Archive for the ‘gig’ Category

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Sydney Festival: Summer Sounds in the Domain – Sing the Truth with Angélique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright

13 January 2013

Last night was our first event for Sydney Festival 2013. It was one of the free weekend concerts they stage in downtown park The Domain. It’s always a great excuse to pack a picnic and stake a grassy spot with friends while hearing some great tunes. That’s just what we did.

It was busy by the time we arrived in the early evening and we had to get our earlier-arrived friends to come get us to get in an area reasonably close to the front. I’m always pleased to see so many people come out and take advantage of these free music shows.

The opening accompaniment to our sausage and cheese and wine was Sydney group Slowpoke Rodriguez. They played very mellow, groovy jazz. It was good background music.

The main event were three performers who could each do a fantastic show on their own: Angélique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright. These ladies met on the jazz/R&B/soul/world music circuits and found they really enjoyed performing together. So last night we got all three.

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And they were great. They sang songs that influenced them, including many soul and R&B classic, Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”, Bob Dylan’s “Gotta serve Somebody”  and a few of their own. They were soulful, enthusiastic, and charming. Their voices covered the whole range. Some songs were done solo, some as duets, some with all three.

It was perfect music for a gorgeous Saturday night in the park with a few thousand other festival fans. And it was a great start to the festival.

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First Aid Kit at the Sydney Opera House

4 January 2013

I’ve been in awe of Swedish sister folk duo First Aid Kit since the first time I heard them and I have blogged about them before. It’s incredible that ladies so young could have such a deep sense of folk and roots music but they do.

Last night I finally saw them live at the Opera House with a bunch of friends who also appreciate good music. They were fantastic.

First Aid Kit. Click to embigggen.

First Aid Kit. Click to embigggen.

The perfectly genetically-matched harmonies were stronger live than on their recordings. While many songs sound the same it’s a great sound. The tone of the performance was emotional, coming as much from the girls’ disbelief at playing a sold-out Opera House as from the heartfelt lyrics of loss.

They were engaging without being overly cheesy. They came forward to take advantage of the House’s acoustics by singing “Ghost Town” without amplification. They asked us to sing along to songs like “Emmylou”. They smiled and told stories and made me shiver when they covered Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”. And it’s not many performances that get a shout out to Richard Dawkins.

First Aid Kit. Click to embiggen.

First Aid Kit. Click to embiggen.

I find it encouraging that there are still young performers who can be successful doing the type of music that they love and not just what’s likely to be popular. Good luck girls.

You can listen to several First Aid Kit songs on their web page.

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Abbe May at Goodgod Small Club

20 December 2012

Abbe May is a musician from Western Australia. I found her name in an article praising her last album, Design Desire, which came out in mid-2011. I checked it out and absolutely loved it: Abbe has an intense, soulful voice, and is a wicked guitar player. That album is a swirling mix of blues and rock, punctuated and punchy. I’m told her previous band, The Rockin’ Pneumonia, was very bluesy too (I like blues).

Then a few weeks ago Abbe released a new song, “Karmageddon“, from upcoming album Kiss My Apocalypse. It was fantastic too, but in quite a different way: all the reviews call her new sound doom-pop, and that’s pretty apt. It’s dark and catchy and repetitive and buzzy and sexy. I love it when artists grow, and was excited that she was adding a whole new sound to her repertoire, especially such a good sound.

When she announced a tour, with a Sydney date at tiny Goodgod Small Club, I bought tickets immediately. That show was last night.

The support act was Shy Panther. They were a group of young guys: a singer, two keyboardists/synthists, a bassist, and two drummers. They did a trip-hop sort of thing, but with perhaps jazzier influences, and lots of falsetto vocals. It was OK, but a bit distant and same-y and never really took off for me.

After they finished I got right up front in preparation for Abbe. I got a shot of the setlist as the crew taped it to the floor:

Setlist

Wait a minute, I thought. I don’t recognise any songs from Design Desire on there.

Sure enough, Abbe and her band came out and played a set of songs that I presume are entirely from Kiss My Apocalypse. They were all in the same heavy, sexy, fuzzed-out vein as “Karmageddon”. There was nothing from Design Desire (or, I assume, any earlier albums). Abbe did not play guitar (her brother did), she only sang.

Abbe May and band

Abbe May and band

I was a little disappointed by this. This isn’t Abbe’s fault: I only found out about her recently. If I’d done so 2 years ago I’m sure I could have seen her play lots of rockin’ blues guitar shows. But she’s obviously gone in a new direction, and she’s clearly trying out her news songs in a live setting.

On the downside: On first listen none of the songs struck me as quite as good as “Karmageddon” (and the pre-recorded multi-track vocals even on that song made it impossible to tell if she was actually singing it live). There was a similarity of sound amongst the songs. The volume levels got ‘way overboard near the end, with more distortion than they intended, I think. And the band only played for about 40 minutes with no encore.

On the upside: Abbe is a powerful singer, and it was amazing to see and hear her up close. She’s not afraid to throw in lots of non-verbal vocal punctuations (“oohs”, “ahs” and yelps) for the sake of ramping up the emotion (that’s gotta help when you have a song called “Sex Tourette’s”). The songs have a pulsing, moody vibe that sticks up a middle finger to the mainstream and is yet compelling to those with a love for the groove. Her cover of The Motels’ “Total Control” was hot. And I’m certain that her parents were beside me, in front row centre (family support is nice).

Abbe May

Abbe May

All in all I left a little disappointed because I’d hoped to hear a mix of music from Abbe May’s already amazing output. That’s a comment on my experience, not on her capability, though, because the new songs are really creative and catchy too. Maybe after the new album comes out she’ll tour again with a mix of music old and new. Or maybe she’s cut ties with the past and is striking out in this direction, never to look back, and I missed my chance. I like it when artists move on, so I can’t whinge when they do, I guess.

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John C. Reilly & Friends at the Factory Theatre

4 December 2012

You probably know John C. Reilly as an actor. He’s made quite a career in Hollywood, doing films both serious (The Thin Red Line, Magnolia, Gangs of New York, We Need To Talk About Kevin) and silly (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Step Brothers). He’s here in Australia now promoting the new Disney videogame homage film Wreck-It Ralph.

I did not know that Reilly is also a great lover – and performer – of old-time roots music. And on his promotional tour for the film he’s taking the opportunity to play a couple of shows. I heard on fbi radio yesterday that the Sydney show was that night, and only 5 minutes from my house at the Factory Theatre, so I went.

johnc

First up was Australian singer-songwriter Steve Smyth. I’d heard just one of his songs before, that morning on fbi, but liked it. He’s a beardy bloke with a guitar and deep, wistful moods, a bit like Bonnie Prince Billy. But his vocal dynamics were incredible, and as often as not he’d bear down and growl and channel more than a little Tom Waits. The first video on his media page, labelled A Pop Up Performance, is “Barbituate Cowboy and His Dark Horses”, is the song I heard on the radio and the first tune he played. He was pretty bewitching.

Next was a surprise comedy interlude from Sarah Silverman, who’s also in the country to promote Wreck-It Ralph. She has a short 10- or 15-minute bit, and was, as expected, hilariously offensive.

Without delay, John C. Reilly & Friends – those friends being Tom Brosseau and Becky Stark – came out and ran through a big list of old-time folk, blues, and country. It was a bit disconcerting at first to see the smiling face of Reilly croon and strum. But it quickly became clear that he has genuine musical roots; that he has a deep love for timeless music, and gets a great thrill from playing it live for people.

The three musicians played in close physical and musical harmony, all leaning into a mic and adjusting their guitars to work around each other. They played old songs from Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, the Everley Brothers, Claude Ely, and several others. I was surprised and pleased that I didn’t know most of the songs; they were gems pulled from influential artists’ work, not just crowd-pleasing hits. I did know “Blues Stay Away From Me” by the Delmore Brothers, “The Wayward Wind” by Patsy Cline, and “Crying Time” by Buck Owens.

Crowd-pleasing wasn’t a problem, though. The songs were all eminently listenable, and touching in that maudlin old-time way. The assembled room of fans listened closely to each gentle phrase (and the funny, ham-fisted Reilly guitar solo) and exploded in applause and hoots after each song finished. Big closer “Goodnight, Irene” got us all singing and classing and swaying along.

Thank you, Walt Disney Company, for bringing John C. Reilly here and letting him out for a night.

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Joe Bonamassa at the State Theatre

6 October 2012

Last night’s gig was a deep immersion into blues-rock guitar; daunting territory for the timid, but right up my alley. It might be a daggy alley, but at least I know where I’m going.

I’d heard Joe Bonamassa’s name before, but hadn’t investigated what he was about until a work mate – whose love of the blues immediately made me trust his musical taste – said that Joe was his favourite guitarist. I listened to some tracks, was wowed by the six-string wizardry on display, and bought myself a front-row ticket for the State Theatre last night.

Claude Hay (trust me)

First up was Blue Mountains one-man band Claude Hay, who I think I’ve now seen five times. Claude seems to be the go-to guy to support anything rootsy: he’s opened recently here for Matt Andersen, Great Big Sea, and Seasick Steve. I’m still amazed by his slide guitar, picking, bass, bongo, kickdrum, and looping proficiency. He only got four songs last night, but he gave it his all (and was still as charming as ever).

Joe Bonamassa

And then – right on time, with only a 10-minute interlude, no rock star egos here – Joe Bonamassa came out and his band followed (in dribs and drabs). He started with a handful of acoustic songs. I didn’t find these songs terribly engaging, as they featured a lot of straight strumming; it could have been anyone. And Joe’s lyrics aren’t the star of the show, though his voice is very good. “Dislocated Boy” was OK, but it was only when he hit “Woke Up Dreaming” at the end that he started to show off. But look, as a warm-up it was probably the right thing to do for him and for the crowd.

But when the full electric band kicked off “Slow Train”, followed by “Dust Bowl” I was right where I wanted to be. The fingers were flying, the strings were bending, and Joe – hidden behind his shades until the final bow –  was grimacing with every fret-ripping blur of his hand.

My favourites, beyond those first two songs, were “The Ballad of John Henry” and the final song, ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid”. I didn’t take notes, but I think last night’s setlist matched the Brisbane one pretty closely; I’m sure some super fans can confirm.

Joe delivers full-on power with blinding guitar speed; he plays hard and loud, full-electric blues-rock, just like the British blues wave that he was influenced by. He and his solid backing band often sounded as much like Zeppelin as the old blues masters, and they even blasted us with a healthy doze of “Dazed and Confused” to prove it during “Just Got Paid”. The State Theatre crowd rushed the stage for the encore songs, probably a pretty rare occurrence for that reserved venue.

It’s clear that extensive guitar wankery isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. This music is a holdover from a past age, and I was in the lower percentile of attendee age last night. But Joe is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever seen, and he’s a good showman, a good singer, and a great interpreter of blues-rock. It was six-string glorious enough to deliver, and to probably satisfy my guitar craving for a good long while.

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Rufus Wainwright at the Sydney Opera House

12 September 2012

Gah! Have been crazy busy, and not blogging. I apologise in advance for the following poor catchup.

A bunch of awesome friends and I saw Rufus Wainwright at the Opera House on Sunday night.

Rufus was fantastic, up until the bizarre encore. I pretty much agree with this review.

Opening act Megan Washington was good.

Other opening act and Rufus bandmate Krystle Warren was great.

I promise to do better next time.

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Flight of the Conchords at the Sydney Opera House

8 July 2012

A couple of nights ago a few friends and I caught Flight of the Conchords at their very first-ever Australian show at the Opera House.

Most people learned about the New Zealand folk-comedy musical duo via their HBO show of the same name, which featured them in wacky situations living in NYC, interspersed with their funny homage songs.

None of those TV skits were reproduced here, though. Their live tour is more about the music, which is how their original comedy act and radio shows were structured. There was silly banter between songs, but the music is the main focus of these shows.

Bret and Jemaine did a good job of performing most of my favourites, like “Too Many Dicks On The Dance Floor” and “The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room)” (though I really missed “Foux de Fafa”). Special effects and costumes were low-key (probably home-made). Some of the songs in the middle of the set were weaker, and I tuned out a bit. But the wry, bizarre, self-deprecating humour would re-appear quickly, and all was forgiven. If you like enjoy musical artist parodies and their style of humour (which is much cleverer than Weird Al, for instance), then seeing these guys live is as funny as you’d expect and hope.

The raging finales of “Demon Lover” and an extended, grinding, audience-participation (to a point) of “Sugalumps” were both catchy and hilarious.

Arj Baker, the US comedian who was in the show, also did some warm-up standup, and contributed to a couple of songs. Fun.

For your enjoyment, here’s a cool remix of “Business Time”.

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Vivid Sydney: The Temper Trap at the Sydney Opera House

1 June 2012

My second Vivid Sydney gig was last night, back at the Opera House.

The first act was a bloke called Chet Faker and his band. Chet plays gentle, groovy indie. It’s sort of like nu-trip-hop, delivered with breathy, raspy, soft vocals. Chet is, it seems, blowing up. It wasn’t the sort of thing to get you amped up, but it was pleasant enough. The highlight for me was definitely their cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity”.

The main act was one of the biggest Australian breakouts of the last few years, The Temper Trap, in their first of two Opera House nights for Vivid. “Sweet Disposition”, from first album Conditions, was a pretty bit hit in several parts of the world, and was used all over movies and TV. I liked Conditions a great deal, and with their second, eponymous album out soon, it seemed like a perfect show to go to.

It was pretty good. Mostly.

The Temper Trap

Look, if you’ve heard “Sweet Disposition”, which is likely, you’ve heard everything that’s fantastic about The Temper Trap: the joyous guitars, the upbeat rhythms, and Dougy Mandagi’s soul-lifting falsetto. But they’re a one-trick pony. It’s a very good trick, make no mistake. Listening to their first album at home is a great experience because if it starts sounding a bit familiar it slips into background music. But at a live show you want more than a one-trick pony.

I detect a little change in the new album’s songs, but it’s still quite similar. Each song heard on its own makes you think WOW THIS IS FANTASTIC. And it is. But each one’s a little too much like the last fantastic song you heard from them. Mandagi has just one wonderful, thrilling, uplifting mood when he sings. The Temper Trap is like Coldplay, but good.

One other quibble: the light show was big time overkill. There were lots, very bright, pure white, right behind the band, blasting right into our eyes. I love a good light show so I’m not being a fuddy-duddy here. Last night was distracting, annoying, painful, interruptive, and way too much.

I think that I was probably very spoiled by seeing the phenomenal Janelle Monae in the same hall a few days ago. That show was full of dynamics and showmanship.

I’ll continue to play The Temper Trap a lot at home. And I’d welcome them at a festival slot where I got just a handful of wonderful songs. But seeing them play such similar tunes song after song starts to have a numbing effect, which is unfortunate. I look forward to hearing their sound diversify further.

Check out a couple of the new songs from The Temper Trap below.

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Vivid Sydney: Janelle Monae at the Sydney Opera House

28 May 2012

I enjoy Sydney’s Vivid Festival every year. There’s something a bit wacky and open-ended about a festival of “light, music & ideas”. It really could be anything, couldn’t it?

Last night waas my first Vivid event, and it lived up to the could-be-anything promise: it was Janelle Monae and the Archandroid Orchestra at the Opera House.

It was, honestly, fantastic.

Ms. Monae has completely absorbed her key musical idols: Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and James Brown. She sings funk, ballads, R&B, rap, soul, and rock. She screams and laughs and shouts. She and her crazy-ass band dress up to the nines. She shuffles and moonwalks. Her MC instructed the sometimes staid opera hall to stand up before she even came out, and we all spent most of the time on our feet, dancing.

Janelle’s music covers a good range, and all her songs were delivered in amazing voice. Every song sounded great, and the band kept the sequence dynamic-feeling. It’s hard to beat a main set double-hit ending of “Cold War” and “Tightrope“, though.

The band kept the groove going in style throughout; even the strings danced and grooved for most of it. Every member was part of an ongoing choreography that made it feel like old-time entertainment.

She even painted a picture during one song, and gave it away to the first crowd member who was able to prove it was his birthday.

She threw us some covers, some nods to her style, in the form of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”, and a medley of a couple of James Bond tunes: “You Only Live Twice” and “Goldfinger”. The final song of the night was a version of the hit song by Fun she sang on, “We Are Young“.

This show made me very happy. Monae has such boundless talent, vision, energy, and enthusiasm that it makes me weak in the knees.

Do not doubt this woman. Photo by TonyFelgueiras used via Creative Commons license.

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dEUS at Manning Bar

11 May 2012

Three and a half years ago in London I saw Belgian rock band dEUS play live.

I saw dEUS again last night at University of Sydney student pub the Manning Bar. The show was pretty similar to my thoughts from before. They’re essentially a guitar band, especially live. Songs like “The Architect” and “Theme From Turnpike”, where they use deeper guitar grooves, remain my favourites.

If anything, they showed even more energy last night. Certainly the sound was much better last night than it had been at Koko.

A few of their straightforward, slow rockers in the middle were a bit generic. But they started well and finished well. Overall it was a very fun show. It was also amusing to be amongst so much spoken French and Flemish.

Listen to “Ghost”, from their new album, below, or to the whole album here.

dEUS

dEUS. Photo by anke meijer via Creative Commons lilcense

Special note needs to be made of opening act The Paradise Motel who were all kinds of shit. They played at being grim and literary: they’re no Nick Cave. They played at stark atonal melancholia and punctuated shrieking: they’re no Einstürzende Neubauten. They tried too hard, did not connect with the crowd, and were awful.

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Choral Contrasts: the Poulenc Gloria and Mozart’s Requiem at the Sydney Opera House

5 May 2012

I gave my gig-going a shot of class last night with a classical performance at the Sydney Opera House.

It was the second of three nights called Choral Contrasts. The performance was in two parts: first was French composer Francis Poulenc’s mid-20th century Gloria, and the second was Mozart’s famous (and controversial) Requiemin the traditional Süssmayr completion (Mozart dies whilst writing the Requiem).

Both pieces were performed by the Sydney Symphony and the Sydney Philharmonia Choir, with David Zinman conducting.

It was all pretty magical. Both works have religious bases but they really couldn’t be more different. Poulenc’s Gloria is a joyful, celebratory ode of praise, while Requiem is a solemn goodbye to earthly life. Each piece was deeply touching. You really can’t go past Mozart, though, for being mind-blowing, even if someone else finished it for him.

Both works also obviously share choirs as major elements. I like choirs: the human element adds emotion and connection, even when the lyrics are in Latin. And the Philharmonia is larger than I’d expected. I liked the guest soloists the least. They were very good singers, for sure, but the symphony and the choir were what I wanted to hear, and were enough for me. The skill and co-ordination required for so many musicians to perform together so well still amazes me.

They were very touching, very emotional performances.

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Cannoli Oak Beard*

21 April 2012

*Or, how I had an awesome Friday and I love my brother.

Yesterday was a non-stop smorgasbord of fun.

One of my colleagues brought in a box full of Pasticceria Papa‘s famous cannoli. They are seriously, heart-stoppingly wonderful.

After the workday finished there was a workplace financial year kickoff celebration at The Oaks. We were in one of the upstairs rooms, and I didn’t stay too long, but it was a good laugh.

Then it was time to taxi over to Sydney Uni and Manning Bar, where the gig festivities kicked off with a few good mates. There were several acts, most better than the last. I missed the first act, The Stiffys. Here are the ones we did see.

  • Mojo Juju play a swampy New Orleans gutbucket jazz shuffle. Their first couple of songs had me worried as they were slow and similar. But they brought it up in tempo, volume, and attitude as they went on, and got much better. They were fun, and quite stylin’.
  • Manchoir were an amazing surprise. They are exactly what the name implies: a choir of men. About 10 of them, all in singlets, some with bottles of beer in hand, performing a capella renditions of such great man-classics as “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Highway to Hell”. Hilarious!
  • The Crooked Fiddle Band played prog folk metal. I’ve never heard such a heavy polyrhythmic racket from a lute, violin, upright bass, and drums. It was mostly instrumental and mostly pretty intense. The woman playing fiddle had virtuoso level: she was amazing. Very skilled and dynamic, but it missed some of the fun and emotion that the earlier two acts had set us up for. But definitely an amazing band.
  • The Beards. What can I say about this band that I haven’t already done? They love beards, disdain all those who are beardless, and play many rockin’ tunes about beards. Last night they played several from their new album, Having a Beard is the New Not Having a Beard, which I hadn’t heard them play live before. They were, as usual, awesome. If you’ve missed previous posts watch thesevideos.

Afterwards we had a couple of beers at the Marly Bar in Newtown, made all the more entertaining by a power-tripping bouncer and a soft-porn session by some drunkards who forgot they were in public.

Classy Beards

Classy Beards

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Seasick Steve at the Metro; or, Zeppelin member sings The Everly Brothers

14 April 2012

Two nights ago I caught Seasick Steve at the Metro in the city. It was a very good show.

Steve, if you don’t know, plays the blues on a number of mostly home-made guitars. He’s a good ol’ American boy in the best hobo musical storyteller tradition. He’s a long career of recording engineering and production for other artists, but has come into his own as a performer in the last decade or so. I saw him twice in London. He was here to play the Byron Bay Bluesfest, and I figured I enjoyed him enough to catch him again on his sideshow in Sydney.

Seasick Steve

Seasick Steve

I skipped the opening act, Claude Hay, not because he’s not awesome – he is – but because I’ve seen him three times already this year.

The last two times I saw Seasick Steve he played on his own; it was just him, his stomping foot, and his guitars. That was more than enough of a show. But he had a drummer this time, a beardy bloke who pounded a pretty good beat. The first tune was Steve playing his ode to his One-String Diddley-Bow: always fun.

But at the second song he introduced his bass player. Bass player, I thought? He’s branched out to entire band now, has he? I wonder what that will be like.

It was only then that I discovered that Seasick Steve’s bass player is none other than John Paul Jones, who was one-quarter of the legendary Led Zeppelin.

Three people in front of us turned around when they heard my brain explode.

Somehow, JPJ has been playing with Steve for nearly a year, and recorded his last album with him, and it entirely eluded my notice. I’ve become a pretty poor music fanatic, honestly.

The night of music went ‘way past all my expectations. All of Steve’s songs are great blues stomps, and he plays a slide guitar with incredible enthusiasm. He tells wry jokes and funny stories and then sings rough-throated hollers while he punishes however many strings happen to be on the piece of wood in his hands. There’s not a lot of variety in the songs, but they’re honest and rhythmic and great roots music.

But then, on top of that, was John Paul Jones. He’s still a demon musician. He wields that bass like a maestro, and lays down some serious groove. But with Steve he played electric mandolin, acoustic guitar, and even a freakin’ Champan Stick. When he was on the mandolin he set out some solos nearly as fiery as Steve’s. I’ve seen JPJ before with Them Crooked Vultures, but he had more to do here, and more fun, I think.

Together they were a phenomenal trio. Wow.

Oddly, one of the highlights was the quietest songs. The drummer left the stage as Steve and JPJ sat alongside each other, John with an acoustic guitar. Steve said that when he and John were both kids, many years ago, the band they each most wanted to be in was The Everly Brothers. He cracked a joke about John going on to be in a pretty good band himself. They then proceeded to duet a slow, tender, quiet version of “Cathy’s Clown”. Magic.

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Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy at the Sydney Opera House

6 March 2012

Last night a mate and I sat quietly at the Opera House while Will Oldham – usually known these days when he performs as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – and his band, the Cairo Gang, astounded us with musical beauty.

Will Oldham

Will Oldham. flickr photo from Man Alive! via Creative Commons license

Oldham has been making honest, bewitching, haunting, delicate DIY folk songs for many years now. His no-frills (unless you count literary or emotional frills) approach impresses me. I don’t find myself listening to vast amounts of his music, as it demands a lot of attention. But his live show was compelling and heartfelt.

His voice is “clear and open-throated”, as wisely observed by my friend. There’s almost no between-song banter, just spot-on harmonies, acoustic frameworks for tales of tentative hope, and melancholy that seems absurdly private. It’s all just so lovely and touching; I find it quite hard to describe after the fact.

The only bizarre thing about a Bonnie Prince Billy performance – and I had no idea this was coming – was the herky-jerky leg flailings. Oldham does weird things with his limbs, especially his legs when he’s playing guitar. It’s quite distracting for a while.

“Beast For Thee”, “Quail and Dumplings”, “Go Folks, Go” and “New Partner” were highlights. “No Match” made me feel a little scared. But they ended the show playing the Opera House great hall acoustically, with no mics or amplification whatsoever, and we all, silently sitting there, felt so much better for it.

He’s just so very, very good. Oldham is one of the great results of American music so far.

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Australian Blues Music Festival in Goulburn

12 February 2012

I spent the weekend in Goulburn, Australia’s first inland city, and host to what I believe was the 12th Australian Blues Music Festival. I was keen to go for a few reasons: I love the blues, Goulburn is only 2 hours’ drive from Sydney, almost all the acts were Australian, and almost all the shows were free.

I didn’t make the Thursday and Friday night shows, but drove down early Saturday. Gigs were held at several venues in the downtown core, at pubs, parks, and social clubs. It was a really pleasant country-town vibe, and we wound up seeing a lot of the same people and performers over and over again at the different venues.

This festival doesn’t have the big names (and big prices) of the Byron Bay Bluesfest, but here were some really great performers, ones that I feel I was lucky to see for free.

On Saturday I saw several bands.

I started at one crowded pub with The Resonators, a father-and-son act that got a full slot by winning the street busking competition the previous year. They paid blues standards, with solid guitar skills, but the singing was just OK.

A hope to the pub across the street and next up was Leroy Lee, more of a folk singer. He was good, with a looping device and some keen feedback skills that gave his guitar songs lots of mood and texture. But they did start sounding a bit same-y after a while.

Back to the first pub for a band I picked because of the name: Tobasco Tom & Doc White. These guys turned out to be fantastic: steeped in early Americana, with everything from jump blues to Virginia murder ballads. Funny too. I caught one song on video.

Down the road to the Soldiers Club for Diana Wolfe & The Black Sheep. Diana was another winner: very charismatic and fun, and singing very danceable blues and jazz standards.

I left partway through her set to see a trio called Damn Fine Gentlemen in the park next door. They were a heavier rockin’ sound, with some interesting lyrics on some original songs, but the singer’s vocals left me wanting more. So I went back to see the rest of Diana Wolfe’s set.

After a fantastic dinner we stopped into a club with a large house band whose name I didn’t catch, but who were a little too sweaty and full-on for me. We decided to pop over to the Bowling Club to catch Hat Fitz & Cara Robinson. And I’m so glad we did, because they were amazing. Deep delta slide blues, some heavy UK rock-blues influence, and even some Celtic fluting. I got them on video doing a dynamic version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

On Sunday some of the singers we’d seen on the previous day – including Diana Wolfe – did a gospel song service in the park that was a pleasant way to start the morning.

After that we caught Halfway to Forth, two brothers from Tasmania – now in Adelaide – who really impressed me with their soulful harmonising, guitar skills, and laid-back blues and reggae tunes.

As I said: to see all these shows for free – and we could have done many more – was absolutely fantastic. There was so much authentic blues, so much Australian talent, and such a good atmosphere around the whole town, that I’d easily return and recommend it to any roots music fan. Way to go, Goulburn.

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Hall & Oates at the Sydney Entertainment Centre

9 February 2012

Despite being a massive Hall & Oates fan in the ’80s, I wasn’t going to go to their show here in Sydney. It’s been years since I heard anything new from them, and felt a bit over it. But a good friend of mine is a big fan and wanted to go and that made me reconsider. So last night he and I went down to Darling Harbour to see them.

We gave opening band Icehouse a miss. I’ve never been a big fan of them. I thought it best to leave them to the Aussie fans who adore them. My mate and I had a couple of beers and caught up instead.

We timed our arrival perfectly, getting into the Entertainment Centre and finding our seats just moments before the headline duo took the stage.

I’ll be honest: the first half of the show was pretty average. Darryl Hall’s voice took a few songs to warm up, and by doing a couple of big songs early – “Maneater” first, and “Out of Touch” third – I think they squandered a bit of impact. They played a couple of older songs that I’m sure the true fans loved but that I don’t care for (e.g., “Family Man”), and John Oates songs that – c’mon, let’s be fair – aren’t as compelling.

But either the drinks I’d had kicked in or they loosened up as they went (or maybe both) but things got better toward the end. The encores, especially, hit home and had many of us up and dancing. “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” was quite cool. “Private Eyes” had us clapping, too. The joy that the crowd felt in the last parts of the set was infectious, and really fun to be part of.

Those songs are truly great, and Darryl and John are a great writing and singing duo. The band was fine too. But Hall & Oates isn’t a good act for stadium venues like this: you lose a lot in that space and distance. They are, in essence, an R&B vocal duo, and our nostalgic love for them was probably all that got them over the pass line by the end.

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Sydney Festival: 41 Strings

23 January 2012

Last night was another Sydney Festival event: 41 Strings, an orchestral piece by Nick Zinner, guitarist of the rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs, based on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I know that’s a lot of cultural references to take in at once, but bear with me.

It was at the Opera House. It started with a drum piece, IIII, created by some of the drummers that also perform with Zinner. It’s also based on Four Seasons. There were a couple of dozen percussionists and two synth players, all arranged in the round. And my god, it was a thundering, impressive bit of playing. The rhythms weren’t super complicated – I imagine that would be hard with such an ensemble – but they were mesmerising. There was a lot of heavy crunch from the synths, of the sort that the Brooklyn bands have been producing in the last couple of years. It was cool and heavy and jubilant and compelling. I loved it.

Then came Zinner, his 40 other stringed accompanists (including a large contingent from the Australia Youth Orchestra) and a few drums. The four pieces were a blend of classic and contemporary – the lead guitar unmistakable Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound – and none were dull. In reflection perhaps it could have had more slow, quiet pieces. But it was certainly a big, lush sound, and one that was easy to engage with.

I liked both pieces, but I think that IIII affected me more. There’s something about that many drums, that much booming rhythm, that affects me primally.

Neither work instrumental work overstays its welcome; the whole show was over in 90 minutes, including an intermission. But that worked for me. Any longer would have devolved into stuffiness.

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Sydney Festival: Asa and Féfé

19 January 2012

Last night was my third Sydney Festival event. It was a gig, part of the festival’s So Frenchy, So Chic series, and took place at the Keystone Bar at Hyde Park Barracks. I like that as a festival venue: it’s downtown and feels busy, and has a good mix of semi-indoor (in the tent) and outdoor areas that flow very well.

First was Asa, whose gentle, jazzy set was pretty average for the first few songs. But the groove and impact picked up as she went on. Her soulful songs – part R&B, part rock – became catchier and punchier. And she’s irresistibly likeable herself: she dances, she plays the trumpet, she chats with the front row, and she looks like a funky librarian.

Soon followed Féfé. He and his band were fun from the start. They play hip-hop with lots of pop and funk. And he will not leave the crowd alone: the (moderately obliging) assembled listeners had to do our fair share of hand waving, clapping, jumping, singing, running left and right, and screaming. That almost all of the songs were in French was fine. Between Féfé and his DJ there was lots of energy going on, and the point was clear: have fun.

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Sydney Festival: Band of Gypsies

13 January 2012

Last night was a hyper-joyful night of Sydney Festival folk music at the Enmore Theatre.

The first act – which I did not know about – was of a style called Shangaan Electro, hyper-fast electro dance from South Africa. The group of four dancers and singers, and one DJ, carried on the most hyperkinetic dancing I’ve ever seen for a solid 30 minutes. It was dizzying and tiring to watch. The dancers moved with such joy you couldn’t look away; it also helped that the men wore orange jumpsuits with ridiculously fake beer bellies. The beats flew at breakneck speed. It became almost psychedelic.

The main acts, collectively named Band of Gypsies, were comprised of Romanian folk troupe Taraf de Haïdouks and Macedonian brass band Kočani orkestar. They played song after song of gypsy music: wild violins, three accordions, tubas, clarinets, and lots more. It was a Balkan/middle eastern/Slavic/Latin amalgam of high-energy Romani epics. Bows were flying, fingers were snapping, trumpets were blaring. Everyone took their solos, and a few would occasionally sing. It was irrepressibly jubilant. It was the gypsy spirit.

It’s hard for me to imagine seeing either of these sort of acts here at any other time. Way to go, Sydney Festival.

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Newfoundland Showcase at Notes

6 January 2012

The Woodford Folk Festival takes place in Queensland between Christmas and New Year’s each year. This time it was attended by a contingent of folk acts from eastern Canada (mostly Newfoundland & Labrador, though a couple from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island as well).

I didn’t get up to Woodford, but I did notice that those Canadian acts were doing a Newfoundland showcase night at the tiny Notes venue here in Newtown (which has a tradition of booking folk and roots acts), on their way out of Oz. So last night I got the chance to see several Canadian acts – all new to me – for just $15, and ten minutes from home. As a certain Mr. Sheen would say: winning.

Ron Hynes

Ron Hynes

I dragged along a few Aussie friends, snagged one of the last tables, and settled in for some listening. Seven acts played, pretty much non-stop through the evening.

I came in most of the way through the first set, by a couple of members of The Dardenelles. Very quiet, very pretty guitar tunes.

Next was Ennis, a group taking the surname of centrepiece sisters Maureen and Karen. The Celtic influence started in earnest here. They played some guitar and mandolin songs, harmonised as sisters can, told a few jokes, and brought out a sheet of plywood for some stepdancing.

Dwayne & Duane followed: that’s be Cape Breton fiddler Dwayne Coté and Newfie guitarist Duane Andrews. Things jumped up a notch at this point. Both were impressive masters of their instruments, especially Coté. They ranged all over the place, playing Irish reels and Django Reinhardt swing. Very cool.

Ron Hynes was next, and was the only name I sort of knew. He’s been recording since 1972, and is a minor legend in Canadian folk circles. Maybe a major legend if you count the people who know he wrote “Sonny’s Dream”, a very popular Atlantic Canadian tune (also the last song he played, and the only one of the night that some crowd members could sing along to). But I thought his best song was “Dry”. Hynes is one of those guys who must be a great songwriter, because neither he nor his voice are pretty (cf. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits).

Richard Wood is a fiddler from PEI; he was accompanied last night by guitarist and singer (and fellow Islander) Gordon Belsher. They brought a lot of energy to the night, with upbeat fiddle folk-pop. We were initially concerned by Woods’ Nickelback-hair-and-tight-pants look, but he delivered the musical goods. Anyone riffing Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” into a folk night is alright by me.

Next was The Once. They had both feet firmly planted in the Irish sea shanty tradition. Singer Geraldine Hollett had a forceful but calming delivery, and the group harmonised exceptionally well. They also played one of my very favourite songs by the great Stan Rogers, “The Maid On The Shore”.

Last was Sherman Downey & The Silver Lining. They were a full-on folk rock band. They were smooth and catchy and laid back, just a bunch of guys having fun playing songs. And they had an electric banjo, which is kinda cool.

Way to go, Newfies. You put on a super show. And you made me pretty homesick for a night.