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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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.

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

Gomez Live at The Factory

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

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

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

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

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

So 13 years later, what was it like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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