The Matthew Herbert Big Band at The Sydney Opera House, 24/01/08 (Sydney Festival)


Matthew Herbert has been gracing our shores for over ten years now thanks to the Mad Racket party organisers. He’ performed countless times at the Marrickville Bowling Club to a bunch of keen dance floor revellers who know how to hang in there till six am and have no problem with the kitsch décor that includes marvels such as the tinge of porn star mirrored ceiling, a tiny disco ball, gaudily patterned carpet floors and portraits of “Our Lady President’s in her best white bowling garb on the walls.

So the gig for this year’ Sydney Festival was somewhat different in proportion and scale alike. For the first time, Matthew Herbert was invited to bring his “big band’ and perform in the Sydney Opera House’ concert hall. For the show, he assembled a core group of musicians from London (including the soul diva Eska on vocals), and chose Australian musicians such as Cameron Undy (on bass) and Aron Ottignon (on piano) to fill the remaining positions.

It worked splendidly.

He entered the stage a man assured in both his musical and crowd pleasing abilities. With the Big Band behind him and Eska to his side he had every reason to be confident. It takes a strong personality and an even stronger voice to hold centre stage over a large group of live musicians and sound effects but that’s just what Eska managed to do. For the entire night she shined as brightly as her be-sparkled shoes and shirt and owned that stage with characteristic sass.

Meanwhile, Herbert proved his technical agility by performing his song about State sponsored torture, “Battery’, with his head covered in black cloth. The image was starkly reminiscent of garish scenes from the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention centre and Herbert’s sense of play and politics were re-emphasised as the performance unfolded. At one stage the band paused with Herbert announcing, “Tonight, we are reading The Daily Telegraph”. Then slowly, in a kind of synchronicity, the pages of the tabloid paper are opened, torn, discarded and thrown around the stage, descending into a splendid paper fight. This theatre was sampled and played back in his trademark style of loops and glitches while the band resumed playing.

It’s clear that the many experiments in sound production that Matthew Herbert has undertaken over the years under different monikers have slowly unified. His politics of destruction and subtle subversive way of taking things he finds displeasing in the world and making a new soundtrack out of them is one piece of the journey. His love of the romantic era of show that led him to assemble a big band collaboration is another step. He remains consistent in his reputation as the technician and sound explorer despite his metamorphoses. This night at the Opera House proved to be a winning combination of all his efforts so far. The crowd certainly agreed as they clapped and danced through not just one but two roaring encores.

Renae Mason.


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