Australian buzz-band Hiatus Kaiyote made their long awaited return to stateside shores last week, barreling into Northern California on the heels of two Brooklyn shows a few days earlier. The idiosyncratic, mind-bending quartet swooped into Oakland’s majestic Fox Theater on March 17th for its first East Bay performance over three years.
The group delivered a mesmerizing, 100-minute set, the setlist split between classic cuts from the band’s canon and stirring, newer compositions found on 2021’s Mood Valiant, which is up a Grammy Award next month in the Best Progressive R&B Album category.
The third full-length record was their first offering since 2015’s critically-acclaimed Choose Your Weapon. Though the genre-fluid Mood Valiant is their debut effort on the Brainfeeder/Ninja Tune label, home to kindred spirits in Flying Lotus and Thundercat, and the creme de la creme of experimental dance music artists over the past quarter-century.
To those raised on instant gratification and conditioned by the immediacy of the smartphone/streaming era, a six-year pause between records might test the patience of even the most devoted of fans—at least, anyone this side of D’Angelo stans.
Inevitably, life throws curveballs at even the most prolific and brilliant artists, be they of the personal, political, or pandemic variety. Hiatus Kaiyote have certainly battled their share of internal challenges. Most notable—and frightening—was in October 2018, when came the shocking news that singer-guitarist Nai Palm was going through a bout with breast cancer, the very same disease that stole her mom when Nai was merely a child.
Ms. Palm announced this foreboding diagnosis on her Instagram, requesting space and privacy in no uncertain terms: “I say this to you hoping that you won’t expect so much of me all the time. I am a strong mother fucker but I feel everything deeply.”
The back end of that brave statement has been crystal clear in her music from jumpstreet, and 2017’s solo LP Needle Paw only further stripped away the layers of this enigmatic artist; a minimalist acoustic purge that revealed another side to the singer-songwriter-sorceress. The fearlessness and defiant resolve woven within her lyrics has often been juxtaposed with a stark-naked vulnerability, and here it was—for all to witness—not only in song, but now in her (very) real life.
She spoke of having premonitions of death during these trying times. In addition to the terrifying reality and uncertainty ahead for Palm—and by proxy, her band. The group, collectively fatigued, agreed to take a year off.
There were dark, deadly things on the horizon for everybody, everywhere.
Eighteen months later: the pandemic, and a paralyzed international music industry. These unprecedented winds of change compounded one another, and blew into town after Palm’s health issues had already sidelined the group for an extended stretch.
So, however stoked fans were when a sparkly, new sack of songs arrived in 2021, we can only imagine that Mood Valiant was a tremendous relief to the band themselves, as well. The same could be said for a return to international touring, beginning with the aforementioned pair of performances at Brooklyn Steel, Oakland’s one-night-only show, and a forthcoming engagement at Denver’s Ogden Theater on April 5th.
Hiatus Kaiyote first broke internationally back in 2012 with debut LP Tawk Tomahawk, a delightful document discovered by Taylor McFerrin during a swing through the band’s neck of the woods. Immediately, they began to win ambassadors in high places, eventually being celebrated by tastemakers like The Roots’s Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Erykah Badu, and legendary British radio DJ Giles Peterson. Before long, everybody from Drake to Anderson .Paak to Robert Glasper was sending flowers for the bright Aussie upstarts, with 9th Wonder mining Kaiyote for samples for .Paak and Kendrick Lamar tracks.
Those co-signs are understandable; Hiatus Kaiyote wield a unique yet familiar approach to their music, ambitiously purveying soul, funk, R&B and acid-jazz flavors with determination and seemingly effortless flow. The erstwhile friends craft and blend various styles that are rooted in Black music, spiced with their own brand of thunder from Down Under; Palm’s athletic, poetic voice, creating and deviating with angular, anxious, almost psychedelic colorways clouding the ether.
Elements native to the work of James “J Dilla” Yancey inform the rhythms and compositions of Hiatus Kaiyote, be they by way of imagination, intention, or execution. In the recently-released Dilla Time, Dan Charnas’s deep-dive tome on the iconic producer, the author adroitly breaks down the conceptual and rhythmic lineage—from Jay Dee’s Detroit basement in the late 1990s to Hiatus Kaiyote’s nascent forays into sound art, a decade-plus later and all the way on the other side of the world.
It is difficult to place a genre or a label on exactly what style of music Hiatus Kaiyote collectively create (the band themselves have glossed it “wondercore”). Yet regardless of categorization, the unicorn sound has always been intentional, organic, an amalgam of influences. Theirs is gumbo of genius born of the extrapolating talents of four core band members.
The terrific trifecta of Paul Bender’s bass, Simon Mavin’s synths and keys, and Perrin Moss‘s drumming prowess combine for a stunning stew of polyrhythmic future grooves. Add the ethereal vocals, transformational lyrics, and obtuse guitar work of Nai Palm into the hypnotic mix, and you have something spectacular, an organism at once ancient and nouveau.
On a warm mid-March Thursday evening in the East Bay, backing vocalists JJ Abapo, Laura Christoforidis, and Bell Bangard fleshed out the live band on the wing. Just after 9 p.m., a seven-piece Hiatus Kaiyote took the stage at the regal, acoustically wondrous Fox Theater. The ensemble basked in the adulation of a roaring, sold-out crowd of rabid fanatics and curious newbies from the moment they stepped into the lights.
After a DJ set to warm up the Fox, the show began with little pomp and circumstance, but ten tons of vibe and swagger. The contingent launched into a series of songs found deep into Mood Valiant. An assertive “Rose Water” set things off proper, followed by the gorgeous “And We Go Gentle” and the bombastic, dubtronic thump that powers “All the Words We Don’t Say”.
Kaiyote’s rhythm section played with a controlled chaos that enraptured the audience, sending fans into frenzied dances or leaving them slack-jawed in silent awe. Nai Palm’s vocal stylings were elastic, empyrean, and oftentimes haunting, the notes riffing strange shapes and shifting odd melodies, with backing singers’ gospel-ized harmonies oscillating into the furthest reaches of the theater rafters.
The band performed in front of projection mapped screens, with optical illusory patterns flowing above and around the individuals onstage. The marvelous display came courtesy of the uber-talented Timeboy (John King), an L.A.-based visual artist who has leveled up with Hiatus Kaiyote for several years while also illuminating the live element for clients like Flying Lotus, Prince, Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar, and other contemporary luminaries.
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As the band burst into “Get Sun”, an almost instantly-beloved number co-authored by composer/arranger Arthur Verocai that served as Mood Valiant‘s lead single, a tidal wave of orchestral vibes and Brazilian groove washed over the Fox massive, pulsing and sashaying by way of the masterful drumming from Moss. It felt like an epic cleansing of sorts, teary-eyed ecstasy and unbridled euphoria swirling into the air, emanating from band and fans alike.
The rest of the show was a whirlwind of sound and light, song and emotion. Palm occasionally donned a guitar for the festivities, she herself an inspired instrumentalist as well as a dynamic vocalist. It wasn’t any old axe, either, but a Jackson Flying V, a hesher classic that you might expect to see a Bay Area thrash metal dude shredding thirty-five years ago—an anachronism if there ever was one. Yet, just like with her positively kaleidoscopic fashion choices, Palm made it work in her favor. Kaiyote devotees swooned and screamed at Palm’s every between-song ad-lib. The bandleader came off wise and weathered far beyond her years, her onstage presence deftly bouncing from humorous to serious, intentional to intellectual, emotional to empathy, spiritual and ultimately grateful.
There would be no lack of technical genius or otherworldly musicianship, which was served in a humble abundance. Those fans who sought the brain-scrambling jazz vamps and the kind of Dilla-fied instrumentation first seeded in their embryonic efforts would be rewarded. This was an intoxicating show brimming with sonic explosions and odd time signatures with razor sharp funk grooves churning beneath the Palm melodies thanks to the chemistry and collective confidence displayed by Bender, Moss, and keyboard wiz Simon Maven.
Other show highlights included early nugget “Swamp Thing”, which has its conceptual roots in Dilla time. The enchanting rapture of “Red Room” was a starry-eyed singalong that saw nearly every swollen heart in the theater belt out the jubilant refrain. Deep into the journey, they dropped into ‘Sparkle Tape Break Up’, an R&B-tinged banger infused with synth strings, Palm’s unabashed longing and sadness set to a dragging SlumVillage stomp.
Gripping late-set piano ballad “Stone or Lavender”, also from Mood Valiant, threw the emotional quotient into overdrive, leaving few dry eyes in our section of the GA floor. After the band briefly departed the stage to yet another deafening roar, the steaming audience continued to cheer, stomp, clap, and scream for an encore, demanding the group retake the stage.
As it should be.
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Five full-throated minutes later, the group indeed obliged and returned; first the three fellas found their spots to a fevered pitch, before Nai Palm trailed and made her way to the front of the stage, and finally the three auxiliary singers to far left. The projection-mapped screen flashed an image of “Charlie Parker,” Palm’s recently dearly-departed pet bird, who throughout the evening made a few appearances in tribute, by way of Timeboy’s visual art accompaniment.
Hiatus Kaiyote’s last two songs were culled from the game-changing Choose Your Weapon. Beginning with the sensual serenade “Prince Minikid”, the spine-tingling stacked harmonies concocted a divine elixir, soaring and sailing up into the heavens. The group chased that spellbinding gem with “The Lung”, long a treasured chestnut encore. A fittingly phenomenal, phosphorescent final salvo that once again had the whole room spinning, singing, and most certainly satiated.
Hiatus Kaiyote had used the rest of their swift courage to work this hallowed theater into a frenetic whirling dervish, for what would be the very final time on this glorious, downright triumphant night. By the time they’d taken a well-earned bow and humbly exited the stage, every last beating heart in the Fox was thumping, chests were heaving against the flesh of this magical evening, and these fab four Aussies hopped on the last BART train leaving.
This review is dedicated to my departed brother-from-another, Benjamin “Benny Dread” Kennedy. Thanks for putting me on game. -bg
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