Paul Simon – Live at Sydney Entertainment Centre; Tuesday April 2, 2013

Paul Simon Image

Paul Simon knows me better than I know myself.

Despite the fact I’ve never met the man, he has nonetheless managed to express me and my human condition better than anyone, such that I actually consider one of his earlier works to be my personal theme song.

But this isn’t the only reason I’m a fan…he also writes a nice tune.

And I suspect that one or both of those reasons was responsible for 10,000 people (maybe more) packing into the Ent Cent last Tuesday night.

But before we get to his show, a word about the opening by Rufus Wainwright. Simon explained at the end of the concert that he had been connected with Rufus’ family – especially his mother – over many years. I have already written about Rufus’ last Australian tour here. Having also been at Byron Bay, Rufus was on the festival train and commented about arriving back in Sydney ‘in one piece’ and mentioned a slight headache. I thought he must be joking, because when he sat at the piano and that sublime voice opened up with ‘The Art Teacher’ and continued through the set, I thought he was absolutely at his best. But then he took up his guitar to do ‘Out of the Game’ and one of my personal favourites ‘Jericho’ from the same album. I guess the best that could be said was that it was hit and miss. He was fluffing chords and, as my dad might have said, he was playing like a hairy goat. That’s when I thought he really might have been a bit dusty from too much festival fun. You do have to give it to him, though. He’s a professional and he just bashed away with loads of chutzpah till the end.

Rufus Wainwright image

But then he got back behind the piano and not a blemish. Not in the voice, not in the performance. And he was extraordinary. I never tire of ‘Montauk’ and the playfulness of ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’. This was the first time I had seen him do ‘Memphis Skyline’/’Hallelujah’ so hearing the intro about Rufus’ Jeff Buckley ‘issues’ and then this wonderful medley was a real treat. By the end of his set, I’d forgotten the hairy goat and was back under the spell of this extraordinary man from a family I’ve made no secret of loving for many years.

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So to Paul Simon.

Last time I saw him was 1991 for the Born at the Right Time tour, launched on the back of the South American-infused Rhythm of the Saints album. Back then, I was relatively new to the whole live concert thing and I now realise that I was completely spoiled. It set a very high bar.

I’m not talking about slick perfection or mind-blowing technical stuff. I’ve seen some of the biggest acts in the world and they’re all pretty much of the same high standard. And all artists have their awkward and thoroughly human moments (including Simon). But there’s something about the way he puts a show together that delivers an experience that others, for me, have not achieved. I think it has something to do with the meticulous attention he pays to selecting his musicians. I also think it’s about his arrangements; that ability to pare back a song without losing its richness. And as a known perfectionist, I think there’s also a fair bit of preparation and rehearsal in that mix. I know other artists do all of those things but none of them are, well, Paul Simon.

Paul Simon image

Looking back at the setlist, it was pretty much wall-to-wall favourites including six songs from Graceland including ‘Gumboots’, ‘That Was Your Mother’, ‘Crazy Love Vol II’, ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’, ‘You Can Call Me Al’ and the title track. I was a little miffed that there was only one song from Rhythm of the Saints (‘The Obvious Child’) but there were more than enough other great hits to be going on with. I was also gratified that he delved back into some works that I’ve not seen him do live before – either recorded or live – and Simon seemed to revel in revisiting them. This included ‘My Little Town’ and ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ (including excellent backdrop photographs).

Paul Simon Image

Whilst everything on the list was a highlight of some sort for fans, I think the truly great moments of the show were when he deviated from his own songbook.

The first of these was when he melted from his stunning ‘Hearts and Bones’ into Junior Parker’s ‘Mystery Train’ and then to Chet Atkins’ ‘Wheels’ via a sneaky few bars of ‘Mona Lisa’ and who knows how many other subtle references (the latter was made famous by Nat King Cole, but was written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston for those playing at home). Driven by the amazing Mark Stewart on lead guitar (a startlingly versatile multi-instrumentalist who has toured with Simon since the mid-90s), this segue was surprising as it was dominated by a straight country rhythm which I had the impression was not Simon’s bag. But he was loving it, and so did we.

Mark Stewart Image

Mark Stewart

The next deviation was in the first encore (there were three!), where they launched into ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Simon’s sweet voice proved the perfect conduit for George Harrison’s tune.

The third was in the last encore. The band struck up the Bo Diddley beat for ‘Pretty Thing’ and the ensemble was doing an excellent job on its own. But for good measure, Bonnie Raitt snuck on stage to lend some percussion and backing vocals. Knowing I was going to see her the following night, this was the perfect preview. It also highlighted to me how rare it is for Australians to see such high calibre cameos. They are more common in the US where artists are literally often just down the road from one another’s performances on a regular basis. I guess we can thank Bluesfest for that.

Bonnie Raitt Paul Simon concert image

Bonnie Raitt

I also like that Simon was prepared to go a little off script. Citing a mood to try a couple of S&G songs (other than those he’d already prepared), and apologising upfront for being unrehearsed, Simon started ‘Homeward Bound’ with the rest of the band following. What emerged was again a country rhythm that, this time, actually did feel incongruous and seemed to overpower the delicate chorus. I’m not sure who engineered it – possibly Stewart or Simon himself – but the rhythm section got the message and pulled back, and the final result was excellent. I like the fact that he went off script, I like that they tried something, I like that it went a little awry and that they got it back in the end. This is what live performance is.

And then there was the ultimate moment. The final of the three encores and the moment I had been waiting for. You need to know that ‘The Boxer’ for me is up there with ‘Dimming of the Day’ and ‘If These Walls Could Speak’ for all-time beautiful songs. So whatever Simon decided to do with it, I would be happy as long as he played it. So when Rufus came out and lifted this already gorgeous tune with his soaring and sublime harmonies, I confess to an overwhelmingly emotional moment. I’ve heard lots of people do covers of that song, but I’ve never heard the harmony articulated that way. I mean Garfunkel’s performance is quite singular, but Rufus brought something different and all his own. I was definitely speechless.

That said, ever professional, I was also mindful of getting a shot, so here you are…

Paul Simon Rufus Wainwright Image

I think I’ve gushed enough, but it’s no less than you might expect for one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. Argue at your peril.

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Shawn Colvin – Live at The Basement, March 31, 2013

Shawn Colvin Image

It’s never been about ‘Sunny Came Home’.

Whilst it is arguably her most popular song, she already had me at Steady On, especially ‘Shotgun Down the Avalanche’ and the title track.

Then, for me, came Cover Girl. The irony is not lost on me that an album which has became the soundtrack to a very significant period of my life – and therefore is definitely coming to the desert island – doesn’t contain any songs she’s actually written. Instead, this album highlighted her guitar skills and gave me a better sense of her wonderful vocal interpretation. I already knew she had a great voice, I just heard it more clearly on Cover Girl. The album also contains her version of Jimmy Webb‘s ‘If These Walls Could Speak’ which rips your heart out in a way equalled only by Bonnie Raitt’s version of Richard Thompson’s ‘Dimming of the Day’.

Essentially, whilst I have a number of Colvin’s other albums and I think they are all excellent, it should be understood where my connection with her music comes from.

So last night’s show was a delight. She recreated the vibe I got from the live tracks on Cover Girl, the guitar work was as accomplished as always and the voice was as I expected, although I’m not sure that I know how to describe it. I wouldn’t call it pure or classically folk. It’s strong and has some smoke in it, there’s breathiness (not in an ingenue way) but also some sharpness. And it has the ability to stand forward on its own or fall back and support others’ vocals (which she has done many times) with a chameleon-like richness and warmth. This is a rarer skill than you might think. Anyone can sing a harmony, but not all back-up singers can truly blend. Colvin can.

However she was no-one’s support last night and the stand-out beautiful voice was what we got.

The show wasn’t slick in a polished sense (which can sometimes be distancing). Colvin was a little more – for want of a better word – organic, taking her time over some of the phrases and letting the songs roll as they may. Somehow that was more satisfying. Like she was playing for family in the lounge room. Don’t get me wrong though, this wasn’t amateur hour. You just got the sense (as you do with artists of her ilk) that she’s worked hard to be as good as she is, and if she wants to pause a bit over that section, she will. It wasn’t all the time, but was a nice touch.

Shawn Colvin image

Some of the new songs from the latest album All Fall Down were highlights, especially ‘Change is On the Way’, which she wrote with Patti Griffin. Colvin noted this album represented a spreading of her writing collaboration wings, having spent a long time working with the remarkable John Leventhal (Leventhal is a Grammy-award winning producer, musician and co-writer who I first encountered via listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter. He’s worked with a virtual who’s who of my music world and is something of a hero. He’s also married to Roseanne Cash). While Leventhal still has a hand in four songs on the album, some of Colvin’s partners on this new work include Griffin, Jakob Dylan, Bill Frisell and Viktor Krauss (Alison‘s brother and Lyle Lovett‘s bass player).

Aside from songs from the new album, ‘Sunny Came Home’ got a run as you would expect. She also did lovely versions of ‘Shotgun Down the Avalanche’ and ‘Diamond in the Rough’, beautifully retaining their richness of tone despite just being one guitar. Sometimes I find solo acoustic versions of songs I know so well from the albums to be thin and lacking substance when done live, but this wasn’t a problem.

Probably the absolute highlight for me was ‘Killing the Blues’. Written by Rowland ‘Roly’ Salley (Chris Isaak‘s bass player), this was on Cover Girl but was also done wonderfully by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their album Raising Sand. The song is another favourite and, since the album version was a live recording, the experience was very much the same. Therefore it was not only familiar but heightened by the fact she was only a matter of feet away. And it wasn’t just me, it was obvious everyone else was feeling it in their own ways and for their own reasons. It was just superb.

Colvin was also very engaged with the crowd. She’s not a comic or a clown, but she has some funny moments, like when she unintentionally unleashed a spate of requests from the floor and gave a Scooby-Doo ‘Ruh-roh!’. It’s just nice to see them show us who they are.

I am ashamed to admit I have no idea what her first encore song was, but it was complex and stunning. I think it really highlighted the singularity of her voice. If anyone can help, that would be greatly appreciated, and I’ll update.

Her finale was another one from Cover Girl. Her take on ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ which is also a live track on the album. So again, another one done how I expected it to be, and even better when she’s in the room.

That was the perfect ending. I left The Basement still singing it on the street and ultimately gratified to have finally experienced the stunning skill and beauty of a voice that has accompanied me through many life experiences over many years.

Shawn Colvin image

Ron Hynes

I wouldn’t call this post a meal in itself – more a retrospective amuse bouche.

I’ve seen a bit more music recently than the reviews on this blog show. I just haven’t posted about them all. So the next few are a bit of a catch-up: snippets and standouts from gigs I’ve been to over the past year or so.

The first one is Ron Hynes aka The Man of a Thousand Songs. According to Wikipedia, he’s responsible for the 41st greatest Canadian song of all time on the 2005 CBC Radio One series 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version. Despite its almost comical specificity, that’s no small accolade. The song is called ‘Sonny’s Dream’ and, Canadian or not, it has definitely been toward the top of my list of favourites.

The source of the discovery was a showcase of Newfoundland folk music at Notes in Sydney’s Newtown in January of this year. A friend is a native of eastern Canada (Nova Scotia) and he invited me to join him and his friends for what I expected to be a hit and miss affair, but was entirely wonderful from start to finish. I knew precious little about the ‘Newfie’ folk scene before this evening but soon discovered a diversity of performers; some of whom are dedicated to preserving the Celtic traditions, whilst others have evolved in different directions: jazz/swing, rock and more alternative folk styles.

I’ll provide a link to my friend’s more detailed review of the show at the bottom of this post as it mentions all the acts. They’re definitely worth looking into as they are all excellent. Special mention to The Once and what I heard of The Dardanelles.

As I say, whilst I enjoyed all of the acts for the evening, I came away with ‘Sonny’s Dream’ stuck in my head. It’s just a beautiful, simple tune woven around a poignant and quite difficult issue – the dreadful waste of potential as a young man’s sense of duty keeps him on an isolated farm looking after his ageing mother and unable to experience the world.

The song came to prominence when Christy Moore covered it and has since taken on a life of its own. In fact, it wasn’t until much later that I realised I had actually heard it before under a different name. A relative has a recording of a version (simply called ‘Sonny’) recorded by Emmylou Harris, Mary Black and Dolores Keane. It’s a beautiful version, but I think I still prefer to hear it from Hynes – something about hearing it come from the mind who created it, or being closer to the craftsman’s intent. Maybe it’s just the extra buzz from hearing it live and sung full-throttle by every Canadian voice in the room and I’m just a sucker for a singalong.

Whatever. Here’s Ron’s version:

Footnote: I met Ron after the show when I bought one of his albums (Get Back Change)  from him. He came across as a true gentleman and gentle soul. I love those moments.

Here’s the review from my friend: http://plummetonions.com/2012/01/06/newfoundland-showcase-at-notes/

Eddi Reader Live at the Camelot Lounge – Friday 23 March, 2012

A dark night, streets abandoned.

Braced against a whipping wind, I’m walking over a rail bridge, past warehouses shut up for the night.

I could be in London’s north-west, making my way over the rail bridge and past the McVitie’s factory where the beckoning aroma of baking biscuits almost draws me away from my target – the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden and my first ever live encounter with Eddi Reader and Boo Hewerdine.

Instead, it’s fourteen years later and I’m in Marrickville, Sydney. It takes three attempted passes. No signs, no lights, no markers. But then finally my GPS tells me I’m there.

I’m on a rutted and potholed rat-run from the Princes Highway and, secreted at the top of a starkly lit and steep set of warehouse steps, is the Camelot Lounge.

Fourteen years after that first night at the Fiddler, I’m now seeing Eddi and Boo for the fourth time. I’m not sure I’ve seen any other act that many times because I generally have a very low boredom threshold. Artists rolling out the same thing every time sets me to tears. Put it this way: I would never have called Dylan Judas.

But with Eddi and friends – there’s no danger of boredom.

I first discovered Eddi via a friend giving me Mirmama and her self-titled album in around 1996. The Mean Fiddler gig then introduced me to Boo Hewerdine. I’d not heard of The Bible – the band he had had some cult success with – but I was sold on his songs and his wonderful voice immediately. Since then, I’ve seen Eddi and Boo share the stage at The Basement in Sydney and in a prime slot at the National Folk Festival in Canberra (joined by the superb Alan Kelly on piano accordion).

This time, along with Hewerdine and Kelly, Reader was joined by Welshman Ian Carr on lead acoustic guitar. It might be said that the addition to the armoury is not necessarily needed. Hewerdine’s guitar skills and the colour from Kelly are a complete sound on their own, especially when Reader jumps on rhythm and Boo can have his head on the lead. However with Carr there, the quartet simply has more options and some sublime additional skills. He brings a new dynamic with some fantastic solos, then switches into rhythm when required to add depth to an already rich ensemble. Even when Eddi chose to play one of Boo’s songs on a whim, which Carr had not rehearsed with them, he noodled about till he found a way in. Which is what the good ones do.

Alan Kelly, Eddi Reader, Ian Carr and Boo Hewerdine Image

Alan Kelly, Eddi Reader, Ian Carr and Boo Hewerdine

And now to Eddi. One of the reasons she never bores me is because her way with the audience has an openness and generosity of spirit that is quite beguiling. Add to that her cracking wit, and her clear obsession with her songs and the stories behind them and any audience will find itself powerless.

Eddi Reader live at the Camelot Lounge Image

Eddi Reader live at the Camelot Lounge

I could also listen to that voice forever. I don’t quite know how to describe it. Even when she’s cruising in her middle range, that voice is a stunning instrument. When she pushes it down, it develops some grain and breaks with emotion, then she’ll lift and float up above the others’ harmonies with improvised embellishments that soar. Her range has to be 4 or 5 octaves and seemingly effortlessly so. I’m not technically qualified to say much more, but I know that my list of personal highlights could run close to the entire set.

Perhaps I could single out a few, though. I don’t own any of her albums interpreting Robert Burns’ poetry, but I’ve now seen her perform a number of them live and they are a wonder, especially ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’. Fairground Attraction’s ‘Hallilujah/Allelujah’ is always a stunning and heart-rending moment and did not disappoint. I’m welling up listening to a clip on YouTube right now (see video at the end of this post).

Of course ‘Perfect’, the hit she’s known for with Fairground Attraction, kicks along and gets the crowd moving. It takes me back to undergrad days and evenings in pubs and is always fun. But there was also ‘Hummingbird’ and ‘Dragonflies’ and ‘Kiteflyer’s Hill’. I could go on.

It’s not just about the voice, though. It’s how she inhabits the story and the mind of the person who’s telling it. The pain is palpable, the joy exhilarating. It’s a true gift and she has been blessed with some wonderful collaborators who have created those stories – prime among these being Hewerdine.

As for the traditionals, these are rousing moments of patriotism which, given our shared history, cleanly strike their chord.

I have one slight disappointment. We didn’t get to hear Boo do any of his own songs. Given the length and strength of Eddi and Boo’s collaboration, I can’t imagine this is an issue for Boo, so can only conclude that he’s exactly where he wants to be in this arrangement. I guess I can only hope for a solo tour sometime.

And a note about the room. I love the crazy combination of medieval vs camel ‘parking lot’ that is the Camelot Lounge. The massive camel with Beaker from the Muppets riding on its back was a personal favourite. I’m also all for these local venues. There was a good bar with tables and seating for everyone. It’s clearly a labour of love. Eddi noted that the guy who runs it does the sound and made them dinner and everything. What a guy!

However, I think there are some kinks to be ironed out with the sound. The very first song was quite a mess. Reader sounded like she was singing under a blanket, the guitars were a mesh of noise and the accordion unidentifiable. However it was gradually corrected once the sound guy had a chance to walk out to the back of the room a few times (his desk was beside the stage) to hear what was going on. Eventually, he had the balance close to right and the magic of these four excellent musicians was fairly clearly articulated. However I felt Ian Carr’s backing vocals needed pulling back as they were failing to blend. This was less of a problem on raucous tunes like ‘Willie Stewart’ and ‘Charlie is my Darlin”, but was somewhat disconcerting otherwise. That said, I appreciate that a converted warehouse will have its space limitations and so compromises must be made. I’m fairly sure the artists are realistic about this as well, so we shall leave it there. It’s not putting me off going back to the Camelot Lounge again – as it’s truly a unique space.

Nor did it detract from the sheer joy of Eddi Reader and her league of wonderful artists. As I walked back across that rail bridge, it was with a full heart and a broad smile…and a strange hankering for a McVitie’s biscuit.

Here’s the YouTube video I just mentioned:

Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake – Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House; Friday November 11, 2011

You hear about them. Seldom do you believe they are real.

I can’t exactly say it lived up to the hype, because I hadn’t seen any. In fact I bought a ticket on the strength of an email sent by the Opera House, and that’s as much as I knew about it before I walked in the door.

Oh I knew about Nick Drake but, like many, I was a late starter. My education began in earnest with the revealing documentary A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake” by Dutch director Jeroen Berkvens which aired on SBS. I immediately bought all three of his albums, plus a 2004 compilation called Made to Love Magic which includes some raw and previously unreleased recordings. Both the doco and this compilation catered to the reignited interest in Drake that had started in the late 90s.

I must admit to some trepidation. I generally avoid tribute concerts. To be frank, I find them lame. I only vaguely knew some of the artists on the bill, and I was also wondering what approach would be taken. Would it be rote performances that end up sounding like bad impersonations? And knowing the complexity of Drake’s guitar technique – and his fondness for various open tunings – how they would actually pull the whole thing off?

Well here’s where I give myself a serious slap for my cynicism. It was one of the most sublime of concert experiences. One of those ones that I simply didn’t think actually happened.

The whole venture has been curated by Joe Boyd, who produced Drake’s first two albums. It was first performed in the UK in 2009 and I believe at some stage it was recorded for the BBC. It has also visited other countries with a core set of performers, but also featuring artists from the host country.

Whilst I knew of one of the local performers, I admit to knowing very little about the rest. There will be readers with much more knowledge than I. I have since done a little research, but still prefer to speak from my impressions on the night.

Robyn Hitchcock kicked off with ‘Parasite’. He’s been described as a ‘globetrotting rock troubadour’ and was lead singer of The Soft Boys in the 70s before going solo. Prowling onto the stage with his shock of floating white hair, his choice of a monochrome jester-style shirt seemed to signal his intention of ‘…lifting the mask from a local clown.’. This was an arresting version. Hitchcock carries with him the elan and intensity of the music poets of the 70s, as well as an anarchic unpredictability which brought some of the anger and sense of danger out of the song which Drake’s own performance seems to prefer to restrain. In such an unleashing, Hitchcock sacrifices some of Drake’s precision on the guitar, but this is not a bad thing. It’s how you imagine Drake might have been if he’d just dropped his guard a little.

Other performers include Green Gartside of Scritti Politti fame who brought his sweet and clean pop sensibilities to songs like ‘Fruit Tree’ and ‘Hazey Jane II’. These were brighter, more upbeat interpretations which have added a lot more colour to the way I listen to those songs now. In an aside, Gartside was also the perfect straight man to Robyn Hitchcock’s commedia-style overreaction to some technical issues before the two of them rocked out on ‘Free Ride’. It was a funny moment.

One of the local acts to join the internationals on this tour is Melbourne folk duo Luluc. Again an act I know nothing about, but will now investigate further. A number of years ago, I was introduced to the stunning voice of the late Kate Wolf, an American folk singer and songwriter whose short career ended when she died in 1986 from leukaemia. Her songs have since been covered by Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris among many others, but she remains relatively obscure in her own right. When Zoe Randall of Luluc opened her first notes on ‘Which Will’, I was struck by the similarities. A beautiful, sonorant alto voice, no grit, pure gold. It was enhanced even further by her use of nylon strings on what I believe was a lovely little Martin guitar. And it wasn’t just the voice – both she and Steve Hassett have Drake’s technical skills in spades. As was becoming clear, this wasn’t about mimicry, this was about intepretation and faithfulness to each artist’s own style, as well as to Drake. So this version added a lustre that was Luluc’s own. When they later returned to perform ‘Fly’ I was completely sold. It was gorgeous.

I may be waxing lyrical so far, but there were a couple of downsides. One is a little whinge to the Opera House. I have an impression that the acoustics in the Concert Hall are supposed to be superior. So why on earth was I getting slapped in the back of the head by echoes from the high-hats? About half a second after each use of the high hat, the echo clattered back to me and was somewhat off-putting. I don’t know if you have to sit in a certain part of the audience to avoid that problem, but I eventually had to build a bridge…

The other downside relates to some staggering ignorance on my part regarding Vashti Bunyan. I knew nothing about her. As with the other artists, I have since done some reading and I get that she is a cult figure and held in great reverence. However, in my ignorance, I found her performance of ‘Things Behind the Sun’ quite disengaging. Not knowing who she was, or what she was about left me struggling. Her timidity and quietness was a little unnerving. I genuinely thought she was nervous and I was starting to worry. Knowing now what I know, I am an idiot for thinking that. But I can’t change my impression of the moment. I can only listen again in future with new ears.

That said, her performance of a song written by Drake’s mother Polly called ‘I Remember, You Remember’ was lovely. It illustrates the source of Drake’s sense of irony and was delivered with some knowingness and delight. It was also this song that gave me a hint at the beauty and strength Bunyan’s voice can have – but it was all too fleeting. I sense I have much to learn, master.

My earlier misgivings about mimicry resurfaced with the appearance of Scott Matthews. A UK folk rock/indie singer who lists Drake as one of his influences, Matthews certainly has the Drake look happening with the retro hair and dark blazer, all tall, thin and handsome. These misgivings gave way immediately when he started. His playing is excellent: precise and controlled. Matthews’ performances of ‘River Man’, ‘Day is Done’ and ‘From the Morning’ were perhaps the closest to Drake’s way, but were far from hollow echoes. They were beautiful, simple renditions (as much as anything by Drake can be called simple).

I was also struck by the fact that the recurring guitar theme that underscores ‘From the Morning’ is very similar to that of a song on the 1 Giant Leap concept album which received some Triple J airplay in around 2005 called ‘Braided Hair’. That theme is what drew me to the later song in the first place, but this was the first time I’d made the connection as to its origins. I love it when that happens.

The other Australian element among the guest performers was Shane Nicholson. Like many, I know him as Kasey Chambers’ other half, and have formed a very limited impression of him based on a RocKwiz appearance, as well as his backing of Chambers when she was supporting Lyle Lovett last year at the State Theatre. I don’t have the Rattlin’ Bones album, or any of his or his wife’s solo work. On this basis, I was struggling to see the connection between he and Drake. But I think Joe Boyd’s vision was to gather together a collection of artists who can tease out the many influences of Drake’s work and ask us to understand them in an entirely new way. And the inclusion of Nicholson certainly did this for me.

Drake’s original version of ‘Poor Boy’ had a syncopated jazz rhythm (forgive my limited jazz vocabulary), was in a minor key and featured gospel-style backing vocals. The gospel backing vocals remained for Nicholson’s version, but it seemed that the chorus had been converted to a major key and carried a country kick to it which completely changed the experience of the song. It was quite unexpected and injected a lot of great energy. Nicholson later joined Neill MacColl for a beautifully rendered version of ‘Rider on The Wheel’ which came out brighter and prettier than the darker original, with the colour coming from a combination of MacColl’s skills (more of whom later) and Nicholson’s spirit.

If ever a voice was tailored to ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’, Irish singer Lisa Hannigan’s is it. It’s perfectly suited to chasing Drake’s unexpected note changes and lifting out the vulnerability and fear that entreats us to ‘Stay indoors, Beneath the floors, Talk with neighbours only.’. However hers is not an unusual voice on the folk scene at the moment. She was beginning to look like one of any number of young singers who are what I call ‘the breathy ingenues’.

Setting Hannigan aside for a moment for a tiny rant, if you sense a little cynicism, you’re right. I’m a little over the breathy thing. It works for some people in my opinion – Washington and Lanie Lane are two Australian examples of singers in this style that I really admire. But that’s because they have other styles in their repertoire and have the ability to use each style judiciously. Unfortunately, there are a lot of singers out there who can’t get beyond the whisper, and it’s grating. Rant ended.

Back to Hannigan, I was starting to dismiss her and put her in the breathy bag, until toward the end of the show when the Opera House ‘roadies’ filed out carrying her euphonium and set her up for what turned out to be one of the most astonishing performances I can recall seeing. Ever.

The song was ‘Black Eyed Dog’ and Hannigan was close to frightening. Thumping the rhythm with her foot and thrashing her head back and forth, this was a raw and howling rail against Drake’s struggles with his depression. The sheer shock and power of Hannigan’s performance touched every single nerve in the room as Hannigan seemed to personify all of our frustration at losing the talents of someone like Drake too early. I’m still shaking.

The other absolute highlight was American Krystle Warren. No single performance – just her.

She apparently gained initial attention in the UK with a show-stealing performance on Jools Holland Later. But two nights ago, I knew nothing of this. I was so stunned when she began ‘Time Has Told Me’ that I can’t actually remember whether she had any backing. I don’t think she did – or they joined her later. Whatever. She has the most incredible, deep voice that swelled and fell with extraordinary control. Every note was carefully calibrated for full effect. But this was neither calculated nor cold – it emerged straight from her soul. Then, as she neared the climax, the opening of her throat seemed to physically throw us back in our seats. But even then, it felt like she still held something back. She later came back for a medley of ‘Hanging On a Star’ and ‘Magic’ which was equally as spellbinding.

Others I have read have likened her to other artists. Google and you will find some reviews. But sometimes it’s just not right to make comparisons.

Warren and Nicholson also teamed up for a sensational version of ‘Pink Moon’ which, for me, certainly shed more new light on Nicholson. I already knew what Warren could do by this stage – and she was incredible yet again. But I also saw Nicholson embracing his jazz and soul side which created a synergy between the two of them I wasn’t expecting. I have some more investigating to do on both of these people.

As for the team behind the guests – musical direction was from the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist Kate St John who also lent backing vocals to a number of the ensemble performances. I imagine bringing together a show like that using such disparate talents would be not unlike herding the proverbial cats.

Australians formed the septet of strings in the backing band. Their talents were particularly showcased by the beautiful ‘Way to Blue’ which opened the second half.

And special mention to Drake’s own bass player, Danny Thompson, who received a very warm reception when introduced, and also joined Zoe Rahman on piano for a wonderful instrumental version of ‘One of These Things First’. You can find it on You Tube here.

But one person in the background stole me completely and that was Neill MacColl. He’s part of the folk royalty I suspected his name might suggest and he seems to have lingered on the fringes of my musical experience for many years thanks to his collaborations with some of my favourite artists including Nanci Griffith, Boo Hewerdine, Steve Earle, Loudon Wainwright III and many, many others. Again, I had no idea of this on the night – I just found myself drawn to his wonderful playing. It was on his skills that the ability of this production to pull off Drake’s technical excellence hinged. And he did it. He was the lynchpin and he was marvellous. Whilst Robyn Hitchcock was letting Drake’s hair down, MacColl was in the background hitting the marks that maybe Drake would likely still have wanted to be in place. Then they let him out front for the most wonderful version of ‘Northern Sky’, as well as duetting with Nicholson on ‘Rider on the Wheel’. Not just a great player, but a beautifully strong folk voice as well. The whole package. I’m gushing.

So as cynics go, I’m obviously rubbish.

I think it’s because this event has articulated back to me the reasons why I like Drake’s music by lifting out all of his influences and holding them up to me in their own forms. I didn’t expect to be challenged like that or, ultimately, so rewarded.

I need a lie down.

Vanguard Roulette 1: Boy Outside Live – October 13, 2011

I’m playing Vanguard Roulette at the moment.

Picking random gigs that are on nights I can get there, and just going along for the ride. Excellent way to shake yourself out of your usual music choices and see what’s around. No guarantees.

I have 6 gigs booked – 6 chambers if you’re a Deer Hunter fan – and the first shot was Thursday night.

It was Boy Outside launching his latest EP, supported by The Falls and Little Bastard.

I got there just in time to hear the last of the Falls’ songs. The person on the door was well impressed and from what I could hear I was inclined to agree. I have since had a listen on their MySpace page. They’re acoustic folk, and they sound pretty good. Nice harmonies. Realised later I was sharing a table with one half of the band the whole evening. From what I heard, they would have been the perfect lead-in for Boy Outside.

Instead, we got Little Bastard. Great name. These guys are undoubtedly talented. They call themselves a ‘hoedown collective’. And from what I have read they usually have a full band behind them. However on Thursday they were restricted to a mandolin, fiddle, percussion and acoustic guitar.

I’m not sure if it was this pared back form. Maybe they weren’t working with their usual sound engineer. Certainly there’s not a lot of info available about them, so maybe they’re just starting out (I gather at least the mandolin player is a relatively new addition). I’m really wanting to give them the benefit of the doubt. But essentially they didn’t do anything for me. There was great energy, but no obvious hoedowning. Also couldn’t quite pick up on the cheekiness or mischief I was expecting based on the name and description.

And their set seemed to have only one gear…around third. Engine labouring a little to get to that efficient cruising speed.

The guitar was harsh and overpowering. The effect was like being hit head-on, rather than being surrounded and carried. This was mitigated a little with a change to a warmer-toned guitar towards the end of the set. And the last song wasn’t a million miles off Justin Townes Earle’s style, of whom I am a huge fan. I know they can sing – they blended nicely together on occasion. Essentially it felt like a jam session at a folk festival rather than a polished gig. Maybe they also need to think about their set structure – a bit more light and shade. I know lots of acts have based careers on doing the same thing over and over again, but I, for one, get bored way too quickly.

But that’s what the roulette game is about – you get what you get. And I’m richer for the experience. I don’t think I’m going to love everything I see. Where’s the fun in that?

That said, Boy Outside was a completely different proposition. Quick back story: his name is Aidan Cooney and he’s the former frontman of a garage band called Lincoln Brown which wove many folk, blues and country influences into an alternative rock sound. They toured the UK and Europe for a number of years. He’s since moved to Sydney and the Boy Outside moniker signifies a different sound and approach. Thursday was the launch of his new EP Hush of the City.

He wears his influences on his lapels with the alt country look going on, but the sound is much more diverse. I was immediately struck by the sparsity – early Chris Isaak came to mind. When you read up about him, he speaks of a dark melancholic sound with positive tones – so that comparison holds true for me. I heard a lot more there though and it’s a real mix: touches of Tom Petty, the gravel of Guy Garvey, moments of Mike Scott and then suddenly a flash of latter-day James Reyne. Hard to pin down, essentially beautiful.

He’s a quiet and charismatic stage presence, happy to let the music talk but also engaging.

And the band Cooney put together made the most of the space, creating an intimate atmosphere with muted drums, double-bass and semi-acoustic lead with Cooney on acoustic rhythm. They are a very fine example of a close-knit unit, working effortlessly together with lovely little fillers and embellishments that colour in the lyrics and carry the story along.

If I have one quibble, it was the choice of the encore. I believe it’s a song he’s carried with him for some time. As he said “Some songs stay around…”. It clearly has a lot of meaning for him, but it just left what was otherwise a great experience a little flat. However this is a tiny complaint.

I did buy the EP and I’m definitely favouring ‘Asleep behind the wheel’ and ‘Left a light’. Though not a live album, the EP production captures the essence of what we experienced and I’m looking forward to hearing more from this guy.

So that’s it – round 1 of Vanguard Roulette was a most excellent success – looking forward to round 2…

Boy Outside on MySpace

Lincoln Brown on MySpace

Shuffling off the album experience?

This morning, I listened to Neil Young Harvest for the very first time.

It’s not that I don’t know the songs – I’ve heard them all many times before.

But not as an album experience. Until now.

And now that I have, I don’t have a lot to say about it that hasn’t already been said. Other than that it’s superb for so many reasons – the poetry, the highly technical and beautiful guitar work, the backing singers (Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and C, S and N).

This post isn’t about Neil Young. But the above is an example of something I’ve been reflecting a lot about recently: are we losing the album experience? And is that a good or bad thing?

My normal procedure when I physically buy CDs is that new discs will sit in a pile next to my reliable and wonderful 20-year-old Paradigm speakers and get a run on an old-fashioned CD player. I usually buy a bunch together and listen – album by album – devouring liner notes and trying to remember if the guy on electric bass was the fellow who played on that other album by…you get the picture. Eventually they join the broader collection.

But with downloading, the experience has shifted. There’s no physical pile – nothing to prompt me about my new purchases and encourage me to experience the album as it was intended by its creators. So after an initial listen, the iPod gets set to shuffle and the occasional song from the new album is the only reminder.

And the absence of liner notes….oh the absence. They’ve always been an intrinsic part of the initial album experience for me. It’s not just about having the lyrics to hand. In fact, for me it’s less about that and more about knowing who’s making the noises – the band, the backing vocals, who wrote what. And I especially like the thank yous. I find them really telling. Who helped, who is important to this artist, and who influenced. I’m not telling a true music fan anything unique – you get it. These are the things that can make the first listening experience truly complete. I then listen with broader ears – knowing what – and who – went into the album. But that doesn’t seem to happen with downloads. I could hunt about online – and I do. But it’s not the same.

And then what about the artwork and design, the smell of the paper, those first fingerprints you leave on the inside pages? I definitely miss all that.

And for the true audiophile, there’s also the dark side: the crime that is compression. One hunts high and low for the stereo set-up that delivers beautiful resonant bass and clear, crisp top registers only to experience a mere facsimile of the original production as it winds its way through a tiny docking station and flimsy white wire to your expensive speakers.

But then again, there are also a lot of upsides to downloading.

Firstly, I can find much more of my kind of music online – which is not exactly mainstream or readily available. No need to go into a store and try to order from a face wearing only spots and a blank scowl that only 10 minutes before was in raptures over Justin Bieber.

Second, thanks to the shuffle function, I can spend all afternoon massaging this blog, or working on other things, without having to stop every 30 minutes to change the CD.

And ironically, also thanks to shuffle, I get so much more out of the albums.

What?

I’ll be pootering about doing things while I’m listening, and suddenly a track will come on that really strikes me. It’ll be one I’ve heard a million times before – and maybe even wasn’t that much of a fan of compared to the rest of the songs on that album. Then suddenly, emerging from behind random other artists, it’s like I’m listening to it for the very first time. And loving it.

So are we losing the album experience? Maybe not. We’re just coming at it from a different – and randomised – angle.

And frankly, if I really want the brilliant audio quality and the smudgy marks on the liner notes, I’ll get off my lazy patootie, get the physical CD, walk the 10 steps to the stereo, drop to the floor and lose myself in that tiny italic writing: “Lyrics by…vocals by…backing vocals…left-handed harmonica played by…thanks to…”…

…then I’ll upload it and let shuffle show me the things I may have missed the first time.

Ah, progress.