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

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