Monday, 27 February 2012

Essence of Music - Fat Freddy's Drop & Erykah Badu

"From then on, I realized this is what I want to do, what I'm supposed to do: Giving energy and receiving it back through applause. I love it. That's my world. I love it. I enjoy it. I live for it." - Erykah Badu

On Wednesday night my friend Kylie and I went to see Erykah Badu at the Palais Theatre in St. Kilda.

The support act was Fat Freddy's Drop and between the name, and a very brief look at YouTube for what their style of playing was, I decided that I didn't mind whether we got there in time for them or not, because I wasn't particularly interested. 

So that was a valuable lesson.

Fat Freddy's Drop

Fat Freddy's Drop were brilliant. Whatever clips I'd seen did not do them justice. I was expecting a DJ and one or two on the mic. What we got was a DJ, vocalist, keyboardist, guitarist and a tight little horn trio of (predominantly) trombone, trumpet and sax that fused half a dozen music styles into a performance that was captivating, energising and musically fascinating.

Photo credit: Gregory Lynch 
From what I can gather, they are generally referred to as a dub/reggae group, which I suspect is simply for lack of a better way of categorising them. Yes, electro-Caribbean beats drove a lot of the music, but layered over the top were elements of soul, funk, blues and more than a little New Orleans style jazz. Hip-hop added flavour at times without being overdone.

Trumpeter Toby Laing once said, "live performance is the most natural state for music," and this group, along with Ms Badu later on, demonstrated this beautifully.

I learnt after their performance that they often improvise on stage, going with the energy of the space and the feel of the music, and I'm not surprised to hear it.

Their music was heavily progressive in parts, taking its time, building the energy slowly but surely, bringing the Palais to a delightful simmer, until finally it was time for the pot to boil over.

It would be hard work, I would imagine, to get 3000 patrons on their feet in an old-style theatre that was never built for a party. But work hard they did, with Joe Lindsay gradually stripping down to singlet and boxers in between trombone and tuba solos and jumping about, hyping the crowd, whilst the music built to a feisty climax.

It was as if the energy in the room could no longer be contained, with individuals suddenly jumping up out of their seats and dancing, much to the delight of the band. First there was a dozen, then soon it was fifty, even a hundred people on their feet. Eventually we were all up and dancing and the band responded, stepping it up another notch, as if suddenly renewed by the energy we were finally giving back.

The interval was long, which gave everyone a well-earned rest (though perhaps wasted a bit of the energy that had been so expertly built by the more-than-just-support act almost an hour before).

Then suddenly, the lights went down again.

Erykah Badu

I am still a fairly new convert to Baduizm. There were rumours a couple of years ago of her making an appearance at an impromptu Prince gig in Paris and, though it didn't eventuate, it led to discussions of their mutual respect and appreciation for each others' music and so, of course, I went out hunting for more on this so-called Queen of Neo-Soul.

Such a title would explain her majestic entrance on Wednesday evening, amidst a darkened stage, her band already providing a soundtrack to her introduction. Her graceful movement and dramatic gestures were tempered by a not-so-glamorous outfit, at least to begin with, of a trench-coat and oversized, white framed glasses, with her hairstyle more indicative of a conservative librarian than a glamorous soul singer.

Photo credit: Gregory Lynch 
Erykah is a beautiful demonstration of someone who has built a strong enough ego to withstand the perils of fame, but who is not controlled by it. It is a tool she has learnt to wield, rather than the tyrant it can become when left unsupervised.

As such, she can hold unquestioning command over the stage, as well as her completely captive audience, yet can reveal layer after layer of self through her music, exposing fears and truths with vulnerability many would struggle with simply in the company of one.

Erykah has said previously that she does not consider herself a singer - that she simply allows people to watch her feel music and how it comes through her. Listening to her, this makes sense.

Though R&B is in the palette of so many of my favourite artists, it's not a genre that I generally connect with and as such, was not drawn in to her music, heavily rooted in R&B, as much as the rest of her audience clearly was.

But her singing. That was just one big continuous highlight for me.

Whatever the song, to watch her feel the music, to see how it came through her, undiluted and unfiltered, was truly a privilege.

She sang older material like 'On & On', as well as tracks from her 2010 CD, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), including '20 Feet Tall' which she opened with, right up to a new, presumably unreleased piece that she expressed gratitude for being able to share.

'Didn’t Cha Know' closed out Erykah's set - she dedicated it to her friend James Yancey and said that it was her favourite song to sing. The way she sang it, no one would argue. Again, the vulnerability of spirit allowed for the music to flow and soar, seemingly effortlessly.

She returned to the stage to wild applause to perform 'Bag Lady' as an encore, ending up in amongst the crowd, handing the mic to excited fans, one of which did a great job, covering the vocals for her as Erykah climbed back on stage, only to jam some more.

Both performances of the night were excellent examples of the essence of live music - a vibe that simply cannot be reproduced (solely) digitally. The presence of the performers, the energy of the audience, that moment in time that has to be lived, not recorded.

If it's been a while since you've seen some live music being played, it's a good time to ditch the earphones and find somewhere to go.

Whether it's to a large venue to see an international sensation like Erykah Badu, or a local pub to see a band the rest of the world will never have the privilege of hearing, it's worth the ticket (or cover charge) to get a bit of the real deal into your system.

It's good for the Soul.


  1. Wow Claire. You totally nailed the experience. It was an awesome night of raw and exceptionally tight live music delivered by talented performers. Even got my weary body up and grooving against its protest. I'm so good I got to share it with you. x

  2. Nice review Claire. It seems that almost every Badu show is different in some way, which is no bad thing.
    I'm glad you got to see her.