Thursday, 6 November 2014

Soulfest Brisbane review – D'Angelo's voodoo ensures new festival hits the heights

After no-shows and technical glitches in Sydney and Melbourne, Soulfest comes good in Brisbane.

It always seemed a remote possibility that such an audacious travelling festival as Soulfest would take place without any hitches. Assembling a clutch of modern soul's most illustrious campaigners - and bringing D'Angelo and Maxwell to Australia for the first time – was for many more outlandish vision than possible reality. And indeed, there were problems: perennial canceller Mos Def missed his flight and did not appear at the Melbourne leg and then cancelled a side show in Brisbane, while the entire local stage in Melbourne was pulled due to "operational and logistical issues". Sound problems reportedly blighted both the Melbourne and Sydney shows.

But if those are the biggest problems faced by Soulfest in its inaugural year, then the event can be deemed successful, given the magnitude of what organisers were attempting. The notion of D'Angelo - semi-reclusive R&B mystic with the Prince-like aura who has now made the world wait 14 years and counting for a third album - taking the stage at the Riverstage Amphitheatre in Brisbane's Botanical Gardens seemed preposterous earlier in the year, yet at around 7:30pm here he emerged to join his band, the thudding bass and swirling psychedelic guitar from Jesse Johnson (once Prince's guitarist) confirming that D'Angelo is an artist on a different planet to the rest of the Soulfest line-up.

His habit in rare shows in recent years has been to litter his set with covers, and indeed tonight he opened with Funkadelic's Miss Lucifer's Love and followed it up later with passages from the same band's No Ass No Backstage Pass. When turning to his own songs, he largely ignored first album Brown Sugar, in favour of 2000's seminal Voodoo. A serviceable Chicken Grease and Left & Right gave way to a spectacular One Mo'Gin, with its signature organ groan, before ending with an extended, melodramatic, occasionally unhinged version of Untitled (How Does It Feel). It was a dark, frenzied 40 minutes where he switched between guitar and keys and again, endured some minor sound limitations. But the glow would not be dimmed.

D'Angelo did engage the crowd through call and response and picked out women to serenade, yet he hardly exhibited the levels of charm shown by Aloe Blacc, one of the only imported artists able to pronounce 'Brisbane' correctly, who performed mid-afternoon. Oozing charisma, his deeply polished, more classic soul elicited a more ecstatic response from a crowd that remained impressively sober and sensible all day – the availability of beer no stronger than mid-strength perhaps being a factor. The other acts along Aloe Blacc's lines included Musiq Soulchild, slightly more adventurous sonically, and the bouncy but ultimately tepid Maxwell, who closed the night following D'Angelo. Maxwell, a relentlessly cheery performer, wore a sharp tailored suit to D'Angelo's leathers and sleeveless black t-shirt, and sung in his Michael Jackon-like trill, to D'Angelo's demonic wail. His performance was a beacon of professionalism, but goosebumps were in short supply.

A celebration of 'neo-soul, hip-hop and jazz' was how Soulfest was promoted, and of the rappers, the colour and magnetism of Common easily outshone Mos Def. On better days, the latter can be devastating, but here he was surprisingly lethargic and offered little energy until he joined Common during his set and the pair indulged in some Australia-themed freestyling and performed the Black Star single Respiration. Common himself was imperious, swinging between sexually and politically charged rhymes backed up by DJs who on the day left those behind Mos Def in the shade. The duet was far from the highlight of Common's performance, but easily Mos Def's best moment.

A criticism of the schedule might be that the two main female presences on the bill, Angie Stone and Leela James, were finished by early afternoon. This is slightly mitigated by the fact that the local stage in Brisbane, set adjacent to the main stage so as to fill the gaps between foreign artists, was defined by performances from two Australian women. Brisbane's Bec Laughton was unmatched by anyone in terms of an infectious stage presence and music that explores recesses of rock, funk, dub and afro-beat, while Sydney's magnificent Ngaiire allowed the elaborate electronic overtones of her album Lamentations to be generally absent as her elegant, powerful voice took centre-stage. This pair added a solidity to the festival (and overshadowed another home-grown act, Nathaniel, who seemed a little too keen to draw attention to his ARIA nomination), proving that Soulfest was not solely about D'Angelo, even if his presence, and ultimately his performance too, left an otherworldly impression.

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