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When those pole posters first appeared in Sydney, Soulfest seemed as unlikely as it was exciting. The names were like a mirage. Frankly, this kind of lineup was absolutely unheard of, not just in Australia, but in the world, and two names in particular proved most earth-shattering.
Don’t get me wrong. Maxwell, Common, Angie Stone, Aloe Blacc — these are already enough to send any soul lover into immediate cardiac arrest. But the clincher? D’Angelo. He is to neo-soul what James Brown is to funk. He is the elusive reigning king of it all, the creator of Voodoo, the neo-soul lover’s holy grail.
Add to this the undoubted black crown prince of intelligent hip-hop, royal wordsmith Mos Def, and it was obvious you’d be hard-pressed to find a punter in the place who wouldn’t have thought it appropriate to bring a spare pair of panties. Just in case. Men included.
Six months later and the first thought we had upon entering Soulfest was how quiet it was. And we’re not talking about crowd numbers. Standing before the main stage, it was immediately apparent that something had gone horribly wrong. Had they forgotten to turn on the giant speakers? Were we actually just hearing the artists’ foldback?
Bass and drums sounded like the inside of the backstage port-a-loo. Guitars flew in and out as if the desk had been left in the hands of some wandering, vagrant child. And vocals? You could forget them, for now, for it seemed that no-one, not even the artists, were guaranteed a listen.
And so world-class performer Anthony Hamilton played quietly to a quietly reverent audience. Angie Stone mutedly proved that, while even the most powerful of vocal performers can have some of their oomph dulled by poor sound, she was still the reigning woman of soul, making all others sound like Britneys playing at Whitneys.
Musiq Soulchild, drowning in the sheer volume of his own pre-recorded vocal track, blindly forged on, despite being in a different key to the rest of his band. His was a devastating tailspin of trills and melisma which came off sounding like his very own South Park parody.
Following this, the official announcement of Mos Def’s no-show. Devastating. It was a huge let-down for Sydney, epecially given the troubles on his last Australian tour, but a giant leg-up for local artist Miracle. Bumped up to the main stage, he did a pretty good job of filling some mighty big shoes for an admittedly depleted audience.
Aloe Blacc opened all horns and class with I Need a Dollar, and an explosive cameo by Maya Jupiter picked up the energy despite what had now been accepted as Soulfest’s ‘polite’ volume.
Common, however, was having none of it. This man was determined to stop at nothing to win over the people. All sweat and power and bombastic flows, he worked as if he were pumping up a crowd 50 times the size. Finally, thanks to some sterling DJ tricks, the people joined the party, allowing the rapper air before busting out into his own brand of seriously sophisticated freestyle.
Next up, another local, Ngaiire. Not only did she hold her own amongst these colossal names, she made it look easy, proving herself the perfect lead-in to what most of the amassed crowd had been waiting 15 years to witness.
D’Angelo entered in a haze of gigantic drums and psychedelic guitars. His immaculate backing vocalists pulled the crowd into a whirring miasma of the man’s Pentecostal roots, climaxing then falling into an old-school funk jam from which emerged Left & Right. Seamlessly, he gave glimpses of his new sound (the lovechild of Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix) while still putting out just enough of that delicious neo-soul stuff.
All brown sugar and immaculate harmonies, Send It On had couples dirty dancing and singles shamelessly pulling the low-down-and-dirty sultry moves that only D’Angelo can incite. Finally, it was all about the jam. The root of the perfection in Voodoo was brought to the surface in live performance, and despite continuing sound battles and a set that felt too short, D’Angelo was here. And it felt good.
Enter Maxwell, your personal soul-singing life coach who literally brought a lot of a little Something Something. For those who don’t know him, Maxwell is the guy at the top of the white stairs that appear on the other side of the clouds in a dream sequence.
The music is as tight and shiny as his shoes, and the man is so unapologetically pure he could be channeling some kind of higher power. From anyone else, it would have seemed contrived. But Maxwell, like some kind of archangel, just pulled it off. It was the kind of show that just doesn’t happen in Australia.
Left to question the how and why, this soul man’s answer shone as brilliantly as his perfect falsetto: he was the most gracious performer, possibly ever, to grace the stage. For something that many would assume was too cheesy for Australian audiences, the hysterically screaming women at the front proved otherwise, and the show itself was, quite simply, mesmerizing.