I love Post to Wire blog, and even more now they have posted this. I love her voice, especially because it reminds me of the beauty, clarity and depth of the late Kate Wolf. Have a listen.
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.
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…
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