Arrive A Sceptic, Leave A Believer: The Live Power Of Tash Sultana

90 minutes at Bluesfest was all Tash Sultana needed to prove she's worth the hype.

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There aren’t many local success stories that rival Tash Sultana’s.

In the space of two years, the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist has gone from busking in Melbourne’s CBD to selling out international tours in a matter of hours.

Take 2017 as an example: Tash kicked it off by selling out five shows at Melbourne club venue 170 Russell (sideshows to her headline slot at Groovin The Moo) and ended it by breaking the attendance record at Margaret Court Arena, one previously held by dance legends LCD Soundsystem. By the end of 2017, she had sold over 100,000 tickets in Australia alone.

All this, and Tash has only officially released eight songs. She hasn’t even got an album under her belt yet.

Despite that astronomical rise, I still approached her Sunday night set at Bluesfest with trepidation. Could she really meet the hype, or was the legend of Tash Sultana a little too good to be true?

Photo by Joseph Mayers Photography

Loops, Guitars, Trumpets And Vocals

It’s the fourth day of Bluesfest, and although the crowd’s feet are definitely feeling the effect of half a week of dancing, the energy in the Mojo tent is palpable.

Sultana’s amassed one of the biggest crowds of the festival so far, and when she finally strides on stage to the blaring tones of Bob Marley’s ‘Is This Love’, the screams are deafening. Even Tash — who surely must be used to this kind of reception by now — looks overwhelmed. She quickly lays down some ground rules for the heaving crowd:

“If you’re homophobic, get the fuck out of my gig!” She yells. “If you’re racist, get the fuck outta here. And if you’re transphobic, get the fuck out.”

And with that out of the way, she gets to it.

Each track of Sultana’s is painstakingly built with an arsenal of loop pedals, stomp boxes, and synths — and of course guitar, which Sultana is devastatingly good at. As each layer piles on within the opening tracks ‘Mystic’ and ‘Murder To The Mind’, the crowd cheers — as if they’re helping build the songs themselves.

In the middle of the looped madness is Sultana, who dances around the stage furiously tapping pedals with her feet, or cranking out a guitar lick or running to the keyboards to hammer out some chords. It’s gripping to watch — and kind of exhausting.

Each song is eked out to at least 10 minutes each, padded out with screaming guitar solos, trumpet blares, and whatever else takes Sultana’s fancy in that particular moment. The audience laps it up: Sultana only has to reach for the trumpet for the crowd to lose their shit.

Why It Works

Performances that are loose and spontaneous like this are usually tough to pull off at festivals. With a crowd that’s constantly flowing in and out, tempted by the myriad of acts elsewhere, it can be hard to keep an audience engaged when you’re not just pulling out hit after hit. For Tash, and her back catalogue of eight released tracks, it could have been difficult.

But it isn’t: people constantly stream into the tent throughout the gig, and on a number of occasions I’ll look around to see newcomers standing just outside the tent, mouths hanging open as they witness the controlled chaos unfolding on stage.

Sultana keeps ‘Notion’ and ‘Jungle’ up her sleeve until the very end, keeping them close to the recorded versions to please the crowd. Even so, she can’t resist grabbing a pan flute for a quick blasting interlude.

Tash Sultana

The songs swing around wildly at times: she’ll drop out all layers for a quite moment of guitar noodling, before bringing them all back in with a smack of a foot on a pedal. The effect is startling — if you’ve ever been tossed around underwater after being dunked by a wave, you’ll recognise the feeling.

At the end though, she’ll do away with all the layers for the thundering closer: a rambling acoustic track called ‘Blackbird’.

There were probably a few raised eyebrows when Bluesfest director Peter Noble placed Sultana above acts like Chic and New Power Generation on the line-up poster. But really, it was a forward thinking choice. In a few months’ time Sultana will hit stages at Coachella and Lollapalooza as the highest-ranked Australian act on both line-ups.

And with that debut album slated for released sometime this year, the only way Sultana can go from here is up.

Jules LeFevre is Staff Writer for Music Junkee and inthemix. She is on Twitter

Lead photo credit: Joseph Mayers/Bluesfest