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:

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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

Vanguard Roulette Part 3 – Skipping Girl Vinegar and Myles Mayo – October 21, 2011

In Part 3 of my game of Vanguard Roulette, I discovered I may be the only person in the universe who hasn’t heard of Skipping Girl Vinegar before booking tix to see them. OK, I may be referring to the Triple J listening universe. But that’s still a large sample.

And in related news: I hadn’t heard of Myles Mayo either.

I am now very glad I have.

I have to say this game of roulette has been fun and, whilst not all transcendental experiences, it’s definitely been worthwhile and uncovered a couple of gems for me.

Starting with Myles Mayo (rubbish iPhone picture below). Bottom line with this guy is that I’m an instant fan. He appeals to me on so many levels. First, he’s got the look happening. I can’t and won’t analyse beyond that. Even the ubiquitous fedora didn’t put me off. He has a great presence on stage – warm, friendly, open and confident.

Myles Mayo Image

Myles Mayo at the Vanguard

And I just loved his music. Instantly. Every song. What I heard was very country and folk-based and so I had him pegged as sitting squarely in the alt space. In terms of getting my attention, starting from those two genres is a lay down misere. But there’s also a lot in the performance which drew me in. He and his band are very clearly having a good time and that connection really translates into my audience experience. There’s also an ease about him that just makes you like him.

However I have to say that I am listening to some of the tracks on his MySpace page and I’m having a totally different experience again in terms of genre. What I’m getting from the recordings is late 90s pop rock: ‘How You Done Me Wrong’ is not a million miles away from 90s US band the New Radicals. But the production approach on some of the other tracks reminds me of Fleet Foxes (lots of stadium-style echo and space). The song that comes closest to what I felt I experienced live is ‘I Slept the Winter Underground’ so do check it out here.

Regardless of classification, he’s definitely on the playlist.

Skipping Girl Vinegar Image 1

Skipping Girl Vinegar live

Skipping Girl Vinegar’s debut single ‘One Chance’ was apparently an iTunes hit, and got them noticed by Triple J radio and others. Since then, they’ve become stars on the indie scene, festival regulars and basically all-round winners.

And I get it. Underpinned by solid acoustic guitar, there’s bass and two sets of keyboards, but also fiddle and occasional mandolin. Their roots are showing and it’s a great sound. They’ve been called old-world alt-acoustic and they have woven that into a pop fabric which is almost irresistable. The tunes carry and bounce you along. ‘Chase the Sun’ is a great example, as is ‘Here She Comes’.

SGV also has a dark side which (I now know, having done some research) they have explored more on their second album, and this was clear on the night. Some really nice emotion was generated by songs like ‘You Can’ which the crowd definitely responded to. You don’t always get that at the Vanguard – some poor artist is bleeding through their vocal chords but the crowd is too busy confusing a music venue for a cattle sale. Or the stock exchange. (Or insert your own more appropriate metaphor here).

I really like lead singer Mark Lang. Affable, charming, a true frontman with lots of chutzpah and a tiny touch of the good kind of attitude. However, I do feel for him, because it seemed he really had to work hard to carry the energy. I mean, given their quirky stage set-up (see another bad iPhone pic below) and the fact that they’ve been trying recently to launch a monkey called Baker into space, you get the feeling that these guys have a real sense of fun. But it’s a little hard to tell when watching them live. A couple of them just needed to lighten up and stop taking themselves too seriously.

Skipping Girl Vinegar set image

Skipping Girl Vinegar set

That said, all in all, I’m loving the way acts like SGV and Myles Mayo are taking roots and folk and country and blues and extending these traditions in a way that shows a lot of respect to the originals whilst exploring sounds from other genres and eras. As an example, I don’t think it’s out of place to say SGV’s ‘Here She Comes’ put me in mind of the likes of Dexy’s Midnight Runners. It’s something to do with the group refrains.

Whatever – Skipping Girl Vinegar is now on the playlist – just after Myles…

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 Part 2: Darren Jack and Ray Beadle Live – October 14, 2011

This was the second shot of my game of Vanguard Roulette, where I pick a number of acts I know nothing about and go along for the ride.

The night after discovering Boy Outside, I was back at the Vanguard for Australian bluesmen Darren Jack and Ray Beadle.

Beadle was supposedly the support, but as I tweeted when he left the stage, he left Jack with a lot of work to do.

Looking for all the world as if he were fresh out of Chicago (all natty hat, sharp outfit and smooth styling), Beadle is astonishing. And a little research shows why. He’s been around the traps, playing with BB King’s house band for a time for starters. I believe his list of credits and associations is pretty illustrious. So I guess that gives a sense of the quality we’re referring to here. There would be loads of people who know a lot more about him than I. He’s been a regular on the festival circuit and has his own touring band from what I can gather. But on the night I saw him, it was just him and his guitar. My favourite kind. Although there were backing tracks to help create a fuller sound when needed.

Listening to him now, it’s clear he comfortably straddles all kinds of blues but for this show he tended more toward soul blues, with funk and jazz in the mix. He did his own stuff as well as a little George Benson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. And what a vocalist. His voice is perfectly suited to those sorts of songs – a higher register that also set me in mind of Harry Connick Jr. It’s a smooth, clear and rich sound and he has lovely control.

I’m not qualified to critique his guitar work, but it’s well above your average player in terms of technical skill and the use of the woodwork for rhythms and other effects. I’ve known other guitarists like that and I love what they can create out of what is essentially a wooden box. It’s exquisite to watch.

And he’s one of those genuinely likeable guys. Slick, confident, a smile at the ready and that true showman’s style.

He also knows when to stop. I admire great musicians who love what they do and can pick up a riff and run with it. But I get incredibly annoyed when a solo becomes a marathon of selfishness. It bores me rigid. Thankfully, Ray Beadle gets it. He’ll chase a riff in a couple of directions, which are usually incredible adventures and most rewarding, but he doesn’t sacrifice the structure of the song. He gets back to the job at hand and keeps his audiences engaged. And credit to both he and Jack – and Boy Outside for that matter – they also know when to end the song.

With an ending.

Don’t get me started (but I’m looking at you, Ben Harper)…

Darren Jack is out and about promoting his new album Better Place and he’s close to the whole package. He’s got the looks, and he’s a very talented player. The write-ups refer to his voice as powerful. That’s not a word I would have used. But it’s good.

Like Beadle, Jack also has that genuineness and self-confidence of a seasoned showman. It’s a pleasure listening to guys like him who get that they’re good and are truly glad you’ve come to see them without being self-deprecating about it. Whilst modesty can be very endearing, those who accept their talent and make no apologies for it are quite a refreshing change in a self-conscious world.

By any standards, Jack is a great player. I understand he does do some acoustic but this set was entirely electric, with the traditional setup of drums, electric bass and keyboards in back. The style starts with classic electric blues, but also melds into blues rock. It’s the popular side of the genre and it’s excellent. Although there were a few moments where I thought Stevie Ray Vaughan was being channelled, so there’s some bite and edge as well. He’s undoubtedly accomplished.

And I love those little moments that show how into the music they are: a couple of times, the drummer had to pull them back so they could fit some lyrics in after Jack had gone out too hard from the gates. They’re nice moments – real and raw.

I mentioned earlier that I would not have called his voice powerful. From what I can tell, it emanates from his head and throat, so it lacks depth and hence power. But it’s a perfectly serviceable blues voice and bottom line is you forgive him for it – just like you forgive someone like Eric Clapton or Mark Knopfler for not being the greatest vocalists of their time. I’m currently listening back to ‘You Choose’ and ‘Ways of a Man’ and I’ve just realised he reminds me a little of Shane Pacey from the Bondi Cigars.

Meanwhile, Jack’s band was tight and very talented. All seasoned, all disciplined and they ran like a well-oiled machine. Unusual setup with them entirely on Jack’s left and him off to his stage right. Not used to seeing a frontman not at the front. Overall, it was an excellent blues show – and those who love it got what they came for. I really enjoyed it.

I’m afraid my photos were entirely rubbish – grainy at best, so here are a couple of links to learn more about Darren Jack and Ray Beadle.

http://www.myspace.com/darrenjack

http://www.raybeadle.com/fr_home.cfm

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.