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Review: Active Child at the Melbourne Festival

Active Child - photo by Annabel Graham from superglued.com

L.A.'s Pat Grossi not only brought his band to Melbourne (drummer, keyboard player and guitar), but augmented it with a string quartet and 8-voice choir. Combined with his own soaring voice, virtuosic harp and Juno synth, I was expecting a real treat.

Firstly though, in the generous acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, we had to endure an incredibly long supporting set from Sydney-sider Oliver Tank who, according to his accompanying video projection produces "slow" music from a brittle guitar, electro washes, beats and his own voice. Tank's vocal range is limited. The obvious "auto-tune" (real-time pitch correction) reminded me of an episode of Glee, and with most songs in the same key and demeanor repeatedly spouting words about love and dreams, I quickly tired of what became a seriously boring hour of music. After 40 minutes where he proffered our anticipation of seeing Pat Grossi on stage and announced that he had only "a few more" songs left, I nearly walked out. Interspersed with severe digital cracks, splats and overload as he progressively cranked up the levels on his nest of electronic gear, it really tested my patience, especially that his accompanying video was on its second complete replay. I do wonder about artists that feel their music and presence cannot stand alone to entertain us, without the distraction of images that have no connection to the songs at hand.

Disappointingly, the set from Active Child was shorter than the support. Pat Grossi is definitely the focal point. He seems very much at ease playing harp, while effortlessly moving from a powerful falsetto to full voice. His childhood experience as a boy chorister has given him a magnificent and distinctive talent. Being familiar with rich layered vocal textures and samples in his studio work, the eight-voice choir filled this out well, and they really seemed to enjoy the ride.

At the start of the show, the drums enveloped by dark reverb (in a big dark natural acoustic - go figure) collided with heavy bass from the keyboard, and cello in the quartet to create a mass of muddy sound that made it far too hard to really appreciate the string quartet at all. This only improved marginally as the set progressed. It seemed as though the string mics hadn't been equalized to create some melodic clarity for us in the hall. This is a real faux-pas if you need to close-mic a quartet in this type of collaboration of acoustic and electric. Over the bass guitar, drums and dark keyboard sounds, all I could clearly discern were sizzles of unwanted upper harmonics. Perhaps some simplification and space in arrangements from the band would have helped here.

Active Child's newest material from the EP "Rapor" is according to Pat himself, even more electronic than that on "You Are All I See". I don't have a problem with that at all, and really enjoyed the opportunity to hear the new songs. There is something quite retro though in the sound of this act, and much of the appeal so far has been the juxta-position of real and electronic harp among sounds often sourced from his voice. I hope he keeps that in mind in future.