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.

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”.

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.