It’s a rather poor showing tonight in Melbourne for an artist of Matthew Herbert’s calibre, with the Prince maybe only half to three quarters full. It’s particularly unexpected given he has done what you’d assume would be the crowd pleasing thing and assembled a live band charged with delivering tunes from his forthcoming album Shapes, a release that signals a return to his more dance floor friendly house orientated material. There is also the promise of some tunes from previous albums like Around the House and Bodily Functions and no mention of the weirdo sound sculptures of One Pig or Plat Du Jour. Curiously however the lack of bodies doesn’t dilute the atmosphere, and that’s thanks in the main to the DJ just prior to Herbert getting the dance floor banging and really ramping up to the headliners performance.
As the band take to the stage, guitar, keys, three piece horns, electronics, and two vocalists, Herbert strides to the microphone clipboard in hand and begins telling us what we wont hear. As he plays the opening strains of his classic Louie Austen remix with the provocative “Jack me Jack me till I start to scream” lyrics, he laughs and says “I know many of you like this but you won’t be hearing it tonight.” He then continues to work his way through his checklist ruling pieces and sounds in or out. “But what you will hear,” he finally offers, “is 10,000 kick drums, and we all know a kick drum isn’t just a kick drum.” As he builds a beat he offers the ingredients, “a pigs head hitting a table, a toilet roll, a Tesco child’s black current drink.” And it’s immediately clear. You might be able to wiggle your hips and sing along to this, but Herbert is always going to be Herbert and imbue even his most accessible tunes with strange sound sources and hidden meanings.
It’s a bold move touring a forthcoming album, yet there’s a certain immediacy to his new tunes. Featuring vocalists from the album, Rahel and Ade Omotayo (Amy Winehouse/ The Kindness) on stage, Shakes is simultaneously the wonky kind of twitchy house for which Herbert is so well known, but also the sum of all of his parts. I can even hear traces of the wide eyed Hollywood Bowl magic of his Big Band Project in Stop, and even Smart, which just erupts midway into the closest Herbert has ever been to a Broadway musical. The highlight of his newer material is undoubtedly Strong, which with a locked beat and the lyrics “Get Get Strong,” also sees the entire band crowded around two microphones scrunching up plastic bottles. It’s remarkable, though that’s just Herbert’s precociousness. He’s endlessly inventive, meaning one moment the entire band are wearing black bags over their head and the next he’s taking time out by extending a mic with the longest boom stand in history across the audience imploring us to beat our chests, whistle or boo him so he can play it to the audience in Sydney tomorrow night.
Whilst he appears to run through all of Shakes, he does pop up with a couple of Bodily Functions pieces, such as an almost unrecognisable Suddenly, with a much more insistent electro house beat. It’s strange hearing those iconic Dani Siciliano voiced tunes through another mouth, yet even You Saw it All sounded pretty amazing thanks to Rahel’s powerful vocals.
Whilst some of the gentler, less beat orientated tunes from Shakes tends to get swallowed up in the chatter, when Herbert ramps up the BPM’s the dance floor goes crazy. The mix between electronics, horns and vocals creates a highly engaging and innovative amalgamation of worlds, creating a truly live electronic experience. When he returns for an encore he confesses to us that the Prince holds a special place in his heart – but not in a good way. It was his first tour of Australia in 1998, and an acid casualty stood up the front the entire performance and screamed at him about how mediocre he was. “So I guess tonight’s been a victory of sorts,” he offers wryly before launching into Peak, the final piece off Shakes, a strange somewhat woozy, magical cacophony of earnest soulful house funk with lofi prog tendencies.
It’s not just the ingenuity of the tunes, it’s also his commitment to the live experience. You know every time you see the man play you’re going to be offered something unique and forward thinking. Tonight was no exception.