Reviewed on Thursday January 16

Tonight saw two of the most important figures in alternative rock history separately assuming a relatively unconventional guise alongside Sydney’s Ensemble Offspring (a bunch of sharp-looking, orchestrally savvy locals). I say ‘relatively’ because, really, unconventional (syn. irreverent, fauvish) is exactly why they’re so damn important. There was a relaxing informality to the whole event, which stopped it from having a pretentious rock-guys-expecting-you-to-take-them-seriously atmosphere.

For Hurricane Transcriptions, Sonic Youth guitarist-turned-solo artist Lee Ranaldo re-enacted the sounds of Hurricane Sandy hitting New York in late 2012. Three extended orchestral segments were each followed (or refreshed) by a guitar and vocal-based song. A creeping, wooshy beginning quickly erupted into a scene of discordant alarm, courtesy of stabbing strings, crashing percussion and Ranaldo’s droning keyboards.

Meanwhile, the folk-leaning first song proper, ‘Last Night On Earth’, had a distinctly Rodriguez feel thanks to Ranaldo’s nasal tenor vocals, acoustic guitar and some bassy brass work. Ranaldo’s well-loved Fender Jazzmaster was welcomed onstage for the next verse/chorus number, which melodically resembled R.E.M. Perhaps the highlight of the set was when this song’s panic-stricken spoken word coda was met by enough orchestral intensity to have you cowering under your chair. Ranaldo’s show was like a musical: dramatic events were acted out in the abstract sections while a tidy, family-friendly summary of feelings was provided by the songs.

Mike Patton was last at Sydney Festival with his radicalised showcase of Italian standards, Mondo Cane. Tonight’s performance, Laborintus II, also borrowed from Italian music history. The piece was written in the 1960s by experimental composer Luciano Berio and tonight saw Patton imparting intimidating Italian narration over leaping female vocals, ‘controlled’ orchestral chaos, and apocalyptic jazz.

Central to the performance were the three female vocalists aerobically imitating instruments (rather than singing standard vocal lines) and an eight-strong male choir yelping Italian absurdities. At times the cacophony of strings, clarinets, harps and jumbled Italian speech impacted like war propaganda, taunting you to either enlist or crumble.

The night’s most captivating moment was a breathless two minutes when Patton addressed a megaphone to vocally whip an unknown but evidently aggravating target. It was a completely gripping and somewhat terrifying scene. Elsewhere, recurring spasmodic jazz intervals, furnished by dual percussionists, gave the performance an amusing Lynchian unpredictability.

On paper, tonight involved Mike Patton narrating a dizzying avant-garde Italian opera and Lee Ranaldo covering (and reflecting upon) a hurricane. And it was just as bewildering and unrivalled as it sounds.

Tell Us What You Think