Gig review – Waxahatchee, Ali Burton and Jen Buxton, Newtown Social Club, 3 July

Gamely battling a scratchy throat, Newcastle singer-songwriter Jen Buxton offers a raw, autobiographical brand of punk folk in the vein of The Smith Street Band or a more subdued Frank Turner. She’s got a sourly funny, self-deprecating stage presence and spirited songs like ‘Anhedonia’ and ‘Don’t Change Your Plans’ as well as a cover of Cory Branan’s ‘Crush’. Disarming stuff.

Ali Barter’s music comes from a more ethereal place and though her set is unfortunately interrupted by persistent technical problems, she does get an unusually attentive crowd for a support act, with the likes of the gentle, floating ‘Run You Down’ and the more brooding ‘Community’ proving highlights of a promising but stop-start set.

“You guys are weird” Katie Crutchfield a.k.a Waxahatchee tells the crowd. “You came to this sad ass show on a Friday night”. Playing in solo mode in her first ever Australian show, Katie Crutchfield is soon into stride with the purposefully fuzzy ‘Grass Stain’, a song which sees her vowing to “drink ‘til I’m happy”.

There are more arresting, confessional lyrics where that came from, like on the gem ‘American Weekend’ where a barbed guitar line underscores strange and memorable images of heartbreak: “you are shoved awkwardly into my head”.

The crowd hang on every word of ‘Tangled Envisioning’ and the 90s rock of ‘Under the Rock’. It’s a still, subdued batch of songs but as on the irresistible ‘La Loose’ where crowd members add their own backing vocals, there’s also a real pop sensibility.

As well as cherry picking the highlights of this year’s excellent Ivy Tripp, there’s also a lot of material from American Weekend, including ‘Bathtub’ and ‘Noccalula’ and the beautifully fragile ‘I Think I Love You’.

Far from being a sad ass affair, there’s something arresting about seeing such personal and introspective music and you’re left reflecting that there’s no better way to spend a Friday night.

Gig review – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Star City, 27 June

A former jillaroo who ditched her cowboy hat when she made the switch to being a full-time musician, Harmony James has retained a real earthiness in her music and a knack for heartfelt, straightforward storytelling. On older songs like ’30,000’ she does a nice line in travelling songs while ‘Skinny Flat White’ is a well observed slice of life. Obviously stoked to be part of this tour, she proved a good choice for support act, not least because her setlist includes a song touching on the influence of tonight’s headliner, ‘Emmylou’s Guitar’.

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell may be icons in their field, but there’s a likably low-key tone to tonight’s set, with both chatty and relaxed throughout. Their creative partnership has been a productive period in terms of songwriting, but they both remain first rate song interpreters and begins with Gram Parsons’ ‘The Return of the Grievous Angel’ which sets the tone for the night; classic country delivered with attention to detail and an obvious reverence for the source material.

Further covers include the Townes Van Zandt classic ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and Lucinda Williams’ aching ‘I Just Wanted to See You So Bad’, where the interplay between Crowell’s earthy croon and Harris’ ethereal lilt make it arguably better than the original. Perhaps the real jewel though is ‘Love Hurts’, originally a hit for the Everly Brothers. In Harris and Crowell’s capable hands, it’s an affecting slice of yearning with heavenly harmonies underscoring its message of consolation.

‘Bring it on Home to Memphis’ and the autobiographical ‘Red Dirt Girl’ continued the mellow mood, while ‘Back When We Were Beautiful’, a skeletal lullaby in recorded form, was more fleshed out with upright bass, lap steel and tasteful guitar from Australian Jedd Hughes adding to the harmonies without threatening to overwhelm them.

The crowd was appreciative throughout and coaxed the band back on stage for a hushed version of Crowell’s evergreen ‘Stars on the Water’ before bringing Harmony James back onstage for the closing ‘Boulder to Birmingham’. Despite the huge room, it felt intimate and relaxed, a chance to see two of country’s most fabled names in laidback mode.

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: The Lemonheads, Metro Theatre, 11 December 2014

Starting out as a rough-edged hardcore-influenced band in the fertile Boston scene, The Lemonheads eventually morphed into a kind of country-tinged and beautifully messy amalgam of garage rock and laidback indie pop which became huge on college radio and then spilled over into mainstream success.

They’ve been far from prolific since their glorious early 90s peak, though these songs have dated better than anyone could have expected and benefit from the fact that the laconic songwriting of Evan Dando and friends has few contemporaries.

This Metro show proved a warmly nostalgic affair with many songs spontaneously turning into mass sing-alongs. It kicked off with Dando alone on stage playing the gently funny ‘Being Around’, before being joined by a full band including the prolific Chris Brokaw on guitar for a set packed with classic Lemonheads songs like ‘Confetti’, ‘Rudderless’ and ‘Style’.

Dando’s voice may have weathered over the years, but there’s still an appealing mellowness to his vocals and ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘Hospital’ were particularly gorgeous.

The encore paid tribute to the band’s heavy Australian influence with the wry Tom Morgan-penned ‘The Outdoor Type’ and an energetic version of ‘Alison’s Waiting To Happen’, written about the drummer from Smudge.

Even after the house lights go up, people are still baying for more. Two decades after The Lemonheads’ unlikely brush with commercial success, affection for these unassuming but casually brilliant songs remains undimmed.

Gig review: The Preatures, The Hi Fi, 5 December 2014

It’s been quite a year for The Preatures, having successfully completed a jump to the major leagues with their hook-filled debut LP. The slickness and pop sensibility of these newer songs are a long way for their early days as a more rockabilly influenced band, but the retro sensibility and unbridled energy live act remain thankfully intact.

Shrugging off some early technical difficulties, they’re soon into stride in stomping, muscular style. They’re a heavier proposition live – even something as lush as the spectral pop of opening track ‘Blue Planet Eyes’ is given a harder edge in the live setting.

The retro pop of ‘Ordinary’ and ‘Cruel’ have even the people on the upstairs balconies dancing, spurred on the energy of frontwoman Isabella Manfredi. Whether cartwheeling across the stage, dumping water over her head or just generally rocking a leather jacket like 80s Joan Jett, she’s a rock star through and through.

She can do vulnerability just as well as strutting though, and the uncharacteristically downbeat ‘Two-Tone Melody’ and a solo turn on ‘Business Yeah’ show her range. For the most part though, it’s a celebratory high-energy affair with the choppy rhythms and soaring chorus of breakthrough hit ‘Is This How You Feel?’ and the fist-pumping ‘It Gets Better’ proving ideal Friday night fare.

The encore provides a reminder that The Preatures have a second formidable singer in the shape of Gideon Bensen who belatedly takes centre stage on a gleefully raw version of old chestnut ‘Take A Card’. It’s yet another facet of a band whose rapid ascent shows no signs of slowing down.

Gig review: Future Islands, Oxford Art Factory, 27 July 2014

One of 2014’s most enduring musical moments is likely to be Future Islands’ performance of ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ on the Late Show with David Letterman, a star-making turn that seemed to catapult them from cult favourite to near-ubiquity overnight. The hype has barely subsided since then – and now, with killer record Singles in tow, their overdue victory lap continued at Sunday’s long sold-out Sydney show.

Read the full review at Time Out Sydney

Sydney Film Festival review: Pulp, A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets (d. Florian Harbicht, 2014)

It’s a bold gambit opening the film with live footage of Common People, voted the best song of the 90s by NME. But it’s also the logical starting point, being the ultimate distillation of the band’s ability to take real angst and venom and blow it up into something anthemic and communal. The very next scene sees bandleader Jarvis Cocker changing a tire on a car in a tired looking street. In a low-angle shot, Cocker’s gangly frame fills the screen. This clash of triumphant celebration and ordinariness is the heart of the film, and the heart of Pulp’s enduring appeal.

This isn’t just a film about Pulp, though, it’s about the city that spawned them and how they fit into it. Sheffield is seen as a place where it’s always overcast and the highest praise anyone doles out is “it’s alright”. Yet it has its charm. Bomar, a musician seen sitting on the side of a canal in a fur coat, tells of how he once left his hometown for London, only to be mugged twice in a day and find himself sitting in a puddle screaming about his squalid new surrounds. He got a bus back to Sheffield, where a friend nursed him back to health with booze and a Pulp CD on a pub’s PA. In Sheffield you still get mugged, he explains, but at least here you usually know the person mugging you.

Director Florian Harbicht and company must have talked to some people that didn’t come out with absolute gold, but none of them have made the final cut, a lean 90 minutes. There are brilliant vox pops with unfailingly eccentric Sheffield residents, footage of fans congregating on the steps of their farewell shindig, people sweeping up confetti at the end of the show, the tour manager corralling the band and Cocker organising medicines and ointments for the various ailments of his aging bandmates. Here, the mundane and the logistical are just as essential as the soul-stirring. Pulp… is a film that centres around a triumphant farewell show but isn’t dominated by it. Better than most music films, it acutely understands that the band themselves are only a small part of something greater than the sum of its parts.