Phrase + DJ Flagrant + The Bowers + The Box Rockets – The Prince Bandroom, Melbourne (21/10/11)

The Box Rockets opened the proceedings at The Prince of Wales Bandroom, delivering a set of tight, danceable rock – a little funky in parts and catchy as hell. They seemed to have their sound together and were damned enjoyable – a group to look out for.

Next up were The Bowers, a band whose look and sound is rooted in early 70s garage and r’n’b, which, this being St. Kilda in 2011, was cause for some initial skepticism. However, they quickly won this reviewer over with their Beatles harmonies and chords changes, driving blues bass lines and Keith Moon-style backbeat. Their drummer, Kit Warhurst, from Rocket Science, was very impressive, but it was their guitarist, Phil Gionfriddo, who also performs under the name Jacky Winter, who really stopped the show, taking a solo at one point which was literally jaw dropping.

After The Bowers, DJ Flagrant, a longtime collaborator of the headline act since the days of the Talk With Force mixtape, delivered a fantastic rap/rock VDJ set, cutting up and mixing classic tracks and their corresponding videos. Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, Blur, Dead Prez and The Black Keys all got the treatment during what was a thoroughly enjoyable and well executed performance, the rap/rock blend being a perfect precursor to the main event.

It has been interesting watching the progression of Phrase, ever since the gritty thug poetry of debut Talk With Force, which arguably showcased Phrase at his most mic hungry, and although it didn’t quite hit its mark, it pegged the MC as someone to look out for in the future. Next came Clockwork, which uncomfortably straddled his pop/rock aspirations along with an improved rap flow, while still working within a hip-hop framework, and now this year’s Babylon, an out and out rock/pop album, and by far the most cohesive statement that he has achieved.

The anticipation was building in the Prince bandroom as it began to began to swell with excited young fans who had presumably been with Phrase since Richard Kingsmill decided to pick up “Clockwork” for rotation on Triple J in 2009, and who also proved they knew the words of the new songs.

For the national tour the artist had assembled a crack hot band, who were all in special suits featuring the Babylon artwork, featuring the return to the stage of Phil Gionfriddo on guitar and backing vocals, a bassist, keyboardist and a drummer, and believe it: they sounded tight. However, from the moment he walked on there was a certain amount of disengaged resignation about the rapper, almost like a sadness, or perhaps he was just tired, this being the last night of a fairly scaled back tour.

Starting off with “Bubblegum” then “Shut Em Down”, both from Babylon, there was no question that the full band setup worked well and the chosen musicians recreated the sound of the recordings perfectly. On the album the choruses are mostly sung, by a host of guest vocalists as well as by Phrase himself, and even during the rap parts there is a certain amount of melody inflected in the vocal delivery, and he seemed to struggle initially with this at points, although he found his feet fairly quickly.

The third song was “Burn It Down”, and despite it being one of the more ‘rock’ songs on Clockwork, Phrase seemed much more sure of himself, even grabbing the mic and rocking the crowd a little. This was a pattern that returned throughout the set; the Clockwork songs just seemed to suit the MC better in the live setting, they were more hip hop in feel and allowed him to concentrate on rapping, which, although obviously not his only musical talent, he did seem instantly much more confident.

Phrase set the music blogs all a flutter last week when he posted on the internet that he was thinking of ‘hanging up the boots’, a statement he confirmed after “Burn It Down”, saying, “I don’t really know what to say…thanks for coming out, I think this is going to be my last show for quite a while”. Perhaps this explained the reserved manner of the man on stage, as it appeared that we were attending both an album launch and a career swansong. Nevertheless, Phrase, AKA Harley Webster, and band got down to business.

“Skylight” was another Clockwork song that was among the set highlights, it’s straight-up rap verses seemed to make the guy come alive, his previous hesitance replaced with a new found energy, even getting the crowd to shout the hook back at him ‘uh-uh-uh I woke up in the skylight’.

By contrast, there were the moments when he picked up an electric guitar on a few of the newer songs, not only did it not make much audible difference, it made Phrase look even more uncomfortable and like he was not having a good time, in fact at points he looked downright miserable.

The song “Clockwork” was another standout moment and saw the first appearance of wife Jade Webster, known previously and professionally as Jade Macrae, who sang “The Windmills of Your Mind” chorus sections. Having had a fairly high profile career of her own since 2005, Jade could not have been more different from her husband; she was confident, knew how to play up to the crowd, had the commanding presence of a popstar, and sang with the power of someone of twice her stature. During the points when she was onstage it was difficult to pay attention to the night’s intended star.

Besides a few uncertain vocal moments, as already mentioned, Phrase delivered his parts very well, with both vigor and skill. It was just that either a little rock star swagger, as was being dished out by Gionfriddo, or some Talk With Force hip-hop bravado, would have gone a long way to giving the show the injection of energy that it needed, and could have disguised the singer’s uncomfortableness.

They came back out and did one encore, the song that a few people had obviously been waiting for, “Spaceship”, the other big single from Clockwork. Interestingly, although it is one of the songs from the second album to feature a full band it didn’t seem to work live nearly as well, and Phrase seemed to struggle with the first two verses before finding his place in the latter half.

And then he was gone, no big fanfare, just a single song encore, and Harley T. Webster walked off to ‘hang up his boots’. With Babylon Phrase has conceived a solid album which he delivered faithfully at the album launch at the Prince, with help from a talented bunch of musicians. He should be proud of what he has achieved, and whatever his reasons for this apparent retirement, hopefully we will see more live shows and more albums from Phrase at some point in the future, because he’s bloody good at it.

Originally published on ToneDeaf on 25/10/2011. View original article.

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