Hiatus Kaiyote + Harvey Sutherland + Kee’ahn – April Sun, St. Kilda (2/5/21)

Kee’ahn seemed to radiate her own sense of sunshine. Her powerful, honey-dripped voice, delivered with control and a smile, carried the breezy, upbeat tunes, and despite the weather I could hear waves lapping. The cruel irony of this being the last of the series of shows called April Sun was of course that it was now May and lightning scattered across the darkened sky behind the stage.

I believe that this was Harvey Sutherland’s first show in some time, meaning since lockdown, and he performed with a new lineup of his live band. The sound naturally leant away from the electronic elements of Sutherland’s recorded production and was rooted in classic disco/funk. The players carried the repetitive grooves and snapped into the changes with ease, and bassist Luke Hodgson especially shone throughout the set, delivering funk and reassurance underneath Sutherland’s expressive synth soloing.

I count myself as a Harvey Sutherland fan and have loved seeing him play with a live band in the past — and tonight they were good — but, to be completely honest, it just wasn’t the right setting for them. It was early, not yet 7pm, on a Sunday night, and though much of the crowd were nodding along, they seemed somewhat disengaged. The same set played later at a big festival (I get excited just writing those words) or in an intimate venue, would’ve gone off for sure.

Hiatus Kaiyote are such an odd band to have achieved the widespread popularity that they have. Not that you are likely to hear them played in shopping centres or introduced by overly caffeinated types on commercial radio, and certainly not that they don’t deserve mass adoration. But. They are, actually, quite odd.

When I say odd, it’s not just that I mean that they make challenging music, though it is partly that. They arrange and present their songs in an almost deconstructed manner, like a café chef in the early 2010s. Their arrangements seem to be almost free form, flowing from one section to another; changing time signatures and feels like inflections of a conversation.

As a bassist, Paul Bender operates largely outside of the pocket, circling a groove rather occupying it, while Perrin Moss’ skittery rhythms stutter to their own epileptic logic. Simon Mavin, the sensible one, often applies his keys like a balm, softening the weirdness with flowy river beds of sound, drawing the music away from the abyss of avant guarde while keeping its feet planted in (prog) jazz. Until he doesn’t, kicking off his proverbial sensible shoes and unleashing a barrage of howling, freaky noise during one particularly psych-rock take on 2015’s ‘Swamp Thing’.

And at the centre of the stage stands Nai Palm. And, friends, I confess that I have only just understood tonight while watching this woman wail that she is singing not in the traditional role of a front person, but as a soloist. It’s not even that she is utilising the jazz tradition of scatting, whereby one creates burst of rhythmic vocal melody, it’s much more than that. Nai Palm uses her whole body as an instrument to funnel sound, often doing runs in unison with the bass or breaking out all over a scale and finding new ways of expressing melody like a Sonny Rollins sax solo. In fact her style is most akin to a saxophonist, stretching her voice in unexpected and inventive ways, from throaty wailing to rhythmic stabs.

The setlist picked from throughout their catalogue, though they ended with two new songs from the forthcoming Mood Valiant album. Interestingly, these were amongst the most straight forward jams that they played all night, the first being a steady funk groove that felt like a more interesting version of Khruangbin, over which Nai laid a particularly husky blues vocal. The final song was their latest single, ‘Red Room’, which was slow and slinky, with Mavin’s piano grounding and surrounding it in warmth like a hug.

Though Hiatus Kaiyote make challenging music, there’s no denying that at this stage of their existence they have morphed into their own beast. They sound like no one else but themselves, and surely as an artist you should want nothing more than to achieve true originality. And I mean no disrespect to their recorded output when I say that the stage is where the utter uniqueness of HK as a creative unit is most evidently felt. Where you can stand back and gaze upon their hypnotic, snake charming movements and think ‘How the hell did this madness take shape’. Or even, ‘How did they get this all to stick together’, or even better yet, ‘What made them even think it would in the first place?’. This jumbled, portmanteau of sound.

Written for Beat Magazine. Photo by David Harris.

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