Gig review – The Drones play ‘Wait Long By the River…’, Sydney Opera House, 24 May 2015

Can it really be ten years since the release of Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By? Apparently so, and the Drones, sadly absent from the live circuit of late, are back to celebrate a decade of existence for this messy, sprawling beast of a record, a work of both brutality and beauty. It hasn’t dated a day.

It begins with ‘Shark Fin Blues’, which is classics Drones territory, images of despair and a desire for self-annihilation paired with some savage riffs. Once voted the greatest Australian song of all by their fellow musicians, it’s such a fiery, rousing opening salvo that one enthusiastic punter is inspired to yell “Play it again!”.

They don’t do that, but launch straight into ‘Baby’ which sees Gareth Liddiard’s ragged howl of a voice in magnificently malevolent form. ‘Shark Fin Blues’ and ‘Baby’ make for a cracking opening to a record, but all the more compelling in person where Liddiard makes for a magnetic frontman, wild-eyed and loose-limbed, spitting like a fountain and contorting himself crazily as he doesn’t so much play his guitar as strangle noise out of it.

Fiona Kitschin and Dan Luscombe, on bass and lead guitar respectively, are a much more still presence on stage but just as vital to the barbed sound which ranges from minimalist sparseness to dense intensity and underscores all the pent up frustration and anger of the lyrics.

For all the savagery of their music though they come across as fairly relaxed characters and aren’t afraid of having a laugh at their own expense. There’s a story about a “GPS fuck up” that saw them take a scenic route to the Opera House and when Liddiard blows out a hired guitar amp, he jokes he might have to put it on his credit card. Luscombe has another solution: blame fellow Vivid guest Morrissey.

There’s nothing light-hearted about ‘The Best You Can Believe In’ though, which builds from a deliberate, sparse opening and almost spoken word vocals into something cathartic and huge. You can hear the ghost of The Birthday Party here, that same sense of ominous abandon.

Equally thrilling is the midnight black ‘Locust’, where that indelibly haunting opening, just some sparse keys and Liddiard’s tumbing words, is greeted with euphoric recognition from the engaged crowd. There’s a real sense of space and isolation in this song and it’s hard to believe the name ‘Georgie’ has ever been sung with such passionate ferocity as it is here.

The guitar meltdowns of ‘This Time’ and ‘Sittin’ on the Edge of the Bed Cryin’’ continue the intensity, while there’s also a couple of classics to round out proceedings: the epic ‘The Minotaur’ and the haunted ‘The Miller’s Daughter’.

As well as providing a potent reminder of the enduring power of Wait Long… the night also offered a glimpse of what The Drones might do next with an unnamed new mini-epic, a typically fevered rocker with lyrics about death which climaxes in a tangle of guitar noise and an insistent refrain.

In the encore, they end with their traditional closing song, Kev Carmody’s ‘River of Tears’. A mighty howl of protest for the Indigenous activist David Gundy, who was controversially shot by police in his home, it’s a searing finish to a show which confirms The Drones as one of the very best live bands this country has produced.

Gig review – Spandau Ballet, Qantas Credit Union Arena, 15 May 2015

Did any band provide the soundtrack for more 1980s prom slow dances Spandau Ballet? Probably not – they were an era-defining, improbably fashionable cultural phenomena at their peak and they’re still big enough to almost pack out this stadium with many of the punters from their 1985 show in the same room returning tonight.

They kick off with the self-mythologising ‘Soul Boy’. It’s a blatant attempt at self-mythology, but it also just works. The lyrics about being forever young and dancing an endless dance seem far less ridiculous than they could given that Tony Hadley’s crooner’s voice retains every bit of its old smoothness.
‘Raw’ is just silly, an unconvincing attempt at a more muscular sound, but most of the newer songs like the synth-heavy ‘This is the Love’ and the refined ‘Steal’ prove more than reasonable facsimiles of peak Spandau. The classics like ‘Round and Round’ and the hook-filled ‘Communication’ remain bright and shiny crowd pleasers.

The crowd is even more pleased when the energetic Hadley moves into the upper tiers of the stadium to sing ‘Empty Spaces’ and lead a brief singalong of ‘Gold’. True to the nostalgic feel of the night, there’s also neon lighting recreating the signage of the influential Blitz nightclub and a video montage of the group in their New Romantic pomp, all tousled hair, soft focus photography, regrettable fashion and stadia filled with screaming fans.

Rather than trying to move with the times, Spandau Ballet have chosen to cling ever more tightly to their youthful glories. But on the inevitable set closer ‘True’, the softest of soft rock evergreens, and a fist-pumping encore of ‘Gold’, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that these songs are aging better than anyone could have expected. They remain quintessentially 80s, but now that’s their selling point.

At one stage, this reunion show seemed the longest of long shots as three of the band sued the Kemp brothers over songwriting royalties and the group descended into acrimony. But back together with their original lineup, still indestructibly popular and slick as ever, Spandau Ballet are now writing a much more dignified final chapter than their previous messy ending.

Comedy review: Matt Okine ‘The Other Guy’, Sydney Comedy Festival, 14 May 2015

Despite the best part of a decade successfully working the comedy clubs, to many Matt Okine is probably best known for his starring role in that viral video. While interviewing Chris Rock, Okine unthinkingly boasted that his comedy was “really good” and then squirmed uncomfortably as the comedy icon reacted skeptically.
If only Rock could see him now. He’s always been a winningly casual, supremely likable presence, the sort of performer who just makes sense on stage. The Other Guy, however sees him lean on his considerable charm less and expand his comic range. It’s both more personal and more political than he’s ever been before. It’s also just funnier.

Back to that video for a moment: it worked because of Okine’s willingness to be embarrassed. He instantly knew he’d said something stupid and allowed us to cringe along with him. So it is with some of the strongest stuff here; when he recounts a truly misguided attempt to re-enter the dating game, you can almost feel the room collectively wince through the laughter.

Read the full review at The Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/comedy/sydney-comedy-festival-2015-matt-okine-review-up-close-personal-political-and-hilarious-20150515-gh25w7.html

Comedy review: Daniel Kitson ‘Polyphony’, Sydney Comedy Festival, 6 May 2015

“I have to warn you, this isn’t an entry-level show” Daniel Kitson tells the audience a few minutes in, and he’s probably right. Rather than packing the emotional punch of some of his previous works, say the gem-like 66A Church Road¸ this is more of a chin-stroker, though a fiendishly clever, relentlessly funny one.

It’s billed as a (sort of) play and takes the form of Kitson handing out 20 iPods, each with a speaker attached, to audience members and having them simultaneously press play. Each iPod has one part of the play pre-recorded on it, and played together the effect is a cacophony of voices interacting with Kitson in a meta-narrative about the work he is mounting.

Read the full review at: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/comedy/sydney-comedy-festival-2015-daniel-kitson-review-theatre-comedy-melt-together-at-hands-of-one-of-best-comedians-working-today-20150507-ggw1nh.html

Comedy review: Josie Long ‘Cara Josephine’, Sydney Comedy Festival, 22 April 2015

Inevitably described as “giddily enthusiastic” and or “unfashionably optimistic”, Josie Long has always ranked high on the list of stand-up comedians you would most like to be friends with. Blessed with a gift for wide-eyed exasperation and the demeanour of a kid who’s broken into a lolly shop, she could easily coast on her abundant charm and perpetual underdog status.

While recent shows have seen her tap into a politically charged vein, Cara Josephine is a creative left-turn, a bold venture into highly personal territory. The show begins with her admitting she had her heart broken last year and traces what happens as her trademark hopefulness is put to the test in the wrenching aftermath of a breakup.

Suffering an unseemly bout of jealousy when she spies a love bite “the size of a slice of ham” on the neck of a teenaged fast food worker, Long tries to escape her woes by throwing herself into her multitude of interests. This includes embracing indoor rock-climbing, delving deep into American literature and, most memorably, cracking wise like a femme fatale​ in a film noir.

Read the full review in The Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/comedy/sydney-comedy-festival-2015-josie-long-review-breaking-up-is-hard-and-funny-to-do-20150423-1mr9qz.html#ixzz3Yf0JJ6gz

Gig Review – The Waterboys, Sydney Opera House, 2 April 2015

An ever-evolving outfit who have counted more than 70 musicians amongst their number over the four decades of their career, the current incarnation of The Waterboys sees bandleader Mike Scott team up with players plucked from across America’s most fabled music cities.

Suave guitar player Zach Ernst hails from Texas, keyboard wizard Brother Paul is a Memphis native and bassist David Hood is from the musical hotspot of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It’s a lineup whose roots lie in soul, blues and Americana, befitting the sound of new record Modern Blues, which is characteristically huge in scope and sweepingly romantic, though more heavily influenced by roots rock as well as the swagger and muscularity of The Rolling Stones this time around.

Apart from the youthful Ernst, they’re a seasoned outfit, though wildly enthusiastic throughout. Fiddle player Steve Wickham is particularly animated, high-kicking around stage, while Brother Paul attacks his keys with the zeal of a mad scientist and wears a maniacal grin throughout.

‘Destinies Entwined’ kicks off proceedings in grand fashion and much of the early stretch of the set is made up of material from Modern Blues.‘Nearest Thing To Hip’ is a stylish lament for a disappearing bohemian scene and ‘Still A Freak’ a statement of defiance and unfashionable optimism, played with real verve.

With lyrics that nod to Elvis, Hendrix and Sun Ra, these are songs that lament past heroes while ranking amongst the most vital and inspired songs Scott has written in decades. One brief, improvised song paid tribute to the recently departed Cynthia Lennon, but for the most part the mood was positively euphoric.

While the new songs were warmly received, the adulation went up a notch for the glorious ‘The Whole Of The Moon’, still the best encapsulation of The Waterboys’ romanticism and Scott’s ability to write lyrics both simple and poetic. A couple of other classics made an appearance, like ‘The Three Day Man’ and ‘Don’t Bang The Drum’, which saw the players pared down to Scott on keys and long-time member Wickham, whose playing was warm and melodic throughout, on electric fiddle.

The encore of the rousing, Celtic-tinged ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ finally brought the crowd – many of whom would have been in their teens when the song was first released in 1988 – to their feet, dancing with unselfconscious joy.

Book Review: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman (2015)

Just a generation ago, the author could remain something of a mysterious figure, glimpsed fleetingly in the book’s jacket photo and maybe probed for their backstory in a rare interview to be pored over by curious fans.

Now as authors flood social media with the minutiae of their daily lives, the possibility of a mega-selling author remaining a literary enigma seems all but extinguished.

Neil Gaiman represents an intriguing outlier to this development though, retaining an air of mystery and unknowability that befits his fantastical writing even as he regularly interacts with his millions of social media followers and spreads his creative tentacles into a myriad of projects.

This latest short story collection even sees him blurring the lines between his social media presence and his fiction, riffing on tweets written by fans in the fragmentary A Calendar of Tales.

It’s yet another extension of a body of work that is at once exhaustingly diverse and rigorously coherent. Whether creating comic books, dark fairytales or a Dr Who story, as he does here, Gaiman’s work is always distinctly his.

Read the full review: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/a-peek-behind-the-curtain-of-neil-gaimans-creative-process-20150302-13prgo.html#ixzz3WhdMKEoh

Gig review – Gruff Rhys, Newtown Social Club, 6 March 2015

Taking cues from the more muscular end of Big Star’s catalogue, Community Radio are a low-ley but accomplished jangle pop outfit with just enough light and shade in their work to balance out their generally sunny sound. Kicking off with the rough around the edges but tuneful ‘Real Transformation’, they’re easy to like and even B-sides like the chugging ‘Wildflower’ are catchy enough to lodge themselves in your head well after their short set ends.

The country noir of Jep and Dep is a real change of mood; the duo’s sombre and sardonic country seems descended from the great Johnny and June Carter Cash duets. While they seemed irked at times by people talking, the deliciously dark likes of ‘Wake Up Call’ and ‘Granted’ started winning people over and by their final (and best) song ‘Tears in the Rain’, the kind of heartbroken country that Lee Hazelwood might have covered, they were playing to an appreciative silence.

Gruff Rhys’ American Interior is an unusually engrossing concept album, based on John Evans, Rhys’ 18th century ancestor who made an ill-fated trek to the United States to track down a mythical Welsh-speaking Indian tribe. It’s a tragicomic marvel of a record that probably would have made for a perfectly arresting set played on an acoustic without any embellishment; instead the live show is more a multimedia extravaganza than a straight presentation of the songs.

Not only does Rhys introduce the show with a deadpan “safety video”, he offers a hilariously straight-faced commentary on black and white slides which show a John Evans puppet on various stages of his journey from Wales to the most remote areas of America’s river system. From the gorgeous looped pop ‘American Interior’ to the earworm ‘Iolo’ and the genuine melancholy of ‘The Last Conquistador’ the songs flesh out the tale, making potentially esoteric subject matter emotionally involving.

As Rhys plays along with seven-inch records and metronomes and enlists audience members to recreate a particularly tense episode in Evans’ adventure, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the whole thing. One of the many eccentric touches involved him holding up signs with instructions for the audience. Not only was the “PROLONGED APPLAUSE” sign well-deserved, but there was a collective sigh when Rhys finally raised a card reading “THE END”.

Book review: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (2015)

The singer-songwriter and lone permanent member of the incomparable Mountain Goats, John Darnielle has established himself as a writer of great empathy and thrilling rawness, a singular talent whose work inspires feverish devotion.

The transition from writing lyrics to fiction has proved an unusually seamless one. Wolf in White Van, Darnielle’s first full-length novel (he previously contributed the excellent Master of Reality novella to the 33 1/3 series), sees him climbing into the lightless, almost unpeopled world of Sean, a lonely and disfigured man.

Always an outsider, Sean spent much of his life in hospitals and rehabilitation centres after suffering a debilitating injury in his teenage years. Speaking has become physically demanding and people are repulsed by his appearance. So he withdraws into the cold comfort of fantastical worlds to distract himself from his isolation and chronic pain.

Read the full review: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/wolf-in-white-van-songwriter-john-darnielle-makes-a-game-start-as-a-novelist-20150209-137537.html#ixzz3VGYc5ltL

Gig review – Spoon, Metro Theatre, 14 February 2015

To see Spoon live is to witness a band in complete control of their music. They’re a finely tuned machine where every part, from Britt Daniel’s nasally but appealing voice to Jim Eno’s drumming, both brutal and precise, work together in perfect unison.

The Texans may be indie rock’s ultimate sneaky good band; they can probably walk the streets unrecognised and have never rode a wave of hype but they have quietly compiled a catalogue rated by Metacritic as the most critically acclaimed of the last decade.

Tonight’s Metro set is a tour de force demonstration of their lean, economical approach, crisp sound and unfailingly foot-tapping tunes. New songs like ‘Rainy Taxi’ and ‘Do You’ are as tightly coiled as a spring, while ‘Inside Out’ pairs a typically muscular rhythm to a twinkling keyboard melody to stunning effect.
It’s a good natured affair, ranging from the krautrock-leaning ‘The Ghost of You Lingers’ to the angular rhythms of ‘Don’t You Evah’ and an irresistibly funky ‘I Turn My Camera On’, complete with perfectly executed interlocking melodies.

Even the rare chaotic moments feel perfectly controlled – Alex Fischel’s bursts of keyboard noise during ‘Don’t Make Me a Target’ are like a master painter throwing a splash of paint over a canvas to complete the work.

As a nod to one of their favourite Australian bands, they make a spirited run at Eddie Current Suppression Ring’s ‘Memory Lane’ before ending with an emotionally charged ‘Black Like Me’ as well as Spoon classics ‘You Got Your Cherry Bomb’ and ‘The Underdog’, the latter beautifully understated.

On the final night of their Australian tour, there seems to be some indefinable extra spice to their performance, or maybe it’s just the infectious energy of a gun band visibly enjoying their work. Either way, it’s pretty hard to fault.