Last week, I descended on BIGSOUND in what was my 6th visit to the iconic Brisbane conference and festival. Just about every year the event has grown in size – from the amount of bands playing, to the amount of venues utilised and the number of attendees. This year felt unquestionably the biggest yet, amped up by a third official showcase night on the Tuesday, which had long been sequestered to “unofficial pre-party” capacity, a duty which now extends to Monday – something that the most dedicated can enjoy. Across three days and nights I witnessed dozens of performances across countless venues – making plenty of new discoveries on the way, and reconnecting with a tonne of old favourites, too.
As I sit here to reflect on my time at the event, 11 performances stick out to me as the most memorable of the week. Naturally, for every band I saw, there were dozens more that I missed – but it’s fair to say that across the board BIGSOUND delivered one of its finest lineups ever.
Let’s start off with the discoveries, and I have to lead that pack with POW! Negro, one of the most talked about bands of the week. The Fremantle based group deliver incredible levels of energy, as they summon immediate comparisons to Rage Against The Machine. Indeed, frontman and MC Nelson Mondlane seems to have grown up on a healthy Zach de la Rocha diet – with a bit of a Future Islands (or perhaps DMX) growl thrown in for good measure – while the band blend a fusion of hip hop, jazz and psychedelia, topped off by a healthy splattering of saxophone, to make their sound as memorable as it is unique. They rocked the stage with every performance, and seemed to be enjoying it as much as we were – adding in a few high fives and great vibes along the way.
Sloan Peterson was another of the more talked about artists, and one of my discoveries for the festival – though I have heard her name floating around for quite a while now, after she joined the same management team as Gang of Youths. Her music seems born of the history of guitar driven music, and could fit in any era, past or present. With a three piece band behind her, she made established herself as an artist to watch. At the OzTix party, I was impressed by Newcastle alternative rock outfit Introvert, who deliver music reminiscent of Brand New, early Trail of Dead: even Manchester Orchestra. Their heavy cover of Prince’s “1999” was a highlight of the set.
On the other end of the musical spectrum, Exhibitionist was another highlight, the new project of the incredibly talented Kirsty Tickle, with production from Jonathan Boulet (on drums) and Maples on BV and keys. Her set ended with “Being a Woman” ends, a powerful song, where the squeal on Kirsty’s sax that ended the track serving as powerful as her voice and her lyrics as she lamented being a women in the modern world.
There were a lot of artists playing solo trying to do a lot of things at once. But few were doing it as successfully as Taj Ralph. Great voice, some moments reminiscent of Ed Sheeran. Lots of looping. Unearthed High finalist. Son of sam rad. And on my final artists in the “discoveries” column, the new project from the members of Melbourne group Tully on Tully, a long time favourite here at the AU, was Press Club. They’ve been on my radar for a while, but this was the first time I’d had the chance to see the group play – and they impressed. Natalie Foster has been reborn as a rock goddess in her new project, heavier than anything they’ve done before; they feel right at home here and I expect to see great things from the band who will follow in the footsteps of the likes of Tired Lion.
Moving onto the artists I’d seen prior, Thandi Phoenix impressed on her 24th birthday, playing her new single and a South African inspired jam, which proved the highlight of the set, as she played homage to her roots. She is a phenomenal live talent and only gets better with every performance. While this was at least in part expected, the new project of Mama Kin and Spender was a surprise, as the pair took us to church with a sixteen piece choir. Incredible songwriters in their own right, seeing them together feels like the sort of perfect collaboration that you wouldn’t expect, but once it’s in place, you wonder why they didn’t do it sooner. More choirs at future BIGSOUNDs too, please!
Karl S Williams was accompanied by a three piece band in one of this year’s new additions to the BIGSOUND venue lineup, Laruche. Williams gave the festival a much needed dose of the sort of music that Ash Grunwald has delivered so beautifully over the years, that Williams has made completely his own, cranking that slide guitar up to 11 and summoning the history of Blues, Soul and Americana in every note. The set ended with him solo on the guitar, delivering a beautiful soulful number. Total Giovanni brought one of the biggest parties of the whole week on Wednesday night. Ric’s Backyard was rammed, and with good reason – they are one of the best live bands in Australia right now.
The same venue the next day saw Electric Fields pack out the South Australia party with their only showcase; an “unofficial” BIGSOUND performance as it were. I’ve been raving about this duo since experiencing them at the NIMAs last month, but having only seen two tracks at that event, getting to see them enthral the crowd with a full half hour showcase was breathtaking. The pair were accompanied by a backing guitarist here, to add weight to music which was primarily created electronically. The fusion of a world of genres – from soul to pop to EDM to ?? And everything in between – with a mix of Indigenous language and English, gives them a sound that nobody comes close to matching. Add in lead singer Zaachariaha‘s incredible vocal range and you have one of Australia’s most exciting acts right now, the sort that leave jaws on the floor, hairs standing up on the back of your neck and grown men with tears in their eyes. See the track “Nina Simone” live and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
And finally there was one of the event’s biggest names – Washington – who used the event as a chance to preview her new record, comically remarking early on in the set, “if you came to hear the hits, fuck off.” It was just her and a piano, with her beautiful new music bringing the crowd to (relative) silence. Among the highlights of the set were “American Spirit”, which she said she wrote out of desperation, “it’s kind of a love song to Donald Trump.” Take with that what you will. “Achilles Heart” was another stand out, amongst a run of new music which was genuinely born out of an attempt to write music about love, but came out rather dark on the other end. We can’t wait to hear the record – it’s sounding like one of the releases we all need to get excited about.
Photo of POW! Negro by Michelle Grace Hunder.