Report: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Melbourne 2013
The Palace, Melbourne
Wednesday 13 February 2013
By Mitch Alexander
On the one hand, you can stand in gaping awe at the success tonight’s headliner has achieved – locally, it’s all happened in a very short span of time, even though the guy has been trading as Macklemore for since 2000: how he’s the first independent artist to top the Billboard Chart in decades; how he’s mobilised a grass roots fanbase to keep his songs all over the airwaves. Or you can say ‘so what?’, arguing that it’s no longer that special a feat, because everyone with high speed internet and GarageBand has their own label. It’s the only way of doing things if your surname isn’t Timberlake or Germanotta. Five years from now, we might be remarking on how crazy it is for Sony to score a hit record (I’m predicting it’s a collaboration between a reality TV show contestant and Willow Smith’s pancreas). The third option is to stand in a line outside the Palace Theatre for twenty minutes and still be fumbling for your crumpled e-ticket as you get to the entrance, keeping people away from that sweet, sweet conditioned air for a few more seconds. The punters in front of me opted for this option.
What you need to know at the moment is that Macklemore – Seattle rapper and melanin not-haver – is a biggish deal right now. YouTube watches are measured in the hundreds of millions. Songs have infiltrated the alternative, pop and hip-hop charts worldwide, but Australia seems to have a particular affinity for his cheeky slacker lyrics. The national tour is sold out – they even moved tonight’s show to the Palace, recognising that two nights at The Corner still wouldn’t sate these numbers.The potential for such conditions to terrify an opening act is great, but Australia-via-Comoros Islands hip hip trio Diafrix are welcomed by the swelling crowd. Plentiful pop hooks earn the attention of the audience early on, and the high energy interplay between vocalist, MC and DJ frenzies the throng. Their flow is jittery, perhaps intentionally so, often racing away from the beat and only meeting at the end of a couplet. It’s a short set but they pack a lot in, and as they gasp for air by the end it’s not clear whether they could actually go for much longer without a Gatorade break.
You can tell how excited a crowd is by how much they scream at the smallest change in environment. A change in songs over the house speakers? A stout man waking onstage to check the microphone? The lights go two percent darker? When Macklemore does finally take the stage with a gesture more clichéd than anyone would like to admit – who throws up the devil horns anymore? – the reaction is capital I Intense. He sprints through the verses of set opener '10,000 Hours', sometimes in danger of lapping Ryan Lewis’ thunderous and laconic beats. A few lightning rounds of this makes me think that most of his songs should be cranked up a few more BPM.
Victory is already claimed by the first time Macklemore AKA Ben Haggerty engages with the audience. When it comes to fan service, he knows the right buttons to push, calling the females beautiful and applauding the forearms of the boys. It’s a major component of his commanding performance, because this is the type of crowd that yearns to be called attractive. Or described as walking tree trunks.
Haggerty likes to talk, and the first half of the set is plump with the type of slow jams that align with this storytelling. But it’s when the songs shift into a higher gear, like the faster paced 'Can’t Hold Us', that such forays unnaturally jerk the mood between party and sermon. On several occasions it’s up to Ryan Lewis serving dual DJ and MC duties to bring the crowd back, exploding in monosyllabic yelps any time he’s near a microphone. His bass bombs also render most of Macklemore’s rhymes inaudible during the first play of 'Thrift Shop' (more on that later), but it doesn’t seem to matter when everyone has the words committed to memory.
The sharply-dressed Wanz comes out to provide the chorus and smooth dance moves – he will later be seen strutting around the balcony, graciously posing for photos and booming out the hooks to many other songs. He is one of a small crew of bit players – also including other guest vocalist Ray Dalton and omnipresent trumpet player Owuor Arunga - totally committed to the cause, providing a touch of theatrics that can go wanting at a hip-hop show.When Macklemore gets behind the imaginary podium once more, this time about his long-fought battles with addictive substances, the mood is one of confused acceptance. In no way do I wish to belittle his inner demons, because god knows the punters blankly applauding his statements in between swigs of Melbourne Bitter did a good enough job of that. Ironically, scores of people take this lull in the action as an opportunity to hit the bar. A powerful message, maybe not the most appropriate vessel. 'Same Love' is received with more genuine warmth, but on average his bangers work better than those songs with a message. At best they are earnest and emotive if not a touch simplistic, at worst they could be accused of mawkish pandering to a socially moderate audience (oh, you think violence and homophobia is yucky? How radical).
It would be a shame if Macklemore got sidelined and shoehorned into being ‘that guy with that one song’. I don’t have anything invested in him or believe he’s doing anything particularly innovative – no one is heaping on the platitudes and predicting the redemption of hip-hop a la Kendrick Lamaar here. But he had an actual modest career with a steadily growing fanbase before 'Thrift Shop' catapulted him into the charts, and his politically-charged lyrics may have taken a tumble in the credibility stakes following a song that name checks R Kelly’s urinary indiscretions. When it comes to the follow up, will he try and thrash out another world beater or play it down?
A showman to the end, Haggerty rewards the crowd (for tonight being the best show they’ve ever had, y’all) with a repeat of 'Thrift Shop' to close out the night. If you want to believe that this was the best show he’s ever done, that’s fine. If you also want to ignore Wanz pacing around side of stage a minute earlier – somewhat negating the idea that this is an impromptu repeat performance – that’s your choice. That’s the thing about performance, sometimes you have to suspend belief and logic for a moment if you really want to have a good time.
(Photos: Tim O'Connor)