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Live Review: Australian Open Finals Festival - Pride Day

26 January 2024 | 11:05 am | Cyclone Wehner

While Tash Sultana works the massive venue with an expansive set, Peach PRC was the superstar of the day.

Peach PRC @ AO Finals Festival

Peach PRC @ AO Finals Festival (Credit: Ashlea Caygill)

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There is no escaping Grand Slam tennis fever in Naarm/Melbourne at present – the Australian Open (AO) a citywide carnival with screens in every major public space, including Fed Square. But "The Happy Slam" offers more than sport and opulent corporate activations, encompassing food, fashion and music. Indeed, live performance has long been part of its program.

In 2023, Untitled Group, the local company behind blockbusters such as Beyond The Valley, introduced the innovative AO Finals Festival – an event-within-an-event happening across finals weekend. It sold-out.

The inaugural day event was held in the new Kia Arena, while the Mushroom Group had previously arranged AO concerts in the Birrarung Marr parkland – and, even with a retractable roof, there was some loss of immediacy and atmosphere. In 2024, Untitled upgraded its venue to the John Cain Arena (with double the capacity at 10,000) – and is using a conventional stage over pop-up platforms.

Alas, on the first day, also AO Pride Day, the bash isn't open-air due to rain. Needless to say, an enclosed dark space during the daytime is not amenable to generating a Mardi Gras party vibe. Still, the production is excellent, down to the striking visuals. Plus, the party has a charismatic host in drag queen Courtney Act.

Last AO Pride Day, Melbourne's Vanessa Amorosi headlined – her signature anthem, Absolutely Everybody, a festive smash. However, this year's largely homegrown LGBTQIA+ curation leans more into club and alternative culture with queer pop and TikTok phenom Peach PRC, a buzz Gen Z draw – although the ARIA-winning Tash Sultana, who identifies as gender-fluid, is the official AO Pride Ambassador. The event actually has an international on the line-up in Korean-American Yaeji (Brits Groove Armada and Rudimental will play Sunday's Men's Final Day, the former DJing after bypassing Melbourne on 2022's farewell live tour).

Local disco fave DJ Luv You, who lately played Sun Cycle, launches the festival early in the afternoon, followed by emerging electro acts ANESU, lately signed to Elefant Traks and Djanaba.

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A proud Wiradjuri and Bundjalung woman, Djanaba brings queer body, and sex, positive dance bops – live, some glitchy, others bass-heavy or house-influenced (she has been recording with PNAU). Joined by DJ Cass Lee, Djanaba reveals a big personality – and, for a rising star, has an uncanny command of the stage. Djanaba performs songs that aren't on Spotify as well as the instantly recognisable and catchy anthems Don't Really Care and Big Titties before closing with her spirited last single, FU. Along the way, she previews an upcoming UK garage track.

Since releasing their sophomore effort Terra Firma amid the pandemic in early 2021, Melbourne's own Tash Sultana has primarily toured abroad – and signalled a semi-hiatus. But the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist rematerialised last year for Bryon Bay Bluesfest over Easter and, in August, dropped the SUGAR. EP – home to the song Bitter Lovers, featuring BJ The Chicago Kid. Regardless, it's astonishing that AO Finals Festival should be Sultana's first hometown show in five years. (The tennis newbie has a court at home and jokes about inviting US Open winner Coco Gauff to play.)

Famously a former busker, Sultana broke out in 2016 as an indie-folkster with Jungle but has progressively expanded into other genres – notably neo-soul. They've even gigged with a band. At the Finals Festival, Sultana is accompanied by two other lowkey players.

Billed as a "special performer", the singular Sultana opens with an extended instrumental jam, switching between guitar, sax and Loop Station rather than banging out hits. The musician's first 'song' is a groovily loose rendition of 2020's Pretty Lady, reminiscent of Hiatus Kaiyote. Another highlight is Willow Tree, originally a smooth collab with Jerome Farah off Terra Firma. Sultana finishes with Jungle – which, still their #1 record on streaming platforms, sounds as fresh as ever as they amp up the effects.

Sultana knows how to work massive venues – selling out Colorado's Red Rocks Amphitheatre in 2022 – and, though they lament their mini (45-minute) set, it seems expansive.

But it is Peach PRC who is the superstar – her fans are instantly identifiable on the AO grounds with their costumes. Beyond any "girly camp pop", the Adelaidian has a distinct pastel pink fairy princess aesthetic – more Sanrio's Hello Kitty than Barbie – and ethereal presence, today apparently attired as one of Dracula's brides or a wili from the ballet Giselle. Peach shares the stage with dancers and a rock guitarist.

The hyper-pop-adjacent singer starts with arguably her most iconic song, 2023's Auto-Tune Perfect For You, referencing Paris Hilton's 2000s reggae-kitsch Stars Are Blind. In fact, Peach's pumping songs – like the alt-rock Kinda Famous, the opener of her chart-topping Manic Dream Pixie EP on Island Records Australia, and Euro-dance (and Alphaville-echoing) Forever Drunk – are perfect for the AO. Yet she also pulls off a ballad in Favourite Person. There's a pole dance routine as the energetic Peach revisits her early viral hit Blondes, semi-rapping. Daringly, she ends with God Is A Freak, which made #16 on 2022's triple j Hottest 100 poll – Justice-y crucifixes illuminating the screen.

Yaeji may be best known as a DJ, heading an acclaimed Boiler Room session back in 2017. She first hit Australia late the following year, appearing at Meredith. But the New Yorker has now developed into a credible avant-pop star. She delivered her debut album, With A Hammer, last year.

Unexpectedly, Yaeji doesn't go near the decks for Finals Festival, instead performing an exquisitely choreographed club show with a dancer – recalling Grimes, FKA twigs and Billie Eilish. Yaeji's experimental, quiet and dulcet style could be incongruous with the wider AO demographic, even as she flirts with the mainstream drum 'n' bass. Nonetheless, most punters here are familiar with her cutting-edge tunes – the biggest easily that house banger Raingurl. Yaeji finishes after seven with November's Latin and loungey single easy breezy, waving an AO Pride flag.

Culturally, tennis is more diverse than ever – the top players are POC and ethnic. But, while the sport has cultivated an inherent camp, it hasn't always been inclusive. AO Finals Festival aims to foster that with its bills. The ongoing challenge for Melbourne Park promoters is integrating the entertainment program into the main tournament so artists, too, feel that they are on centre court.