Review: Neneh Cherry, Sydney Festival


Whether as a budding ’70s politico-teen sharing the stage with Ari-Up’s Slits, fronting the musically fitful jazz-punk pinwheel Rip, Rig + Panic, or as a right-on hip hop femcee and now free-spirited electronic journey-agent, Neneh Cherry has consistently surprised and delighted.  In between were intriguing duets and collaborations with Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour (Seven Seconds, which got an enthusiastic request from one audience member tonight), Speech, Tricky, Afrika Bambaataa, RocketNumberNine (with whom she last played Sydney in 2015), and more recently Out Of The Black with Swedish singer Robyn for 2014’s Blank Project.

Even when largely flying under the radar with the CirKus Band in the early noughties, Cherry kept fans hanging on for the next undertaking she would front. Our patience was highly rewarded with the terrific “comeback album” Cherry Thing where she surfed the surges of free-jazz trio The Thing to reinterpret everyone from Suicide to Ornette Coleman and stepfather Don Cherry. Then, just before 2018 drew to a close, Neneh Cherry released the Four Tet produced Broken Politics, which filled the bulk of tonight’s set at Carriageworks.

With a six-piece band and politics intact, the slightly jet lagged Cherry brought the new album to life. Spirited arrangements – many featuring vibraphone and stringed harp – ensured this was anything but an exercise in promoting a new product. The LP has a more sombre tone on the home stereo, at Carriageworks the songs sizzled. A smiling, buoyant Cherry seemed far more at ease amongst this new circle of musicians than the more austere setting of  her last show in Sydney, which featured a couple of synth players. Electronics and machined beats  – an integral part of Broken Politics  – still underpinned much of tonight’s performance, with laptops and digital gadgetry forming a backline, while out front a handpan, keyboards, bass, percussion, harp and other instruments helped the setlist swing from an Afro-inspired forrest prayer (complete with bird noises and the singer’s smartfone held to the mic), to sections of brooding but highly-charged trip hop. With musicians freely changing stations throughout, London multi-instrumentalist Rosie Bergonzi deserves special mention for her percussive flair, energy and vibraphone solo. Oh and she also gets the gong for best outfit of the night.

Highlights included the new album’s title track, a vigorously reimagined interpretation of assertive ’80s b-girl anthem Buffalo Stance (which had everyone on their feet and the scaffold-seating threatening to buckle during an encore), the pro-choice Black Monday, a rendition of her ’90s AIDS charity cover of Cole Porter’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin, and new track Shot Gun Shack.

The only dips in the performance were new album highlight Kong, whose gorgeous melody seemed to need a little coaxing from the darkness, perhaps overshadowed somewhat by a heavier backing than on album (check this more subtle live version featuring Bergonzi on piano) and a less-than-successful airing of 1989’s Manchild. Of the latter, it’s fair to say Cherry pre-empted it by first skipping it in the setlist and then announcing “I don’t want to do it”  when partner, laptop operator and songwriting collaborator, Cameron McVey reminded her. Presumably the band – and definitely the audience – wanted her to play Manchild, but they should have listened to Cherry who instinctively knew it wouldn’t quite fly. Vocally it’s needs full commitment and stamina. Still, by the time she was re-rapping her diagnosis: “I believe in miracles and words in heavy doses” they’d nailed it enough for it just to be a blip in tonight’s highly enjoyable show. Stepping and singing like she always has, the 54 year-old Piscean looked and sounded like she was in her element, leaving us with the impression that she still has loads more energy and tricks up her sleeve.

Also reviewed for Sydney Festival: Ben Frost, Carriageworks Sat Jan 12


Thursday 16th of May, 2019

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