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.

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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.