There are different styles of live performers out there. There are singers who step on stage, adequately perform songs and leave the audience with a pleasant memory. Then there are artists who pour their souls out on the stage, taking the audience on a rollercoaster ride of emotions from the realms of chaos to love, madness and reverie, leaving a permanent imprint of the performance lingering on the audience’s mind and soul. After experiencing the enigmatic Bilal‘s show in Sydney at the Hi-Fi on the May 4th, presented by Niche Productions, it can be said without hesitation that he is aligned with the latter style of performing.
Supported by two of Australia’s finest soul music exports, newcomers Jones Jnr and the established Electric Empire, this night had all the elements in place to be a night of exceptional music, regardless of genre. Despite a less than stellar turn out, it didn’t disappoint. The duo Jones Jnr started the evening off with their brand of new gospel-tinged soul music that had the crowd warmed up and murmuring to each other, “Who are these guys?” Soon after, Electric Empire stepped in and heated the night up even further with their always on-point performance. The highlight of their set was the unreleased track “Circumstances,” which is peppered with a J Dilla flavor. Here’s hoping this track appears on the band’s next release, because, judging by the crowd’s reaction, I was not the only one who enjoyed this slow burner.
By the time Bilal appeared on stage, looking sharp in an all black ensemble complete with shades, the crowd was beyond curious about what his show would entail and ready for their inquiring minds to be satisfied. But, rather than satisfy our curiosity, Bilal’s performance only made us more curious about him as an artist and a person. Which is a good thing, because what fun is there in having all the answers? Bilal gave so much of himself on stage while being quite introspective at times, which left the crowd not only in awe of his musicality and artistry but wondering what makes this crazy cat tick? This is an artist that is so far out of the box society imposes on people that he’s in a galaxy all his own.
As Bilal and his stellar band took us through his catalog of music, from 1st Born Second and Airtight’s Revenge to his latest, A Love Surreal, it became evident that Bilal was not simply going to run through his songs, but reinvent them, breathe new life into them and inject them with a heavy dose of rock (a standout was the reworking of “Soul Sista”). While this may not have sat well with the die-hard neo-soul fans, it served to deliver a performance that left the crowd split — either a little uncomfortable with his unrestrained delivery or deeply moved by it. Although never pinning him with the title myself, it’s evident after experiencing a Bilal show why he has always rejected the title of neo-soul artist. He is and has always been so much more than just that title. He is a truly undefinable artist who, with this performance, painted a surreal work of art for each individual to take from it what they choose.