Multi-talented American performance artist Taylor Mac likes ‘judy’ as the appropriate gender pronoun. Award-winning Mac, with a five-piece core band from New York, have their own section in the Melbourne Festival programme. The Inauguration was intended a 90-minute teaser for the upcoming A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, performed in four six-hour chapters over the next two weeks.
You couldn’t really imagine the grandeur of a pyramid from viewing a block of sandstone. Similarly, it seems that this digest – restricted both in historical range, cast of performers and duration – can only give a vague hint of what is to follow in the chapters of the main event.
Maybe some of the choices made didn’t help though. Most tunes were taken from roughly the last quarter (certainly last half) of the 20th Century. The slow tempo of many caused periods where songs started to feel a bit samey.
There’s also some audience involvement that seemed a bit questionable. It’s probably a good idea to get people up and moving in a six-hour show. In this short form though, I found myself wanting more music and less audience participation that felt like padding and prevented me from hearing the performers clearly.
This aside, Musical Director and Arranger Matt Ray showed himself a dab hand in reimagining tunes. This, coupled with Mac’s theatrical performances, could transform a boppy track like like Laura Branigan’s million-selling cover of Gloria into something truly creepy.
Mac has a good range, with a lower register sounding something like that of David Byrne. The band were sharp throughout, and musically the act is strong. This instalment seemed to tantalise with the odd underutilised feature, such as Costume Designer Machine Dazzle’s minor, but glitzy, walk-on roles.
The programme promised “Mac’s trademark social commentary and banter”, and it was disappointing that Mac didn’t offer so much of this, and used American cultural references alien to much of the audience. Towards the end though, we started to get more of a sense of Mac’s motivations. Drawing on his love for Nina Simone, we were treated to a powerful take on her song Mississippi Goddam.
Around this time, Mac described a guiding principle for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music as drawing attention to the various communities “torn apart” over the history of the United States of America.
Mac and company have taken on an ambitious agenda of exposing the complex history of a Superpower, and acknowledging the ongoing struggles of various groups for equal rights. It’s not so surprising this can’t easily be compressed into 90 minutes, whilst also trying to make the event a celebration of difference.
The upcoming chapters of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music will employ “one hundred local and international performers – from acrobats and burlesque artists to choirs and marching bands”. Given the musical quality on offer here, punters might expect those shows to be spectacular offerings overflowing with sonic surprises and highlights. And if a six-hour show isn’t for you, Mac offers another 90-minute taste to close the festival with The Wrap on Sunday 22 October.
Hamer Hall – Arts Centre Melbourne, St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 5 October 2017 – 7.30pm
Image: Taylor Mac with musical director Matt Ray – photo by Ves Pitts
Review: Jason Whyte