Gig review – Martha Wainwright @ Sydney Opera House (2013)

“The reviews could have been so good” Martha Wainwright mock-sighs at one point, during one of her lengthy digressions before a cover by one of her songwriting inspirations, Nick Cave. She needn’t have worried – the tune is ‘The Ship Song’ and it’s a suitably dramatic version, finding depths of emotion in the sweeping, hymnal melody.

As an interpreter, she is sublime – capable of shifting gears from a gutsy, soulful bellow to a delicate rasping whisper, but there’s also some affecting tunes in her catalogue, many tonight plucked from last year’s instantly enjoyable though somewhat overlooked ‘Come Home To Mama’.

Those songs include ‘Four Black Sheep’ and ‘I Am Sorry’, both which showcase her vocal gymnastics, injecting real energy and drama to songs which could come across as tasteful rather than exciting in lesser hands.

As well as her voice, her other stock in trade is bracing honesty. It’s no coincidence she appears artfully nude on the album’s cover – naked emotion is the album’s dominating mood. Older favourites like the confessional ‘Bleeding All Over You’ and ‘Factory’ go down a storm, the latter complemented by backing vocals from touring partner Bryter Later.

There’s a mid-set interlude featuring a single song by Bryter Later, who don’t appear in their own right tonight due to the venue’s policy of not having support acts.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a band who take their name for a Nick Drake album, the duo deal in a hushed, gently pretty brand of folk.

Having given her peers a chance to shine, Wainwright returns in a new outfit, a ‘Come Home to Mama’ T-shirt (“gotta move some of the merch”) and jeans, having changed out of a tight dress she quips made her look “like a sausage”. More oversharing follows, as she explains the inspiration about her “song about male genitalia”, ‘Ball And Chain’.

Subject matter aside, it’s a real family affair tonight, with husband Brad Albetta on bass. The dynamic between them is a joy to watch with Albetta giving knowing looks and resigned shrugs at her more outlandish moments. There’s even a charming appearance from their young son, who apparently demands to come onto stage every night by chanting the words ‘stage’ insistently. “I’ve got to get him to hang around with some doctors and lawyers” she sighs.

Then there’s ‘Radio Star’, a song that she explains was partly inspired by artistic jealousy at brother Rufus’ ability to write danceable songs and partly by seeing Melancholia, Lars Von Trier’s film about a planet crashing into earth and bringing an end to human life. It’s a confusing mix of influences sure, but makes for a memorable song in this case.

There’s also a couple of tracks from a former project where Wainwright tackled the Edith Piaf songbook, and despite her familiarity with the works, she has a sheet music in place on a stand in front of her. “These songs just have too many words. They’re not about me so I can’t remember them” she deadpans. She also gives a lengthy explanation of the story of ‘L’accordioniste’ which is arguably as entertaining as the song itself.

The set winds to an end with the nuanced emotion of ‘All Your Clothes’, inspired by her grief at the passing of her mother, acclaimed folkie Kate McGarrigle. She ends the set proper with a disarmingly beautiful reading of ‘Proserpina’ which McGarrigle wrote, its simple refrain of ‘Come Home To Mama’ having added poignancy in this context.

In the encore, she takes on the old chestnut ‘Stormy Weather’ and ends up lying on the floor in a kind of gentle mocking of the tortured artist. “I should really take myself more seriously” she says, but of course her withering self deprecation and irreverence are all part of the charm. Finally, she plays her best known song, ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ to rapturous applause. No need to worry about this review – a great show, with spirit and personality to burn.

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