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Live Review: Hiatus Kaiyote Stunned At The Sydney Opera House

I’ve seen a number of concerts at the famed Sydney Opera House lately, and while they never disappoint, they are always a little strange. This is primarily because the artists I see there are the kind of artist you’d more typically see at a bar or a standing venue, where you can move, talk, dance and generally hang loose. The Opera House, conversely, is an enormous theatre, vast in both space and significance. While built for ballet, orchestras and, obviously, opera, it has been used for contemporary acts with growing frequency over the past few years. It has since become a coveted rite of passage for artists of all genres – including Hiatus Kaiyote, for whom this was to be their Opera House debut.

As such, it is always interesting to watch artists navigate an audience who, although just as excited as any other to be there, automatically feel stiff, timid and reserved because they’re sitting down in an opera hall. It’s fascinating to see how artists combat this, or whether they simply embrace or ignore it.

African Australian rapper Sampa The Great opened for Hiatus Kaiyote for the Vivid Live performance. Armed only by her producer, the wonderfully talented Godriguez, Sampa’s voice echoed with a power and clarity throughout the predominantly full hall. It was clear that she noticed the dullness caused by a room full of people sitting down, though, and for the first couple of tracks she tried to encourage dancing and moving about. Ultimately that didn’t really work, so she got on with the set, choosing to ignore it (but not without a shout-out to the brave few dancing in the aisles). Her set was as good as the many other times I’ve been lucky enough to catch her, and while I do feel there was an initial struggle coming to terms with the unusually quiet audience and the gargantuan space, she nevertheless managed to well and truly warm us up before the main event, once again reminding me why she’s my favourite Australian rapper today.

I’ve never seen Hiatus Kaiyote live before, although I’ve been a long time fan of their incredible, intricate releases, which often sound so much bigger than music you might expect from a four-piece from Melbourne. Off the back of two Grammy nominations and widespread acclaim and support from some of the most important names in the music industry, the band have steadily developed an incredibly well-deserved international audience. Their 2015 album Choose Your Weapon received universal acclaim, and finally seeing it performed live only made that much more exhilarating. The band had recruited the genius that is lighting extraordinaire Timeboy, and the endless rainbow of visuals were among the most dazzlingly brilliant I’ve ever seen – no surprise, considering Timeboy has previously worked with Flying Lotus, Kanye West, Prince, The Weeknd and Erykah Badu among others.

The band, who were joined by three backing singers, was of course fronted by singer and guitarist Nai Palm. While I don’t usually comment on what the band were wearing, it would be impossible to not mention her unbelievable attire, made up of a colourful headdress, a long, faux fur scarf and a one piece entirely adorned in shiny silver sequins. Incredible.

But what was more incredible was the music. The performance engaging, precise and perfect; I constantly found myself wondering how the hell these songs were conceptualised and written, how they were rehearsed, and how they were remembered. Their sound’s rich pageant traipses between technically astounding jazz rhythms, to razor sharp percussion, to crunchy, synth-heavy industrial blowouts. Along with the help of Timeboy’s electrifying visuals, I was enraptured from start to end. The Opera House acoustics are obviously unparalleled, and it is no more appreciated than when you get to experience a band like Hiatus Kaiyote, in all their intricate polyrhythmic detail and glory, in that space. Their presence and the lighting filled the stage in a way that meant the audience sitting down no longer felt withdrawn; rather, it simply allowed us to fully take in the whole experience. That said, when they returned to a standing ovation for their encore, the energy and atmosphere picked up thousandfold, for a rapturous finale to a phenomenal show.

Image: SMH/Prudence Upton