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Sydney Festival Live Review: Orchestre National De Jazz ft. Rokia Traore - City Recital Hall, Angel Place (15.01.13)

One thing I love about events like Sydney Festival is that it gives you the chance to discover new artistic beings you probably should have already known about, but didn't. Robert Wyatt was one such being, whose name I'd heard echo around the music ether over the years, but never really took the time to check out. Until, of course, the Sydney Festival announced a show paying tribute to icon of prog rock, which last night saw the 2009 record Around Robert Wyatt performed by France's national Orchestra, Orchestre National De Jazz.

The album was a collaboration between Wyatt and the Orchestra, which featured the pair looking back of Wyatt's solo career - as well as other influential tracks, such as John Greaves' "Kew Rhone." The album also features a slew of guests, as did the night tonight - one in person and the rest in spirit; their recordings played amidst the live musical backdrop... aka, the Orchestra.

The Orchestra is a ten piece ensemble with enough sound and skill to make it seem like there are double in the room. Although that's probably more due to the nature of the music they were playing than anything else! They were accompanied by Filmmaker Antoine Carlier, who presented some wonderful video pieces to selected Wyatt tracks. We were also surprised by the live input from Mali's incredible vocalist Rokia Traore, who was kind enough to guest on two of the set's earlier tracks, tracks she just so happened to have performed on the record, too.

I mentioned the word skill before, and when it comes to prog rock like that of Wyatt's, it certainly takes a musician of a high level of skill and craft to be able to perform this live. Some of the moments in the show were simply mindblowing, especially given there were ten of them doing it at once.

Furthermore, the show was orchestrated in quite an interesting way. Rather than start off with the more accessible tracks, they kicked things off with the more eccentric of the collection. This started with "Vandalusia" - which featured a recording of Wyatt's voice, accompanied by Antoine Carlier's visuals (here of a well timed trip through what seemed to be the roads of the UK). It set the tone for the evening - one that would be, much like the original record and most of Wyatt's back catalogue (in my humble, and only lightly educated opinion), a night with its ups and downs, a night with standout moments and some less memorable, but a night that was fascinating from start to finish without question, as any good night of music should be.

Rokia Traore joined next for her track on the record, "Alifib" and a bonus track she recorded, "P.L.A.". "Rangers in the Night" came next, another bonus track for the record, seeing Wyatt's voice return and it was definitely one of my favourites of the night. The backing video was once again mesmerising, as it was for the entire evening - with particular mention paid to "Kew Rhone", which featured flying particles joining together to make the words of the song. Beautiful to watch, and a wonderful song to boot.

From "Kew..." onwards, the music seemed much more accessible than what had been played until then. But maybe I was just getting used to lack of form, complex time signatures, odd tempos and all those bits and pieces that have gave the genre it's unique sense of identity in the Sixties. There's certainly nothing here you haven't heard before, but with a ten piece ensemble in front of you, it's performed with such vigour and conviction - not to mention PRESENCE - that it may as well have been the first time you'd experienced it.

The set continued with tracks that included "Just As You Are" featuring Yael Naïm and Arno - perhaps a French version of Tom Waits? - which was easily the most accessible track of the night. "Shipbuilding", also featuring Yael Naïm, "Sea Song" and the easy highlight of the night, the incredible opener to the album that enticed me to come to this gig in the first place, "The Song". The track builds up to such an incredible climax, and on the record it never quite reaches those heights again, so it was a perfect way to close out the main set, ahead of the encore, which featured the quieter "Te Recuerdo Amanda".

All in all, this was a perfect night of music. Any fan of prog rock should check this out - and if you're a fan of Robert Wyatt in particular, you'll be kicking yourself if you miss it!

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I can't leave this review without a rant. Sorry. One thing I hate about "upmarket" events like Sydney Festival is the fact that events like this attract curious onlookers with more money than common sense. I bring this up due to one couple who decided to walk out during the performance. My problem with this specific couple was that they decided to walk to the front of the theatre, through the front row of seats, and try and leave through a blocked off exit, as though to say "I paid good money for this and I am not pleased!" while the orchestra was playing the first few notes of a new song. The orchestra definitely noticed, and that sort of rude behaviour really gets to me. It's embarrassing for all of us! I know how hard it is to be up on a stage in front of a crowd, let alone playing music as complex as this.

The band were playing the entirety of an album they produced with Wyatt. Sure his music isn't for everyone - but that's written all over the genre. You would have known that coming into the event, had you read past its title!

And regardless of the reason - even if you weren't enjoying it, it's a 90 minute show! Why not count your losses, be polite, and walk out at the end of a show with everyone else? You probably run around complaining about the "manners of kids today" when you're willing to do that. Others who walked out weren't nearly as blatant, but it was this particular couple who raise my rant.

This festival is all about discovering new things! You might remember I mentioned that in the intro to this article. Not everything is going to be to your liking, but you can be guaranteed to discover some amazing new treats along the way. So take the good with the bad! Or, you know, you could just research things first... but I digress...

/rant.

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Orchestre National De Jazz perform again tonight at the Concourse in Chatswood before moving onto Melbourne, where they will perform the record at the Melbourne Recital Hall on the 19th! Tickets are on sale through Sydney Festival and the respective venues.