Carl Craig’s Synthesizer Ensemble: State Theatre 03/09 Review

State Theatre, Sydney
September 3, 2017
Red Bull Music Academy Weekender
Review: Paris Pompor  Photos: Rizwan Omar

Arriving discretely onto a dimly lit stage, Carl Craig cuts a stylish, svelte silhouette, dressed in black, sporting a flowing cloak and crowned with a wide-brimmed fedora. From his commanding, technology-HQ position on a central riser, he begins setting the cogs in motion and before long Darkness is underway. The scene is now set with an opening undertow of bass horns and a weighted voiceover reciting creationist verses from Genesis. Just like the biblical fairytale where a formless earth has a great spirit hovering above the waters before declaring, “let there be light” and then fashioning great continental contours from a blackened emptiness, a solo Craig seems to be reaching into the deep and conjuring shapes from sonic swirls. What we’re hearing is the masterfully orchestrated cinematic version of Darkness from latest album Versus, rather than the 2005 original 12 inch. Like the latest album, this performance is essentially about reimagining Craig’s catalogue – as well as the city of Detroit in which they were created – with gravitas. It’s a grand vision and the State Theatre is a fitting venue.

Originally conceived for a full orchestra, Versus is no less impressive played by the four keyboardists who soon join Craig on stage girded by synthesizers. Behind their synth pedestals, these four largely motionless players recall Kraftwerk, a group Craig will later namecheck. They flank the final, but most impressive member of the sextet, pianist and music director, Kelvin Sholar. From sublimely placed off-beat chords and riffing bass keys, to flourishes that sweep the full breadth of his grand, throughout tonight’s performance, Sholar’s playing is the jewell, bringing considerable jazz chops and upping the melodic ingredient. The sound from where I’m sitting and soon standing, is pretty impressive, especially given this ornate theatre wasn’t designed for the kind of machined kick drums, sub bass growl and sabre-rattling synth stabs emanating from stage. There’s only one sonic flare early on when I spare a thought for the art deco plaster and wonder if it might show the odd crack by morning.

Between tracks, Craig takes to the microphone to introduce all the players, including Melbourne’s Jarrod Chase (who must surely have pinched  himself at some point over the weekend) and to also provide some background information about the creation of certain tunes. There are stories about the fondness he has for his hometown and composing in a room with an Imax-size window where his view included a downtown warehouse inferno. There’s also a roll call of Detroit’s pioneering techno alumni and a few nods to his own place in the pantheon, Craig obviously revelling in being able to showcase his work in such grandeur and with the respect many believe his pioneering productions deserve. At one point, as images of Detroit’s beautifully decaying railway station are projected, Craig introduces his late ‘90s piece At Les – a highlight of the night. It’s a great moment of contextualising, as the original’s shunting locomotive-style rhythm track (complete with steam-burst hi-hats) reveals its inspiration. This parallel play between the past and the future, diesel and electronic, old and new technologies, decay and renewal, back-catalogue versus fresh productions, is an underlying theme. As he name-checks Blade Runner and unveils fresh widescreen versions of some classic tracks, there’s also a 1950s tint to proceedings. All on-screen images are in black and white and overlaid with naive geometric signal patterns, as if you’ve tuned into a late night rerun of some RKO sci-fi, or post-catastrophe dystopian flick. It’s not until the encore, at which time most of the audience is decidedly out of their seats, that Craig offers his players some room to improvise and strut their stuff. Unfortunately, there’s nothing approaching a Herbie Hancock or Bernie Worrell style oscillator wig-out where jog-wheel fervour might threaten to topple keyboards off their stands. With barely 16 bars each, and seemingly caught off guard, the four synth players deliver underwhelming solos as a finale to an otherwise impressive night.

Read Paris Pompor’s pre-gig interview with Carl Craig here

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