Saturday night was always going to be a rather special occasion. It was the fourth birthday party of Park Acoustics, a massive live show entity that has attempted in the past to come to Cape Town but still remains firmly rooted in Pretoria. The party was held at Sideshow, a venue known more for collared shirts and house music than live pop shows. And it was the return performance of one Jean-Philip Grobler, better known as St. Lucia, to his home country.
Grobler grew up in South Africa, attending the Drakensburg Boys Choir in his formative years. He moved to Liverpool twelve years ago to go and further his studies before moving to New York and getting involved in the Brooklyn music scene. He has been making music as St. Lucia for two years now, and has released one album thus far, as well as remixing tracks for Passion Pit, Foster The People and Charlie XCX. He also helmed production for Hemiplegia, the debut EP from Haerts.
The night started with a set by Cape Town’s loveable indie quintet, Al Bairre. They sped their way through it, reaching highs on well-known favourites ‘Right Here In July’, ‘When I Was Tall’, and new addition ‘Tunnels’. They were full of the youthful energy that drives all of their shows, and the relative intimacy that the venue allowed certainly fed this. Al Bairre have spent over a year now performing on the biggest stages that South Africa has to offer, which is why it is perhaps strange to note that their set felt indisputably loose. That same jumpy, energetic performance style is what has made them so endearing to so many thousands of fans, but on the night they were slightly more all over the place than usual, the drums failing to keep it all together and often sending them throttling over the edge. Still, they were an enjoyable watch, with Nicholas Preen and Kyle Davis keeping each other and the audience entertained with handstands, jumps and falls, and twins Julia and Tessa Johnson showing off their often-under-acknowledged musical talents.
Shortstraw were far tighter playing after them, their serious popularity on full display as hundreds of people shouted back the lyrics of ‘Couch Potato’, ‘The Wedding Blues’, and more. Frontman Alastair Thomas seems to be continually improving, and his voice sounded even crisper and tighter live than it does on their most recent album Good Morning, Sunshine. Their set, taken as a whole, does have a distinctly same-y feel, with no real boundary-pushing diversions or experimentation to speak of but they seem to have struck a winning formula and are content to ride it all out.
It must be said that the above-sketched impressions were all formulated before St. Lucia took the stage. Grobler and crew put on a show that no-one in the audience is likely to forget any time soon. They worked their way through a set drawn almost solely from their late-2013 LP When The Night. They had the crowd between their fingers, raising them to every height they scaled. Grobler’s training in the Drakensburg Boys Choir was evident, his ability to manipulate his voice to dizzying effect wowing the audience at times. Set highlights included ‘Closer Than This’, ‘Elevate’ and, in the encore, ‘September’.
St. Lucia don’t peddle in unique sounds. All of their influences are heavily mined from the same 1980s treasure trove, with bravely unironic maximalism the order of the day. What elevates them (sorry, had to) is the impact of the show they put on and how far they take that sound. The performance was theatrical and compelling, with each individual musician equally impossibly to take your eyes off. Their music itself is, of course, entrenched in the camp and showy, but every single one of them on stage was deeply committed to the same cause of putting on an extravagant and great show. Each of their songs were extended and taken to their furthest possible points. You can’t help but feel that all this is almost solely attributable to the fact that they’ve spent most of their time playing New York. Not that being in an overseas cultural hub in and of itself makes any difference whatsoever. What does make a difference is that over there there is no chance for them to rest on their laurels. While they’re definitely enjoying success, St. Lucia are still nowhere near the top. Their first album was relatively well received, but they have by no means ‘made it’ yet. As good as they are, they still have a ways to go, and they know it. That hunger and desire, mixed with the passion that comes with the frontman playing in front of his home crowd, was on full display on Saturday night. Their performance showed sharp contrasts with many South African musicians who get to ‘the top’, perform at all the country’s biggest festivals, and then stagnate, never really developing their sound but continuing to be booked on the same big stages. Thus, St. Lucia’s performance definitely asked some serious questions of our country’s often all-too-complacent music industry.
Before they launched into their last song, ‘When The Night’, Grobler took some time out to express his gratitude to the audience. He thanked everyone for coming out, and mentioned that his oldest friends and his family were in attendance. It was deeply sentimental, and felt fitting.
The night was well rounded off by Hello Beautiful, who played an immersive set that had a far smaller audience gathering closely around him, getting lost deep in his hammering production. It was kind of strange to see the crew packing up around him during his set, but it made sense as St. Lucia had a lot of equipment that needed to catch an early flight with them. Despite this, Hello Beautiful’s set provided a neat end to what was a really good night. “This is one of the best nights we’ve had in a long time,” Grobler said at one point, and it’s not a stretch to say that the same was probably true for many in attendance.