Martha Wainwright does Piaf

Or rather ‘did’ Piaf.

Another ‘delayed reaction’ piece – rather than a review. Last one was on Lyle Lovett. This one is about Martha Wainwright’s performance of Edith Piaf songs at the Sydney Opera House (SOH) earlier this year (Feb 24, 2011). There’s a link at the end to a full review by Steve Moffatt, and the reason I’m providing it is that it pretty much gives the detail you’d want in a review, and because it sums up some of the experience of being there. But not all of it.

Couple of things to start with. The Concert Hall of the SOH is hardly an intimate space. I know the SOH and Martha have a mutually very fond relationship – and that’s quite a special thing for any performer. However I would have preferred to see her in a closer environment. For me, it would suit her and her style. So I went in with reservations about how it would work and, as I found my seat, I felt a long way away. The staging was set back, and from where I was, I could see all the empty seating behind the stage. It felt cavernous.

Then there was the opening act. All I knew was that it was called Doveman and that Martha’s husband, Brad Albetta, was on bass. And that’s it. I love the lottery that opening acts can present, so was up for it. Then Brad walks out with this young guy who’s carrying a glass of wine, places it on the floor by the piano stool and leans intently over the keys. I felt like a beat poem was only seconds away and, oddly for me, started to recoil. It was a strong reaction. The music was quiet, the singing breathy, the mood self-indulgent – almost maudlin – and the melodies what some might call sophisticated when they mean inaccessible. The jazz influence seemed to me to justify the beat poem expectation. I had to look about to reassure myself we hadn’t been sent back 50 years. And I had to stop myself from walking out. That’s never happened to me before, and I was a little shocked at the sensation.

And then it happened. He spoke.

Suddenly from this seemingly precocious character comes a level of self-aware and self-deprecating wit and intelligence that completely disarmed me. I stopped fidgeting, sat further back in my seat, unfolded my arms and paid a little more attention to Thomas Bartlett. He sang again. Same music, just new ears. A better understanding of the source, however superficial, started to unlock the experience. I wasn’t totally convinced, though. But then a breakthrough.

I was somewhat vindicated in my initial reaction when Bartlett revealed that a friend had asked (dared?) him to recreate an unlikely film soundtrack in the dark Doveman style. I obviously wasn’t the only one who thought he might need to lighten up. Full credit to his wonderful sense of humour that Bartlett completed the task – covering the entire Footloose soundtrack Doveman-style. Genius. This got him a little media attention – as well as legal attention – however a search on YouTube for Doveman and Footloose will get you a medley (which he performed for us) and give you a flavour of why I – and everyone else in the room – ended up eating out of the palm of this guy’s supremely talented hands. But more of that later.

As I said at the start, the review link below gives you the chronological and detailed view of Martha’s performance. I’m not going to rip it off – I’ll let you read it. However I can add my view of the experience.

First – and again, it’s a reservation – she walked on carrying reams of sheet music. I’ve never seen a non-classical performer do that and I found it a little disconcerting to see her need to rely on them so much. I’ve not seen her perform live before – so if this is what she does normally, then OK. However my thought at the time was: ‘Surely, after performing the show a number of times, and recording the album, she knows the words by now?’. All these months later, I’m still at a loss on that point. But I got over it.

Accompanied by members of the SSO, Albetta and Bartlett, Wainwright performed. And I use that term advisedly. Many artists perform, but what I mean is that, for someone normally ensconced (protected?) behind a guitar, this was less about playing a song and more about encapsulating and conveying a time, a place and a culture to an audience whose links to these are tenuous by definition. Many of us know of Piaf, but not all of us speak French, and she deliberately chose the more obscure songs of the Piaf catalogue (with the possible exception of ‘L’accordeoniste’). The result is a requirement to essentially act out the songs in a very physical but also very emotional way.

And I think she succeeded in a way that you don’t get on the album. I’m listening to it as I write – Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, A Paris – and what I’m not getting even now is what she achieved in the performance. I have her other two albums as well – and the voice on this latest recording feels the same as it is on the others. Don’t get me wrong – I love her voice – its rasp and quiver, the thinness and fragility that starts in the head, passes down behind the sinuses, seems to catch in the back of the throat then descends to an open vibrato. But what I heard that night was straight from the gut. Her voice in twenty years’ time. Rich, powerful, mature (in the beautifully aged sense).

I also like her humility in her approach to this whole project. From what I’ve seen of her, she’s pretty down-to-earth, and so it would fit that she was initially very scared of the idea of doing it. Or at least of the idea of doing it well. Many have tried and not necessarily succeeded. It’s that humility – which was genuine – that made what we got in the end all the more special.

As a fan, I was also gratified to hear her do her own stuff for a short while in the middle third of the show, back behind the safety of the guitar for a while. It was here that she was able to talk a little more about the loss of her mother Kate McGarrigle (who died in January last year) performing a number of her songs as well. As the review says – this was quite special. Not a dry eye around me.

And it was that – the sense of tribute to two wonderful women by a daughter and a respectful fan – that achieved something else for me. Suddenly the Concert Hall seemed a hell of a lot smaller, and I realised I had been completely drawn in.

And as a footnote – I’ll round off on Thomas Bartlett. Precocious indeed. Not only did he capture the essence of Piaf’s music, he was effortless. There are a lot  of talented pianists in the world. I don’t profess to be an expert, but I do know that there are only two pianists I’ve ever seen who made the rest of the room disappear. Cuban legend Ruben Gonzalez was one. Thomas Bartlett is the other. Would I buy a Doveman album? Probably not. If I did – it would be out of intellectual interest. Could I watch him play? Indefinitely.

Martha Wainwright Review: Steve Moffatt, Sydney Central

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Lyle Lovett Live

I have a few reactions to some live shows which I thought I’d throw out there. These are from things I’ve seen in the past year or more. I won’t call them reviews – I don’t have the press releases a reviewer would get, so not as informed as I’d like to be. I’ll add detail where I can.

The first is Lyle Lovett at the State Theatre in Sydney back on 29 March 2010. Here’s what I sent out to a friend at the time:

I was so impressed. I have a DVD of him performing mostly his jazz stuff, with a guest appearance by Randy Newman and the two of them performing their work for the Toy Story franchise. Whilst the music was fantastic, and the Large Band a treat, frankly I found it a little lacking. I now realise why. The difference when you see him unedited and live is the chat between songs, which reveals more of his wit and warmth. And charm. The man is the consummate gentleman and extremely gracious – even in the face of those inevitable moments when people shout out from the back but clam up when Lyle actually tried to engage.

What I didn’t realise is that Lyle appears to have a studio band and a live band – with only one member from his studio lot joining him on the road (Viktor Krauss – brother of Alison Krauss). There was an interesting set up – very pared back. No drums – just bongos, a cello, Viktor Krauss on electric double-bass, and two fellows from a bluegrass background who blew me away. Keith Sewell played lead acoustic and mandolin and has a voice entirely suited to bluegrass with its nasal twang, and Luke Bulla played mostly fiddle and lead acoustic on a couple of songs. His voice is lovely – it has a lot more clarity and resonance and blends beautifully with Lovett. These two have been playing bluegrass since they were six years old and have known each other since then. They are only in their thirties or so, but it’s clear there is only bluegrass in their veins.

And I think Lyle and the band would have to be the sharpest dressers on the road. Ever.

Of course Lyle’s guitar work makes you realise how technically good he is. And the voice. That’s what you go for and it doesn’t disappoint – that catching, dry, almost faltering but somehow rich sound which is quite unique and delivers as emotively live as in the booth.

The effect of the sparse backing band is that he has been able to recreate the mood of Joshua Judges Ruth, whilst the bluegrass guys made the newer stuff from Natural Forces really work well. ‘Pantry’, ‘Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel’ and the title track were all superb.

For me the only downside of bongos with brushes is that you lose some of the drive behind some of the songs from The Road to Ensenada which is my personal favourite of his albums. ‘I Can’t Love You Anymore’ and ‘Private Conversation’ just missed that kick which is what I love about them. That said, it does inject a new feel to the songs and you start hearing them differently. And that’s a pretty petty criticism for a performance which delivered in so many ways.

I was on a total high after this show – and after watching live videos, I hadn’t expected to be. Then again – how could I not? I’m a fan for a reason – he’s one of the smartest, wittiest, sharpest, most talented singers and musicians I know of. I have almost all his albums. Why was I surprised?

His My Space page has some tracks from Natural Forces for free download – and I highly recommend ‘Pantry’. You can also demand that he comes back to Sydney (column on the right lets you DemandIt). Go on, I did. Because I, for one, hope he gets back here soon.

Discovering Chinagrass

A friend in the UK recently mentioned an artist who has been around for a couple of years now, but of whom I’d not heard – a guy called Mamer. My friend called his music Chinagrass.

The bluegrass part of that term conjures flatpicking, fiddle, mandolin associations; voices at higher, more nasal, registers; Monroe, Scruggs, Rice and Rowan or Alison Krauss. Maybe the occasional jug band or jew’s harp. For want of a better description, that Appalachian mountain music which, by definition evokes an indelible sense of place.

I gave up trying to mentally reconcile those associations with what little I know of Chinese music and instead just dived in. What I got was something not a million miles away – but somehow entirely original.

Mamer is a young, 30-something who has become a cult figure in the underground music scene in Beijing. I’m no authority, so I’ve done some digging and have some seemingly intelligent and informed links at the end of this post which you can look into. Of note is that he grew up in Xinjiang province (northwestern China) listening to traditional Chinese and Kazakh folk music, but his life since then has been thoroughly modern – dropping out of music college to become a voice over artist (thanks to a beautifully resonant voice which had him overdubbing all the baddies in TV shows) and also singing in an 80s covers band doing Michael Jackson, the Police and Metallica. His influences throughout this time ranged from Yes to Pink Floyd, the Doors, King Crimson and Television.

However it appears he’s not lost sight of his past, and his album, Eagle, encapsulates both his modern and traditional sensibilities. The result is what I can only call an intoxicating sound. I’m getting the bluegrass elements: the stringed instruments (traditional dobra and guitar), the jew’s harp, the song structures. But there are so many other elements – middle eastern and sub-continental rhythms, dub, electric guitar looping through and all overlaid with a rich, low voice that puts me in mind of Tuvan throat singers.

Others have heard everyone from Woody Guthrie to Velvet Underground in what this guy is doing.

The sources I’ve looked at talk about how the open grasslands of his childhood are evoked by this music. I get that. Maybe because I grew up on wide open grazing plains in the Riverina. I admit grass was often a luxury where I’m from – but that sense of openness definitely speaks to me (undoubtedly brought into sharp relief by some level of nostalgia after many years of urban living).

I can only suggest you have a listen for yourself.

You can go to his My Space page here and listen to 4 or 5 tracks from the album.

But I think this You Tube video gives you a great summary sense of who he is, his music and some of his influences.

Chinagrass performers are not unknown to Australia. Sydney Festival in 2011 brought out another group of performers which has been added to the Chinagrass genre called Hanggai. From what I’ve seen, I’d class them as more world or folk music than Mamer. Then again – I have a lot more listening to do…

Enjoy.

Links on Mamer

Scarborough Evening News (UK) Review

Read about and listen to Mamer via Real World Records

John Grant

One of the reasons I wanted to set up this blog was to start talking about singers like John Grant.

Don’t worry – I have a lot to say about a lot of other artists, and if you’re trying to get a handle on my taste and my musical angle – don’t worry, so am I. It’s something of a moving feast, and always open to new ideas and directions. So there’s your invitation. Send me your thoughts. As I publish more, you’ll start to see what I’m on about.

Back to John Grant. I’d not heard of him until a musical contact of mine @Timinator let me know he had a ticket to see him at the Vanguard in Newtown and couldn’t go. Completely unknown to me, I nonetheless trusted Tim’s judgement and took the proverbial punt…and the ticket.

As I now know, John Grant is an American singer/songwriter who was the lead singer of a band formed in 1994 called the Czars which, as he told the audience, we wouldn’t have heard of due to ‘a complete lack of success’.

I am yet to hunt down anything of the Czars and will let you know once I do – but essentially I wanted to get this review and a couple of links and samples out there.

Despite what I’ve written below, after a number of listens to his first solo album, the song which has stuck in my mind on an almost continuous loop is the title track: Queen of Denmark. Not just for the lyrics which are wry and heartbreaking, but for that clear-throated vocal which, as a live performance, is still reverberating through me from the shoes up…have a listen…

The show was a little while ago now but, as I often do, I like to email friends with reactions. Here’s what I sent Tim at the time:

I cried.
Not sure what I expected, but out came this guy in a neat jacket and jeans and unleashed a voice that I still cannot believe.
May have been the venue as well (so intimate that his voice filled the room and came up through the floor). And then, in a couple of songs, he really let go, and I realised he hadn’t really been trying until then. Shivers up the spine stuff.
Love the songs – Sigourney Weaver, It’s Easier, Fireflies stick in my mind – Where Dreams Go to Die and TC and Honeybear seemed to be well-known to the crowd, and I loved those as well, but the first three really struck me.
Caramel is a beautiful love song – quite raw and unpolished in the live performance – just perfect. Although it’s very slick on the album.
I like the synth thing – he credits Iva Davies of Icehouse, and the 70s/80s stuff as an influence, and it really adds something you don’t see every day. He tended to stick to one effect/sound approach, which sometimes jolted me outside the song experience – but mostly it worked really well and just made for a fully unique experience.
He’s also brilliant on the keyboards.
Lyrically fantastic – great humour (esp Sigourney Weaver) and wryness which is genuinely amusing and endearing. Outer Space felt weird, may be a deliberate 70s homage, but felt strange/lyrically awkward because I was there the first time, and so it felt dated or something. Probably just a personal thing.
Here’s a guy with serious issues to work through and a lot of anger which he readily admits and discusses, but a little self-deprecation and a real warmth means there was a lot of love in the room. The way he breezes over the fact his coke dealer tried to suicide on the sofa made you feel like he was recounting the everyday larking about of a small child.
Although someone on Twitter said they walked out – but hey. Their loss.
I noted another Tweeter saying his wife was going to the concert and that she considered him criminally neglected as a talent – I wholeheartedly agree.

Here’s a Czars song for your edification because, from what I heard, their complete lack of success was another crime…

John Grant has promised he’s coming back to Oz soon. I’m so there.