UNKLE (With Strings) - Sydney Opera House (09.05.11)

To say I had high expectations for UNKLE at the Sydney Opera House with a live band and full string section would be an understatement. The UK crew, who include mainstay James Lavelle and a wide range of guest singers, have a bunch of fast paced electro rock songs that just beg to be played live.

Starting with a big strings presence, courtesy of a local eight piece string accompaniment, a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sample began against spacey visuals and a big synth sound. The full band then exploded with some heavy rock by playing “The Answer” off of their latest album Where Did The Night Fall.

Next up, UNKLE hit hard with “Burn My Shadow”. As this is one of their greatest songs, it was awesome to hear live. Sure, Ian Astbury was on the big screen behind them singing on pre-recorded vocals, but still it was a kick ass song to hear loud and live.

After getting off to a good start, UNKLE dropped the ball at this point. Lavelle reverted to a bank of keys and synths up the back that didn’t see him engage the crowd again until much later towards the end of the set.

Massive synth sounds and the live band building up noise led into “Natural Selection”. The guitar player sang for quite a lot of the set, but it was hard to engage with him. Something in his performance was lacking and that left me not quite knowing who to direct my interest towards. And although they couldn't fly the likes of Josh Homme or Nick Cave out for one song, it was hard to relate to a massive face on a screen, even if it is one of those numerous famous guests that UNKLE regularly feature.

This lack of engagement was apparent throughout the set. The tracks were good, and the band sounded pretty gutsy when smashing out the rock at its loudest. “Reign” was next, and Lavelle tried to get the crowd to clap along, but they just weren’t biting. It was becoming increasingly clear that this shouldn’t have been a seated gig. The song itself had some real tough energy on stage, the band had a full, deep rock sound and the strings were massive. But the crowd should've been on their feet screaming the whole time.

Josh Homme's giant face illuminated the screen for the great rocking track “Restless” cementing UNKLE’s skill in programming the set to include all their best tracks. “Ever Rest” sounded awesome, but I was starting to daydream at this point. “Keys to the Kingdom” is also a freaking awesome song, but it sounded a bit flat. It was at this point that I realised it was long time UNKLE collaborator Gavin Clark who was fronting a number of these songs up on stage. Some more action from him may have given the show the final aspect it needed but Clark failed to deliver. He actually seemed like he wasn’t keen on putting in all that much effort.

As I said, they played all the great UNKLE tracks, including “Oblivion” and the new one with Nick Cave. “Eye for an Eye” rounded out the performance and was a fitting ending; the live band really nailing the jam aspect of the song and just playing the shit out of it really hard and loud.

The encore started with a slow acoustic type track that didn’t fit the overall vibe of the show. “Lonely Soul” was pretty on the money though, and it made for a great ending to the show. The last few minutes were easily the highest point of the night in terms of the band's energy and capturing the crowd’s attention.

So I was mildly disappointed. The venue wasn’t right for UNKLE, the strings felt under utilized (though were amazing when featured), the lack of relationship between the audience and a frontman was noticeable and detrimental, and Lavelle didn’t really seem to do much. Shame really, because the music of UNKLE is bloody amazing and had all the potential to be delivered in a memorable performance.