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Live review: the tangled genius of Nicolas Jaar

For five years I lived with quiet desperation and longing to be in the presence of Nicolas Jaar‘s musical mastery. On Monday night, my chance finally arrived at Sydney’s Metro Theatre. Everyone in the theatre was ready and eager to hand the reigns to Jaar, as he guided is through the 90 minutes of an epic musical narrative.

Entering the stage to a resounding roars, he doesn’t waste time on audience repartee, settling for a quick hello as he slips into his onstage musical playground. Surrounded by a 270 degree array of glowing toys to choose from, he picks up the bass clarinet and cuts through the space with a kind of dark, jazzy improvisation. We watched in awe as the man in front of us began to transform into something that resembled an octopus. With such deft agility he moved between computers, mixers, keyboards and more, with gradual layers of pulsating rhythms answering the call of the clarinet (which he somehow continued to simultaneously play throughout). The driving bass line, a prominent feature in much of his work, carries the audience through the experimental opening that encompasses a melange of musical ideas. One could almost describe the sound as grand church music, the long organ sounds filling the room with dissonant chords. Then out of nowhere, layers of machinery samples begin to grind through the ethereal organ, and the church is completely raised to the ground, drowned out by this orchestra of power tools. The grating orchestra decrescendos and what emerges is the slow syncopated bass line of The Governor, from Jaar’s 2016 album Sirens.

This is what sets Jaar apart: he’s a multi-instrumentalist, singer, and producer of the highest order. He doesn’t just play songs, he creates journeys for the listener to embark upon. He builds tension where normally one would drop; a tease, he teeters, toying with ebb and flow like a grand puppet master. This makes the descent that much sweeter, notably so as the crowd heaved with hands high as strobes flash in unison to the gospel chants of “glory glory”, an excerpt from his BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix.

It was a musical degustation of Latin, gospel, progressive rock, electronic, tribal, techno and more. That’s the thing, you never really know what you’re going to be served – and for good reason, I discovered, as I got to see him two night in a row. Chatting to those around me, I discovered I wasn’t alone. There were so many people there that second night, who like me, were so blown away by the show the night before, they returned – which can only be a testament to his genius.

Largely an instrumental set, Jaar lends his voice to some of his songs both in English and Spanish. The lyrics act more as a poetic musical accent, moving steadily with the beat as he delivers them in a deep drum, reminiscent of something like Nick Cave‘s Red Right Hand.

To a sizzling sight of white strobes and twirling spotlights, he closed the show with a powerful rendition of Space is Only Noise If You Can See. The entire audience swayed and recited along with Jaar in perfect unison under his hypnotic trance. On the first night, we were lucky enough to have not one, but two encores. The second came a few minutes after the house lights had gone up, though, meaning at least a third of the audience had already left and missed out.

As the lights drew dim for the final time, Jaar appeared back on stage in a plume of pink, constructing layer upon layer of complex Latin rhythms and sounds that transported you straight across the Pacific into the epicentre of a Carnival party. People everywhere lost their inhibitions dancing in the now half empty theatre (there were eight shirtless guys in a dance circle on the stairs having the time of their lives). The lights refracted and an entire rainbow of colour filled the room, then Jaar inched towards the microphone and finished us all off with his classic Mi Mujer.

As the house lights went up once again, you could see the awe beaming from every face; but while the show was over as we all shuffled off into the rain-soaked night, you just knew that the aural and emotional intensity would linger on far longer.

Read more: The Tangled Imagination of Nicolas Jaar

Words by Nathalie Blanket