Mondo Cane @ The State Theatre, Sydney (16/1/12)

What can be said about the prolific Mike Patton that hasn’t been said 1000 times before? Not much, perhaps, but how about: he’s one crazy mother-effen operatic Italian-50s-and-60s-pop revivalist.

The grandeur of the State Theatre in Sydney was the setting for Patton’s latest incarnation as Mondo Cane, a sleek experiment in front of an orchestra from the homeland of his ex-wife – Italy – where the pair lived for a time. Before the all-powerful voice and creative director behind Mr Bungle, Faith No More, Tomahawk, Fantomas, Peeping Tom and other projects graced the stage, Melbourne pianist Anthony Pateras played the piano . . . kind of.

Pateras was obviously a prodigious talent. He played the piano like a mad scientist on methamphetamines. If the ten-minute solo he blistered through was an original score for a film, it would be a movie about a schizophrenic serial killer, on LSD. Pateras’s key playing was lighting quick and impressive for that in its self but the music was decidedly disjointed and at times unnerving. He finished the set, stood, bowed and made room for the star of the show.

A 22-piece orchestra, including electronics, drummer, percussionist, keys, pianist and 12 violinists took their places ahead of Patton. Looking every part the swing-era crooner, Patton began with rapid-and-deep heavy breathes into the microphone to set the mood as the string section eased into uplifting chords. Patton then leapt into fluent Italian, and at the conductor’s direction, the orchestra rose to a multi-layered composition.

The motif was set: as Mondo Cane Patton sings Italian pop songs from the middle of last century. Devoted fans of his aggression-laden prog-rock and experimental-metal bands had flocked to the theatre for a glimpse of their favourite frontman and he connected with them by re-interpreting the Italian classics. Patton roared, growled and crooned in his trademark fashion.

Those of us not fluent in the language had no idea of the names and origins of each song. The Sydney Festival bill said Mondo Cane would play Gino Paoli’s Senza fine, Gianni Morandi’s Ti offro da bere and hits by Ennio Morricone and Elmer Bernstein.

The orchestra was brilliant in adapting the songs to Patton’s crazy style. The third song of the set was delivered with a hint of Motown, complete with saxophone and some cool drums and keys. The next song began with haunting strings from the very sexy violinists, a Spanish-style guitar and rising drum and piano keys. Patton joined in with smooth vocals that were reminiscent of some of his Mr Bungle tunes, Sweet Charity and Carousel came to mind.

The next song was the most powerful of the night. Patton roared to the full-extent of his famous voice. He growled the guttural noises that hardcore and death-metal singers have tried to copy since they heard Patton sing with Faith No More, and then his voice rose back to a baritone and decipherable lyrics. Many in the stalls had bought their tickets just to hear/feel that power from Patton. Amazingly, but characteristically, Patton continued from the climax of that song with another swooning pop song by some hip cat Italian.

Patton and orchestra cruised through another half-dozen songs with perfection. The tenth song of the set saw Patton pull out his megaphone for the chorus to blast out words with added authority, as he often does. It was another chaotic number, with the drummer beating a classic rock ‘n’ roll progression, while the three chanteuses on backing vocals came into their own with a soaring melody.

Closer to the end of the set, one woman sprang from her seat and danced around protesting security to the front of stage. A few dozen more followed her and at one stage a suited dude climbed on stage to light a cigarette for Patton.

After the set finished to a standing ovation, most people stayed demanding an encore – the hundred or so people now standing front of stage included. Mondo Cane returned and played two more songs before Patton said he’d see everyone again on Tuesday night. He was probably right.