The Sydney Opera House has been branching out from more traditional "highbrow" entertainment for some time now, with the past few years in particular seeing a shift in programming towards contemporary music. From big names like Bjork and Massive Attack playing under the stars in the forecourt, to French crooners Air performing an intimate secret show in the famous concert hall, it's made for some truly inspired performances. The venue will also play host again to the Vivid Live festival, which will see a variety of hyped "indie" acts of the moment strutting their stuff over the coming weeks.
So when James Lavelle's long-standing UNKLE project was invited to perform a special gig in the concert hall with members of the Sydney Lyric Ensemble earlier this month, it didn't come as too much of a surprise. In fact, the gig seemed especially fitting for a band whose cinematic scope bears many an emotive, string-laden moment. One person that did seem surprised, however, was Lavelle himself, who responded in an interview by saying that Australia is a place that really "gets" his music. He has a point; whilst, internationally, there's been an overall sense of apathy towards most of the UNKLE material produced after Psyence Fiction, Australia has been largely receptive to their ever-evolving output. You kind of got the feeling that this was to be one of the few chances, if maybe the only one, for them to play at such an iconic venue.
It's a shame, then, that what had the makings to be a special night turned out to be so, well, lustreless. You could blame the audience—who, apart from the odd diehard fan dancing in front of their seat, were rather subdued, even for a Monday night—but it seems unfair to criticise a crowd who aren't really offered a whole lot to lose their shit over. Despite the drummer and both guitarists really smashing it out on tracks like "Burn My Shadow" and "Restless," what the band normally get away with at a festival didn't translate to the dense atmosphere of the concert hall. The backdrop footage of past guest singers like Ian Brown and Josh Homme tried to compensate for a lack of any real front man (surely Gavin Clark could fill this role?), yet without one to hold everything together, the band at times seemed exposed and disconnected. Watching Lavelle do very little in front of all his equipment except press some buttons, cue up a record or strike Jesus poses was especially odd.
The biggest let down, though, was not only the poor sound quality of the strings, but also how seldom they were used. They accompanied all the obvious tracks—"Reign," for example—but for a gig whose raison d'etre seemed to be the inclusion of a string ensemble, its lack of incorporation throughout was curious. The fact that you could barely hear them didn't help either. Admittedly, the vibe picked up considerably for the encore (I'm surprised they even got one) after Lavelle spilled his guts on how amazed and humbled he was to be performing at the Opera House, coaxing the audience to get off their bums for classics like "Heaven," "In a State" and "Lonely Soul." They obliged, but it all felt a little too late. A career-defining moment it wasn't.