Entering the sweaty armpit of Swanston St that is Melbourne’s Hi-Fi Bar can be an unappealing venture even at the best of times, but even packed in with 700 odd fans – all dragging in the perspiration of a scorching evening with them – the prospect of tonight’s Yeasayer Laneway sideshow is one worth taking.
Heralded by strobing lights and a heavily distorted, pre-recorded message, the Brooklynites cue the stabbing sci-fi synths and sultry groove of ‘Blue Paper’, taken from their dark, darking third album Fragrant World.
Its slow, smudging swirls take a while to form something recognisable to the recorded version, and the first sign of the night that a lot of the band’s material has evolved into new directions in the live setting.
Dressed in a tie-dyed t-shirt, guitarist Anand Wilder’s harmonies weave with Ira ‘Wolf’ Tuton’s, he of the inventive, essential basslines and the hulking arms with which to play them
But the pair seem like a foil compared to vocalist Chris Keating. As he whips his mic stand and punctuates his emphatic phrasing with broad gestures, it’s clear he’s evolved into quite the frontman over the last few years.
He does a lot of the heavy lifting in the showman stakes; even when he’s tied to his synthesizers and samplers, it’s clear Keating is providing the visual focus of the band’s show.
He’s even got the banter down; “I don’t want to get in the whole Melbourne-Sydney thing,” he offers, “but Melbourne’s coffee is definitely better than Sydney.” The savvy New Yorker’s tick of approval instantly wins him to the local crowd.
Keating’s new role is just one component of what has become a well-hewn live show for Yeasayer, on that curiously but effectively top loads the set with their most recognisable numbers and singles.
The two part shift of ‘Henrietta’, from dubby and danceable to shimmering and anthemic, is an early highlight and swiftly backed up by the world-funk-folk of older single, ‘2080’.
Its hyperactive chorus of tongue-leaping syllables (“Yeah, yeah, we can all grab at the chance to be handsome farmers / Yeah you can have twenty-one sons and be blood when they marry my daughters”) prompts Keating to openly worry that he’d burst a blood vessel during its kinetic coda.
The light show is part of their new, honed approach; making use of stark black and white shadows, selectively choosing the moments to flood the stage with colour.
Most effectively, when webbed fingers of light spread appropriately for ‘Fingers Never Bleed’; or when yellow strobes scan the crowd during ‘Reagan’s Skeleton’, which sounds a bit like ABBA.
Assuming ABBA ever attempted horror punk disco about former presidents rising from the grave, and all the more punchy in the live setting.
It’s emblematic of the kind of adventurous, experimental music Yeasayer have become synonymous with; and though some of their some of their numbers lack their studio versions’ wizardry – others benefit in interesting ways.
‘Folk Hero Shtick’ loses its bizarre tape-loop intro, but benefits from guitar wonkery from Wilder. The darting, warped synths of ‘Devil And The Deed’ hit even harder with the enhanced volume and bunch of its robotic shuffle. While ‘Tightrope’ brings out the tune’s inherent balladry by stripping back to focus on the trio’s warming harmonies.
As the electronic swagger and mix of filters, samples, and liquid melodies of ‘Longevity’ also demonstrates, Yeasayer’s best quality is their unpredictability. Their arrangements especially employ misdirection to great effect.
What you think is a guitar part is actually a digitised bass part, while the guitar itself might be trussed up to sound like keys – who are fulfilling a rhythmic counterpoint elsewhere in the mix; a devious balance of elements.
Full credit to the trio’s live drummer also, who beneath the layers of sound trickery provides the sticky grooves and bustling momentum that’s so essential to holding the whole sonic illusion together.
A kaleidoscopic sonic construction that’s even more dazzling when its various parts tick along without distracting the listener – just as they do on the colourful electropop of ‘O.N.E.’ and ‘Ambling Alp’ – and Yeasayer know it.
The natural sing-along moments of both are actively extended to encourage the audience to participate for as long and loud as possible, as the crowd mimic the band in throwing themselves into a full-bursted chorus rave that careens across the songs’ colourful curves and fizzing, inventive energy.
Or as Keating scoffs before closing the main set with ‘Ambling Alp’, “it’s as good as four songs from some other band.”
The thing is, the cheeky scamp is right.