by Kat Georges
NEW YORK—After enduring hours of sizzling heat in the rave-like atmosphere of the Hard NYC festival on Governors Island on Saturday, even hardcore MIA fans were scrambling for the first boat back to the city by the fifth song of an abysmal set that left concert goers puzzled, upset and even full of pity for what was once one of the brightest stars in world pop music.
MIA was the headliner and big draw for the nine-hour event on a humid day when temperatures soared into the high 90s. But her reputation as an engaging live performer may now be damaged beyond repair.
Fans were shocked and let down by the Sri Lanka-born performer's muddled, unentertaining show. It could have been so much more. Last week, during a slot on David Letterman, MIA performed a chilling live version of her recent driving controversial single and video, "Born Free." But last night, by the fifth song, nearly a third of the crowd proved just how free they were by walking out of the show without regret.
No regret, because Hard NYC wasn't a total waste of time, due to engaging beat-driven sets by top caliber international acts including DJs Skream and Benga, and MC Alpha (from London), quirky, hard-edged, NYC-based guitar-vocal duo Sleigh Bells, and a powerful, in-your-face, anti-PC bludgeoning by South African MC duo Die Antwoord.
In fact it may have been the strength of Die Antwoord's set, falling right before MIA, that made her look so weak by comparison. But MIA and crew seemed to need no help undermining every aspect of their set.
What should have a stunning opening number, "Steppin' Out," one of the most intense tracks on the latest CD, MΛYΛ, instead fell completely flat—against all odds. Before the song started, three figures clad in gold head-to-toe garments moved into place on the left side of the stage. Then, one-by-one: ten ninjas in black hooded suits entered; each marked with a vertical florescent stripe lit intensely by a flood of black lights; each carrying a black automatic machine gun. Whoa. The song's opening chain saw-like sounds blared, as though something big was about to begin. And then?
The sound stopped abruptly, and a chubbie roadie dashed across the stage—for what? A misplaced 1/4" male jack? A couple of double A batteries? Hard to believe this was the opening number of a show that the fans there really wanted to embrace, despite the almost universal critical disapproval of MIA's latest release. She was supposed to get it right. In fact, had she nailed it, the crowd would have been hers for the rest of the night.
Instead, when the sound started up again, it wasn't from the beginning of the song. Rather, it started about—oh, say—20 bars in, give or take a few. Who cares? It's only 20,000 people expecting to be entertained. And—this is the real shocker: MIA's own microphone wasn't audible! For the entire song! It's not like she plays an instrument and can cover up with some nifty noodling on a drum machine. She is the lead vocalist! And you couldn't hear her! Instead, you heard a prerecorded "music-minus-one" version of the record, with her cheerleader-like back up vocalist shrilly piping counterpoint "Yeahs" "MIAs" and "Rub-a-dubs." But no MIA! And she just kept going. How about switch mics? Stop the show for a minute? Nah . . . Just pretend it's working and maybe the audience will, too.
Her mic was still out for song two: "Bucky Done Gun" from the 2005 release "Arular." And by then the ninjas and others had left the stage, so it was just two women bouncing around in front of lights and projections, and only one of them could be heard, atop a muddy sound mix.
By song three, they were turning laser lights on the audience, and MIAs mic started making some noise. "Lovalot" came next, and little had improved. MIA kept going into the night. And the crowd started heading en masse for the boat home: exhausted and sorely disappointed.
Admittedly, the show and sound improved later, and hit a peak during a thunderstorm version of "World Town" from the exciting MIA's 2007 release Kala.
Capetown's Die Antwoord was the absolute highlight of the show, playing a thrilling 8-song set that proved an outdoor venue can be intimate in the right hands. Afrikaaner MCs Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er, with DJ HiTek, brought the house down with high intensity, trashy and offensive rapping in Afrikaans and English. They've just been signed to MIA's label, Interscope Records, and should be getting a well-deserved big push in the coming year.