Gig review: Augie March, Sydney Opera House, 25 January 2015

It’s been a long five years since Augie March last graced our stages, an absence which only saw their distinctive, introspective brand of beauty grow in stature.

Playing as an eight piece with a three-piece brass section on some songs, there is plenty of their 2014 record Dumb Havens with ‘Definitive History’ and ‘After the Crack Up’ both making early appearances.

Another new track ‘Hobart Obit’ is classic Augie March, lush and lullaby-like but with something darker lurking beneath the ornate surface, while ‘Villa Adriana’ sees them riding waves of crashing soft/loud dynamics.

The older songs which increasingly dropped out of their repertoire before the extended hiatus are back in force as well and Sunset Studies classics ‘There is No Such Place’ and ‘The Hole in Your Roof’ were warmly received. ‘One Crowded Hour’, the song which won them the Hottest 100 but which they later tired of, was also played with a renewed vigour and flashes of the old magic.

Much of the night was a hushed affair with the lights down low and the ghostly likes of ‘Never Been Sad’ setting the tone. But they do have another gear and ‘This Train is Taking No Passengers’ proved a stirring reminder that when they want to, they can push the pedal to the floor as well as anyone.

Never a flawless live band, there’s still an endearing scrappiness to Augie March, complete with a couple of false starts, singer Glenn Richards’ frank admission of being terrified by the occasion and chatterbox drummer David William’s sardonic commentary on proceedings.

But we wouldn’t have it any other way. This wasn’t just a hugely welcome return, but also a reminder of the void their absence left.

Gig Review: Broods, Metro Theatre, 22 November 2014

Playing to a packed Metro in their biggest Australian show to date, New Zealand siblings Broods seem almost overwhelmed by the level of support at times, but for the most part Broods are well and truly in control.

In a set which begins with single ‘Never Gonna Change’ and which features almost the entirety of moodily pretty debut record Evergreen, highlights include the washed out beauty of ‘Bridges’, which gets a huge visceral response, and an emotionally charged version of ‘Four Walls’ with just Georgia on stage.

Taking cues from the minimalism of countrywomen Lorde and the starkly beautiful spaciousness of the XX, these are songs of elegant restraint and immaculately recreated live. We’re also treated to an as yet unnamed new song, little more than a skittering beat and a torch song vocal, as well as convincingly dark versions of ‘Pretty Thing’ and ‘Coattails’ from their self-titled EP.

There’s a surprising detour in the encore, which sees them cover Tom Petty’s evergreen ‘Free Fallin’’ in languid style.They’re soon back on more familiar ground though with ‘Superstar’, before wrapping up with the thumping beats and gorgeously nostalgic melody of ‘Mother and Father’. Impressive as tonight was, there’s also a feeling that their best is yet to come and with Georgia and Caleb Nott barely out of their teens and just one album into their career, their potential seems almost limitless.

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.

Gig Review – Laura Marling @ St. Stephen’s Church (2013)

“If you haven’t seen one of my shows before, it’s 25 percent tuning” Laura Marling tells a crowd, prompting titters from an otherwise reverent, almost motionless audience. That’s about as animated as she gets between songs, with most banter consisting of non-sequiturs, stock-standard “It’s good to be here in Sydney” style filler and confessions about her jetlag and lack of preparation, usually followed by apologies that she isn’t better at chitchat.

Her apparent discomfort in front of an audience is all the more surprising given the assured excellence of this set, which begins with the four tracks which form the unbroken song cycle that begins her most recent (and strongest) record, Once I Was an Eagle. Not only does running these songs into one another allow her to avoid more awkward banter, it suits the cohesiveness of tone established from the gentle strumming at the start of ‘Take The Night Off’ to the mellow fade of ‘Breathe’.

Rich in imagery and precise finger-picking guitar, these are songs which alternate between emotional brittleness and the kind of quiet forcefulness seen in the refrain of ‘I Was an Eagle’: “I will not be a victim of romance / I will not be a victim of circumstance”. Determined as she seems to talk her prodigious talents down, it’s hard not to be gripped by the emotional nakedness on display in these songs, which run the gamut from to lust to regret and a clear-eyed assessment of loves lost. With just Marling and cellist Ruth de Tuberville on some songs, there’s plenty of space around her lived-in, nicotine-stained voice.

There is often a stillness to Marling’s work which suits such an austere venue, but increasingly her songs include also moments of venom and a newfound knack for the killer kiss-off, like in ‘Master Hunter’ where she trades her usual stately delivery for a more urgent and dense style, flipping a Bob Dylan lyric on its head “If you want a woman who can call your name / It ain’t me babe”.

She can still do fragile prettiness better than almost anyone though and ‘Little Love Caster’ is a master class in spareness, little more than some flourishes of Spanish guitar and vocals which bring to mind the frail, almost whispered intensity of Nick Drake.

The set winds down with ‘I Speak Because I Can’ with its arresting opening line and swooping melody suggesting that while her latest record may be her strongest collection, the older favourites are still capable of landing emotional blows. After explaining that she doesn’t do encores “If it helps, think of that as the last song and this next one as the encore”, she concludes with the heartbreaking, almost hymnal ‘Saved These Words’, which includes one of her most preternaturally wise couplets: “Love’s not easy, not always fun / And words are sleazy, my love is better dumb”. A quarter of a Laura Marling show may be self-consciousness, stalling and guitar tuning, but thankfully the rest of it is completely and utterly disarming.

Gig review – The Gutter Twins, York Theatre 2009

So much of rock music is about collaboration – individual talents finding the perfect collaborators to elevate and inspire their own work into something great. Even certified geniuses like Morrisey and Marr have not quite reached the same peaks without their creative partners. Consider it a blessing then, that Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegancrossed paths, for their dark alchemy makes them seem nothing less than musical soulmates. As The Gutter Twins they have produced career-best in the twilight of already distinguished careers.

The setting was the intimate surrounds of York Theatre, more usually a venue for staged drama than that of the musical variety. With the twins (and Twilight Singers guitarist Dave Rosser ) draped in black and performing in acoustic mode, the sense of occasion was heightened and the audience hushed and respectful. It was spectacular from the start, with God’s Children setting an ominous mood early, conjuring up all sorts of darkness to complement its impressionist, barely-there lyrics: “Whispers…captured lies”.

Never known as a particularly jovial frontman during his time with the Afghan Whigs and The Twilight Singers, Greg Dulli was nonetheless in relaxed form tonight, breaking his near-silence to banter with an audience member at one point and leading the crowd in handclaps during a powerful cover of Jose Gonzalez’ Down The Line. The cover proved a perfect choice for the pair, who pick up on the tune’s foreboding, its underlying sense of unease and violence and run with it.

Mark Lanegan, meanwhile, is nothing less than a force of nature. His voice seems not just weathered or aged, but absolutely timeless, so deep and dark it seems to have risen out of some primordial sludge. Few voices in rock are so richly evocative and to hear him sing Creeping Coastlines of Light, a lovely torch song from his solo record, was to know greatness.

It takes artists with real gravitas to take on material like The Stations, with its visions of the rapture and overwhelming emotional heaviness. But there’s something about Dulli and Lanegan’s combination that makes their explorations of sin and redemption positively inviting, even addictive.

With only the sublime Saturnalia record to their name, and some of its best moments ( Idle Hands, All Misery/Flowers ) apparently unable to be replicated in acoustic form, the twins range widely through covers and their back catalogue. Dulli’s raw take on the Afghan Whigs’ classic Summer’s Kiss is absolutely heart-stopping, while maybe the most magical moment of all comes in during the sublime harmonies on Everly Brothers’ perfectly melancholy All I Have To Do Is Dream. If you weren’t there, you really missed out. If you were, you’re probably still in a reverie.

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Gig review – Explosions in the Sky, Metro Theatre 2011

It’s been four long years since Texans Explosions in the Sky last graced these shores and judging by the palpable sense of anticipation in this sold out crowd, it has been an agonising wait for many. For fans of heart-on-sleeve post rock there’s nobody better. While other bands of their ilk opt for chin-stroking, intellectual music or settle for impressive but ultimately unmoving displays of technical virtuosity , EITS aim for soul-soaring, heart-in-throat catharsis.

Tonight’s support, Sydneysiders Charge Group, proved an inspired choice as there’s something similar to the headliners in the way they use loud-soft dynamics and building momentum to take the listener somewhere emotional. In songs like Speakeasy Death Song they use space to great effect, the crescendos all the more powerful for their restraint that surrounds them. Broken Summer, meanwhile is a frail, pretty tune that hints at something darker lying beneath its surface. New song The Gold is Gone, from an EP due for release next year, plots a more conventional path, its sprawling guitar work reminiscent of some of the moodier Bluebottle Kiss work and adding another dimension to this always impressive outfit.

Following a mercifully short break between bands, the curtain draws (slowly and, in a comical anticlimax, incompletely) on Explosions in The Sky, guitars at the ready and a Texan flag proudly draped over an amp stack. De facto frontman Munaf Rayani says a few words and then for the next hour or so, they say absolutely nothing. It’s better this way, though – this is music that is so totally immersive and emotionally involving that it’s easy to forget where you are, to be completely, utterly, lost in the best way possible. The Only Moment We Were Alone is a stirring beginning, its graceful, slow build expertly rendered by a four-prong guitar attack.

Songs bleed into each other, riding waves of pure emotion and blissful cacophony. Time and again, their wild ambition and cinematic scope builds to satisfying emotional payoffs. The Birth and Death of the Day was triumphant and the symphonic Your Hand in Mine almost overwhelming. Catastrophe and The Cure is similarly grand, melodies flickering in and out of beautiful noise. This year’s Take Care, Take Care LP, their best work in years, is also well represented, with the likes of Let Me Back InLast Known Surroundings and Postcard from 1952 all being thrown into the mix. Finally, they’re sweat drenched and emotionally spent and Rayani farewells the crowd with some simple words of gratitude. As ever, he doesn’t need to say much – wordless as they are, these colossal songs speak volumes for themselves.

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Gig review – Kanye West, Sydney Entertainment Centre 2012

Kanye West is one of the most acclaimed musicians of his generation and a certified, name-up-in-lights superstar, yet a live Kanye performance nonetheless seems a bit problematic on paper. His records are heavily collaborative affairs, cherry picking the biggest names from his genre and beyond to realise his visions of kaleidoscope, wide-screen extravaganzas. Live, there are just a couple of musicians, no special guests and a lot of pre-recorded backing. It’s basically all Kanye. But in this high-energy juggernaut of a show, that proves to be more than enough.

While a persistent criticism of touring hip-hop acts is the stop-start nature of their performances, Kanye’s foot is rarely off the pedal tonight. After appearing deep in the dancefloor crowd on a crane, he powers through Powerand Dark Fantasy to a near hysterical reception. The classic Jesus Walks soon follows, West stalking the stage and spitting out words with such urgency, he seems more a hungry up-and-comer with a point to prove than the stadium-filling multi-millionaire he has long since become.

As choreographed dancers swoon and swirl around him, West covers just about every highlight from his feted back catalogue with older cuts like the slinky minimalism of Love Lockdown, the robotic maximalism of Strongerand the typically defiant Through The Wire all maintaining the irresistible momentum, while Heartless, featuring a crowd singalong, is a clear highlight.

Like some gold-chain clad pied piper, West keeps the crowd energy bubbling as he moves down a catwalk extending from the main stage and later ventures into the upper tiers of the cavernous Entertainment Centre during Touch The Sky, camera phones flashing and fans racing for an up-close glimpse of their charismatic idol. After completing almost a full lap of the venue he disappears through an exit and reappears a few seconds later on stage to launching into another of his monster hits, the ear-worm Gold Digger.

Divided into three acts, apparently to allow for a costume change and add even further to the stadium-sized grandeur, the final section begins with a Chariots of Fire introduction – ridiculous and over-the-top, sure, but nobody comes to a Kanye West show hoping for a low-key production. Dressed in an eye-catching red suit, he stretches his masterpiece Runaway out into something truly epic, with primal screaming and samples mashed together into noise adding to its cathartic power. Lost in the World sees him pondering the state of the universe, before Hey Mama ends proceedings.

Generous in length and packed with hits, what this show lacked in spontaneity it made up for in sheer spectacle. While his all-star collaborators may have been absent, you wouldn’t say they were missed. Some performers get swallowed up by a venue this big, its lack of intimacy working against them. But Kanye West seems to thrive in such a setting and tonight was no exception. His juggernaut rolls on.

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder