Alta @ Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, Saturday December 2 2017

It was a miserably wet Saturday night in Melbourne as the 50 Year Storm prophesied in 1991 surf movie Point Break ravaged the city. It was tough convincing myself to leave the relative calm of my home to go across town to see a bunch of acts I knew little to nothing about, but once my Uber/gondola appeared, the soundtrack* within raised my spirits and gave me hope of a positive evening ahead.

The Northcote Social Club was thinly populated for opening act Minorfauna, which was a shame as they had – along with a handful of genuinely good songs – an honest, warm and charming stage presence that belied their cool ‘electro duo’ exterior. Abbey Hansen’s smooth vocals, peppered expertly over Kyle Setch’s synthetic backing tracks, were subtle yet poignant, reminding me at times of Beth Orton and her early collaborations with William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers.

The small but vocal audience were engaged and entertained throughout, making their way right to the front of the room for the majority of the set, which featured their rather on-trend, trip-hop-by-way-of-Nu-R’n’B sound and ready-made hits Your Girlfriend and Texting While Driving. Add to all this a little more stage experience, and things look exciting for these guys – expect to hear more from Minorfauna.

Next up was solo act Couture, armed with his black turtleneck and collection of gadgets. (One looked like the switchboard ye olde phone operators used to connect calls in the olden days.) He started without any fanfare/without us even knowing, and his performance overall felt more like a DJ set suited to 3am at Brown Alley rather than and early evening second support sandwiched between two local electro R’n’B duos. The crowd grew throughout his set, and with good reason: fun and eclectic, he took us through examples of minimal, breaks, and classic drum & bass with some subtle housey elements for good measure. His 40 minutes on stage flowed delightfully, raising some pulses and getting a large section of the audience dancing.

During one of the valleys of his set I decided to give a loud cheer as there hadn’t been many opportunities to share appreciation or encouragement like you can with a traditional performer (between each song). Couture merely raised his eyes for a moment along with one finger, as if to say “Please save your applause ‘til the end,” like some Electro School headmaster holding his own doof-y assembly. Very funny; great set.

The stage curtains were drawn as we awaited our headliner, Alta: another girl singing/guy twiddling knobs duo (which seem to be all the rage lately), who have developed a strong and loyal following after a string of high profile supports and well-received appearances at Strawberry Fields and Paradise music festivals. (This year also saw the group tour Europe, so this gig had a bit of a ‘homecoming show’ air about it.)

When the pair arrived with their name boldly emblazoned behind them, it was to enthusiastic applause from what was now a pretty handy turnout (considering the deluge outside). Singer Hannah Lesser seemed humble and genuinely thankful at the crowd size, and as she and beats-maker Julius Dowson launched into their opening track, grainy, ‘90s VHS-style visuals took over the back of stage – a great initiative, which really added an extra element to proceedings.

Unfortunately I have to say, by the time Alta began their brand of Portishead-meets-UNKLE-meets-Roni-Size tunes, it all felt a bit more nostalgic than innovative. Dowson has a great command of his craft and makes some great sounds – great sounds – but there was a bit of a disconnect between the music and the vocals, giving the impression that the track itself and the breathy, Sneaker Pimps-esque vocals were created very much separately. At no point did it feel particularly organic, which led to this show never really feeling like a live gig as such. Several times really strong tracks would swirl and grow as if building tension towards some kind of great crescendo, only to plateau again and again.

However, I was clearly in the minority; most of the act’s strong following were moving and cheering throughout, visibly enamoured with the performance. There were even several wholly unironic displays of ‘big box, little box’ dance moves to absorb.

Maybe I just don’t ‘get’ it, or maybe because I got to enjoy 1997 and its music first hand, I find myself only middlingly entertained, if perhaps slightly underwhelmed… but it was worth going out in the rain.

* soundtrack included J-Lo’s Waiting For Tonight, Madison Avenue’s Don’t Call Me Baby, and Tim Deluxe’s It Just Won’t Do… I know, right?