It might seem crass, but you can often tell how times have changed for certain musical acts by the lines in the bathroom.
Circa 1998, the men’s room at an Underworld gig was typically full of sweaty people chewing uncontrollably and saying things like “’Avin’ it large.” Tonight, for Underworld frontman Karl Hyde’s solo debut in Melbourne, it’s all smartly dressed 30 to 40-somethings checking in with the babysitter via SMS.
If any word is to characterise tonight’s gig – a sideshow to Hyde’s appearance at Sydney’s Vivid Live – it’s “incongruous.” The Underworld of ‘96’s “Born Slippy .NUXX” has no place in the Recital Centre’s tasteful timber architecture, much as the songs of Karl Hyde’s recent solo album, Edgeland, have little in common with the music that made him popular.
With the seeds for Edgeland sewn in his appearance alongside Brian Eno and guitarist and collaborator Leo Abrahams as part of Vivid ’09, the album represents a dramatic departure for Hyde. Very much the work of a mature songwriter, it’s a chilled, understated record, Hyde’s trademark wordplay making up for a lack of high impact rhythms.
As a smiling Hyde takes centre stage tonight, flanked by programmer Pete Childers, bassist Gaz Williams, and keyboardist/backing vocalist Angie Parks, the most noticeable thing is his yellow Telecaster. The fact that he’s wielding a guitar – and playing it – during “The Night Slips Us Smiling Underneath Its Dress” makes it clear from the outset that this is a different Karl Hyde.
The following number, and recent album highlight “Your Perfume Was The Best Thing” (a song about Hyde’s near miss with an oncoming car) is positively wistful; electronic folk a million miles from the dark throb of something like “Moaner”. He follows that with the gentle guitar atmospherics of “Cut Clouds”, and by now it’s obvious how much working with Eno rubbed off on him.
The Recital Centre’s discomfort with rock/pop-formatted gigs rears its head when Hyde’s smoke machines set off the fire alarm during “Angel Café”, but it does give rise to the singer’s best quip of the night: “That was the John Cage version. ‘Accompanied By A Building.’”
Hyde and band work their way methodically through the album, via single “The Boy With The Jigsaw Puzzle Fingers”, (the first song inspired by the collaboration in Sydney, as Hyde recounts), across the quietly evocative “Slummin’ It For The Weekend”, on which Parks provides excellent backing vocals, and the dramatic slow-build of “Shadow Boy” – a song about Hyde’s birthplace in the Midlands.
After another blast of extremely competent riffing on “Out Of The Darkness”, Hyde explains that it’s time for some songs from his “other band”, and as polite and appreciative as the audience has been so far, it’s now that they begin to get excited.
A shuffling, somewhat muted version of Beaucoup Fish’s “Jumbo” is followed by a much more energised “Bird 1” and overly dramatic “Between Stars” from 2010’s Barking. Hyde, having dropped his guitar for these more electronic numbers, is striking poses and gesturing madly, perhaps thinking an auditorium like this calls for a more theatrical approach.
Admitting to the audience that he returned to 1994’s career-defining Dubnobasswithmyheadman when seeking inspiration for Edgeland, Hyde then performs a perfect set-closing rendition of the paranoid “Dirty Epic”, which causes at least one person a few seats away to audibly gasp “This is the song that got me into them!”
There’s a little more history to be unearthed after the break, Hyde returning to give a shout-out to a present John Warricker, co-founder of Tomato, the art collective responsible for all of Underworld’s design. For Warricker he plays 1983’s “Doot Doot”, a gentle new wave track from the band they shared, known interchangeably as “Squiggle” and Freur.
To finish we again get something closer to the Underworld the fans love – rare cut “8 Ball”, which first appeared on the soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s The Beach. Its uplifting brightness, pulsing electronics and final line of “That’s what makes me feel happy!”, gets a warm, standing ovation from the floor. (How many of them remember the preceding line is “That white stuff”, is hard to tell.)
Coming after Hyde’s contribution to the Boyle’s London Olympics ceremonies as music producer alongside Rick Smith, his 30-year collaborator in Underworld, this gear-shift into the music of Edgeland feels very much the work of someone taking a conscious break from what he’s best known for.
Maturation, exploration are worthy things, but what tonight’s gig demonstrates is that Hyde’s diversions work best in conjunction with at least some of the elements that make Underworld great. Oddball lyricism, impassioned delivery and uplifting melodic rushes might not seem like obvious bedmates with the new Hyde’s sober music, but the incongruity is what makes it work.