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

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.

Justin Townes Earle – Live at The Factory; April 4, 2012

‘My head feels like a rubber eraser.’

As live gig introductions go, it’s no ‘Hello Cleveland!’ but it was one of the more original.

Then again we’d never expect Justin Townes Earle to be anything less than upfront about where he is at any given time. So to see him performing whilst reeling from jet-lag was just part of the JTE deal.

So what did that mean for the show? I won’t say it wasn’t noticeable. The tempo on some of the songs ebbed and flowed with Justin’s energy levels (particularly on ‘One More Night in Brooklyn’), and the second last song, ‘When You Walk Out On Me’ was just plain out of tune because I don’t think JTE had his earpiece in. Then again, I’ve seen him perform it before and it’s not an easy song to get right at the best of times.

Bottom line is, it didn’t make a pinch of difference to the overall experience. This guy is the real deal, bundling up all his musical influences and ****ed up experiences into a package of raw and powerful songcraft, catching rhythms and a whole bunch of that natural Southern charm.

Justin Townes Earle - Live at the Factory, 2012 -IMAGE

Justin Townes Earle - Live at the Factory, 2012

Working a bit of the geek chic this time, with a slightly oversized plaid jacket, glasses, the hair longer and not slicked back, this was a more vulnerable looking JTE than the last time I saw him at the Basement. And if you’ve listened to the new album Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, that seems entirely appropriate. It’s been reviewed as ‘searingly honest’ and he himself refers to it as being chock full of ‘Mom and Dad issues’. But this is the guy who puts himself out there, as we’ve said.

Whilst he started the set with the upbeat ‘Memphis in the Rain’ and ‘Look the Other Way’ from the latest release, there was no attempt to reproduce the slick Memphis sound which dominates the recording. Considering this tour is centred on Bluesfest, the more pared back support of acoustic lead/mandolin and double-bass was the middle ground between solo and full band and it worked fine for this purpose. Although this may change in the future with Justin stating an intention to tour Australia again soon with said full band.

Still finding his stride, ‘One More Night in Brooklyn’ suffered slightly as I’ve mentioned, but then he gained his footing with ‘Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving’ from The Good Life and the gorgeous ‘Rogers Park’ from Harlem River Blues, arguably his most successful album to date. He swung back to the new album for ‘Maria’, headed to the deep south to fry some Sunday morning chicken with ‘Ain’t Waitin”, then examined some more Dad issues on ‘Am I That Lonely Tonight’ before letting loose with a cover of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘I Been Burning Bad Gasoline’ which blew the whole bunch of us away. It looks like it’s a favourite of his to perform live and we lapped it up.

By this stage he was back in his solo element and trucking along nicely with ‘South Georgia Sugar Babe’ and ‘They Killed John Henry’ before one of my personal highlights ‘Unfortunately, Anna’ where he lets us in to a sense of helplessness as he pleads “All these years you’ve been waitin’ for the world to change / but unfortunately, Anna / Unfortunately, Anna / it’s you, that needs to change.” You know those moments when the whole crowd is in the song with you? That.

Capitalising on the love, the band jumped back on stage to get into ‘Harlem River Blues’. The ensemble by this stage was much tighter, with JTE’s clawhammer style driving the shuffle beat and kicking the whole room into a new gear.

This would have been the perfect launchpad for the title track of the new album, however it was let down by the double-bass’s dominance which created a buzzing that overpowered the song in parts.

Balance was regained with ‘Christchurch Woman’ before another of my personal favourites: ‘Mama’s Eyes’. “I am my father’s son…but I’ve got my Mama’s eyes.” Clearly I wasn’t alone in my appreciation.

He finished off with ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ and ‘Movin’ On’ before returning for a patchy, but brilliant encore.

I’ve already mentioned ‘When You Walk Out On Me’, the only JTE song in the final three. But wrapped around that were two wonderful performances. He started with (of course) Townes van Zandt’s ‘Rex’s Blues’ and finished with Gram Parsons’ ‘My Uncle’.

Both were played with the respect Justin affords all of his heroes and the humility to resist fiddling with the formula too much. And both were just superb – especially the deep sadness and underlying determination of the young man wanting to avoid the Vietnam draft in ‘My Uncle’. It’s such a sweet, sad song, the kind at which Parsons was expert, and Justin channelled just enough of that sweetness to leave me, at least, spellbound.

So as you imagine me shuffling amongst happy hipsters towards the Factory door, here’s a clip of Justin doing the Lightnin’ Hopkins song. It gives a good sense of his stage presence, his wit and also his raw playing talent.

Justin Townes Earle singing Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘I Been Burning Bad Gasoline’ live:

And if anyone had issues with the jet lag, Justin did mention you should Google ‘Justin Townes Earle live at KEXP’ to get a sense of perspective…hi-jinx warning…

Meanwhile – I’m heading out in about an hour to see his Dad.

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

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:

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