Naarm/Melbourne cherishes its iconic live music venues and established artists as fundamental to its cultural identity. Yet emerging artists need fresh opportunities to engage with new audiences. Improvised venues can offer innovative ways to connect, but they also present risks that include making acoustic work in untested spaces and reaching audiences in such unconventional settings.
And this is exactly the challenge that The Boîte took up for the second edition of its FLIGHT showcase series. The imposing colonial era architecture of the Fitzroy Town Hall served as an impressive, if unusual, showcase for a new generation of musicians, giving the event an unforgettable atmosphere while avoiding the pitfalls (for the most part) that such a venue presents.
Audiences entered the building through the Main Hall, transformed into a venue complete with a bar and a full-scale stage, adorned with giant lighted letterings. Passing through a set of massive Corinthian columns left a sense of unfamiliarity. The generous stage enabled most artists to use a typical full band set-up, but the natural acoustics of the space – a huge, resonant stone chamber – were vastly different from a typical venue. This aural landscape worked well for vocal-heavy R&B and neo-soul acts, giving the singers exceptional resonance and making full use of their vocal ranges. However, the natural acoustics were not so generous for the lower frequencies, blurring bass and drumsounds, producing a swampy sound for the bands.
The sheer vastness of the venue also presented a physical divide between the audience and the artists, reinforced by a literal gap between stage and audience. Performers had to work hard to engage with a crowd mostly lingering on the other side of the space. The challenges of this divide were best shown during Canisha’s soothing set, when her baby brother filled up this awkward gap by simply crawling across the empty space as a wholesome solo mosh.
During his breezy Japanese city-pop set, Jun Parker commented that ‘there are no awkward silences, just build-ups’ to the distant audience. At the time, it felt like a sweet conciliatory remark, but it ended up being strangely prophetic as it captured the spirit of the overall event – earlier sets in the Main Hall became a build-up for the final act, Monrxe. The energy of her R&B set could have captured the attention of the MCG, let alone the Fitzroy Town Hall, where her tremendous presence with her tireless back-up dancers provided the perfect finale.
The winding corridors of the Town Hall led to the more intimate Reading Room, offering a major contrast as a venue, and fully validating The Boîte’s vision for the night. Under an array of gothic chandeliers surrounded by Victorian bookshelves, an incredibly diverse selection of artists played in an “unplugged” manner, with the audiences sitting right in front of them for a perfect “lazy Sunday afternoon” atmosphere, reminiscent of the NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series. Amla and Minhy managed to get the audience to dance upfront, while Svitak filled the space with complex textures through an instrumental collage of cassette loops and strings.
Above all, a spirit of playfulness suffused the Reading Room, providing an unforgettable atmosphere where audience and artists connected seamlessly, immersed in the interplay of varied genres and diverse instrumental set-ups. It was exemplified, in the middle of Zemzemeh duo’s beautiful multilingual set, as Mastaneh directly asked the audience if her guitar was too loud.
FLIGHT inspired confidence in the vitality of musical talent emerging in and around Naarm/Melbourne, forging links with new audiences. The contrasts offered by the venue – from imposing and cavernous to intimate and accommodating – shed light on the live performance dynamics and the critical factors that enable artists to engage with a receptive audience.
Yet the risks of using a converted venue did surface in the Main Hall, as it sometimes felt like a space too large for these emerging artists, despite their best efforts.
Overall, the usage of the Fitzroy Hall by The Boîte was a challenge for the artists to rise up to, while providing an unforgettable setting for audience members. Aside from a few teething issues, FLIGHT and its list of artists was a triumph for an unforgettable Sunday afternoon.
FLIGHT: The Next Generation of Artists was performed at Fitzroy Town Hall on 16 July.