Vivid presents Seekae @ The Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House (27/05/2012)

Day three of Vivid, and I’m once again headed down to the Opera House. I must say I’m not tired yet of the light shows that pulse and dance on building facades all around the Quay and in the city beyond – some simply colourful, some truly enormous and dazzling – and I don’t think I will be. If you ask me it should be like this all the time. Easy to love this town on a night like this.

Jim Poe

There’s more local love in store, as Sydney electronic exemplars Seekae are performing in the Opera Theatre. It’s my first time seeing the trio live, and I’m pretty keen as I’ve heard nothing but good. The band have built up quite a following around the world in the past couple of years among fans of thoughtful electronica; it’s their first hometown gig in a while, and it’s reputed they’ve put together an extra-special show to match the upmarket setting.

As Seekae are joined onstage by an eight-piece string ensemble, I recall “the Efterklang/Sydney Symphony concert last night“, and I marvel at all the energy and ambition put into all the Vivid gigs this week. I do wonder if I’ll be seeing Seekae in their proper element, or whether the occasion will overwhelm their music. But this is what a festival’s all about – taking risks, experimenting in public, making weird connections and seeking (if you will) elusive magic.

Not that Seekae play it safe anyway – the music is adventurous as word of mouth has advertised, offering a plethora of different takes on contemporary electronica, sometimes venturing into dark, glitchy, abstract territory reminiscent of Casino Versus Japan, and then back out again with bright little jewels of burnished, shimmering electro-pop í  la Dntel or Caribou, with energetic bursts of Four Tet-like brilliance to tie it together.

There’s a welcome live feel to the proceedings, especially with the dynamic drumming. The string ensemble add an impressive dimension, but as I noted at the Efterklang concert, I am easy to please when it comes to orchestral manoeuvres. Despite the complex feel to the sound, there’s a buoyant sense of fun to the proceedings. I could do without the dubsteppy stuff, but hey.

One thing: the band are dressed as casually as if they were playing in a garage, with rumpled jeans and sneakers. Nothing wrong with that; you gotta admire their unpretentiousness, but come on – if you were booked to play at Sydney Opera House, wouldn’t you want to dress it up a little just for fun? Maybe put on a funky vest, a cowboy tie, some mascara – or all of the above?

The “uptown” setting at first seems to inhibit the audience, mostly twentysomethings who probably don’t find themselves in the Opera House on a Sunday night all that often. They’re unable to get up and dance, of course, but they’re also a bit shy about making lots of noise. However as the night goes on, it’s a relief to realise the trappings of the theatre have lent a special vibe to the gig. Whereas at a club the crowd might be standing with folded arms and doing the white-boy head-nodding thing, or milling about and looking at their phones, tonight all attention is focused on the music (especially as the band don’t have much showmanship as such). Rather than being dull or restrained, there’s something cozy about it. The music envelopes the room completely – the acoustics are perfect, of course, and aren’t too loud. It’s like sitting in a comfy place with friends and listening to an entire album on some really awesome speakers.

That clarity is both good and bad; it reveals the flaws in the music as well as its strengths. Seekae’s songs sometimes feel incomplete or half-formed – lots going on, lots of ideas, but lacking the killer hooks and transcendence that characterise their influences like Boards of Canada or Gold Panda. And the show feels a bit cerebral at times, especially in the polite setting, especially with the string players – like a really ambitious music student’s thesis performance, except the booze isn’t free.

The performance has its ups and downs too. The string players abruptly get up leave the stage about halfway through the show without taking a bow. It’s awkward, and disappointing at first, as it seems to derail the whole idea of the special theatrical gig. But in fact, having the stage to themselves loosens the band up a bit – as if they were trying a bit too hard with the traditional instruments looming behind them – and they come up with some of their best moments afterwards. The baby grand piano at stage left figures prominently in the quietly beautiful songs at the show’s heart.

Two terrific new numbers feature delicate vocals accompanied by haunting synth lines, coming across with a bit of the soul and mystery of James Blake. Apparently vocals are new to the Seekae game, but I was impressed. As things wind down, the show picks up with fan favourites from acclaimed albums The Sound of Trees Falling on People and +Dome that are more funky and tuneful. The reception from the crowd is warm. The guys in the band have said that this is their biggest gig ever, and they deserve kudos for having the guts to try out some new sounds on such a stage.

What Seekae sometimes lack in melody, they eventually make up for with atmosphere; and their verve, confidence and willingness to take chances are all the more impressive given their unassuming demeanour. This show did not blow me away, but the key thing is they may have made a new fan. These are some extremely talented, genuine young dudes and they’re going places. During a week when we’ll be checking out plenty of world-class talent at the Opera House, Sydney should be glad to claim them as their own.