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

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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.

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