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 – 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 – 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.

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.