Live Review: Angelique Kidjo @ Melbourne Recital Centre – 5th April 2012

Review by Ben Connolly
It’s not often that an accomplished artist of the calibre of Anglique Kidjo is in danger of being overshadowed at her own headline gig. But early on the evening at her East Coast Blues and Roots sideshow in Melbourne recently, that was clearly on the cards, with both the support act Vusi Mahlasela and even the venue itself, the Melbourne Recital Centre, proving to be highlights on what was to become a magical night.

TheMelbourne Recital Centre seemed a strange choice of venue, with the architecturally intriguing concert hall tucked away in a corner of the cultural precinct usually playing host to staid chamber pieces and sober recitals. High-energy, percussive-intense gigs of the type Kidjo has become famous for seemed an incongruous mix for the plush, sit-down hall – a round peg trying to squeeze into its obtuse, honeycombed exterior, if you will. This is not to detract from the venue itself – far from it, in fact, as many of the full house took the opportunity to marvel at its plush interior. The warm foyer invited curious exploration, with wide, flowing stairs leading to the stalls above. The hall’s walls were etched with flowing designs, like that of a wood-worm snaking its way throughout and invited child-like wonder as patron after patron failed to resist the urge to run their fingers along its entrails. Once seated, the vaulted ceiling and angular facias all spoke of its acoustically-pleasing design – the proof of which was highlighted time and again throughout the performances.

Vusi Mahlasela entered the stage an unknown to all but a few of the rapidly filling room, but went straight to work confirming to all that his epithet as “The Voice” of South Africa was more than justified. Pained vocal tics and songs sung in a mix of English and Afrikaans outline the enormous upheaval in his homeland during the apartheid era, and the continued social and political struggles as a result. He held the audience enthralled with both his music and between-song banter, which sermonised the need to ensure a connection between life and land. There was a warm fierceness to his voice as he sung of the essence of Africa – an intangible idea known as ‘ubuntu’ – in set highlight Say Africa – a fierceness which a voice which had fought a thousand struggles, but still had the wondrous power to forgive and love. A standing ovation – and a snaking line-up at his post-show meet-and-greet – confirmed this love was more than reciprocated.

The moment Angelique Kidjo’s gilt-edged frame sashayed onto the stage, all notions of her being upstaged by any performer or place were justifiably banished. Her maternal cries, now softened with age, still ached of a homeland longing in mellow set opener Atcha Houn, while early set highlights Afia and Kelele highlight clearly the music she’d absorbed as part of her political exile from her West African homeland some 25 years ago.

With a seated setting and a mellow introduction, all signs pointed towards a rather different Kidjo concert than that which she’d become known: high energy, high tempo, dance-fests. The introduction of her percussion-heavy four-piece band put paid to any such notions, and she immediately embarked on a night-long quest to overcome the seating barriers. The accomplished band – consisting of just one melodic counter-point in the guitarist, up against drums, bass and a fiercely tight percussionist – tore apart the Afro-funk bombast of Arouna, whose heavy outro provided one of many opportunities for the maestro to crack out her trade-marked staccato dance-moves. With the blood pressure rising, it was tempered somewhat by the reflective Petite Fleur – introduced with a long and touching story of enduring public grief over the recent death of her father – and the awe-inspiringly crisp Malaika, accompanied with just a simple nylon-stringed guitar.

The emotional candour, whilst endearing, was all but fleeting as it was once again replaced with her single-minded mission to get the shy room on its feet. Mock-indignation and whimsical tellings-off did nothing but raise a titter and a handful of brave souls through the second half of the set. As it roared to a close, the feisty songstress seemed to take it as a personal challenge and raised the bar with a gentle stroke of genius – jumping into the aisles to high-five and dance with all and sundry to the extended chanting outro of Afrika. With the spell broken, the hyperactive end of set run all but turned into an embracing party, with most of the audience making their way on stage for the finale Tumba. Once raised, the euphoria (and audience) refused to leave the stage, with the encore becoming a seething cathartic mess of humanity, dancing off against each other and the band and proving that one can never underestimate the joyful power that Angelique Kidjo can bring to the stage.

Review by Ben Connolly

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