“Grandma's in the House: So Don't Fuck With Me”: Neneh Cherry & RocketNumberNine at the Festival Gardens, 1/3/2015
'Buffalo Stance' was the encore. I almost wish she hadn't played it. It was cool and all, it's what a lot of the old heads and young nostalgiacs in the audience came to hear. It was played in just the way it had to be for an artist whose style has mutated fluidly over two-and-a-half decades, the feminist New Jack Swing vanguard track converted into a new-age electro apparition of the original. It was great. But talking to at least one fan coming out of the venue, they were disappointed not to hear a straight cover of the original.
Here's (what I perceive to be) the truth though: Neneh Cherry has made better music in the last three years than she has at any time in her career. “Grandma's in the house, so don't fuck with me” she says when she brings up her age, 51 later this year. And between the tense, dark electro of her most recent album Blank Project and the free jazz of the 2011 The Thing collaboration The Cherry Thing, she's at a creative peak that I can't imagine collapsing in the foreseeable future. Having been to a few of the Gardens shows already, Cherry's has comfortably been the best performance in its short run.
Obscured by thick layers of smoke machine fog, with abstract imagery and geometric shapes flashing on the screen behind her and red or purple lighting cutting through the dense haze, Cherry's newest mystical performance phase came into full expression. A central figure, she bopped, swung, and enraptured with her immense presence even through tracks that few in the audience may have heard (her Robyn collaboration 'Out of the Black' garnered minimal response when it was first announced for example). She loves “dancing on a Sunday”.
Backing her were sometimes collaborators RocketNumberNine, who she now plays live with regularly, a (Sun Ra referencing) two-piece of jazz drums, samplers and some of the most glorious synth patches known to man. Even with Cherry as the show's pivot many of its most enlightening aspects came from the interplay of her and the band, and the pulse of the crowd was often raised not just by Cherry's songs and energetic free-form vocal performance, but with cleverly timed instrumental swerves.
The distorted church organ patch in the coda of 'Everything is Everything', pan-flute/recorder patch to cover the Robyn verse in 'Out of the Black' and double-time rim-knocks in the bridge of the main set closer, 'Dossier', provided the kind of organic energy that can drive a crowd despite, or because of, their knowledge of the original. You can take it either way. Rim-knocks are the way to my heart (think D'Angelo, South African smooth jazz etc.), so coupled with Neneh's manic chirping in the 'Dossier''s extended jam I was cycling all the way into the red zone.
Let's snake back to Neneh's vocal performance though. Somehow both croaky and clear at the same time, occasionally lilting yet always powerfully performed, restrained and wild, Cherry has a tone and technique that feels honest and natural, contradictory in ways that only true, malleable talent is. Through the nocturnal hum of 'Across the Water' (including a smart New York reference flipped to mention Perth), the scattered-brained materialist lament of Blank Project's star track 'Weightless', or even the (derisively termed) “old-shit” old school hip hop of 'Manchild' and 'Woman', Neneh was a propulsive force of raw power and perfect timing.
Unfortunately it was undersold. I was told after that only about 400 of 1400 potential tickets were picked up for the night, and maybe having her perform on both Saturday and Sunday was a bit much for a market that, at this hot time of year, seems like it might be a bit cold for her. There's no doubt though that whoever that hypothetical 1000 missing people were, they missed out on something brilliant.
There's much to be said for a musician who, about twenty years on from her most sustained period in the mainstream, is making music that transcends her past and avoids its tropes.
I've seen acts come and go this festival season, whose new work hasn't received the passionate response of crowds who go wild for the 'classics', even if those new albums have received critical acclaim (see example, Spoon). Not so for Neneh Cherry. Even to an audience maybe not too aware of her recent work, she played out a set of newbies that made the “old shit” almost seem passé. And with the goodwill generated by the new shit imagine how 400 people (mostly women) felt when they finally got to sing “don't you get fresh with me” at fever pitch. Now that's power.