Kanye West @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne (31/01/2012)

On the back of some polarising appearances at his East Coast-only Big Day Out run (which was in itself polarising), Kanye West brought his personal circus to Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl for the last Australian show of his tour.

Charged with the thankless task of warming up a distracted crowd was Sneaky Sound System. While DJ Black Angus might’ve been playing minesweeper for all I know, singer Connie Mitchell put in a big effort, flirting, dancing and wailing, all in a garish red cat-suit and vertiginous platform heels. She was terrific, but it was broad daylight, and this was not the sort of crowd to bother with trifles such as an opening act.

As showtime approached, expectations were high, assisted by West’s, ahem, relaxed time-keeping. At long last, West’s musicians (two multi-instrumentalists and a DJ) filed out in front of the absurd, excellent Romanesque backdrop that overlooked the stage, followed by a troupe of dancers in pseudo-balletic garb. All of the above ensured that the crowd completely, utterly lost their shit when the man finally emerged, not on stage, but in the basket of a cherry-picker in the middle of the audience, amidst smoke-machine blasts. As the ironic opening line of Dark Fantasy (“can we get much higher?”) rang out, one thing was clear; Kanye West has a sense of occasion.

After being escorted to the stage, West launched into Power and Jesus Walks, a contradictory but impressive double header. The lights, the smoke and Kanye’s blinding bling were pretty compelling, but the dance troupe was a spectacle all themselves; writhing, contorting, and generally chewing the scenery, their interpretive jazz ballet was pretty silly, but no less entertaining for it. Like Kanye himself, the deficiencies were part of the fun.

What really sets Kanye West apart is charisma. He’s arrogant, self-aware, pretentious, funny as hell, able to play the diva like no-one else right now bar Lady Gaga. Kanye’s is a knack for allowing his life to bleed into his songs, and his songs bleed into your life. And, of course, he has the hits.

And so it was a question of what not to play at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. Well, aside from material from Watch The Throne, Slow Jamz and maybe Heard ‘Em Say, all the biggies got an airing; with the likes of The College Dropout’s All Falls Down and Estelle’s American Boy still sounding so fresh that one could only marvel at the way West has ridden the curve of pop music over the last decade.

After the excellent, bilious Hell Of A Life, Kanye called for a light check, chastising the crew for not getting the strobe right. Control freak? Maybe, but either way, the audience needed to catch their breath, and it was pretty good theatre.

Where the man was difficult though, the music was effortless; ear candy burst from the speakers, song after song; Can’t Tell Me Nothin’, Flashing Lights, Good Life, and the energy refused to dip. After an interval the momentum slowed, as it had to, with a suite of 808s and Heartbreaks songs. In fact, the whole show from this point on was noticeably more loose. Occasionally great (there was a memorable ad lib on waiting all night for an ex with the door ajar, “and this is New York City, man! This is some pussy to risk getting killed for!”), there were also unfortunate lapses into life-coaching, aimless synth noodling, and less amusing strains of self-indulgence.

However, with no tension, there’s no release, and the start of Touch The Sky was just that; utter release. Dancing, singing, it was catharsis en masse. Those with more highbrow tastes might sniff, but only the best pop music can do this.

On the fourth attempt (Kanye wasn’t happy with the audience participation on ‘Our n**** dead!’), All Of The Lights lifted the roof. A collaboration-happy sort of guy, the lack of a singer to cover for likes of Rihanna, Dwele, Bon Iver and myriad others was not such an issue, as the audience drowned out the recorded vocals on most of the choruses anyway. However, a small gripe was the lack of bite in the drum sounds. Though guitars, bass and synth were all augmented live, the beats, a fundamental component of the show – arguably the fundamental component – occasionally got lost amid the various competing sound sources.

Runaway saw West clad in red leather atop a podium surrounded by ballerinas – side note: Kanye the entertainer and Kanye the artist spent the whole night vying for supremacy; on Runaway, the artist won, and the audience lost – in what was clearly meant to function as the night’s climax. Unfortunately, more of a good thing isn’t always a good thing, as the song devolved in to an interminable jam. It was sort of like a vocoder solo, and it was sort of like a guy just talking about whatever. Luckily, Kanye is a pretty interesting guy. Still it was hard not to feel a twinge of pity for the solitary dancer that had to throw shapes for a solid twenty minutes while West banged on about having sex with his ex.

Then came Lost In The World before West closed with the heartfelt, but slightly underwhelming Hey Mama. No encore, just a curtain call, then it was back to reality.