Photos by Chelsea King
She delivered a special set before a wanting crowd.
Aldous Harding’s appeal lies in her mystique and her obscurity. You can’t define the New Zealand songwriter in a word, let along half a dozen and that only profits her inimitability.
It was with great anticipation that she returned to Australia in the wake of her buoyant 2019 LP, Designer. Her two shows in the Arts Centre’s snug Playhouse Theatre sold out in minutes – a reflection of her resonance within Melbourne’s music community.
Before she had even arrived on stage, it was as if the expectancy had grown too great for her Melbourne audience – sensitive to any movement from the right or left, crowd-members sat on the edge of their seats, agasp.
She hadn’t even uttered a lyric but Harding already had her audience in the palm of her hand. It was an effortless union of two parties; an environment that felt effervescent, like an oasis within a barren desert.
Harding played the first two songs solo on her acoustic – not two of her more popular songs, ‘The World Is Looking For You’ and ‘I’m So Sorry’ eased the crowd into the set. Capsules of her mawkish sophomore album arose to remind the audience that this would be more than a Designer catwalk but an encapsulation of her musical pilgrimage thus far.
But the crowd were after the newest songs and Harding would deliver. Strewn with a positive songcraft, her 2019 album sees gothic folk come eye-to-eye with moving hips and it wasn’t long before the delectable pop components that envelope Designer came to the fore.
The title track arose first and the atmosphere was palpable. Remnants of hungover Sundays, assiduous study sessions or evening cooking escapades flashed before the audience’s eyes. Harding’s music caters for every occasion and this performance would only consolidate that.
Party saw Harding grieve but Designer is her emancipation. Into ‘Fixture Picture’ and as the most uplifting segments of the record came to the fore, Harding rode the highs with a stage charisma that was quintessentially Harding. Always known for her ability to drift in and out of a whimsical reverie, she bounced around the stage as if she was dodging stray sewing pins jutting out of the ground.
‘Zoo Eyes’, which has arguably the most beautiful harmonies on this year’s album, saw Harding in complete control of a vocal register which decorates all corners of the songbook. Reaching sopranos with ease, the album highlight is just as much a representation of her singing talent as it is her lyrical fantasy.
A song would end and for a quick moment, Harding would return to ordinary consciousness. After a few well-timed jokes, she concluded that “this was the funniest she has ever been on tour”; a songwriter previously beset by anxiety was in her element. Her daffiness was endearing and at this point, the audience was so absorbed it didn’t take much to set them off.
Through album highlights ‘Treasure’, ‘The Barrel’, ‘Damn’ and ‘Weight of the Planets’, Harding was asking plenty of her backline. Keyboards metamorphosed into string sections, her electronic guitarist took on a cowbell to enliven the latter track while her drummer assumed brass duties on occasion.
This was the Aldous Harding show shared between her and her band. You could tell that this was no solo foray but a unified carriage.
Through a Gerry Rafferty cover that challenged the very highest reaches of Harding’s vocals, an unreleased song and a brief encore, that was it – 90 minutes of pure pop wizardry on full display for a crowd that couldn’t have waited any longer.
Highlight: Her between-song banter: “Some empty seats in the middle, I see… Maybe next year.”
Lowlight: One drunk and obnoxious lady behind me that was loud and just couldn’t hack it.
Crowd Favourite: ‘The Barrel’.