Gig review: Walter Martin, Sam Shinazzi @ Newtown Social Club, 29/5/16

After a career playing organ and bass in the much-loved The Walkmen, Walter Martin began his solo career with a children’s album, We’re All Young Together. He credits the creative left-turn for unlocking something in his writing and it’s easy to see a directness which carries over from that project to the low-key, autobiographical songs of most recent record Arts and Leisure.

Another songwriter known for working in an autobiographical register is support act, Sam Shinazzi, playing tonight as a two piece with guitarist Adam ‘T-Bone’ Taylor. The set includes ‘Bones’, all vulnerability and intimacy and ‘The Day We Met’, a stirring ode to friendship and memories. There’s also the whisky-soaked ‘Closing Time’, which Shinazzi describes as his bid to be featured on cult TV show Nashville. Some slivery guitar work on a cover of The Cure’s evergreen ‘Lovesong’ ends the set. Shinazzi’s shows are always a treat, full of heart and an unerring knack for bittersweet melody.

Undaunted by a small Sunday night crowd, Walter Martin is a good-natured presence, chatting amiably about the inspiration for each song and looking every bit a performer content with the niche he has carved out for himself. He begins with ‘Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous’, which takes a wryly funny look at his life selling roses and mowing lawns before a chance encounter with a famous pop star changed his direction.

Drawing on his travels around the world and his half-forgotten college studies in art history, these are charming songs of self-deprecating wit and unexpected detail. In songs like ‘Michelangelo’ and the almost spoken word ‘Watson and the Shark’, there’s a joyous attitude to the world of art galleries which offer a refreshing perspective on an often stuffy scene.

He also plays a couple of songs from a forthcoming record of vignettes about musicians, including the striking ‘Lana’, written from the perspective of a concerned brother observing Miss Del Rey’s heartbroken songcraft from afar.
The night wouldn’t be complete, however, without something from his children’s record and he obliges with the lullaby ‘It’s a Dream’ and a gorgeous rendition of ‘Sing To Me’, a tale of clumsy playground love. The sparse but enthusiastic crowd coaxes one last song from him, new track ‘I Wanna Be a Country Singer’ and as with everything he played, it proves small in scale but immensely likable.

Gig review: Chvrches, East India Youth @ Enmore Theatre, 4 February

East India Youth’s last record, the immaculately produced Culture of Volume saw William Doyle pushing his intellectual brand of electronica in a more pop direction, something like the Pet Shop Boys beset with paranoia. But in this live setting, where he is a manic, jerky presence behind a laptop, the chilliness of his music is pushed to the fore.

It’s compelling stuff, with the seven minutes of ‘Hearts That Never’ throbbing with dread and doubt, spluttering out into a maximalist freakout. ‘Entirety’ is similarly dark, a burnt out look at our media-saturated culture which flirts heavily with white noise.

Though working in at least broadly similar territory, Chvrches music comes from a much warmer place, aiming for something anthemic and affirming, rather than the missives of alienation East India Youth specialises in. They play with one of the most spectacular light shows the Enmore Theatre has seen in recent memory, an industrial array of cool pastels and neon, and the backdrop adds significantly to the epic feel.

These are genuinely huge, streamlined soundscapes from the opening ‘Never Ending Circles’ to the bubbling synths and surging optimism ‘We Sink’, while the hook-laden ‘Make Them Gold’ shows their almost machine-like efficiency in creating bright, sugary synthpop.

Admitting to having initially “stood still on stage and wished for the ground to swallow me up”, Lauren Mayberry is now a genuinely energetic frontwoman, small in stature but with star power and vivaciousness to spare. The Enmore stage can dwarf less charismatic performers, but she works the expanses between the two banks of synths expertly.

‘Leave a Trace’ and ‘Clearest Blue’ are also pristine, building patiently before exploding into choruses big enough to fill stadia, while ‘Empty Threat’ sees the ever dynamic Mayberry pounding the drums with gusto. Martin Doherty’s Scottish brogue on ‘Under The Tide’ and the almost torch song languor of ‘Afterglow’ are welcome changes of pace, but for the most part it’s the irresistible formula perfected in ‘Recover’ and ‘The Mother We Share’ which dominate, crystalline melodies floating over a base of clattering beats.

Flick through the new music playlist on Spotify any given week and you’ll find at least half a dozen bands imitating their festival-ready brand of shimmering synthpop, but Chvrches remain the leaders of this burgeoning movement.

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 – 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”.

Gig Review – ‘Far From Folsom’, Parramatta Gaol, 16 January 2015

A key work in the towering mythology of Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison remains the best distillation of his outlaw persona, a priceless document of his gallows humour, sympathy for underdogs and authoritative baritone.

But it’s perhaps in danger of becoming a record more referenced than played, so this recreation of the famed occasion – which saw Cash play an eclectic but brutally honest and often death-themed set to a crowd of inmates – seemed a brilliant concept.

Getting the venue right was key to recreating the palpable sense of occasion and dark magic of the original. And the cavernous Parramatta Gaol courtyard, bordered by imposing sandstone walls and coils of barbed wire, made for a mightily atmospheric backdrop.

The success of this night, however, really hinged on finding someone to recreate Cash’s gravelly, semi-spoken vocals and defiant charisma, and in Tex Perkins (recently named by Robert Forster as one of only six true rock stars Australia has produced) Far From Folsom could not have had a more perfect ring-in for the Man in Black.

From the bluesy, doom-laden storytelling in the famed titled track to the grimly funny death row countdown of ’25 Minutes to Go’, Perkins ripped into the work, completely comfortable in his assumed persona. As the night chilled and bugs buzzed around the gaol’s swooping searchlights, an appreciative crowd swayed to the heartbreak of ‘I Still Miss Someone’ and the straightforward but poignant ‘Give My Love to Rose’.

The record also takes in Cash’s easily forgotten sillier side, with the novelty song ‘Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog’ and the self-consciously ridiculous ‘Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart’ both providing moments of levity in a generally intense song cycle.

It would hardly have been an authentic tribute without a June Carter Cash figure – and Rachel Tidd filled those spurred shoes admirably on the stirring duet ‘Jackson’ and the self-mythologising ‘I Walk the Line’, the latter one of a handful of classic songs not on the record to appear in the setlist.

‘A Boy Named Sue’ and ‘Ring of Fire’ made welcome appearances as the night wore on, but the focus was mostly on the Folsom record and the seemingly simple but mightily powerful songs it contains.

This was a fitting tribute to an amazing time and place in both rock and country music history, and to a collection of songs perhaps best summed up by the words of songwriter Harlan Howard, whose ‘Busted’ and ‘The Wall’ are key tracks on the record: “three chords and the truth”.