Sydney Festival: We think you're a joke
If you take a look over to the side of this page, you'll notice I've got a Twitter feed going. Screw Rock 'n' Roll has now officially joined the microblogging age. I believe the inventor of such a thing won a Nobel Peace Prize or something. You can follow my minute-by-minute musings here. And while you're waiting me to update that feed, how about you read my long overdue Sydney Festival whinge?
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
Sydney Festival 2009 First Night
College St/Hyde Park
January 10, 2009
If you live in New South Wales, you tend to expect anything associated with the state government to fail dismally. Actually, to be more precise, if you live outside of Sydney, you expect the state government not to know you're alive, while if you're in Sydney, you expect the state government to know you're alive, and, whether through negligence, stupidity or a carefully calibrated combination of the two, to make life as difficult as possible.
The currently running Sydney Festival isn't wholly operated by the NSW government, but if its First Night event was any indication, Premier Nathan Rees and co are sufficiently involved to have infected the proceedings with their unending capacity for incompetence.
I finished work on the night of January Saturday 10, and headed into the city to catch the First Night festivities, which featured the always irritating Melbourne group Cat Empire, A-Trak, Santogold, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and Grace Jones. Also, there were a bunch of DJs you don't care about.
I got to the Hyde Park/Domain strip on the east side of the city at nine o'clock, immediately as Santogold was starting, so I didn't expect things to run one hundred percent smoothly, but I arrived to find a mess. The festival organizers had just closed off The Domain, where Grace Jones was to perform, meaning thousands of people were milling about looking for something else to do, apparently unaware that when the biggest city in the country promises a free show in a pretty damn big park with a lot of empty space, they didn't actually intend to let everyone in.
But that's OK. There were other acts to see. Acts like the Shaun Parker Projects, which sounds like the public housing block a New York rapper might claim to have hustled at, but in actuality was some kind of contemporary dance performance. All due respect to Sydneysiders with a passion for contemporary dance, but I feel pretty safe in saying the majority of folks weren't in the city to experience the marvels of Mr. Parker's choreography.
So, with five of the remaing six stages showing hippy drum circles or whatever, everyone who couldn't get into the Domain descended on Santogold. That's if they could find it. None of the stages were signposted, and in lieu of maps of the festival area, the organizers had apparently decided it would be more useful to put up advertisements for ANZ, the bank sponsoring proceedings. My advice: if ANZ's involvement with the Sydney Festival is any indication, giving them your money is not a good idea.
In the end, though, I found Santogold, which would have been great, if only the police hadn't found her first. They were throwing up wide cordons around the College street stage where she was performing, and letting no one in (though plenty of folks were streaming out). I'm sure there are plenty of reasons why they considered this necessary; the number of people already at the stage, the number of people wanting to get to the stage, the stirring in the loins experienced by NSW politicians every time they see the boys in blue marching around. Whatever: the facts are that they had two gigantic inner-city parks and half a dozen city streets to put on a day's worth of shows, of which there were only about five a large number of people would want to see. And yes, if I wanted to see Santogold that badly, I could have shown up earlier or gone to one of her paying shows. But I can't help but feel if you need to call out 50 on horseback to constrain the crowd at a Santi White show — you know, a woman who writes songs for Ashlee Simpson — if you need the po-pos to lock that shit down, You're Doing It Wrong.
So I watched about half the Santogold set on a video screen I could see peering over the shoulder of a lady cop (no Mrs Officer). It sounded a lot like what listening to a Santogold CD sounds like.
Fortunately, Sharon Jones was in less demand and was considerably more exciting. I found Ms Jones and band after a long and fruitless search for the stage at which they were to perform. (Eventually two volunteers appeared to tell me they did not have a map, but could direct me to the show that I was looking for.) Jones was introduced by the leader of the Dap Kings, and listening to their lively funk on a warm night beneath a glowing Sydney skyline, I began to feel maybe the night would turn out OK.
And it did, I guess. I don't think I've ever been part of a more bourgie audience than the one at that Jones show; it was all smart casual shirts and glasses of white wine, except for one aging boomer who, on Jones' entrance, tried to adopt an African-American accent, bellowed "Sing it, Sistah!" and spent the remainder of the set flailing his arms around with whatever it is that is the exact polar opposite of rhythm. I removed myself from his presence very rapidly.
Even if the Dap Kings at times seemed to absorb the gentility of their surroundings, their tight, energetic rhythms cooling off into something more appropriate as background music for a picnic in the park, Sharon Jones made sure to never let up. She flirted, teased, lectured the men and conspired with the women she plucked from the audience, and finally, seeming to have exhausted every other possibility, took off her high heels and wilded out in a dance that she claimed was half-African, and half Native-American.
But I can't help but feel that even as good a singer as Jones is, and as tight a unit as her band is, she would seem nearly quite so spectacular if she were not the only one doing this sort of thing. When you're one of the only acts in the game doing that kind of late '60s funk/soul properly, and your competitors are disgracefully tepid interlopers like Amy Winehouse, how could you not seem brilliant by comparison? Is it unfair to critique the Dap Kings for not being as good as, say, the Memphis Groove, even if they do sound genuinely exciting during their shows?
But even with those doubts playing in the back of my mind, I cannot describe the show as anything less than thoroughly enjoyable. Whether upbeat or soulful or both at once, Jones wrought excellence from even her less memorable songs. And when she finished with one of her best, the title track for her most recent album, 2007's 100 Days, 100 Nights, her set achieved something seemingly impossible for a festival run by the NSW government: it was tight, proficient, and completed without a police officer in sight.
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