The Melbourne band Hiatus Kaiyote doesn’t seem like anything special on first glance: The group has a quirky made-up name, a lead singer with a love of costume, a cute nickname for its sound (“future soul”) and enthusiasm for the music of Stevie Wonder. Some of that same info could be plucked from the bios of half of the soul groups in existence. But rip off all of the band’s packaging and listen, and it’s immediately apparent that Hiatus Kaiyote is making beautiful, imaginative music. There’s a reason the members have gone from posting their debut album to a Bandcamp page to getting shouts-out from Prince in a little more than a year.
At a time when the descriptor “genre-bending” is fast becoming industry shorthand for “unfocused” and “all over the place,” the four-piece is seamlessly blending the swing and timing of jazz, the backbeat of hip-hop, soul vocals and otherworldly electronic flourishes. All of these elements are on display on the band’s debut, “Tawk Tomahawk,” which originally dropped in 2012 but was re-released this year as the first project on producer Salaam Remi’s Flying Buddha imprint.
At U Street Music Hall on Friday night, singer/guitarist Nai Palm, bass player Paul Bender, drummer Perrin Moss and keyboardist Simon Mavin performed music from “Tawk Tomahawk” and earlier projects, and otherwise brought the crowd into its wonderful, strange world.
The band jumped in with its album openers, the highlife-tinged “The World It Softly Lulls” and new-age “Mobius Streak,” both typical of the gorgeous, indulgent compositions the band prefers. Before “Nakamarra,” the group’s best-known song to date, Nai Palm said, “I know it’s early and no one’s drunk yet, but this song I expect you all to sing along to!” And then the crowd joined her in a singalong of what most think is a sweet, inventive neosoul love ballad but is actually a tribute to a woman who works with aboriginal artists with mental disabilities. Go figure.
During “Ocelot,” a distorted, hip-hop-leaning track, just as the band was falling into the groove, a woman jumped on stage, held up a picture of an ocelot and started dancing. “This is an ocelot!” Nai Palm said, before she gave the woman a hug, seemingly re-energized for the second half of the performance.
Nai Palm’s amazing voice skatted and skipped across whichever instrumental trip the band decided to take, whether over the dark, swiftly changing “Lace Skull” or the jazz/funk piece “Shaolin Monk Motherfunk.” The band closed things out after just an hour, because of an early curfew, they said — actually, they had to make room for the next act. For all of the boundaries the band members push, they weren’t willing to toy with that one.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.