Year two of Melbourne’s Rising festival ushers in a pleasantly chilly winter with dozens of reasons to leave the house after sundown. With significant Victorian government funding and promotion – even a giant logo projected onto Flinders St. Station – spreads Rising’s mix of music, theatre, dance and art installations across the city for two weeks in June.
With an extensive, diverse roster of international and local artists, the festival bills itself as “a microcosm of Australia’s creative capital here and now”. While the timing makes it a convenient extra stop for touring artists after Vivid in Sydney, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi that elevates Rising above similar concepts. Perhaps it’s the abundance of ways it makes the city come alive, with so many shared moments in and around Melbourne’s well-known monuments. Or maybe it’s the exclusivity – no one can see it all, and every major concert supposedly has a huge waiting list.
NME is using Rising this year to see four of its liveliest international headliners, spending four consecutive nights at the Forum Theater from June 7-10. On a rainy Wednesday night, local openers Lost Animal deliver insane rambles over two-chord lounge-cassette loops. Singer Jarrod Quarrell’s jerky self-deprecating stage persona is wildly convincing in moments – but doesn’t come through with enough vulnerability to make the emotional connection that he could.
But the jarring contrast quickly dissipates as Weye’s Blood fills the 1,500-capacity cinema downstairs with a warm, almost motherly presence. Fronting a four-piece band, singer-songwriter Natalie Mering is a vision of high-five glamor in a drapey white dress.
Live music is often transporting, but rarely as much as Weyes Blood, whose gentle folk-rock makes you think you could be in Woodstock hearing Joni Mitchell in full flight. But Mering is also a thoroughly modern artist with lyrics about collective anxiety, visuals by documentarian Adam Curtis and surprising deadpan jokes in between. While her poppier songs delight, her two slow-burning, heavenly ballads – ‘Movies’ and ‘God Turn Me into a Flower’ – are absolute showstoppers that bring the house down.
In the smaller, seated theater upstairs, Ichiko Aoba can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up with the sound of her breath alone. She could be described as chamber music, but that alone greatly understates the beauty of her music. Whether you speak Japanese or not, her songs conjure up images of forests, flowing water, childhood (when she covers the theme from Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo), even romance. Few artists are so one with their instrument – hers, primarily a finger-picked nylon string guitar. Aoba performs so softly that you notice every detail, and the whole room becomes one resonance chamber.
The next night, Ethel Cain makes the same room feel far too small for her burgeoning star power. The dark Americana singer-songwriter takes to the stage dressed in a sweater and jeans that make her look uncannily like a young Kurt Cobain – which feels fitting given the hero’s welcome she’s received on her first Australian tour. She opens the show with a simple, reassuring smile – that after collapsing from exhaustion at her first gig in Sydney, she’s okay.
Over an hour she takes us to church. ‘A House in Nebraska’ feels like a 21st century call to salvation, while her droney slowcore songs feel even more macabre with the low end of live drums and guitar. Her voice is deceptively powerful, but most special is the way she maintains intense eye contact with the devoted fans in the front rows as they serenade each other. It is a truly rare artist who can hold such a powerful collective release of tears and joy, especially for the many queer and trans audience members. Ethel Cain will be playing much bigger venues next time.
On the last evening d NMEs runs, local hip-hop duo Fly Boy Jack is excited to open the theater downstairs. MC Jordan Dennis and DJ/producer JUJO are each skilled – masters of old-school samples, trap beats and tight, Twista-like flows. They are pure charisma and deserve to have such a large audience every night.
If you’ve heard a Thundercat album with its smooth, precise neo-soul grooves, you’ve only experienced 10 percent of his live show. Personally, the other 90 percent is ferocious, Weather Report-on-fast-forward jazz fusion shredding. With Thundercat himself on six-string bass, accompanied by a drummer and keyboardist, their songs start in a recognizable place, then go wildly off track for close to 10 minutes at a time before miraculously finding their way back to something resembling their records.
It’s so dazzling and exhausting that the audience, though enraptured, can barely muster the energy to clap for as long as each song deserves. But the soul is there, on his biggest hits ‘Them Changes’ and ‘Dragonball Durag’ – as are the jokes when Thundercat growls about his Diablo IV addiction, and join the mile-high club in Australia.
It is hard to imagine a more perfect round of concerts – for half a week it feels as if nothing else exists outside the Forum Theatre. If there’s a common thread at all, it’s that these are no ordinary shows; all four headliners are completely devoted to the embodiment of their art.
And yet – everyone who participates in Rising will have a different experience. If the other shows are even half as good, the festival is sure to be a staple of Melbourne winters for years to come.
Rising Melbourne runs until June 18 – find more info here