Sade @ Rod Laver Arena, 2nd December, 2011

Countless people would have looked twice at Sade’s name and assume it a prank when she first came to prominence in the mid-eighties. No one need look twice these days: Sade is pronounced her way first, the marquis be damned.

Thirty years since the heady days of Smooth Operator and Sade still pulls a sizeable crowd, and a much cherished one at that: the kind that still pays full-price for music. Although Sade is an understated performer and her between-song patter is mostly rehearsed, the theatrical elements of her show — video projections, choreography, costume changes, stage effects — combined with an overlong absence from these antipodean shores make for an entertaining evening.

The night begins with Soldier of Love. The song incorporates a mechanised, industrial feel that is a slight departure from her usual fare, and the whole production plays on it: the performers emerge from the depths of the stage on the beat; the band synchronise their movements in lock step; Sade coolly hams it up; the lights accent the snare drum pounding on the two and four.

These theatrical elements are generally a clever touch the whole night through; a nonsensical video providing the back story to Smooth Operator while affording time for an obligatory costume change, however, is not. Regrettably, neither is the song’s rendition a great success — Smooth Operator feels limp and rushed. But no matter: soon after, an atmospheric rendition of Is It A Crime elicits the greatest response of the night, the slow burn of the verses that build to the chorus that goes somewhere close to emotional a welcome change from the general restraint of Sade’s material.

The relaxed funk of Paradise has a handful of the audience on their feet, and when the song breaks down into a sanitised, adult-oriented hip hop section, everyone gets on up. Sade wisely leaves the stage to her two back-up singers who have the crowd responding to their cliched calls. It’s lightweight and ridiculous; nonetheless, it’s fun.

We’ve been told we’re loved, we’ve heard the hits; while she never commands the stage, Sade is a gracious performer, and, smartly, she doesn’t rely on her intimate, understated music alone to entertain in a venue as vast as Rod Laver Arena. Her urbane exotica and the show’s production are all well done and — dare I say it — a smooth operation indeed.

Dereb The Ambassador @ The Corner, 17th June, 2011

9 out of 10: Dereb the Ambassador bring the Ethiopian funk.

Souvlaki, laksa and tempura are but three examples of the welcome impact multiculturalism has made on the Australian palette; musically, though, it’s still the same meat and three veg of rock and roll that keeps the masses satisfied. Tonight, however, is different. Tonight Dereb Desalegn showcases the band he has put together over the course of the last decade since his arrival in Australia from his native Ethiopia, a band that serves up the slinky sounds from his homeland’s musical golden period.

Mulatu Astatke is the one-man Motown of Ethiopia, a veritable genius who created the classic Latin jazz, funk and traditional Ethiopian infusion that came to be known as ethio-jazz and which had Addis Ababa swinging in the 60s and 70s. Dereb the Ambassador mine that sound, and they fittingly begin with a driving cover of the instrumental Astatqe standard, Yelage Tizeta. The original is sexier, more lounge, the aural equivalent of a martini sipped among belly dancers in a Saharan oasis bar; but Dereb the Ambassador are bringing the funk tonight, and they conjure up a sweaty dancefloor in an overheated, overpopulated North African city, a single fan blowing ineffectually from the ceiling.

Dereb sings in his native Amharic, which, without words recognisable to this Australian’s ears, makes his voice sound like a bellowing clarinet of deep, evocative hues, both resonant and rich. And it’s that voice along with the two saxophones on stage that trace the thrillingly exotic Ethiopian melodies. Their lines slink, slither and slide, the saxophones at times sounding like two hissing snakes intertwining in desert sands. All this is on top of a crack rhythm section, the congas and the drums polyrhythmically combining to produce an outstanding underlay of intermeshed percussion for the rest of the instruments to sit on.

Dereb the Ambassador, however, are not mere revivalists: they also introduce Jamaican elements into their Ethiopian melange to good effect. The ska-like bounce to many of their numbers add a unifying element to the funky bodies on the dancefloor that are otherwise dancing to any one of the various interlocking parts of the funky, elegant whole.

Dereb the Ambassador are the real deal, a band of tight professionals that, thousands of miles away from Ethiopia, nonetheless manage to evoke the steaming clubs of Addis Ababa with their sexy flights of jazzy, North-African funk. Twiddly, trebly, whiney rock need not be the sole musical diet of a Melbournite looking for something live, and happily Australia’s multiculturalism now has something musical to hang its hat on.

Toots and the Maytals @ the Palace, 24th April, 2011

3 out of 10: Toots surrounded by mediocrity

It must be a political statement against nepotism: the show begins with Toots’ daughter singing an execrable reggae-muzak version of John Waite’s middle-of-the-road Missing You. After the song is done, she quietly takes up her spot behind a backing singer’s mic, a spot that should really be for a Maytal, and Toots, her legendary father, enters stage right.

Toots is looking ridiculously fine. Toots’ bright red outfit, a stunning throwback to Eddie Murphy’s finer days, sits snugly over his bulbous, middle-aged paunch, while his swagger and black-as-night sunglasses make for a kitschy-cool combination perhaps no other 65 year old could pull off. From the outset, it’s clear that Toots’ voice and its soulful, gospel inflections have only improved with age and his very own funky dance steps remain timeless. But right from the outset, it’s also clear that even though tonight has been billed as Toots and the Maytals, it’s not the Maytals that the world has grown up with that are on stage and the backing band is not a patch on the Skatalites.

The backing band is practically invisible. They’re hardly better than a covers band and there is little cohesion or energy Toots can work with. Although the classic Pressure Drop is the first song Toots sings, the band’s inability to nail the rhythm has the audience raising its collective eyebrow. No member of the band will end up being introduced to the audience and the show might have been better off if they weren’t there at all.

A night of Toots singing Funky Kingston, Sweet and Dandy, Louie Louie and Monkey Man should be a delight, but everything meanders. The only saving grace is Toots’ rambunctious stage presence and booming voice, especially on the songs whose gospel influences are more apparent. But even these vocal moments of joy are hamstrung by microphones dropping in and out, all of which left Toots bemoaning to his sound crew at one point, “I have a big voice — why you try and make it small?”

The punchy 54-46 Was My Number is the last song, the kind of upbeat classic that is capable of turning the memory of an ordinary night of barely middling rocksteady and reggae into a happy one. Midway through a bizarre four-on-the-floor disco interlude, no one can say for sure whether the first or last song of the night is the most bemusing.

The Bamboos @ the Prince Bandroom, 14th of January, 2011

7 out of 10: An up-and-down night of historic funk.

The Bamboos are Melbourne’s own funk institution, and it’s a testament to the band that in a music scene more attuned to the rumble of power chords, the humble, scratchy slinkiness of a funky guitar’s ninth-chord rhythms can still garner an audience.

Tonight The Bamboos are celebrating ten years of funky good times by packing out the Prince Bandroom. As tradition demands, the show begins instrumentally. Resplendent in dapper suits, The Bamboos evoke the laid-back party groove of a New Orleans night spot and sound as if The Meters had dropped by Melbourne town.

The instrumental Bamboos are a subdued lot who prefer to lock into the groove meditatively, without commotion. Although Lance Ferguson is the band’s leader on guitar, he seems almost awkward being the foremost member of the band. So when Kylie Auldist, the band’s singer, enters the stage, eyes naturally shift to her effervescent exuberance.

It’s not, however, Auldist’s finest night. She’s a little too exuberant, perhaps even drunk, and at times she garbles words and misses notes. When she alludes to some tensions within the band after having mocked The Bamboos’ early days without her, Auldist rivals Parliament’s Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk in her ability to sap away the sweetness of the groove.

A second instrumental section brings out the band’s original drummer, Scott Lambie. He emerges on stage and installs his own snare drum as part of the kit. It’s an audacious statement, supremely self-confident, the kind of thing only seasoned professionals do who consider their instruments extensions of their own selves. And when Lambie begins with an elaborate drum pattern on snare and hi-hat that barely seems possible, we each bear witness to the funk in its purest form. The song is a vehicle for those drums, those exquisitely funky drums, and when the break comes, Lambie deftly, tastefully, expertly varies the original pattern before the crowd gives the funky drummer some.

Danny Farrugia, the band’s current drummer, is no shirk, though. His breaks are manic scattershots of Keith Moon mayhem, and in combination with the tasty James Jamerson stylings of bass player Yuri Pavlinov, The Bamboos rhythm section remains a treat.

The Bamboos are, however, caught in a curious catch-22. When playing instrumentally, their funk is a delight, but the lack of any stage presence harms how the performance is received. Yet when it’s time for the bubbly Auldist to sing and there is a focal point, the funk gets scaled back for the vocals, which unfortunately don’t make up for the loss of groove. An historic night, an entertaining night, but ultimately not the night of nights.

Public Enemy @ The Corner on the 29th December, 2010

4 out of 10: A murky let down from a band that can no longer muster up the rage that drived them

The classic Public Enemy T-shirts are on sale at the front of the room and Chuck D enters from stage right with a boombox across his shoulder. Twenty years ago Public Enemy delivered their second groundbreaking work of sonic rage and righteousness, Fear of a Black Planet, and at the Corner tonight, Public Enemy are celebrating that achievement by turning Flavor Flav’s clock back and playing a show devoted to that era and that album.

The double punch of Contract on a World Love Jam and Brothers Gonna Work It Out kick off proceedings, just as they did on vinyl all that time ago. Chuck D and Flavor Flav are still their sprightly selves and two of the original S1Ws are patrolling the stage in military lockstep. But although the most visible elements of Public Enemy are still in full effect in 2010, aurally there’s something very wrong.

The screaming Prince sample on Brothers Gonna Work It Out is unheard. Chuck D’s deep, resonant voice is muffled. The live guitar, bass and drums — what seems like a great idea — sound like they’re competing rather than melding with the production. The mix is a wash of indistinctness, the muck clearing only when the sound is pared back considerably. For a band whose success was founded on its huge wall of interlocking sampled sound, the murky mush is criminal.

Be that as it may, Public Enemy have a back catalogue that kills. She Watch Channel Zero and Bring the Noise are but two classics they mine from It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the latter song ending with an a capella reprise of the exquisite rhymes of its first verse that has the exultant crowd roaring happily that “once again back is the incredible” Public Enemy. Flavor Flav’s hijinx are as effervescent as they’ve ever been, Cold Lampin’ With Flavor and 911 is a Joke highlights of the night. Nevertheless, while Flav’s ebullience are pitch perfect for those signature tunes of his, Chuck D’s equally high spirited if not quite as humorous approach to the show renders anaemic much of Public Enemy’s more aggressive material. Public Enemy are too friendly, too jovial, too comfortable. Chuck D once was hip hop’s finest fire-and-brimstone preacher, but the rage has dissipated, and with it too has much of Public Enemy’s righteous, furious edge.

Mulatu Astatke @ The Forum, 2nd May 2010

8 out of 10: A master finally receiving his dues

It’s an unlikely story: one of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival’s biggest drawcards is Mulatu Astatke, a 67-year-old Ethiopian jazz musician whose superb compositions had sunk into obscurity after civil war and famine engulfed his homeland with the Derg’s disastrous rise to power in 1974. Ever so justly, a volume of the French-produced Ethiopiques series devoted to his classic recordings and the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers paved the way for his journey to Melbourne’s shores and the long-due recognition of his status as a musician of the highest order.

Astatke’s compositions are sexy, atmospheric, smooth, melding Latin rhythms and jazz arrangements with traditional Ethiopian music. His melodies slither snake-like across sumptuous beds of sparse, hypnotic funk, and if one were ever to be sipping martinis and smoking hookahs in a steamy harem on the trail of a two-bit hustler, no doubt it would be Astatke supplying the musical backdrop.

Recent years have been busy musically for Astatke. He’s collaborated with the Heliocentrics and the Either/Orchestra as well as releasing an album of mostly original material just this year. And at the Forum tonight, he plays for the first time with Australia’s own purveyors of music from around the world, the Black Jesus Experience.

Astatke takes centre stage in traditional Ethiopian dress. Softly spoken, he unassumingly introduces each song before stepping back behind the vibraphone or some percussion and playing. Astatke allows his compositions be the primary focus, eschewing overlong solos and any trace of self-indulgence so that his melodies and harmonies, which sound so naturally distinctive to an ear raised on Western music, effortlessly beguile the audience.

Detracting from the performance, however, is a too-loud horn section. When the trumpet and two saxophones are blown in concert, the sound overpowers the rest of the delicately arranged music, bludgeoning what else is being played rather than blending with it. The Black Jesus Experience is not as tight as one would like to begin with either. As the night goes on, though, the band does grow into the music, and by the time Astatke turns to his more upbeat numbers, compositions such as Yegelie Tezeta and Sabye positively shine.

Tonight, Astatke reconfirms his place in the musical pantheon. Such heavenly music makes you think the Rastafarians might have been half-right after all: an incarnation of the divine was born in Ethiopia, even if it wasn’t Emperor Haile Selassie as they suppose.

Dr. John and the Lower 9-11 @ The Corner Hotel, 31st March, 2010

3 out of 10: A flat outing for the king of the swamp

The globe is getting warmer, the days sultrier. It’s only a matter of time before the world is one giant Louisiana swamp, and in that sweaty future, we’ll all be listening on repeat to the mad gumbo stylings of Dr. John, New Orleans’ voodoo master.

Melbourne is a long way from New Orleans, but this Wednesday night is abnormally balmy for March in the Antipodes, the unexpected heat the perfect setting for musical concoctions from the Cajun country. Dr. John will clock seventy years on this mortal coil come November, yet no matter how far removed he might be from the latest trends and his revered home town, he still exudes a timeless cool that any style-conscious youth would die for.

The guitar, bass and drums of the Lower 9-11 Band are Dr. John’s foils, and it wouldn’t be too far fetched to assume that there’s 911 years of musical experience on stage together. Everyone of them knows every nook, every cranny of the rhythms and the melodies of the swamp, and perhaps that’s what’s the problem: Dr. John and the band seem bored, on autopilot, barely even there.

The show starts with One 2am Too Many, yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that Dr. John will be in bed by midnight at the latest. Compounding the musicians’ lack of energy is the low volume — a rudimentary stereo system could blast out something louder — and the microphones on stage that are bedevilled by technical hitches which repeatedly refuse to amplify Dr. John’s delightfully gnarled knot of a voice.

All that’s not to say there aren’t highlights: Reynard Poché’s slide guitar on St. James Infirmary is ridiculously slinky and adds something new to the standard, while Dr. John remains the consummate professional, the sound of Louisiana emanating effortlessly from the keys any time his hands touch them.

Nevertheless, Dr. John and the Lower 9-11 Band showcase tonight the pitfalls of an experienced hand. They’ve been around the block perhaps too many times, and the energy of a band on the make is keenly missed. The likes of the Dap-Kings and the Bamboos still celebrate the sounds of the past with vigour, and, unfortunately, the old stagers tonight are no match for the bands they’ve inspired, no matter how much more accomplished their veteran chops might be.

Pavement @ The Palace, 14th March, 2010

8 out of 10: Delightfully off-kilter indie rock

You could confuse Pavement for your IT department. Despite what you’d expect from a rock and roll band, they saunter unassumingly onto stage dressed in bland T-shirts, their mothers more than likely having cut their hair. Although Stephen Malkmus is the band’s leader, he’s tucked away to the left of the bass player, Mark Ibold, who takes centre stage. And just like computer geeks, once you get past their nondescript exterior and awkward approach to the world, you begin to appreciate the amazing shit they can do that no one else can.

Sure, you might be partial to both sides of the great musical divides, but there will always be arguments over who or which is better: the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, Prince or Michael Jackson, Slanted and Enchanted or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. At the Palace, Pavement only make things more difficult to resolve by beginning their show with the exquisite rollick of Silence Kid (AKA the misprinted Silence Kit), finishing off with a hyper-energetic Conduit for Sale! and mining deeply from their classic first two albums throughout the night.

There is, however, another musical divide that becomes apparent over the course of the show: that between the slower, more reflective songs and the rockier, punchier numbers. Tonight, Pavement are loud and raucous. Yelling the cryptic refrain “forty, million, daggers” on Two States has always been one of life’s great pleasures. Live, with the guitars crunching and the muffled lo-fi fuzz of the recorded version replaced with punky punch, yelling the same refrain is akin to a primal therapy session. Similarly, songs such as Stereo and Unfair take flight when the chorus hits like a manic sonic bomb. Such pep combined with impromptu musical jams between songs, the bizarre antics of not one but two spare-parts musicians and the seemingly random hangers-on emerging from backstage and singing at various moments make for gonzo rock at its finest.

Unfortunately, the gonzo stylings and charged guitars overwhelm what should be reflective moments in the show. The country tinge of Range Life goes begging with nary an acoustic guitar around, and Here comes across as perfunctory rather than plaintive.

Notwithstanding such bugbears, Pavement are delightfully off-kilter. No song structure has ever tied them down, no musical genre typified their music. Their grab-bag style is well converted into a night of shambolic splendour, and their fractured melodies continue to retain their sparkle, positively glowing in the midst of their more manic moments on stage.

Jane’s Addiction at the Palace, Feb 24, 2010

9 out of 10: Awesomeness

Just as their first studio release began, so does their performance tonight at the Palace. The popping bassline and expansive drums on Up the Beach give Dave Navarro room to launch lead runs when not pummelling a power chord, while lights shine bright on Perry Farrell each time he launches his banshee wails standing majestically tall front and centre on a foldback speaker, champagne bottle in hand.

Jane’s Addiction’s heyday was over twenty years ago now, yet the band still look and feel the part of hungry rock stars on the make, Farrell and Navarro cut like men of tenderer years. And like another ageless, oft-topless frontman whose influence spans decades, Perry Farrell is overflowing with energy, limbs flailing uncontrollably, the very picture of an adult ADD sufferer. No one listens solely with their ears, and the sight of such gleeful, unhinged movement makes everything seem louder, more penetrating, as if the amps really do go all the way up to eleven.

Although they were one of the first alternative bands to make it big, the scantily-clad women gyrating provocatively on stage, the light show and the overdriven yet clean guitar tone are quintessentially LA hair metal, the sound and approach of the scene Jane’s Addiction grew out of back in the eighties. The differences, though, are sharp: whereas a band such as Mötley Crüe might write a derogatory  throwaway ditty that aims at the gonads after a particularly wonderful polyamorous sexual experience, Jane’s Addiction write Three Days, an eleven-minute psychedelic-metal epic of multiple movements that exalts the multiple women involved in the dalliance and aims to recreate the wonder of what transpired sonically. Live, dancers gyrating provocatively either side of Farrell, the drums pounding, the bass pumping, the lead wailing, one feels like one has indeed learned exactly what transpired and that eleven minutes never passed so quickly.

And that’s generally what’s most surprising about the gig: their grander epics, Three Days, Summertime Rolls, Ocean Size and Ted, Just Admit It are the most memorable, and their metallic, psychedelic, funkadelic sound spaced out into longer passages becomes almost transcendental. At such heights, Jane’s Addiction are peerless, no contemporary rock outfit ambitious enough to come close. This renders Jane Says and Been Caught Stealing — both spectacular in their own right — as mono-dimensional singalong crowd-pleasers in comparison, a curious result that speaks volumes of just how good they were.

Medeski, Martin and Wood @ the HiFi Bar, 29th Jan, 2010

7 out of 10: As is to be expected from a highly improvisational jazz band, highs, lows and everything in between

Jazz fusion is a dirty word for good reason: the genre abounds in meandering, soulless “songs” that are better off described as excursions into the wilds of boredom. Once upon a time, though, fusion was exciting: Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew is fantastic, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters a revelation. Happily, Medeski, Martin and Wood (MMW) are steeped in the still-hallowed sounds of fusion’s halcyon days and are fittingly one of the few contemporary jazz trios around who are able to draw a crowd anywhere in the world. Tonight they’re at the HiFi, and tonight they manage to three-quarters fill its sizeable surrounds.

MMW tours as part of the jam-band circuit that The Grateful Dead established and which remains a phenomenon confined to the USA. They have material spread over eight albums to choose from, but live, as all jam bands are wont to do, the songs take on a (long) life of their own.

And live, they push their material into a more avant-garde direction. On Lifeblood, for instance, the first song they play, the delicious groove breaks out into an interlude that sounds like the spinning of an inventive madman’s mind. Billy Martin, MMW’s crack drummer, is particularly creative, even sprinkling a passage reminiscent of gamelan into the section.

The night, though, belongs to John Medeski, the band’s supremely talented pianist. Medeski drives the group, switching effortlessly between organ, keyboard and grand piano while evoking the likes of Gil Evans, Bernie Worrell, Ray Charles and Chucho Valdés. The crescendos the band manages to build on the back of the inspired keys are a delight, especially when they lock into the hardest of grooves. Not only does he have the necessary touch of a jazzman, he also manages to turn his keys into an aggressive, howling beast that would not be misplaced on stage with Rage Against The Machine.

If there is criticism to be made, though, it’s the standard one made of improvisational bands: a lack of cohesion. The abrupt jumps from one style to another often sounds as unnatural as switching between radio stations, not to mention the free jazz sections that are at times as difficult to penetrate as they are inventive.

Nonetheless, MMW are a honed live band. Their many years playing together means musical ideas are constantly bounced between each band member with ease. While this improvisatory skill can sometimes be overplayed, the band is always interesting, daring and a welcome deviation from the norm.