Hiatus or otherwise, the performer known as Nai Palm – real name Naomi Saalfield – isn’t one for convention. The Hiatus Kaiyote frontwoman is an enigma of sorts; a nomad with an attitude and an eternal embodiment all of her own making.

Straddling the border of neo-soul, R&B and ’70s funk, Palm’s vocals are bold and guttural, hesitant when they need to be. She flits between raspy croons and operatic trills, possessing assured control and awareness of her own limitations. Enunciating every syllable as she stretches each note, there isn’t a need to hide behind heavy production. Her voice is an instrument enough.

Palm walked onstage unfazed by the sold-out crowd. The performance, which took place within the cosy confines of the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre, was the artist’s solo debut here as curated by this year’s Vivid LIVE. Adorned in a silver crop wig and metallic platforms channelling David Bowie, visually, Palm made a ballsy statement with her entrance alone.

The two-hour stint saw Palm navigate between a healthy dose of her latest offerings and covers, right through to Haitus Kaiyote’s more familiar catalogue. The first taste of external material arrived in the form of Portishead’s ‘Strangers’, in which Palm’s falsetto, soft and throaty, intersected the supple melodies of her three backing vocalists.

Stripped-back versions of ‘Breathing Underwater’ and Chaka Khan’s ‘I Know You, I Live You’ carried a surprising emotional punch in her vocal runs, all the more effective against a backdrop of balanced harmonies. A Jimi Hendrix cover was met with generous applause, followed by a self-penned haiku that sounded like it was smeared with Palm’s own tears.

Closing with ‘Nakamarra’, the set’s arrangements were methodical and winsome, though at times lacking a little more. And though Palm’s solo set-up made a conscious decision to go without percussion, the audience would have enjoyed the additional complexity. Still, what a talent we have on our hands.

Nai Palm played the Sydney Opera House on Monday May 29. Photo by Prudence Upton

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