An Interstellar Spectacle: A review of The Avalanches, live
At the first stop of their We Will Always Love You tour, The Avalanches gifted their hometown a vibrant, life-affirming dance party filled with pop palettes and dedications.
Header image by @ladydrewniak.
There’s something miraculous about seeing an Avalanches show.
That’s especially true right now. In the moments before the duo even took to the stage, it hit me – looking out over a lawn of elevated booths, each home to a distinct bubble of passionate fans, I realised just how long it’d been since I’d caught anything more than a modest gig. The creative setup didn’t quite conjure ‘normalcy,’ but it did make a close approach, the chilly Sidney Myer Music Bowl buzzing with a much-missed communal excitement.
Even by that point, it was an atmosphere well-earned. The tender Alice Ivy presided over a growing crowd from behind the keys, occasionally ceding the stage to her impassioned guitarist and enthused drummer. Sydneysider CLYPSO laid electric vocals over groove-heavy beats, all the while flanked by two unflagging dancers, none too puffed as they pulled out recorders, twirled umbrellas and truly cut loose. It was a contagious energy, the crowd taking to their feet through the sharp horn hits of D.Y.S., the bassy ebb of Sidestep and the percussive funk of Strange Behaviour.
CLYPSO stepped from the stage with a gracious thanks, leaving us to bask in the second miraculous detail: more than just a much-needed arena spectacle, the night marked the live return of the once-elusive group. That detail wasn’t lost on the simmering crowd, comprising an interesting mix of mid-’40s Since I Left You fans and 25-year-old Wildflower converts. There were glimpses of a younger set, but soon the faces faded to black, the stage whirring to life with terrific noise. A quick-spinning strobe slowed to a patient pan, the beam of white light splintering into electric blues, neon oranges and deep greens. Robbie and Tony toyed as their visuals sparked to life, the vast screen behind them flickering:
‘BRANT ROCK, MASSACHUSETTS.’
‘THE FIRST HUMAN VOICE TO LEAVE THE CONFINES OF THE EARTH.’
The crisp guitar of The Divine Chord kicked in, revealing yet another story – that of The Shirelles, the prototypical girl group sampled throughout the song. That doo-wop refrain seemed to lift the Bowl to life, beaming smiles making way for impassioned singing and casual swaying. The history underpinning the track, unveiled via those huge screens, breathed new life into Andrew VanWyngarden’s longing lyrics: “... now the songs are interchanging (I still remember you).”
In fact, those words might just be at the heart of this new live show. A break from the technicolour flag-waving of the Wildflower era, which saw the duo fold in touring members such as Spank Rock and Eliza Wolfgramm, We Will Always Love You strips The Avalanches back to DJ sleights and visual treats.
The invocation of bygone records has taken on a spiritual tint; the abundance of guests on the album all but precludes them from recruiting a chorus. The thrill of a front-and-centre emcee can now be found in sly references and one-off flips, with the duo pulling from sixty years of pop culture cred. You’re liable to catch a familiar aside in the segue, or a faint reminder of a distant film as the ambience slowly builds to the next peak. There’s a thoughtfulness to the additions – when the tender voice of Brian Wilson cuts through the night, it feels right at home amongst the dreamlike wonder of even their heaviest tracks.
The restless allusions even call back to their own history, with the clipped disco fragments of Flight Tonight coaxing the crowd into Oh The Sunn!, gospel phrases and straining pleas dancing about the powerful bass. Interstellar Love burst forth in flurry of synths, the spacey mix subsuming the amphitheatre; WWALY highlight Overcome proved even more powerful as it rang through the night, resolving with the spritely dance beat and turning to a liberating force.
As the night ensued, the mood got freer still, powered by a well-queued combination of heartfelt and heat. It took hold on stage, too – Tony took to the Theremin with excitement, and when the light hit right, you could just about catch the pair trading slightly stressed smiles. The late-set inclusion of We Go On proved the highest high, the extended introduction topped only by the smooth fusion of the peppy instrumental and a classic ‘80s hit. The ‘90s rap pedigree of Sonny Cheeba took hold during Because I’m Me, his charismatic bars riding in atop that undeniable horn riff. All the while, the psychedelic collage of 2016’s The Was gave light to the colourful sounds.
It all led into the patient tease of Since I Left You, the golden capstone that closed out the evening. There’d be no need to butter any Australian audience up to the track, but after almost two hours of much-needed live music – by this point, the booths were truly sharing the night, conversations coming easily as the social side of the live experience took hold – the classic title track came on like a simmering fuse.
It didn’t quite feel like the end, owing in part to the strange and sorely felt the omission of both Frontier Psychiatrist and Frankie Sinatra, but as that signature finale came on, the bittersweet close washed away with the irrepressible refrain: “since I left you, I’ve found the world so blue…”
In their three-record career, The Avalanches have been nothing if not ambitious. Their albums are distinct but their aim ever-lofty, and it’d be easy to consider We Will Always Love You less dance-oriented than their more insular works. Easy, at least, until you’ve seen it live: the groovy low-end of Music Makes Me High, nimble bass of serotonin-soaked anthem We Go On, and the irresistible switch-up of Wherever You Go are first felt in the feet.
It’s tracks like Running Red Lights, Interstellar Love and Since I Left You that are felt keenest in the heart, heads on shoulders, hands outstretched and voices joined in unison. That would be enough, but the duo push further, informative visuals and drawn-out transitions giving loving insight into their passion for the past.
Steeped in a long and vibrant history though they are, The Avalanches have never felt as forward-facing as they did on Friday. They put forward a model for large-scale live music in a time of exceptional hardship, where artists, organizers and all manner of service personnel are feeling the sting. It was a heartening return to live concerts, and as I danced and sang and spoke and listened, I got the impression that we all shared in some dazzling communion.
That’s the future that the show itself conjures: one of love, compassion and togetherness. We Will Always Love You is a record-oriented about light, sound and spirit, and it’s no surprise that those three pillars are as interstellar as they are terrestrial. After all, what is live music if not a delicate balance of all three?
Early on, the screen threw up a number – the hundreds of millions of miles that the Brant Rock transmission must’ve travelled. Careening through space jumbled by the ionosphere, a relic of a much different time. As the Avalanches extend toward their universal truths, it falls back to the bonds we all share: the universe is listening, the sounds carrying, so what are you going to say?
I’ll keep it brief: thank you for the music.
The Avalanches' 20th anniversary edition of Since I Left You arrives on June 4th.