The Sydney Harbour Bridge is outlined in luminous green. The skyscrapers on the skyline are dappled pink and teal, and under the sails of the Sydney Opera House punters gaze out over the harbour as ferries trundle past emblazoned with neon zoo animals – a tiger, a frog, a rhinoceros – and, just in case you hadn’t caught on to how all these things were supposed to make you feel, hashtags: #ILoveSydney, #Inspired.
Sydney’s Vivid festival is a strange beast – a public light show, a concert series, a talk-fest. Whether you’re #Inspired by the proliferation of phosphorescence or not, the Sydney Opera House’s north boardwalk is a pretty great spot for an outdoor gig, with natural crowd-controlling entries and exits and beautiful views. It’s been two years since the Opera House has programmed an event there, and it was a Vivid show then too: Future Classic’s 10th anniversary celebration in 2015.
This time around it’s the Since I Left You Block Party, curated by the Avalanches: a five-act, two-night performance featuring a lineup of local and international DJs and hip-hop artists, along with the Avalanches themselves. It starts at the very respectable time of 5pm, and like all parties, it takes a while to get going.
Jonti plays to more or less empty forecourt while the sun is still visible – the Vivid lights haven’t even been switched on yet. DJ JNETT provides the entertainment invisibly in the breaks – the electronic screen on stage plasters her name up during every set change but your correspondent cannot spot the DJ herself.
The audience starts to trickle in more steadily during the short set from Indigenous Australian hip-hop artist Briggs. There’s no live band – he’s accompanied on stage by vocalist Caiti Baker and rapper Nooky, with back-up tunes from DJ Total Eclipse – but he is magnetic. He makes the awkwardly milling punters laugh, dance and cheer, and it’s disappointing when he bows out after the scheduled half-hour. When he later reappears on stage with the Avalanches to ramp up and rap over a version of the relentless 2016 earworm Frankie Sinatra, it is the evening’s highpoint – mostly due to Briggs’ own relentless charisma.
By the time DJ Shadow takes the stage at 7pm, the crowd has swelled and is filling out the space. His set is all about his own music – “some of it you’ll know, some of it you won’t” – and he opens it with the title track to his 2016 album, The Mountain Will Fall. It is one of the least altered works in a set that proves to be more DJ Shadow deconstructed – he might be playing all his own music but this is no Endtroducing rehash, despite it being that album’s 21st birthday. Familiar hooks and samples appear (the piano line from Blood on the Motorway, the unmistakable melody from Organ Donor) but with different emphasis, morphing into new shapes. It’s at turns danceable, ethereal and mesmeric – particularly as it’s accompanied by a Vivid-appropriate synaesthetic visual display.
The Avalanches have been through some rather dramatic lineup changes in the decade and a half since their first album; when they take the stage at 9pm, remaining members Tony de Blasi and Robbie Chater are joined on stage by Naeem Juwan (AKA Spank Rock) and Eliza Wolfgramm, along with Jonti on guitar and Paris Jeffree on drums.
Despite some early issues with sound levels – the vocals in the opening song, Wildflower’s Because I’m Me, all but disappear into the blast of instrumentals – the show is upbeat and the energy infectious. Juwan and Wolfgramm do much of the heavy lifting, with Wolfgramm singing the vocal lines in lieu of samples and Juwan rapping in the Wallflower songs. The choice to use live vocalists has a clear payoff – the crowd is hopping about excitedly – but it does come at the cost of many of the slightly atonal idiosyncrasies of the records, which arguably help create the Avalanches’ distinctive sound.
A cover of the Clash’s Guns of Brixton is a highlight, while Frontier Psychiatrist is the clear audience favourite. Guest vocals from Briggs and the Preset’s Julian Hamilton (on Wildflower’s If I Was a Folkstar) round out the set. But it feels too short – a mere hour – and there is no encore, despite the entreaties of the crowd. The show ends with a sense that it hasn’t quite fulfilled its potential – as if the cops shut down the party just as it really got going. This is #Sydney after all.