Now in its fourth year, Listen Out AKA “Australia’s intelligent dance music event”, is boutique no more. It’s massive. The 2016 edition in Melbourne – again on St Kilda’s palmy foreshore – sold out with virtually no media campaign.
Listen Out uniquely straddles dance and urban music, enticing hardcore hip-hoppers. As such, its demo is culturally diverse. This year’s bill spans many names beloved by Australian punters. But there are also first-time visitors – notably Travis Scott, touring behind his latest opus, Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight.
Listen Out has an auspicious representation of female acts. And it’s supporting homegrown music. Rüfüs performed at the inaugural Listen Out, shortly after unveiling their debut Atlas. In 2016, on the back of January’s #1 Bloom, the Sydney indie group are headliners.
In 2015, Listen Out punters complained about the feeble sound quality. There was no problem this time – it was loud. Instead the biggest irk was the program clashes – even with only two main stages. The 11th hour cancellation of grime renegade Stormzy caused inevitable alterations. Still, why A$AP Ferg and Travis were switched around remains a mystery.
Melbourne’s Sui Zhen, appearing as DJ Susan, was scheduled super-early at 1pm on the Atari Stage. The post-chillwaver became a local critics’ darling on airing her debut, Secretly Susan. Hiding behind her cute heart sunnies, she mixed discreet wonky tech.
Australian combo Willow Beats – comprised of Narayana Johnson and his niece Kalyani Mumtaz – have long been tipped as a ‘Next Big Thing’ with their glitchy, spacey electro-pop, steeped in Hare Krishna fantasy. They’ve been hush since 2014’s Water EP – home to Merewif – on Pilerats. But, with an album imminent, Willow Beats are reintroducing themselves. The pair pulled a loyal crowd to the 909 Stage, with Mumtaz on lead vocals and Johnson handling the electronics – and guitar. Mumtaz – glamorously attired like a hippy, trippy Frida Kahlo – explained their all-new set: “We got a little bit bored, so we changed everything. It’s a lot more fun now.” Regardless, a couple of songs might have gone down better in an intimate nocturnal venue than a fest.
More energetic was Ngaiire back at the Atari. The Aussie exemplar of ‘future soul’ has the voice – and strut – of a baby Chaka Khan. Ngaiire was accompanied by her band and, crucially, two formidable backing vocalists – a guy and a girl. And that has gotta be the true test of a soul queen – Ngaiire ain’t afraid of sharing the podium with potential competition. Live, Ngaiire’s material is earthier. She saved the biggest songs for last – powering through House On A Rock, the breakthrough Once, and Diggin’ – all off her acclaimed album Blastoma.
Meanwhile, on the 909, the crowd surged for Tash Sultana – sometime busker. The Melbournian proved Listen Out’s most incongruous booking, being an Ed Sheeran-era folkie with guitar, pedals and beatboxing. The flamenco feel of Blackbird was sublime.
Mid-arvo, the first of Listen Out’s buzz hip-hop acts burst onto the Atari. California’s Anderson .Paak and his band The Free Nationals are like N*E*R*D with mo’ soul and mo’ funk – of the P and G varieties. Awesomely, .Paak played drums while vocalising The Season/Carry Me – the lead single off this year’s cult Malibu album. The crowd went off to Lite Weight, a boppy disco groove Kaytranada produced. Paak & Co wound down with the housey Am I Wrong, segueing into a surprise instrumental rendition of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. They kept it taut.
In 2016, Listen Out has its share of ‘conventional’ dance. Nonetheless, even rising Sydney DJ star L D R U deviated from his complextro hybrid by, er, dropping Snoop Dogg’s Drop It Like It’s Hot. But, overshadowing crossover draws like Bauuer and Gorgon City (in DJ mode) was Claptone on the 909 platform. The mysterious German, last here for 2015’s Stereosonic, recreated his epic techno-disco live, he and his doppelgänger partner wearing medieval gold bird masks – all enhanced by striking visuals. Boldly, Claptone presented his recent deep house favourite Heartbeat (featuring The Boxer Rebellion’s Nathan Nicholson) near the outset.
A$AP Ferg has courted a sizeable fanbase over successive visits to Australia – and he deserves to be a closing act. But the Harlem, New York MC – in a voluminous white coat – performed on the Atari Stage when Travis Scott was due to show. Ferg’s current album Always Strive And Prosper finds him experimenting musically, but at Listen Out he wisely stuck to bangers – Shabbaand Work (Remix), both from 2013’s Trap Lord, plus New Level. Controversially, those white kids rapping along freely said the ‘N’ word. #NotWoke
Our upstart Auto-Tune auteur, Scott followed – bringing controlled chaos to Listen Out. Stepping out of smoke machine plumes, the nimble Texan was hyper-energetic, constantly working every stage angle. La Flame has been hailed as the new Yeezy – and apparently he, too, is comfy wearing his own tour Ts for self-promo. Scott’s tunes can sound samesy live, but midway he referenced his most outré song – the DJ Dahi epic 90210 off Rodeo.The infamous ‘rager’ defied security by encouraging stage divers. Comically, Trav was mad stern with any wussies clambering up. “You either rage or you go home,” he intoned. Alas, RageHearts were few. “Man,” Scott said to himself towards the end. “You’ve got some of the worst crowd surfers ever.”