Rufus Wainwright – Live at Sydney Opera House; September 9, 2012

It took a while to decide what I thought about the encore.

But before we get to that, let’s start at the beginning.

Krystle Warren. My personal discovery of Krystle was through the Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake concert held in the Concert Hall at the Opera House in November last year. My review of that concert and my first impressions of her are recorded here in this blog. I’m afraid I missed the start of her set, but I arrived in time to hear her discussing her jet lag and that she would be limiting conversation – a promise soon forgotten as she interrupted her own song to have a light-hearted go at the incredibly sickly audience who seemingly couldn’t stop coughing. Nonetheless her performance was, as I knew it would be, mindblowing. That voice with its dust and depth – lazy comparisons often feature Nina Simone – is just astonishing. And then her interpretation: colour and light delivered through her physical questioning and answering at the mike; interrogating, probing, shying away, returning. And then that moment when she opens her voice out. You can see she isn’t even trying. No protruding veins, no strain. There’s more in the tank, but hey, it’s only the Concert Hall, no need to shout.

After Krystle came Megan Washington. I saw her at Sydney Festival First Night this year, and she was upbeat and poppy and totally absorbed in her moment. This time, the absorption was there, but it was (necessarily) a tighter and more intense experience – just her and her keyboard. She realised the intensity she was bringing, apologising for such melancholy musings, before easing us into her next tale of heartbreak. I have made no secret of my impatience with the modern female singer category which I call the ‘breathy ingenue’ but I don’t put Washington in this set. Her voice definitely has some sweetness, but she has the ability to transition from open clarity to cracks and grain to quiet despair and back to joy and power. It’s a diversity which has delivered her a great deal of respect and love in the music community. She’s also a bit of a laugh. She has a droll sense of humour which is very engaging, such that those thoroughly human moments of stumbling over her words when describing her awe at the company she was keeping that night were charmingly managed. My personal highlight in terms of performance was actually not one of her songs but a cover of Rowland S Howard’s ‘Shivers’. Other reviewers commented they thought it was dragged out, and I can see what they’re saying, but it didn’t detract for me.

Now for Rufus.

It started with Rufus and band coming onto a stage lit only with flickering LED candles to open with an a capella version of ‘Candles’ from Out of the Game. It was nicely done and the darkness gave us a heightened aural platform for appreciating his superior voice and the talent among his band. They merged wonderfully. The moment also reminded me of seeing his father open a show at the Union Chapel in Islington in a similar way, mounting the pulpit in the dark to deliver Steve Goodman’s powerful protest ‘The Ballad of Penny Evans’ a capella. Funny what parallels the mind can draw.

The sudden lighting of the stage revealed all band members wearing sunglasses and Rufus resplendent in the all-white mirror-ball-style suit he had worn for his recent marriage to long-time partner Jorn Weisbrodt. My immediate thought was that he had been to Chris Isaak’s tailor.

What followed was a joyous mix of Rufus’s take on pop, rock, country, folk and Judy Garland which was totally infectious. This was a man in love and the show was a celebration.

Now for the details. First of all, Rufus’ voice is a jewel of a thing. It has diamond-clarity and precision. However it also sometimes has a nasal quality which I find can be hard to take in large doses. Thankfully this wasn’t an issue as he swung easily between the genres which combine to create his singular personal style and create enough variety by asking different things of his wonderful vocal skills.

The man is also a virtuoso in the classical sense. You can hear it in the key selection, progressions and phrasing in a song like ‘Montauk’. It takes no small talent to write an opera (as he has recently done) and Rufus’ more familiar works are infused with that gift and sensibility.

I particularly loved the performances of songs from the new album Out of the Game especially the title track, the aforementioned ‘Montauk’ and the stunning ‘Jericho’ which I have since been unable to get enough of. Other old favourites like ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’ kept the crowd, and me, very happy.

This is ‘Jericho’ for those not familiar:

Rufus’ banter was also what I would expect from this sharp-witted family but he adds a little extra wickedness for good measure.

But the show wasn’t all about Rufus.

Since the tragic passing of their mother, Kate McGarrigle, both he and his sister Martha have included tributes to her in their shows. Martha’s performances in her Piaf show last year were goosebump material as she wrestled her own emotions to honour her mother’s craft. It would be a flimsy exercise in amateur psychology to try to understand why Rufus chose to leave it to others. Perhaps he needed a proxy in order to protect the unbridled high of his recent nuptials. Who cares, it was inspired.

First the superb Teddy Thompson came forward, alone but for piano accompaniment, and delivered ‘Saratoga Summer’ in a way which highlighted his beautiful voice and wonderful range. He has made this song his own in recent years and I can see why it’s a favourite.There was an appropriate intensity and tone as he painted Kate’s picture of whimsy and regret at the fading of a summer past. One UK critic noted it made them feel sad for a summer they’d never experienced, which is a nice way to put it. It was a completely gorgeous performance and one you should be able to experience – so click below.

And then came Krystle. I’ve waxed lyrical enough about her, but you should be given the opportunity to understand why. Here’s her performance of Kate McGarrigle’s ‘I Don’t Know’.

So through a combination of Rufus’ wondrous talent and his selection of players, this was a sublime concert which basically made me happy.

But before I close, I must mention the encore.

Some reviewers have been scathing, others lighthearted. It was what I would call a Gay Messiah Bacchanale. It was a heady mix of exuberance, joy, weirdness, self-indulgence and any number of adjectives you might associate with a man on a high after his wedding and who’s looking to shake things up and have a bit of fun. I don’t know that a description will help, but it was like a sketch featuring some bizarre dialogue, the song ‘Gay Messiah’, an extremely buff cupid, Rufus in a toga, some eye-popping (and not entirely explained) props and half the band in their reg grundies.

However, the end result was that I laughed. I laughed a lot. And I danced, and I just did what Rufus asked because I didn’t want to kill the mood – not just the mood in the room, but my own personal mood. I’d had a lovely day, and this concert had been a complete and soul filling experience.

For that I am grateful.

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Lucinda Williams – Live at the State Theatre; April 3, 2012

This show has made me run the gamut of emotions.

I started with being miffed, uncomfortable and annoyed.

This had nothing to do with Williams and everything to do with the first support. I get that Daniel Champagne is a hit in the Spiegeltent and at festivals everywhere. I hear he’s the future of music. I get that, technically, he is astonishing. He manages to make noises with a guitar that are really quite extraordinary using the body, the neck and even the tuning keys to change key and change direction. At 21, he’s a prodigious talent and he’s more than welcome to divert my attention for 1 or 2 minutes in Pitt Street Mall.

It’s not that he’s not good, it’s just that I found what he does to be totally alienating. He did three songs that went for about 7 minutes each. All instrumental trickery, wandering in and out of the spot, singing unmiked, then back to the mike and stopping for elongated pauses that had the crowd applauding – half because they thought he’d finished, and the other half seemingly to encourage him to.

I have since asked myself what I reacted against. A couple of factors are at play. Firstly, he’s not the first person to use a guitar for percussion and other effects. It’s been done before. He certainly does it very well, but it’s just not new or interesting. Certainly not to me. Secondly instrumentals, like any music, require structures that people can easily grasp. Dramatic shifts from almost rock licks to delta blues and then long passages of showing off – all in the one song – just didn’t seem to hang together in any kind of musical or stylistic narrative. Thirdly, those long pauses are a luxury a new artist simply can’t afford. If we don’t know you, we’re not going to be that into you, so what you consider dramatic is in danger of being interpreted as self-involved by the outsider. Pick your audience, make it sharp and bring us along. We’re not hanging on your every note. We’re waiting for Lucinda. Maybe it was the crowd on the night. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood. But I wasn’t the only one. Overheard snippets were as bemused and largely disengaged as I was.

To mess with my emotions even more, we were then introduced to the wonderful Eilen Jewell. I didn’t know I knew any of her songs until she played the excellent ‘High Shelf Booze’ which local radio in Sydney had picked up over Christmas. Idaho-born and now living in Cambridge Massachusetts, Jewell has a fresh and sweet style that belies her mischievous sense of humour (in ‘Bang Bang Bang’, Cupid is a six-shooting two-year-old with bad aim) and her often dark and gritty lyrics (‘Santa Fe’, ‘Queen of the Minor Key’).

Voice-wise, those who know Lanie Lane would recognise some of the fifties-style sound, but Jewell’s influences are much broader encompassing gospel, honky tonk and rockabilly. So when she kicks into these modes, she and the band really kick. Jewell has a number of releases but concentrated on two in this set: Sea of Tears and Queen of The Minor Key. Highlights for me were the aforementioned ‘Santa Fe’ and the title track from Sea of Tears, as well as ‘Heartache Boulevard’. It was also a stroke of genius to cover Normie Rowe’s ‘Shakin’ All Over’ as the final song, totally winning over a crowd left somewhat disgruntled by Champagne. She already had us, but her take on this classic was the clincher.

And now to Lucinda Williams. Fully engaged after Jewell, out comes the legend lady herself and I had a couple of moments. First was the totally human reaction when you realise 1) that the last time you saw her was in 1991 2) that that was 21 years ago and 3) that, in that time, you both got older. No-one likes that moment.

However that was followed closely by the memory of the sublime 1991 performance at the Enmore Theatre where Lucinda, Rosanne Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter performed their ‘three chicks with three guitars’ (as Cash later called it) show, and which Kasey Chambers credits with inspiring her decision to perform professionally. Certainly it inspired in me an enduring love of all three artists.

So Lucinda launched straight into ‘Can’t Let Go’ from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her Grammy-award-winning and most commercially successful album to date. The band seemed tight and her voice was clear and strong. Had she not said anything we would have been none the wiser. It was a great start. However it turned out that, for some reason, she had missed sound check (reasons for which I am unaware) and she was not getting any feedback in her earpiece. This created some discomfort for Williams as negotiations with roadies and sound guys were had at the drum kit. Nonetheless, between conversations she powered on through ‘Pineola’, ‘Everybody’s Happy’, ‘Drunken Angel’ and  ‘Well Well Well’, all of which sounded fine but which Williams admitted made her totally paranoid about what we were getting.

However, I think what followed gives us the measure of Williams and her fans.

She was uncomfortable and annoyed. She came to the mike and told us she wanted it to be great and that she was frustrated it wasn’t. For a lesser artist, it might have been a deal breaker, but it seemed every single person in that room just loved her all the more, willing her along and letting her know it was all good. And that’s the thing about Lucinda. The reason she is so loved and respected is her warts and all honesty. The fact that all the raw nerves in her life are exposed and hit hard by her cathartic processing of them into songs. So to not accept something of that rawness in live performance would be folly.

I’ve also since learned this sort of thing is not unusual. I’ve heard and read that even small things can seem to put her out, and one can only surmise it’s because she’s so invested in the success of her shows. But far from seeming precocious, this merely serves to bring her even closer to her audience. And so, problems sorted, Lucinda kicked on.

My personal favourites were ‘Over Time’ (which Willie Nelson has covered), ‘Fruits of Our Labour’, ‘Side of the Road’, ‘I Lost It’ and ‘Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings’.

I also loved ‘Joy’ in which she found her full voice and let fly with some funky anger. Brilliant.

However the unquestionable highlight was her performance of ‘Unsuffer Me’, from the West album. The darkness and desperation of the lyrics almost snarled out of her, carried on that crackling and grated voice as she pleads: “…Come in to my world / of loneliness / and wickedness / and bitterness / Anoint my head / With your sweet kiss / My joy is dead / I long for bliss.”. I defy any spines in that audience to have remained unshivered.

Of course no set would have been complete without ‘Passionate Kisses’ which was the first song of the encore. Whenever Williams performs it, you get the sense you’re sitting at her kitchen table as the ink dries on the last verse. It has nothing of the polish which Mary Chapin Carpenter brings to it, and you feel like you’re getting it fresh and ‘just as the maker intended it’. Don’t get me wrong, Carpenter’s version is wonderful. But this was just a lovely moment for one of my all-time favourite songs.

The gorgeous ‘Kiss Like Your Kiss’ from Blessed allowed the transition to the full band and added Jewell on backing vocals for the finale: a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What it’s Worth’ and Williams’ bluesy ‘Get Right With God’ from Essence. By now parts of the crowd were up and dancing and all of us were left with the experience we had hoped for.

We wanted Lucinda and that’s exactly who we got.

So it was a roller coaster of emotions starting with the dip of Champagne, the sweet lift provided by Jewell, the uncertainty of Williams’ beginning, then the emotional highs and lows of Williams’ own songs and experiences.

Like a kid at the Easter Show, I want another go.

Here’s a bad shot I managed to squeeze in before the photo police bore down (I promise to buy a better camera soon and stop using my phone):

Lucinda Williams IMAGE

Lucinda Williams Live at the State Theatre, April 2012

Bonnie Prince Billy Live: Sydney Opera House; 5 March, 2012

Some experiences should not be over-thought.

They need to be left alone to be what they were and remain in memory forever.

So this isn’t a review. It’s just a note. Something to mark the fact that I was there at a performance that I will not soon forget.

Bonnie Prince BillyWill Oldham – has been described by one reviewer as your mad uncle. He’s an enigmatic bundle of seriousness, beautiful melodies, dark lyrics and a physical stage presence which my companion for the evening called ‘mesmerising’. It certainly is that.

The music itself is beautiful. The lyrical darkness and complexity is overlaid with disarmingly lovely melodies carried in three-part harmonies that filled the Concert Hall and held us in thrall.

Oldham was supported by the Cairo Gang comprising Van Campbell on drums, Emmett Kelly on acoustic and electric guitar and vocals, and the glorious Angel Olsen on vocals. Kelly’s light, yet beautiful voice was a delicate compliment to the clarity and power of Oldham and the resonance of Olsen. The three of them blended superbly. Olsen was also something of a revelation: when backing, she chooses forms and directions not unlike Emmylou Harris, but when on her own, I heard traces of Kelly Willis‘ depth and even a touch of her lilt and twang. She’s wonderful.

The three of them also managed to carry off a finale which stunned us all – Oldham laid down a challenge to the acoustics of the Concert Hall. Stepping away from the mikes and out of the lights, with only Kelly on guitar, the three of them sang the traditional “I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me”. I’ve been critical of the Concert Hall’s acoustics before, but on this occasion, I can honestly say it felt like the Hall was holding their voices in the palms of its hands.

I can’t add anything more.

To understand the beauty (and the stage presence) of Bonnie Prince Billy – this YouTube clip of “With Cornstalks or Among Them/The Sounds Are Always Begging” is a great start:

I think this review captures the entire experience as well as providing a set list which will allow you to explore on your own:

http://oceansneverlisten.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/bonnie-prince-billy-sydney-opera-house.html

And here’s the MySpace page:

http://www.myspace.com/princebonniebilly

Justin Townes Earle Live – The Basement – March 4, 2011

The last in my series of ‘delayed reactions’ and this time it’s Justin Townes Earle who played at the Basement back in March.

Another one where I was not sure what to expect…a feeling which grew as I checked out the audience. Fair to say it was varied: ageing hippies and the typical folk/blues crowd but also lots of urbanistas, forties retro kids and then a small clutch of flannel shirts (not worn ironically). It made for some colourful exchanges and, had JTE heard them, he would likely have revelled in it. He’s a party boy and makes no apologies. As he told the crowd later: if you’re offended by things like swearing and stories of a hard life “You’re in the wrong ****ing place”.

So the tone was set. Or so I thought.

Out walks this guy looking sharp in a suit (brave in the close environs of the Basement). Add liberal doses of bad boy southern charm delivered via some disarming honesty and it’s not hard to see how the room was his. Well – most of it – the guys in the flannies were seemingly rendered immune by large quantities of Bundy.

Being a fan of one person and a guitar on stage, I was glad JTE opted for this setup. But I was also very impressed with his occasional accompaniment on the fiddle by the unassuming yet extraordinary Josh Hedley. His playing is intricate and precise and comes complete with a lovely vocal that you wouldn’t intuitively pair with Justin but which works beautifully.

As for JTE, the first thing that struck me was his guitar playing. I’ve since learned his style is his take on clawhammer banjo style. Essentially he anchors with his pinkie, plucks with the thumb and strums with the other two fingers. To achieve the sound that he gets clearly requires an incredible strength in the hands, and watching him live shows how much strength he has. The style is totally unique and the effect is marked – a really full sound which makes you look for at least other two strummers on stage. This style also allows him to change up easily from a soft shuffle to a much more strident attack on the strings as he moves seamlessly across his musical influences.

I also like how his vocals shift. It’s not just softer when he slows down for something like ‘Who am I to say’. It takes on a graininess and there’s an extra twang in the accent which isn’t as obvious in his more upbeat songs. These are also the songs where I can very clearly hear his father.

But then, when he’s not in ballad mode, he sounds completely different again. In fact, try as I might, I can’t actually think of an artist who sounds like him. That definitely makes it harder to recommend him to others as it’s nice to be able to cite similar artists to pique interest. But at the same time, comparisons like that can often do artists a complete disservice. And of that – as well as the fact JTE is going to be living with comparisons in other quarters all his life (including mine in the previous paragraph) – I’m really rather glad.

With four albums under his belt, three of which charted in the US, JTE has a nice bunch of material to choose from but the emphasis was on Midnight at the Movies and Harlem River Blues – his two most recent, and definitely more successful, albums. The latter was actually something of a crossover success making some headway on the rock and indie charts in the US (which might go some way to explaining the diverse audience he attracts).

And on top of all his skill and great music – he’s a funny guy. I don’t mean that in a goofball way. It’s a sharp, natty, knowing wit which adds up to that ‘bad boy southern charm’ I mentioned earlier. Others might want to investigate his darker side – and for some of the forties ‘dames’ in the room, I’m sure that’s a big part of the appeal – but I, for one, am more than happy to leave it there and just get on with listening to what he does best.

So here’s a little of what he does best – the title track from Harlem River Blues:

Gomez – Live at The Factory, Wed August 3, 2011

Gomez Live at The Factory

It took me 13 years, but I got there in the end.

At the risk of coming across as rubbish for someone who calls themselves a music fan, I must admit it’s taken 13 years from the time I first heard of Gomez to actually seeing them live this week.

The story is a short one. I was living in the UK in 1998. My UK music friend, the one who referred me to Chinagrass music (see earlier post), and I had been going to see as many acts as we could while I was there (including Dr John, Alabama 3, John Hiatt, Bonnie Raitt, Eddi Reader and Boo Hewerdine and others). He mentioned this new act called Gomez were playing in Camden Town so we rocked up to the front door of the venue only to find they were completely sold out. Exactly. I’m rubbish. So we spent the evening in a nearby pub. As you do.

Since then however, I’ve bought most of their albums and, whenever I heard a new track of theirs on the radio, almost subliminally connected to the sound before I realised who I was listening to.

So it beggars belief that it’s taken this long – but there you are.

So 13 years later, what was it like?

I was hoping to get a real sense of the musicianship that I respond to so much on their albums. I got it. These guys are not just good at what they do – they seem to be good at what everyone else in the band does as well. Gomez appears to shape-shift on almost every song, with Tom Gray swapping from rhythm guitar to keyboard to bass, and Ian Ball jumping on the keyboards to take a break from rhythm. All of them sing, almost all of them write the songs. Even the drummer played a tambourine (you’re right – doesn’t count). I know there are a lot of versatile musicians in the world – I just don’t see it that often in indie land. Of course, I’m happy to be corrected.

These guys also appear to have a mind-boggling collection of guitars – acoustic, semi-acoustic and electrics – between which they alternate at every song. I’d hate to be their roadie. Too much like hard work.

I was also interested to see how live Gomez might achieve the sound they get in the studio. I tend to think of them as being a little like Wilco, always tinkering with new sounds whilst injecting influences from so many different styles and legacies. Of course it turns out it’s easy – technology has taken care of much of that. And that’s something I’m grateful for these days. 20 years ago, using technology in a live performance smacked of bad lip syncing and excruciating howlers as horrified muppets got caught out when the backing tape jammed. Now it’s a non-issue and for bands like Gomez, the ability to bring their whole bag of tricks along means we get what we came for.

And I guess that’s why I really liked this show. I wanted to see Gomez because I like what they do. And they delivered what they do in spades.

Standouts for me were ‘Bring It On’, ‘Revolutionary Kind’, ‘Whippin’ Picadilly’ ‘Girlshapedlovedrug’ and Tom Gray getting his growl on for ‘Fill My Cup’.

I also love the contrasting vocals. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a voice like Ben Ottewell’s. It’s certainly big and gritty and all those words. But it also has the versatility that encapsulates what Gomez is about. I’m currently listening to the infectious ‘See The World’ with Ottewell coming over all sweet and sending it trippingly across my ears. But then try ‘Get Miles’ or ‘Bring It On’ and it’s like someone’s taken to his vocal chords with a rasping file – and simultaneously sent me a-quiver. Pretty sure that’s not a word. Whatever. Let’s just say it’s a magnificent thing when you’re in the room.

Then there’s Ian Ball’s lighter, sweeter sound – a touch of the Shins? Whilst Tom Gray has moments where he sounds like he’s channelling Damon Albarn or (dare I say it) a Gallagher, even Travis-like? Then in something like ‘Fill My Cup’ I’m getting Sergeant Pepper. I sound like I’m tasting wine now. But that’s not a bad analogy – because with these three seemingly unlikely ingredients – or notes – in the vocals, you get an altogether singular flavour and finish.

So was it worth the wait? Not a doubt in my mind.

And I might just say – what a venue. The Factory at Marrickville is a great room. Tiered floor space, wonderful ageing art deco interior, some St Vinnie’s sofas and a bar. And with the outdoor bar and merchandising area essentially in a shed out the front, it’s all pretty low-key – like you’re at a barbie in your friend’s carport. Really welcoming.

Although I have to note – I’m worried about what’s happened to the Inner West I used to know and love. Having previously lived about 5 minutes from the Factory and various other IW locations, I was expecting that edginess and attitude the IW is known for. But no – here was a crowd full of happy, polite, attitude-free punters getting right into the music, but checking they didn’t block your photo or stomp on you as they jumped about. Or was that just at the back? Seemed like everyone ‘cos even the sweaty ones at the front were smiley. Just something I noticed.

Here’s the happy ‘See The World’ – just to capture that glow:

Anyway – thanks Gomez – let’s not wait another 13.

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