Vivid Live, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, June 1
Excuse the Donald Rumsfield moment but ahead of Nick Murphy’s first shows in Australia since shedding the name, the persona and the personal drama behind his former nom-de-pop, Chet Faker, there were some known knowns, some known unknowns and, yes, some unknown unknowns.
We’d heard some new songs and read the interviews and knew this was a more confident, or at least less unsettled Murphy coming our way, while working in similar musical territory to the R&B/electronic style with which he’d made “his” name.
We didn’t know what the show part might offer but wondered if a full band and the prospect of a festival spot in the Opera House would offer chances for some technical upgrade.
These we got. While hardly talkative, Murphy looked engaged and in control, and with sometimes spectacular lighting, assertive sonics and a dancing (til the sweat dripped from hair and beard) frontman, genuine show was offered.
Likewise the new songs merged within, or maybe the old songs merged out to meet, smoothly enough.
What we didn’t know that we didn’t know was how this no-more-Faker and his material would be transformed by physicality.
Its most obvious manifestation was that dancing Murphy who regularly strode across and behind the band area - the show was effectively in the round with the “choir” seats behind the stage filled - with what might once have been thought of as barely contained emotion (Rage? Frustration? Embarrassment? Desire?) but now looked more like energy needing expression and connection.
More tellingly though was how everything felt edgier, tougher, funkier, visceral. In Bye andDriving Too Fast, the show started and peaked with literal screaming and booming sound viewed through strobes and lasers.
The rhythm section didn’t glide R&B style but punched on the groove in the funk manner. Guitar began the night in solid riff mode and often enough was doubled, with Murphy switching from synths to electronic manipulators to piano (electric and acoustic) to guitar, or when guest Marcus Marr stepped in on songs from their joint EP, Work.
There were moments where it was possible to recall Underworld, who had blown minds and standards in this room a few months ago, and LCD Soundsystem, who understand the connection between punk, dance and rock.
This was exciting and elemental but never as simplistic as bigger/louder: this was fuller and wider and richer too.
The tradeoff seemed to be a diminution of the role of Murphy’s vocals, which had always been a winning element in their ability to offer the vulnerability of soul within technology-infused landscapes.
Mixed down to put it as just another component of the sound, Murphy’s voice sometimes seemed almost superfluous. That this may have been part of technical failures rather than choice was suggested by the stark uptick in volume in the voice-and-piano closing Stop Me (Stop You) after crowd requests to “turn it up” were heeded.
(Incidentally, there were more than a few boofheads in this audience who could do with a stern chat from mum and dad on shutting the #$@% up during a gig, especially any quieter bits, so that a song like Stop Me (Stop You) could have its full emotional impact. Also, get off my lawn.)
More damaging though was a 20 minute section towards the end of the night where the show lost focus and energy, drifting on through some old and new songs like Forget About Me andI’m Ready that didn’t seem to know if they were meant to bend or blend.
With this part of the show excised it would have been a tight and thrilling night, rather than one whose flaws got a little more attention than really deserved.
But even with this mini-slump, Murphy easily convinced us that there’s still genuine excitement possible on stage or on record in anything he does, whatever his name.
That’s now a known known.
(pics by Daniel Boud)