Live Review: Australian Open Finals Festival - Men's Final Day

29 January 2024 | 12:00 pm | Cyclone Wehner

The AO Finals Festival may become its own as less a musical satellite of the tournament and more a planet – putting some extra "happy" in "The Happy Slam".

AO Finals Festival

AO Finals Festival (Credit: Ashlea Caygill)

More Rudimental More Rudimental

The 2024 Australian Open (AO) in Naarm/Melbourne attracted record-breaking crowds over 15 days. But organisers should be thrilled, too, with the last day of the AO Finals Festival. The summer party, coinciding with the Men's Final, is a Grand Slam in itself – the John Cain Arena filled to capacity. The fact that the bill has marquee dance music acts in Rudimental, performing a blockbuster live show, and Groove Armada, DJing, is a bonus – a festive atmosphere assured.

Regular visitors to Australia, Rudimental previously appeared at the AO back in 2018, while Groove Armada are DJing at the event after (contentiously!) bypassing Melbourne on 2022's Antipodean farewell live tour when they (exclusively) headlined Harvest Rock in Adelaide. Groove Armada were then marking the 25th anniversary of their chill-out hit At The River.

The challenge for Untitled Group, promoters of the AO Finals Festival, is to curate a three-day program that complements the AO with its mainstream yet multicultural base – the top seeds increasingly from (creatively-popping) non-Western spaces – but also to ensure that the mini-fest isn't an adjunct. The AO's culinary offerings and corporate activations fulfil that, but not always the music component. Indeed, Thursday's AO Pride Day bash often felt like a peripheral – and unrelated – event in a citywide carnival, part-party, part-hipster arts hub.

The vibe in the arena is key. Luckily, the weather is glorious this Sunday, and the arena, with its retractable roof, is open-air. As the event's MC, comedian Louis Hanson, declares, "Shout out to the sky!"

Last year, on Men's Final Day, Untitled booked the likes of Melbourne's rising neo-soul star Forest Claudette (officially their first hometown show!) and Flight Facilities. This go, it's all courtside dance. Millennial ravers have brought their kids.

The party starts with Melburnian hotshot Cooper Smith, the day's "resident DJ". Smith made his festival premiere at 2023's Ability Fest – and already has fans, being greeted warmly at the barrier when he comes out to watch Rudimental. Awesomely, he drops Jason Derulo's Whatcha Say.

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The in-demand Samoan-Guringai DJ Latifa Tee – based in Eora/Sydney and best-known in M-town as a triple j host – follows with more pumping grooves, impressively mixing in Alexis Jordan's 2010s bop Happiness.

Melbourne club DJ Sunshine brings some camp to the party with her Disco Faith Choir – formed in 2016 and now recognised as a cult act locally, even guesting at Revolver.

The late Frankie Knuckles promoted gospel house in the 2000s with his Motivation compilations, but Sunshine has given the music an Australian Mardi Gras aesthetic. The DJ and her gospel choir are donned in costumes: Sunshine in celestial white (with her own gold fan) and the choristers in blue and gold robes.

The Disco Faith Choir sing about pain, liberation, joy, escape and salvation. They perform their 2019 cover of Fleetwood Mac's Dreams, the original popular in the early Chicago house scene, plus The Supremes' Motown You Keep Me Hangin' On, famously revived by Kim Wilde as hi-NRG pop in the '80s – as the choir leader advises us to let go of toxic people and "shituations". Amen.

Rudimental – Kesi Dryden, Piers Aggett and Leon Rolle, aka DJ Locksmith – are deemed veterans, but the multicultural UK collective ushered in the current pop drum 'n' bass movement in the 2010s. In 2024 they're relaunching as a trio – studio guy Amir Amor quietly departing following 2021's Ground Control. Rudimental have likewise signed a new deal with Sony.

In later years, the East Londoners became ever more hybridised, but they're now returning to their drum 'n' bass roots – credibly collaborating with Loud LDN singer/songwriter venbee on die young. They just teamed with Tiësto for Waterslides alongside RAYE's younger sister Absolutely – the Dutch trancer also embracing drum 'n' bass. Rudimental are in Australia on an extensive tour, selling out an upcoming Sydney date.

However, Rudimental's energetic AO show is about the hits – the crew is notably celebrating the 10th anniversary of their debut Home in 2023. They honour their anthems, including Feel The Love, Waiting All Night and These Days (that Macklemore collab).

In band-cum-sound system mode – with DJ Locksmith as hypeman, guest vocalists Afronaut Zu and Chenai and supplementary instrumentalists – Rudimental launch into Give You Up before bursting into full jungle. And the fold maintain that momentum.

A gracefully soulful newcomer, Chenai leads Rudimental's 2023 UK hit Dancing Is Healing (cut with the drum 'n' bass producer Vibe Chemistry and vocalist Charlotte Plank). She then introduces Rudimental's buzz unreleased cover of Torn – yes, the song that began Natalie Imbruglia's career in the '90s. Rudimental similarly performed their mate Ed Sheeran's Bloodstream, which they co-wrote, and their remix of Rag'n'Bone Man's hip-hop blues ballad Human – here reggafied. Rudimental might be a drum 'n' bass Faithless.

Inevitably, the biggest number is 2012's breakthrough Feel The Love – Rudimental's latest rendition loose and fun, with Locksmith and a now topless Afronaut larking about on stage and the audience singing along.

The Brits have long been popular in Australia – Locksmith noting that we are collectively their day ones – and the unpretentious crew actually wave a bespoke Rudimental flag on stage.

The AO Finals Festival closes with Groove Armada (Andy Cato and Tom Findlay) taking to the decks – Rudimental's members joining the crowd to support the '90s UK dance ambassadors, generating an unusual intimacy. The duo's set is boldly upfront, which punters welcome, but they throw in their 'greatest hits' (I See You Baby, Superstylin') as well as classic crossover dance tunes (Robin S's Show Me Love, Daft Punk's One More Time, featuring Romanthony).

One surprise is hearing 2013's tech-house Jack by Beach (aka Bristol's Ben Westbeech); another is Groove Armada spinning old soul (the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell jam Ain't No Mountain High Enough). It's nostalgia in flux.

Groove Armada wrap at 7 pm as fireworks streak across the still-blue sky and commute to an afterparty at The Espy – the night young. Their trek Down Under is a rare treat with Cato now focussing on life as a regenerative farmer in Oxfordshire and Findlay a cognitive behavioural therapist.

Above all, the AO Finals Festival may be coming into its own as less a musical satellite of the tournament and more a planet – putting some extra "happy" in "The Happy Slam".