Picture by Daniel Boud
Vivid Live, Sydney Opera House, May 29
Daniel John and Luke Steele are having a pretty fab time with their long-mooted collaboration, the two-man, electro-pop, audio-visual, hyphenate’s dream, Dreams. This enjoyment is its primary calling card and certainly the reason why Johns, whose discomfort with public performance is well known, has been to Coachella and now the Opera House.
For this night Johns arrives dressed as a member of early Roxy Music set up in the court of Louis XIV: glitter everywhere, pantaloons, open jacket/shirt/cape that is discarded with a flourish later, and stack boots which threaten to derail every OH&S protocol (and insurance policy) at the Opera House. Steele is more your cosmic cowboy meets high street fashion store’s “rebellious range”, with flat western hat, long coat and t-shirt festooned with graffiti-like scratchings.
As they stomp about putting on funny voices, trying out - twice - gags about harpists’ ability to attract the opposite sex, giving their guitars some welly, it’s a hoot. A well constructed hoot, right down to the multiple harps set up in the four-piece band behind them. And they spend the evening joking with each other, with us, with the equipment, with the screen, with feedback, with microphone effects
There are moments of dizzying psychedelia (mostly on the screen), torrents of electronic rock that not that long ago was called electro-clash (til the bottom dropped out of the market), some moments of a promising cross between Cabaret Voltaire-ish post punk and Ministry-style aggression, several flashes of the kind of high-as-a-kite pop which Steele has made his style with Empire Of The Sun and a brief glimpse of the R&B electronica Johns assayed last time he was on this stage.
Picture by Daniel Boud
It sounds big. It looks bright and shiny. It has some people out of their seats doing the jellybird, a dance purportedly of Steele’s invention. (It also has some people leaving by the end of the first half hour). And yet it leaves no mark. It has no purpose beyond its exposure. It is so shallow as to have me considering if anyone yet has come up with the term trust fund electro.
No, for my colleague who thought I was suggesting some privileged background for this pair who are from your typical solid working stock etc, that isn’t a comment on “daddy’s money”. Rather it’s a reflection on why sometimes a busman’s holiday for two very talented artists with the freedom and space to explore fantasy musical ideas – How wacky can we make this? How funny would it be if we did this right here? What would it sound like if we ….. – with no one in the room to say, “yeah, cool, but what about writing a song around this?” can end up being a hot mess of indulgence.
Dreams surprised some by pulling of the sonics of their studio adventures, which is a good start. And any time Daniel Johns wants to perform I’m there. But just saying (and rhyming) exotica and erotica doesn’t make it so, especially in lyrics which operated as discontinuous lines stitched together in post. Offering tokens of insurrection doesn’t suggest actual rebellion when the music feels old hat.
Give me something to at least nibble on once the lights stop flashing and the drum loop stops echoing. Give me a sharp and memorable centre to the bon-bon, not just the sugar of self-satisfaction.
Dreams returns to the Sydney Opera House, May 30.