Kelela performed at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne/Naarm on Sunday, 27th August. Billy Burgess reviews.
Kelela had been to Australia before, playing at Sugar Mountain and Meredith Music Festival in the wake of her 2016 breakout EP, Hallucinogen, and returning for support slots on The xx’s festival-sized I See You tour in 2018. But the emotion in the crowd had never been as devout as this.
Kelela – ‘Contact’
The final event at Carlton’s Royal Exhibition Building for the Now or Never festival was attended by masses of eager, kind-spirited Kelela fans, ready to dance, sing and shower the US artist in waves of loving emotion.
Constructed in 1880, the World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building is regarded as the world’s oldest surviving exhibition hall. For many Melburnians, it’s the ornate and somewhat mysterious structure that separates Carlton Gardens from the Museum. I’d only been here once before, for my first shot of AstraZeneca after spending 18 months indoors. I wore trackies.
Now or Never brought music and lighting displays back to the hall after a two-decade drought, and a feeling of privilege and good fortune permeated as we anticipated Kelela’s first Australian show in more than five years.
Kelela’s work has distinguished itself from the dance-R&B and electronic-pop mainstream going right back to 2013’s ‘Bank Head’ – a collaboration with NY producer Kingdom that later featured on Kelela’s debut mixtape Cut 4 Me. “This is an oldie by a goodie,” Kelela said, introducing the song in the middle of the Melbourne performance.
She expressed gratitude for her “day-ones”, her “OGs”, multiple times in the course of the show, but the setlist revolved around this year’s Raven, her second official album and a triumph of personal-is-political songcraft, progressive electronic production and vocal performances that connect listeners with the beating heart of its creator.
“Some people just got here,” Kelela said, referring to fans who’d joined her community in the wake of the D&B-, breakbeat- and garage-inclined Raven. But everyone was welcome, and the crowd met Raven standouts ‘Contact’ and ‘On the Run’ with as much enthusiasm as Hallucinogen‘s ‘Rewind’ and ‘Waitin’ from her 2017 debut album, Take Me Apart.
“Thank you for turning up,” Kelela said, “and thank you for turning out.”
After 90 minutes of pulsing sub-bass grooves and exquisite displays of vocal dexterity, Kelela said her goodbyes before returning to the stage for an encore. Prior to the night’s closing song, ‘Cut 4 Me’, she took a moment to emphasise that her music comes from a place of tenderness and vulnerability – and that these qualities characterise her interactions with her fans.
Her songs and live performances are oriented towards a possible future where softness and vulnerability are qualities expressed by all, she said, a world where we meet each other with empathy and mutual affection.
There’s a lot of work to do if we’re to reach this ideal, a point reinforced by Raven‘s bucking-against-the-patriarchy focus. But the body-and-mind reinvigoration produced by a show like this was a reminder of the powerful – and tender – feelings that unite us.