The 2018 edition of MOFO was a transitional one. Events were split between its longstanding home, Hobart’s MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) and Launceston, as well as Faux Mo in Hobart Town.
MONA Grand Poobah, David Walsh, has plans for a grand makeover of MONA, so MOFO is to be moved, lock, stock and barrel to Launceston from next year, perhaps permanently.
MOFO curator, Violent Femmes bass player and Tasmanian resident, Brian Ritchie, is hoping for $8 million from the Tasmanian Government to make the move to Launceston happen. However, Ritchie told the ABC that if the funding doesn’t materialise, the move to Launceston could still go ahead after discussions with Walsh.
Every year MOFO has a theme, however loosely applied. Last year’s theme was “the primitive beginnings of electronica”. This year it’s protest music. Ritchie told The Music:“”It just seemed like the right time for that focus, with all the bad things happening in the world, and with the uncertainty and anxiety and governments taking away freedoms from the people. And also the contraction of the music business: right now the commercial music business is more controlled than it’s ever been. Of course, people have a lot of outlets with the internet and they have their own websites and everything, but if you actually focus on the music that you hear in that environment on the commercial radio stations it’s more formulaic probably than it’s ever been.”
MOFO events kicked off on January 12 but I was there this past weekend. Below are my thoughts on as much of MOFO at MONA in Hobart as I was able to catch.
SONIA LIFSCHITZ “Stalin’s Piano” – 11:30am, Organ Room
While I waited, I watched an intriguing video installation, featuring lots of naked women, clocks, surgery and Weimar Germany-era fashions.
First, I had to find the Organ Room. I understood it was on level B1 in the museum. I found B1, but not the Organ Room, I asked a polite attendant who told me: “Go right to the end. It’s near the service elevator, somebody will let you in”. There was nobody around. While I waited, I watched an intriguing nearby video installation, featuring lots of naked women, clocks, surgery and Weimar Germany-era fashions.
The service elevator turned out to be the “mustering area”. From there, the waiting audience were led down the fire exit to a bunker which is the Organ Room. Lifschitiz’s piano was set up at one end, ready for her performance.
The composer of Stalin’s Piano, Australian Robert Davidson, spoke of the link between politics and art which is a core theme of the work — and the entire festival. The work contains a number of “portraits” which consist of a film of an historical figure shown with audio of the subject speaking as Lifschitz performs the “theme” of the film.
The first subject was Bertolt Brecht and film of his appearance at the U.S. House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947. It featured him being asked the notorious question: “Are you now, or were you ever, a member of the Communist Party?”
Other subjects of “portraits” included Frank Lloyd Wright (my personal favourite piece), JFK and Eisenhower, EE Cummings, Maria Yudina, Joseph Goebbels, Gough Whitlam, Julia Gillard — and Stalin himself. It was a very moving and thought provoking performance.
BLAISE GARZA and JOHN SPARROW “Interstellar Space” – 4:00pm – Turrell Stage
It was very “spacey”.
Violent Femmes members – drummer John Sparrow and saxophonist Blaise Garza – got together to reinterpret jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane’s album Interstellar Space to mark the 50th anniversary of its release.
Interstellar Space is a work in four parts with Coltrane accompanied on the original recording by drummer, Rashid Ali. The album is considered by many to be a masterpiece of “free jazz”. The band began with a long, freewheeling jumble of light percussion, before Garza introduced the lowest, deepest sax you’ve ever heard. It was very “spacey”. There was not a lot of riffing. The depth of the sax gave it heaviness, but it was an atmospheric, rather than a wild jazz set.
THE DAEMONS OF DISSENT “Lest Blood Should Stain the Wattle” – 5:45pm – Turrell Stage
The set highlight was a new song dedicated to low-rise Hobart Town called, Don’t Get Tall.
The Deamons of Dissent are a cohort of Apple Isle folkies whose raison d’etre is to sing historical Australian (mostly Tasmanian) folk songs of protest as well as their own compositions. One line in an early number summed up the spirit of the performance: “You lords and toffs sentenced me, you’d envy me here on Van Dieman’s Land”.
Naturally, the older convict folk songs carried an Irish fiddlin’ flavour, but the band’s original material ranged from contemporary folk to Country, as well as more traditional sounds. The set highlight was a new song dedicated to low-rise Hobart Town called, Don’t Get Tall.
GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR – 8:45pm – Main Stage
Like all their work, it’s pretty bleak stuff.
A fan described the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor to me before the set began as:“Long movements that go on and on that change for a bit and then stop. They’re not technical like prog rock”. I thought that sounded like shoegaze for the conceited, but that wouldn’t be remotely fair.
Hordes around the world love listening to their albums at home and on the train, but to appreciate the quality of their musicianship and the strength of the compositions, you need to hear them live.
The band is in Australia promoting the recent album Luciferian Towers which was inspired by the Grenfell Tower disaster and from which most of the set was drawn. Like all their work, it’s pretty bleak stuff. Many of the tracks played from the new album were performed with black and white footage of brutalist residential skyscrapers that made me think the instrumental works would make a fine score for the film of JG Ballard’s High Rise. It gave it a dystopian feel. I enjoyed the performance by Godspeed You! Black Emperor very much.
DAVID JONES “Stillness, a Man and One Instrument” – 11:30am, Museum Gallery
If you are one of those people who think drum solos are indulgent bores, then this may be the drum piece for you.
Australian virtuoso drummer David Jones has worked with many high profile acts over the years, including John Farnham, James Morrison and Tommy Emmanuel. But he works a lot alone, putting percussion front and centre of his musical expression. Jones performed as part of a Frank Zappa recital at MOFO, but I saw his Stillness, a Man and One Instrument in the MONA galleries.
If you are one of those people who think drum solos are indulgent bores in which macho, hair metal numbskulls flaunt how hard and fast they can play in oh-so-predictable-ways, then this may be the drum piece for you. Much of Jones’ playing was quiet and it stopped completely several times. Any one movement didn’t last long and he used more techniques than I could count. He encouraged audience participation via claps and clicks and he was evidently in a grand mood as he mostly played with a blissed out smile on his face.
MILITARY POSITION – 1pm – Main Stage
The music itself would tear the paint off the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Military Position is the name Melbourne artist Harriet Kate Morgan performs under when she dons PVC and a black mask and wields a chain as she launches an assault of “Death industrial and patriarchy smashing experimentation in sound”.
Each of MP’s songs began with a sample taken from a film (usually Australian) or speech which, in the context of the concert, came with a radical feminist message. The music itself would tear the paint off the Sydney Harbour Bridge. There were some beats that were almost danceable, but sonically and indeed, thematically, there was little diversity. It was, however, a powerful show, but her set as it was presented at MONA was that of a performance artist, rather than one who is a musician at her core. I would see her again though. Why not? I might get hit with her chain and it might do me some good.
RAHIM ALHAJ and KARIM WASFI – 2:30pm –Main Stage
The tone was one of melancholy and even tragedy.
As a former conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, Wasfi is literally a maestro and is also a master cellist. In a world premiere performance, he was joined on stage at MOFO, by fellow Iraqi, Rahim Alhaj, a master of the Arabic stringed instrument – the Oud.
The set was billed as a fusion of East and West, but to my ear the performance sounded much more Middle Eastern than Western and the tone was one of melancholy and even tragedy, as the concert was dedicated to the suffering of the people of the world — and in particular the people of Iraq. But that was the music. Alhaj himself is quite the master of comedic between-song banter. Listening to and watching these two virtuosi perform was the perfect way to spend an hour on a beautiful and warm Saturday afternoon.
EMEL MATHLOUTHI – 4:15pm – Main Stage
…Like a cross between Bjork and Nine Inch Nails.
Emel Mathlouthi is a Tunisian artist with a powerful voice and she used it as a dissenter during the Arab Spring in her home country. She is another artist who fuses the sounds of East and West, but her method of delivery is electronica. She is backed by a synth player and a drummer who let fly with some fierce beats.
I’ve been listening to her 2017 album Ensen and it is magnificent, but she is even better live; the sound is harder and icier, with her vocals soaring over the top. Although her singing is nothing like Bjork, you could say that her performance at MOFO was like a cross between Bjork and Nine Inch Nails. It was my favourite slot on the MOFO program and I have discovered a new musical hero for myself in Emel Mathlouthi.
BRIAN JACKSON AND THE SOUTHERN GOSPEL CHOIR – 6:15pm – Main Stage
This was actual R&B, not the auto-tuned trash that marketers label R&B today.
The performance of Brian Jackson and the local Southern Gospel Choir concentrated on the R&B (actual R&B, not the-auto tuned trash that marketers label R&B today!) and soul of Jackson’s long-time collaborator, the late Gil Scott-Heron and Nina Simone (the vocal duties for the latter were performed by Maria Lurighi).
While Emel Mathlouthi has a wonderful voice and was my favourite performer of the weekend, Lurighi’s voice was the most resonant and moving – soul power incarnate! Highlight numbers were Nina Simone’s Backlash Blues and of course, Scott-Heron’s incendiary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
EVIL GOAT – 7:45pm – Turrell Stage
Imagine the score to the opening credits of a thriller set in a space station.
Evil Goat are (is?) local boys Scott Cotterell and Andrew Harper. They describe themselves as a “conceptual art project in the form of a doom noise band”. They stood side-on to the audience, with each of the guys on either side of a table that held their assembled synths and digital gadgets.
They began with a spacey, ambient drone. Imagine the score to the opening credits of a thriller set in a space station. Gradually, added to this were layers of sounds, some of which they created on the spot and looped, via scrunching a plastic bottle and banging on a metal MOFO brand booze cup.
I heard a lot of complaints about Evil Goat. For example: “The sad thing is, they probably went to music school and they came out sounding like this”. Another attendee thought the whole thing was a big wind-up. For mine, it would’ve been more enjoyable with more beats. I think punters should come to these things with an open mind. Evil Goat were billed as noise, and noise is what they got!
BLACK ROCK BAND – 1:00pm – Main Stage
They began with a traditional song and dance, didge and all, before letting the power loose.
Black Rock Band is a posse of Indigenous rockers from the NT. They offer Aussie rock stylings and also draw heavily from their native culture. They are also committed to addressing social justice issues through their music. Lead singer, Richie Guymala told Triple J: “The music that I sing about, I think of it as a message and a reminder for people, what’s happening in the real world. Not only about the rich and famous, it’s about the poor too!”.
They began with a traditional song and dance, didge and all, before letting the power loose. The second song, Black Rock, showed their not insignificant song writing chops. Not inappropriately perhaps, this tune and their core sound owed a debt to the Oils. Another tune, The Struggle, was also a winner.
HOBART LIBERATION ORCHESTRA FEATURING PETRA HADEN “A Tribute to Charlie Haden” – 2:45pm – Main Stage
The presence of Haden’s daughter, the singer and violinist, Petra Haden, made it extra special for Haden fans.
The Hobart Liberation Orchestra, headed by Tasmanian bassist Nick Haywood, took to the main stage in order to dip their lid to jazz legend, Charlie Haden, and his Liberation Music Orchestra. The presence of Haden’s daughter, the singer and violinist, Petra Haden, made it extra special for Haden fans.
Haywood told Australian Jazz.net: “Charlie Haden is a significant figure in 20th century music and has been a huge influence on me throughout my career. The theme of songs of protest that we are presenting at the festival also fits well with Haden’s music we will be performing – LMO inspired by the Spanish Civil War and Cuban revolution amongst others, as well as some Australian songs of protest by the likes of Midnight Oil and Archie Roach”.
Aside from all the first class jazz grooves, the highlight of the set was Petra’s moving words about her father and what his music means to us today, especially considering the current “fucking administration”, with a slow and slinky version of Beds are Burning running a close second.
CHAKAM ENSEMBLE – 5:30pm – Turrell Stage
To say these women can play would be the most colossal of understatements.
Chakam Ensemble are Iranian expats Sogol Mirzaei, Vahideh Eisaei and Saghar Khadem who respectively play the Persian instruments, the tar, the qanun and the tombak. To say these women can play would be the most colossal of understatements. Most of the pieces began with long, quiet string solos, before percussion was added, often at a rollicking tempo. The audience was alternately rapt and bopping. Gauged by the spontaneous audience appreciation, the performance of the Chakam Ensemble was the most popular of those that I witnessed. Fair enough too.
MAYHEM – 8:30pm – Main Stage
This was my second ever extreme metal gig.
Closing MOFO at MONO and perhaps the universe itself if they could, were notorious Norwegian legends of black metal, Mayhem (the release of their debut album was delayed due to the suicide of one band member and the murder of another). They were here to deliver their 1994 monsterwork in full and live, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.
This was my second ever extreme metal gig. The first was Morbid Angel but I enjoyed Mayhem much more. I found Morbid Angel lacked texture, and in fact sounded closer to Evil Goat, than Black Sabbath, for example. Mayhem have actual songs(! ). There was pulse and rhythm intermixed with a million beats a minute stuff. One song (naturally I couldn’t tell you what it was called) had a killer riff. Perhaps that’s a terrible pun, but knowing their history did make witnessing a Mayhem concert a literally frightening experience for me, unlike the lame cartoons that are their peers.
Unfortunately, Mayhem’s set was marred at one stage by some seriously overzealous moshing. I witnessed one guy being escorted from the area by security after sustaining a gash to his head that he was most proud of.
*I was very much looking forward to seeing Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge at MOFO but he was unable to make it due to recently being diagnosed with leukaemia.