Gig review: Matthew E. White @ Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent (Sydney Festival), 15 January

Dressed immaculately in a tailored suit and rarely seen without a boyish grin, Matthew E. White is nothing if not happy to be here, even if heavy jetlag and the novelty of the travelling Spiegeltent means he’s not quite sure where here is. “We played this Spiegeltent once before, but in Bergen, Norway” he says. “I got in here today and I was like ‘I’ve been here before’ it’s freaking me out”.

He gets his bearings soon enough with ‘Tranquility’, where whispered, almost spoken word vocals about the transient nature of life build until the song seems set to collapse in on itself, before a second guitar belatedly chimes in, giving the song a second wind. Written as a reflection on the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, it’s a tender if atypical start.

But White’s music is hardly all doom and death and things immediately take a turn for warmer, more joyful territory with ‘Love is Deep’. ‘Vision’ shows his considerable versatility as a singer, swinging seamlessly from breathy vocals to a soaring, upbeat, soulful style which has seen him regularly earn Curtis Mayfield comparisons.

Last time they were out here, White recalls, they were so jetlagged that they abrupt fell asleep mid-meal in a Domino’s outlet. Thankfully, there’s no such lethargy tonight, though slow jam ‘Fruit Trees’, moves like treacle in the best possible way.

There’s a lush, lush cover of Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Wait and See’ and a sunny snapshot of religious devotion in the blissed out ‘Circle ’Round the Sun’, White crooning the line “wrap your arms around me, Jesus” with such conviction that even non-believers can’t help but be swayed.

The setlist switches gears in the second half to his more bluesy, groove-heavy side with the likes of the harmony-laden ‘Steady Pace’ and ‘Feeling Good is Good Enough’ raising the energy. ‘Rock and Roll is Cold’ is a floor-shaking rave-up where brushed drums are exchanged for John Bonhamesque pounding. It wraps up with a group hug and a gentleman’s bow to a now energised crowd.

At one point, White mused on his ambitions of moving to Australia and buying himself a “real fresh” ute to go exploring in. Based on tonight’s showing, this hugely likable and talented performer is more than welcome to set up shop here.

Gig review: Mercury Rev @ Oxford Art Factory, 7 December

A critical phenomenon in their early 2000s pomp, Mercury Rev may be a much less hyped act these days, but their decreasing profile has had little effect on their status as a spectacular and singular live band. They throw themselves into their cosmic rock with glee and a rare abandon. Frontman Jonathan Donahue is a particularly animated presence, conducting his bandmates like some mad scientist and gesticulating and vamping his way through the high drama of the songs.

There are whole worlds of psychedelic lushness here, from the woozy lullaby of ‘Endlessly’ to the guitar meltdown that ends an otherwise mellow ‘Frittering’, which dates back to their weirder, noisier 1991 debut Yerself Is Steam. There’s a welcome focus on the classic Deserter’s Songs, with the swooping dynamics and Disney fantasia of ‘The Funny Bird’ and the shimmering ’Holes’ and the mini-epic ‘Goddess On A Hiway’.

These are songs at once wildly ambitious and completely inclusive, and they’re playing with a shape-shifting zeal. ‘Opus 40’ builds from something delicate into cathartic release before morphing again into white noise. Their latter-day work has tended towards muted prettiness, but live they’re loud and expansive, with new songs like ‘Central Park East’ and ‘Autumn’s In The Air’ both expressions of childlike wonder, full of symphonic grandeur.

Later, there’s a trio of songs from All Is Dream, including ‘Tides Of The Moon’, a cosmic, soaring ‘You’re My Queen’ and finally ‘The Dark Is Rising’, an atypically plaintive moment in an often euphoric set. It’s a stunning finish to an alarmingly good performance, a semi-forgotten band serving notice that they’re still special.

Gig review: Luluc @ Newtown Social Club, 27 November

An alt-country/folk singer with a warm, honeyed voice, Caitlin Harnett’s music sits somewhere between the haunted folk of Karen Dalton and Neil Young in mellow, pastoral mode. On songs like ‘Honey Are You Alright’ she strikes a delicate balance between downbeat and defeated. Fans of emotive Americana, come on in.

Ex-Deloris frontman Marcus Teague, AKA Single Twin, takes the middle slot and it’s a set as notable for his surreal, dryly hilarious song introductions as the wordy, finely detailed music itself. The languorous ‘My Silken Tooth’ is introduced as being “about the most unfortunate pizza delivery ever made” and it only gets more bizarre from there, with riffs on becoming completely flat and forming your garbage into the shape of an ex. The music is uniformly first-rate meanwhile, with the sparse, intimate ‘Goodnight’ featuring some ghostly whistling.

Continuing the theme of talented musicians whose serious music belies their jovial demeanour, Australian expats Luluc are a laid-back, jokey presence from their first song ‘Reverie On Norfolk Street’. They quickly endear themselves to a small but appreciative crowd who mainly remain seated in front of the stage.

Their set features most of last year’s excellent, slow-burning Passerby,full of close harmonies, gentle melodies and an overall sense of warmth and comfort. ‘Without A Face’ is a good example of their quiet but lush approach, with restrained beats sitting underneath cozy harmonies. ‘Star’ sees them summoning the ghostly melancholy of Nick Drake, while ‘Tangled Heart’ adds a bit of reverb to a tale of a lost love and lingering thoughts of loss.

Zoe Randell’s voice is a thing of wonder, never forceful but mightily expressive. Even songs as filled with yearning and sadness as ‘Passerby’ and ‘Gold On The Leaves’ become almost overwhelmingly pretty and tranquil. They finish with an encore of ‘Little Suitcase’ and ‘I Found You’, further softly strummed reminders that passion need not be measured in volume.

Gig review – Death Cab for Cutie, Say Hi, Sydney Opera House, 1 August

Doing a nice line in laptop pop, Say Hi plays in solo mode tonight, and though the introspection and small scale of his music seems made more for bedrooms than concert halls, it’s a winning and all-too-short set. By the last song, the infectious, fizzing ‘Take Ya’ Dancin’’, he’s won the crowd over and left them wanting more.

Death Cab For Cutie admit to feeling a bit like students doing a piano recital given the grandeur of the room, but they attack their work with an energy that is anything but stiff and formal. Whether by design or not, the setlist seems set out to showcase the different sides of a band sometimes unfairly pigeonholed as purveyors of heartbroken indie rock.

From the pent-up energy of ‘The New Year’ to the subtlety of the reflective ‘Grapevine Fires’, there’s something from every stage of their career – even ‘No Sunlight’ described as “the closest we come to surf rock” and played in honour of the local audience.

Although their lyrics have tended to the abstract in more recent work, ‘You’ve Haunted Me All My Life’, one of the highlights of this year’s Kintsugi,is all the more powerful for its directness. It ushers in the most downbeat stretch of the show, preceding the funereal ‘What Sarah Said’ and the hymn-like ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’, still their most affecting song.

While Ben Gibbard has to politely tell the crowd that clapping along with the latter song “isn’t going to work, sorry”, there’s no shortage of audience involvement in the arousing ‘Soul Meets Body’, which ends feels both intimate and genuinely huge.

The set proper ends with their most startling the creative left turn, the hypnotic, menacing ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’, before everyone is on their feet for an encore that returns to their wordy, poignant best with ‘Marching Bands Of Manhattan’ and finally ‘Transatlanticism’. A truly epic set.

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: 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

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