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.
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.
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: