Review: Solange at the Sydney Opera House
June 7th 2018
Photos by Daniel Boud & Prudence Upton
There aren’t many musicians who can capture the current zeitgeist while remaining unshakeably timeless, and no such artist springs to mind before Solange. Tanya Ali reviews the first of her four, sold-out Vivid performances at the Sydney Opera House.
Solange’s acclaimed 2016 record, A Seat at the Table, was revolutionary to say the least. The last time she graced our shores was in January 2014 for Falls Festival and a sold-out sideshow at the Metro Theatre. Needless to say, there was a lot of hype surrounding her run of four shows for Vivid. With an unparalleled vocal ability, a fantastic stage setup and one of the most beautiful, political closing numbers the Concert Hall has ever seen, Solange absolutely ascended the hype that preceded her.
On the night of Solange’s first performance, the energy before she takes the stage is palpable. There’s chatter, excitement, an air of wholesomeness. I witness so many women of colour excitedly bumping into friends – there’s a sense of community that I’ve never felt at a concert before, let alone one at the Opera House. A feeling of impending magic is dancing around the Concert Hall, perhaps emanating from the huge white orb suspended from the ceiling, or from the pyramids that flank the stage.
Her band emerges from the wings first, one-by-one, all dressed in white. Solange and her backing singers are the last to saunter on stage, and the first thing I notice is Solange doesn’t centre herself – something that recurs throughout many of the formations. We’re made to feel from the band’s first note that this is going to be a concert where every piece of the ensemble is vital.
They open with ‘Rise,’ the first track on A Seat at the Table. The bass booms, the horns swell and the vocal harmonies are impeccable. At the end of the song, Solange implores us to get out of our seats – when she asks you to dance, you damn well listen. “This is church tonight,” she proclaims.
Indeed, the set in its entirety feels nothing short of heavenly. I’m convinced the Opera House has never had so much soul within it. There are moments where it feels like everyone is holding their breath, growing quiet in awe. And then ‘Losing You,’ one of Solange’s biggest and earliest hits, gets the Concert Hall grooving and singing at the top of our lungs. Throughout, we’re lost in the dancing, the music and her unbelievable stage presence.
For me, the stand-out moment is ‘F.U.B.U.’ – ‘For Us, By Us’ – one of the most powerful tracks on the record. She walks off stage and into the crowd, singing the entire song surrounded by a group of Black audience members, dancing as though she’s just hanging with her favourite crew. It emphasises everything that ‘F.U.B.U.’ stands for: Solange is unashamedly Black, and her art is first and foremost for her Black fans.
She recalls memories of her first Sydney visit at 13, as a backup dancer for Destiny’s Child and observes: “And goddamn, there are a lot of poppin’-ass Black and brown people in the house tonight. Times must be a-changin’.”
She’s right. I’ve never seen an Opera House crowd so not white. But more broadly than that, times are changing on a global scale, and artists like Solange are driving that change. This is never more evident than during the final song – the exceptional ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ – when a crew of young Australian women of colour, all clad in the same shade of red that bathes the stage, emerge in a line and move as one. It’s an unmistakable statement of Black womanhood. To see this physical manifestation of Solange’s music, empowering and mobilising her fans of colour is so special – and witnessing it is something I’ll never forget.
The way Solange performs is at once incredibly intimate and grandly devised. The meticulous choreography is flawlessly executed – every limb onstage is in sync. It feels as though we’re watching a film, an extended visual companion to Solange’s discography. You get the feeling that every aspect of this set has been brainstormed and crafted – and in the next moment, Solange is in the crowd or popping some wild, loose dance moves onstage. Her between-song banter is fantastic, open and honest; a deliberate choice to show her audience that artists aren’t as perfect as they seem.
For women of colour particularly, the show touches our soul in a warm and rare way. Solange is a community-builder, a true queen, and we’re so fortunate to witness her art in real time. In a vulnerable moment, Solange explains that there was a time last year when she didn’t know if she would ever perform again.
“I’m not going to lie,” Solange says with a laugh. “Before this show, I was like ‘I don’t want to go out there – I can’t wait ‘til this shit is over,’ …but this is the fucking best thing ever!”