Solange performed at the Art Gallery of NSW’s Volume festival on Saturday, 30th September. Billy Burgess reviews.
For a show that lasted nearly two hours, Solange‘s In Service to Whom didn’t include many songs. There was music throughout, sure, but Solange and her ten-piece band largely eschewed the conventions of pop songcraft to deliver a performance art spectacle encased in a soundtrack of spiritual jazz.
Solange’s two most recent albums – 2016’s A Seat at the Table and 2019’s When I Get Home – cemented the younger Knowles as one of the Western world’s defining pop artists. We were treated to only a small selection of the two records’ contents, but In Service to Whom was of a piece with the bold, Black and slyly revolutionary aspect of those LPs.
Solange – ‘Things I Imagined / Down With the Clique’
A couple of tubists, a cellist, an electric and contrabass player, a pianist and Moog player, a drummer and a few backing vocalists joined Solange on the t-shaped stage in the Art Gallery’s Tank room. Everyone was given a chance to solo, with their efforts beamed back at us on several LED screens positioned above the stage.
In Service to Whom frequently resembled the sort of art installation you’d expect to find inside a disused bunker on Cockatoo Island during the Biennale of Sydney. Solange intermittently disappeared from view. During one extended interlude, she could be seen on screen filling a bath with water. Later, audience members craned their necks and stood on their toes to get a view of Solange rolling around on the floor in a manner that might’ve symbolised submission or ecstatic release. A tone of eerie solemnity hovered over the performance, but Solange was also perceptibly enjoying herself.
The show incorporated no more than a handful of Solange’s well-known pop songs. ‘Cranes in the Sky’ was an early highlight, with its arrangement minimalism, emphasis on repetition and quiet storm vocal performance encapsulating the distinct contours of Solange’s songwriting.
‘Down With the Clique’ – a title borrowed from the late Aaliyah – provided a late-set climax. Solange radiated to all corners of the t-shaped stage, all smiles and physical animation, before finding an individual audience member to spar with during the song’s “Down wit’ you / Down wit’ you / Down, down, down, down wit’ you” refrain.
Solange could easily have become one of the world’s biggest pop stars – she has the profile, the talent, the integrity and the connections. But this performance was the latest, and perhaps the most outré, demonstration of her desire to create something stranger and more idiosyncratic than what the mainstream pop world can accomodate.
She left us by singing her way up the venue’s spiral staircase. The crowd looked on, mouths agape and craving more. There was no encore, but everyone walked out knowing they’d witnessed something unique.