosic performance which had my – and those around me – jaw permanently dropped in awe.
It was the kind of show where it wouldn’t really matter if you hadn’t heard a single Thundercat track before, as it was the sheer showmanship and talent of him and his two backing instrumentalists, that wowed the crowd the entire time. Much like the majority of jazz performances, the live versions of recorded tracks are incredibly different, and most importantly, totally unique. Extended solos and rhythmic gymnastics are a display of on-the-spot talent, while the improvisational nature ensures that your audience is the only audience on earth hearing that track performed in that way.
A highlight, of course, was when Thundercat performed the Kendrick Lamar track Complexion (A Zulu Love). Albeit far from the most technical jam of the night, hearing one of the most important tracks in recent memory, performed by the guy who damn well wrote it, will go down as one of my personal favourite musical moments ever. He went on to talk about how he was heading to the Grammys the following week (at which Lamar is up for a whopping 11 awards), spoke frankly about how hard they worked on the album, and how Lamar deserves to win every single award they can throw at him.
After nearly two hours, the dazzling set came to an end with an emotional encore, the Apocalypse track A Message For Austin/Praise The Lord/Enter The Void. Opening with “Rest in peace, David Bowie, rest in peace Maurice White,” it was heartbreaking and humbling. Lightening the mood before leaving the stage, he began a kind of jazz freestyle mixed with audience banter, before unceremoniously ending midway.
It’s going to be hard to beat this show. Thundercat is a true master.
Thursday night: Shamir at Oxford Art Factory
I was very late to the table with Shamir, and in fact only decided to see his sideshow after being blown away by his set at Laneway the previous week. The young pop/dance/hip-hop artist from Las Vegas dropped his debut album Ratchet last year, and it’s a disco-infused, hey-world-this-is-me feel that is seriously so much fun, whether you usually like this kind of music or not.
Unfortunately I missed the opening acts Jess Kent and Collarbones (to be fair, it’s because a friend’s band were playing in the smaller Gallery Bar within the same venue and I stopped in to catch some of their set first,) but they had clearly won the crowd over, as the room was bubbling over with energy and good spirits from the moment I walked in.
Shamir’s music is a wonderful blend of disco, pop, dance and upbeat rap, with some tracks anchored by techno-heavy thumping basslines, some with spritely four-to-the-floor house synths, and others still more balladic, tugging at the heartstrings with an acoustic guitar. Although diverse in that sense, it flows fluidly and naturally both on record and on stage. Translated live, even the most cookie-cutter pop moments (which are few and far between) were completely brought to life. Of course, singles like On The Regular and Call It Off were fan favourites, but there wasn’t one moment where energy dipped or the fiesta atmosphere wavered.
The audience were there to have a good time, and it was well and truly granted. Sweaty bodies danced from beginning to end, in certainly the most fun show of the week. Shamir’s obvious happiness and passion are completely infectious, with every beat and every rhythm responded to accordingly by every single pair of hips and dancing feet.
Shamir is doing what many others have failed to achieve: irreverent, completely unpretentious, totally enjoyable dance pop, and it was a true pleasure to experience it live.
Image: Michelle Grace Hunder/Howl & Echoes