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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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.

Martha Wainwright does Piaf

Or rather ‘did’ Piaf.

Another ‘delayed reaction’ piece – rather than a review. Last one was on Lyle Lovett. This one is about Martha Wainwright’s performance of Edith Piaf songs at the Sydney Opera House (SOH) earlier this year (Feb 24, 2011). There’s a link at the end to a full review by Steve Moffatt, and the reason I’m providing it is that it pretty much gives the detail you’d want in a review, and because it sums up some of the experience of being there. But not all of it.

Couple of things to start with. The Concert Hall of the SOH is hardly an intimate space. I know the SOH and Martha have a mutually very fond relationship – and that’s quite a special thing for any performer. However I would have preferred to see her in a closer environment. For me, it would suit her and her style. So I went in with reservations about how it would work and, as I found my seat, I felt a long way away. The staging was set back, and from where I was, I could see all the empty seating behind the stage. It felt cavernous.

Then there was the opening act. All I knew was that it was called Doveman and that Martha’s husband, Brad Albetta, was on bass. And that’s it. I love the lottery that opening acts can present, so was up for it. Then Brad walks out with this young guy who’s carrying a glass of wine, places it on the floor by the piano stool and leans intently over the keys. I felt like a beat poem was only seconds away and, oddly for me, started to recoil. It was a strong reaction. The music was quiet, the singing breathy, the mood self-indulgent – almost maudlin – and the melodies what some might call sophisticated when they mean inaccessible. The jazz influence seemed to me to justify the beat poem expectation. I had to look about to reassure myself we hadn’t been sent back 50 years. And I had to stop myself from walking out. That’s never happened to me before, and I was a little shocked at the sensation.

And then it happened. He spoke.

Suddenly from this seemingly precocious character comes a level of self-aware and self-deprecating wit and intelligence that completely disarmed me. I stopped fidgeting, sat further back in my seat, unfolded my arms and paid a little more attention to Thomas Bartlett. He sang again. Same music, just new ears. A better understanding of the source, however superficial, started to unlock the experience. I wasn’t totally convinced, though. But then a breakthrough.

I was somewhat vindicated in my initial reaction when Bartlett revealed that a friend had asked (dared?) him to recreate an unlikely film soundtrack in the dark Doveman style. I obviously wasn’t the only one who thought he might need to lighten up. Full credit to his wonderful sense of humour that Bartlett completed the task – covering the entire Footloose soundtrack Doveman-style. Genius. This got him a little media attention – as well as legal attention – however a search on YouTube for Doveman and Footloose will get you a medley (which he performed for us) and give you a flavour of why I – and everyone else in the room – ended up eating out of the palm of this guy’s supremely talented hands. But more of that later.

As I said at the start, the review link below gives you the chronological and detailed view of Martha’s performance. I’m not going to rip it off – I’ll let you read it. However I can add my view of the experience.

First – and again, it’s a reservation – she walked on carrying reams of sheet music. I’ve never seen a non-classical performer do that and I found it a little disconcerting to see her need to rely on them so much. I’ve not seen her perform live before – so if this is what she does normally, then OK. However my thought at the time was: ‘Surely, after performing the show a number of times, and recording the album, she knows the words by now?’. All these months later, I’m still at a loss on that point. But I got over it.

Accompanied by members of the SSO, Albetta and Bartlett, Wainwright performed. And I use that term advisedly. Many artists perform, but what I mean is that, for someone normally ensconced (protected?) behind a guitar, this was less about playing a song and more about encapsulating and conveying a time, a place and a culture to an audience whose links to these are tenuous by definition. Many of us know of Piaf, but not all of us speak French, and she deliberately chose the more obscure songs of the Piaf catalogue (with the possible exception of ‘L’accordeoniste’). The result is a requirement to essentially act out the songs in a very physical but also very emotional way.

And I think she succeeded in a way that you don’t get on the album. I’m listening to it as I write – Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, A Paris – and what I’m not getting even now is what she achieved in the performance. I have her other two albums as well – and the voice on this latest recording feels the same as it is on the others. Don’t get me wrong – I love her voice – its rasp and quiver, the thinness and fragility that starts in the head, passes down behind the sinuses, seems to catch in the back of the throat then descends to an open vibrato. But what I heard that night was straight from the gut. Her voice in twenty years’ time. Rich, powerful, mature (in the beautifully aged sense).

I also like her humility in her approach to this whole project. From what I’ve seen of her, she’s pretty down-to-earth, and so it would fit that she was initially very scared of the idea of doing it. Or at least of the idea of doing it well. Many have tried and not necessarily succeeded. It’s that humility – which was genuine – that made what we got in the end all the more special.

As a fan, I was also gratified to hear her do her own stuff for a short while in the middle third of the show, back behind the safety of the guitar for a while. It was here that she was able to talk a little more about the loss of her mother Kate McGarrigle (who died in January last year) performing a number of her songs as well. As the review says – this was quite special. Not a dry eye around me.

And it was that – the sense of tribute to two wonderful women by a daughter and a respectful fan – that achieved something else for me. Suddenly the Concert Hall seemed a hell of a lot smaller, and I realised I had been completely drawn in.

And as a footnote – I’ll round off on Thomas Bartlett. Precocious indeed. Not only did he capture the essence of Piaf’s music, he was effortless. There are a lot  of talented pianists in the world. I don’t profess to be an expert, but I do know that there are only two pianists I’ve ever seen who made the rest of the room disappear. Cuban legend Ruben Gonzalez was one. Thomas Bartlett is the other. Would I buy a Doveman album? Probably not. If I did – it would be out of intellectual interest. Could I watch him play? Indefinitely.

Martha Wainwright Review: Steve Moffatt, Sydney Central

Lyle Lovett Live

I have a few reactions to some live shows which I thought I’d throw out there. These are from things I’ve seen in the past year or more. I won’t call them reviews – I don’t have the press releases a reviewer would get, so not as informed as I’d like to be. I’ll add detail where I can.

The first is Lyle Lovett at the State Theatre in Sydney back on 29 March 2010. Here’s what I sent out to a friend at the time:

I was so impressed. I have a DVD of him performing mostly his jazz stuff, with a guest appearance by Randy Newman and the two of them performing their work for the Toy Story franchise. Whilst the music was fantastic, and the Large Band a treat, frankly I found it a little lacking. I now realise why. The difference when you see him unedited and live is the chat between songs, which reveals more of his wit and warmth. And charm. The man is the consummate gentleman and extremely gracious – even in the face of those inevitable moments when people shout out from the back but clam up when Lyle actually tried to engage.

What I didn’t realise is that Lyle appears to have a studio band and a live band – with only one member from his studio lot joining him on the road (Viktor Krauss – brother of Alison Krauss). There was an interesting set up – very pared back. No drums – just bongos, a cello, Viktor Krauss on electric double-bass, and two fellows from a bluegrass background who blew me away. Keith Sewell played lead acoustic and mandolin and has a voice entirely suited to bluegrass with its nasal twang, and Luke Bulla played mostly fiddle and lead acoustic on a couple of songs. His voice is lovely – it has a lot more clarity and resonance and blends beautifully with Lovett. These two have been playing bluegrass since they were six years old and have known each other since then. They are only in their thirties or so, but it’s clear there is only bluegrass in their veins.

And I think Lyle and the band would have to be the sharpest dressers on the road. Ever.

Of course Lyle’s guitar work makes you realise how technically good he is. And the voice. That’s what you go for and it doesn’t disappoint – that catching, dry, almost faltering but somehow rich sound which is quite unique and delivers as emotively live as in the booth.

The effect of the sparse backing band is that he has been able to recreate the mood of Joshua Judges Ruth, whilst the bluegrass guys made the newer stuff from Natural Forces really work well. ‘Pantry’, ‘Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel’ and the title track were all superb.

For me the only downside of bongos with brushes is that you lose some of the drive behind some of the songs from The Road to Ensenada which is my personal favourite of his albums. ‘I Can’t Love You Anymore’ and ‘Private Conversation’ just missed that kick which is what I love about them. That said, it does inject a new feel to the songs and you start hearing them differently. And that’s a pretty petty criticism for a performance which delivered in so many ways.

I was on a total high after this show – and after watching live videos, I hadn’t expected to be. Then again – how could I not? I’m a fan for a reason – he’s one of the smartest, wittiest, sharpest, most talented singers and musicians I know of. I have almost all his albums. Why was I surprised?

His My Space page has some tracks from Natural Forces for free download – and I highly recommend ‘Pantry’. You can also demand that he comes back to Sydney (column on the right lets you DemandIt). Go on, I did. Because I, for one, hope he gets back here soon.