It’s kicking off a couple of months later than usual and the lineup consists entirely of Australian and New Zealand artists, but the 2021 Vivid LIVE programme contains just as much depth and variety as what we’ve grown accustomed to from Sydney’s winter festival.
The three-week festival will once again bring a host of contemporary artists to the hallowed halls of the Sydney Opera House. There’s plenty to choose from, including pop music, avant-jazz, indie folk, First Nations hip hop and dance parties. Here are our five absolute must-sees from this year’s Vivid LIVE roster.
It feels slightly perverse to derive pleasure from Miiesha’s latest single, ‘Damaged’, considering the track’s raw emotional content. On her first new single since last year’s ARIA-winning Nyaaringu, the Aṉangu and Torres Strait Islander woman reckons with the broken and injurious relationship she has with her mother. But despite such heartbreakingly candid lines as “Drown in the sound of a heart crying/Trying to bleed out a bloodline,” Miiesha delivers it all with the melodic poise of an artist at the top of their game.
With Nyaaringu, Miiesha demonstrated a knack for borrowing sounds from hip hop, rock and pop music to create an eclectic brand of electronic R&B. The artist’s soulful vocals have always been the kernel of her music’s appeal, giving persuasive weight to lyrics that underline the many painful ways in which the personal and political overlap.
In late 2020, Miiesha evinced yet further versatility by teaming up with The Woorabinda Singers for a gospel reworking of Brooks & Dunn’s 1991 country ballad, ‘Neon Moon’. ‘Damaged’ is another indication of the artist’s expanding vision, and a taste of what’s to come in her very first solo headline show for Vivid LIVE.
Connan Mockasin has pulled off something pretty incredible over the last decade: he’s proven to be unlike any other contemporary artist, but his music isn’t markedly deviant. The songs on the New Zealand artist’s latest release, 2018’s Jassbusters, are gentle and melodic, with soft rock guitars and jazzy inflections. Mockasin sings in a distinctive high register, which brings a mix of purity and peculiarity to his songwriting.
Mockasin’s MO is somewhat akin to that of fellow Kiwi retro-rejigger, Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. But where UMO might bring tequila and amphetamines to the party, Mockasin’s music plays the role of psychedelic trip-sitter. It cradles you, promoting curiosity, but insisting it’s OK to explore while reclining.
For Vivid, Mockasin will be screening a new episode of his absurdist TV melodrama, Bost’n ‘n Dobs’n (initially developed in conjunction with Jassbusters), before playing a rare unplugged solo set. We are licking our lips.
Briggs and Friends
I’m surely not the only one down on my knees begging for a new album from Briggs. The Shepparton MC’s last solo record, Sheplife, is now nearly seven years in the rear-view. That said, it’s been a busy period for the trailblazing Yorta Yorta man, who, along with adding TV comedian and children’s book author to his CV, has risen to become one of the most influential and trusted voices of rebellion in the name of Indigenous justice.
Plus, in 2016 Briggs and Funkoars MC/producer Trials released Reclaim Australia, their debut album as A.B. Original. Led by the mettlesome protest song, ‘January 26’, the record picked up just about every accolade available, including two ARIAs, the J Award for Australian Album of the Year, the Australian Music Prize and the APRA Award for Songwriter of the Year.
But despite his rising celebrity, Brigg’s 2020 EP, Always Was, confirmed he wouldn’t be compromising his artistry. The rapper’s delivery is every bit as hardcore as it was on Sheplife and 2010’s The Blacklist, while his lyrics magnify the defiant and unapologetic spirit that got him here in the first place.
Briggs will be bringing an entourage of special guests for his return to the Opera House stage. Given he also runs the label, Bad Apples Music – whose roster includes Alice Skye, Barkaa, Birdz, Kobie Dee and Nooky – you can expect a night of sheer Indigenous excellence.
This won’t be Tiny Ruins’ first time at the Sydney Opera House. It’s been five years since the indie-folk band led by songwriter Hollie Fullbrook played their first Vivid headline show, a prized achievement that wasn’t lost on them. “I feel like for any international band it’s a huge honour to play at the Sydney Opera House,” Fullbrook said at the time.
Fullbrook and co’s performance came in the wake of their 2014 LP, Brightly Painted One, which revolved around the Auckland songwriter’s gentle vocals and cosy acoustic guitar playing. But while Tiny Ruins music is informed by the singer-songwriter folk lineage, there’s always been an off-kilter thread to Fullbrook’s practice. This stems not just from her typically imagistic lyricism, but also the harmonic unconventionality of her chord progressions, which gesture towards folk-jazz greats like John Martyn and Joni Mitchell.
This quality was amplified on Tiny Ruins’ latest LP, 2019’s Olympic Girls, the band’s most wide-screen effort to date. Take the album highlight, ‘Holograms’, for example. The band pulls off an appropriately spectral arrangement to support Fullbrook’s lyrical depiction of a future in which departed loved ones can reunite and dance together as holograms. Fullbrook’s silky lead vocals glide over Cass Basil’s descending bassline in the song’s hope-soaked chorus, while guitarist and producer Tom Healy pumps out ambient atmosphere like wafts of incense smoke. It’s an apt indication of what to expect when the band returns for an intimate performance in the Opera House’s Utzon Room.
Sampa The Great presents An Afro Future
Sampa the Great’s rise over the last half-decade has been emblematic of Australian hip hop’s Afro future. The Zambia-born, Botswana-raised Sampa Tembo arrived fully formed with 2015’s The Great Mixtape, pairing politically potent rhymes with a blindingly cool flow that distinguished her from this country’s male-dominated hip hop history.
Seemingly attuned to this fact, Sampa delivered a statement of intent in the opening bars of the record’s standout track, ‘FEMALE’. “Big bold women, round of applause,” she rapped. “Get-my-goals women, round of applause/Know-my-roots women, round of applause.”
Sampa’s next release was 2017’s Birds and the BEE9, which won the coveted Australian Music Prize despite being officially branded a mixtape. When Sampa’s official debut album, The Return, surfaced in late 2019, the response was ecstatic. Released via UK label Big Dada (home to Roots Manuva and Kae Tempest), The Return was named Double J’s Album of the Year and saw Sampa become the first artist to win the Australian Music Prize twice. The Afro future had arrived
In what’s been teased as an event that’ll “both reckon with displacement and celebrate the culture of tomorrow,” Sampa will oversee a bumper lineup in the Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre, featuring her sister Mwanje and Zimbabwean-born neo-soul performer, KYE.