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: 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.

Port O’Brien Interview

When Van Pierszalowski, the rousing voice of acclaimed folk rockers Port O’Brien sings about the sea, he doesn’t do so out of some vague and abstract interest, but because the sea has long been his main source of inspiration and his very lifeblood.

With a background working 20-hour shifts as a fisherman in Alaska’s Kodiak Island, he had plenty of maritime lore to draw upon for the group’s first studio album All We Could Do Was Sing, which ranged from the autumnal reflection of songs like Fisherman’s Son to the stirring radio hit I Woke Up Today.

But recently the songs started to take a darker turn. Always a strictly autobiographical writer, his output was inevitably touched by tragedy when the younger brother of band-mate Cambria Goodwin, the group’s other core member, passed away. Both Pierszalowski and Goodwin had been close to her sibling, living with him in his final days.

Some of the new songs deal with this pain head-on: My Will Is Good is a statement of resilience, while the ambitious High Without The Hope drips with emotional heaviness. With the shock of loss still prominent, the group travelled to San Francisco where they recorded the first songs for new album Threadbare in the home studio of close friend and Papercuts member Jason Quever, who offered a cosy, dimly-lit space where his living room doubles as the recording area. It was, Pierszalowski explains, “a really intimate way to record.”

So did playing music help the healing process? “Yeah it really did, especially for Cambria. It was a really intense time and it really did help [her] to have something to work on, songs to work on and writing, but even more the recording, because that’s when you’re finally able to get the feelings out.” This sense of energy is palpable throughout the sweep of Threadbare; there’s real rawness and naked passion. Drums pound like skipped heartbeats, strings bleed with feeling.

For Pierszalowski, the cathartic power of music “is one of the main reasons we play”. They spent 23 days straight recording in their friend’s studio and reached a point of immersion in their work where “it didn’t even feel like recording anymore, it felt like therapy. Jason played a big role in that too; he and Cambria were very close. It felt like in a way music was holding us together and allowing us to deal with all these things.”

Despite having existed in one form or another since 2005, the group’s commercial breakthrough in this country came when their rollicking I Woke Up Today was used in a Dulux commercial. Pierszalowski recalls the offer as coming out of the blue and being a kind of godsend for a band which is struggling to break even, despite their strong critical reputation and the support of high-profile musicians like Johnny Marr and M. Ward, who famously called them his “favourite new band”.

Pierszalowski admits the commercial has been the band’s main source of income over the past year. Their somewhat parlous finances have meant they need to stay with their parents and couch-surf while on tour to meet the expenses of living as touring musicians. The sheer cost of keeping a band on the road, he agrees, is not something widely appreciated outside of the industry. “I never realised before what it was like – every show you have to pay your agent, the tour manager, your business manager and your lawyer. By the time anything gets to the band, you have to split it five ways and you don’t really have enough money to do anything.”

Keen to return to Australia after appearing in the touring Laneway Festival earlier this year, Pierszalowski can also see a time when he again heads out on his father’s fishing boat. Life at sea is back-breaking labour that can stretch on seemingly forever in the round the clock sunlight of an Alaskan summer. But Pierszalowski cherishes the link to his family it provides, as well as the moments of calm and isolation that always seem to result in a bunch of new songs being written. It’s where the problems of everyday life melt away.

On land, he tells me, “There’s always a lot of thoughts that get in the way, friend drama and work drama that you have to go through – All that doesn’t exist out there.”

Writing on the road proved an impossible task for Pierszalowski, who can only work by waiting for inspiration to strike. “I probably should have set aside time for writing at different points, but I don’t like that. I don’t believe in it. If I felt like I had to write, I would have never written a song.”

Ultimately, the creative process seems as unfathomable as the sea, a force that needs to be respected, if never quite understood. There’s no way to artificially bolster creativity, Pierszalowski reasons, nor any way to predict it: “You just never know when it’s going to hit you.”

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Scott Devendorf (The National) Interview

“Just being in New York has been the impetus for everything the band’s ever done” says Scott Devendorf, the affable bass player for Brooklyn denizens The National. “Having this rich cultural thing happening – music, art, whatever, has made a huge difference. Just being to see anybody you want and having a lot of bands close by, I think that really drove us when we starting, and now that we’re serious about it, I think it’s a really healthy thing to have going on”.

While a laidback and chatty character, it’s clear the incredible, pulsating energy of the city is something that’s vital to Devendorf, and in turn, something that forms an important backdrop to the band’s creative restlessness. The gestation of 2010 masterpiece High Violet was painstaking, he explains, with songs changing repeatedly over the course of a year, being radically re-recorded in some instances, and being recorded in multiple versions of songs in pursuit of some elusive musical alchemy. “Songs like Lemonworld, which is a really simple song in a lot of ways, at one stage we had eight different versions of that… just taking different flashes of the songs”. Intriguingly for a band whose songs are eternally described as growers, it seems to take them a while to value their own compositions: “A song may end up where it starts. We really never know”.

Their live show, which stunned Australian audiences at a string of rapturously received shows back in January, is an ever-evolving beast, with freshness and dynamism being key concepts. “With a new song, when we get more confident playing it, when we’ve kind of figured it out, we try to change aspects of it” he says. Similarly, their set list is rarely static, with Devendorf promising “random songs from older albums” to feature in their upcoming Australian shows to “make things more varied and interesting for everyone”.

Everything about the band’s creative process seems to designed to prevent staleness or over-familiarity; unusually, the band tends to rehearse individually or in pairs more than as a group and their songwriting process is equally novel: the band will generally complete an instrumental piece before handing it over to singer Matt Berninger to add vocals. A range of side projects keep members occupied in their time off; guitarist Aaron Dessner has recently produced a record to fellow Brookln resident and sometime collaborator Sharon Van Etten, while Devendorf has used his rare moments of downtime to start work on compiling a Grateful Dead tribute album.

With The National due to return to Australia for November’s Harvest festival and a pair of side shows, Devendorf admits to finding the sheer size of festival crowds “pretty intimidating” and thinks festival goers can be “confused” by the band’s slow-burning, nocturnal music. “Festivals seem to attract a certain genre” he muses “but then we do have a more anthemic side, the more rock songs”. Crucially, however, festivals take the band out of the comfort zone and introduce them to new audiences.

Although plans for the next record are minimal at this stage, Devendorf does suggest the band may look to record more quickly, a move partly inspired by the success of their two most recent singles Exile Vilify and Think You Can Wait, which both started life as piano sketches and were both recorded in relative haste in between touring commitments. True to form, however, plans may change several times before they re-enter the studio. The price of The National’s sky-high quality control, it seems, is eternal restlessness.

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Robert Forster Interview

Robert Forster was one half of our greatest band ever, our ultimate cult heroes, our very own Velvet Underground. With Grant McLennan, he formed the core of The Go-Betweens who began in Brisbane in 1977, punk’s year zero. As nihilism and anger overturned music’s world order, they swam against the tide, releasing the double A-side Karen/Lee Remick, a glorious and crashingly romantic slice of sunshine pop that was more Monkees than Sex Pistols.

The Go-Betweens continued to be blissfully adrift of musical fads and fashion throughout their career, producing classic albums like Before Hollywood and Spring Hill Fair, before signing off in 1988 with the lushly produced 16 Lovers Lane, a perfect marriage between McLellan’s pop smarts and Forster’s stately songcraft. An unexpected second act to their story began in 2000 when the pair reformed the band and released the stunningly assured and instantly familiar-sounding The Friends of Rachel Worth. Their songs, so apparently sparse and simple on first listen, continued to be among the most charming and enduring anyone ever committed to vinyl.

Always critical darlings and lionised by fellow musicians, The Go-Betweens nevertheless seemed rank outsiders when it was announced a poll would be undertaken to choose a band to name Brisbane’s Hale Street Link after. But impeccable taste prevailed and so the newest addition to the city map became the mellifluous-sounding Go-Betweens Bridge. In the lead-up to a concert to celebrate this unique and richly deserved tribute, FasterLouder caught up with Robert Forster.

So, the Go-Betweens Bridge is quite an unusual tribute to a band. How did you react when you heard about it?
I reacted very well! It was a surprise. When you think of all the things that can happen to you as a rock band, having a bridge named after you is not one of them. It would be a surprise to anyone, it would be a surprise to someone who’s had a lot happen in their life. It’d be a surprise to Paul Macartney, it’d be a surprise to Prince. It’s quite a large thing and it’s unexpected. But I feel good about it.

Was it hard to play gigs in Brisbane when you were starting out?
Not really, in Brisbane itself it was quite easy. When we started it was around the time that punk and new wave hit Brisbane. There was a lot of energy. You played at people’s houses; there wasn’t that whole rock venue thing. In Brisbane now, there are six, seven, eight venues that are running continually, taking out ads in the street press. Back then though, street press didn’t exist. But you played pubs and swimming pools and colleges or universities. So we played quite a lot. What was hard was playing outside our town, like to fly to Sydney cost $500. There were no networks or connections, no JJJ, so playing outside of Brisbane was very hard.

Was it ever tough with the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime and 4ZZZ being shut down?
It was. You had to sort of be jumping around and be keeping an eye on your back, but an aim of us as a band, whether Bjelke-Petersen was there or not, was to get out of Brisbane. If we were in Sydney, we still would have wanted to have got over to London and played in Europe and America. That was still a goal for the band, no matter where we would have been.

If you were starting out as a young band in Brisbane today, would you have the same dreams of London and New York?
Oh, God yeah. The aim was always to try to be international and when the band started. Grant and I knew you can sustain a career of doing Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, but only for a couple of years. Then it would just drive you nuts. It would be like if you were an American band and you could just play San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and Salt Lake City and you can never play anywhere else. You just need something more.

Apart from the logistics of finding gigs, would you say that travel was important to the band in terms of finding inspiration?
I guess so, yeah, just in terms of developing lyric and melody writing and seeing bands, that all feeds inside itself, it feeds together.

A song like German Farmhouse seems pretty directly autobiographical about your travels. Do you think all your songs have at least some autobiographical element?
I do. There’s some songs with characters, or outside situations that are a little more abstract. I think you’ve got to do that too, that’s part of it as well. But normally I write about things that are around me, that I can see.

Is a song like He Lives My Life about as abstract as you get, or is that based on a real situation as well?
No, that’s a real life situation too, that’s very direct as well. Actually all those songs, most of them are fairly much in front of me. But even if you’re just writing about what’s in front of you, there’s a fair amount of flexibility with that. It doesn’t have to be ‘Today, I got up and went down the shops and bought some milk’ you know, you can bring in friends and imagined lives. It’s quite a rich area to write about it, really.

Do your friends tend to recognise themselves when they turn up in songs?
They do, and I don’t set out to write a whole put-down of people, so normally people that are not myself that are in my songs get a fairly generous treatment and they’re normally quite happy about it.

A lot of musicians say that choosing favourites amongst their work is impossible, like having a favourite child. Do you have favourites amongst your back catalogue?
Oh yeah definitely. I’m not making the same album over and over again so I have favourites and things I wish I hadn’t done and I’ve made mistakes. I don’t see them all the same.

For me, it’s always been Liberty Belle and The Black Diamond Express. It was the first Go-Betweens record I ever bought and it’s still my favourite. How highly do you rate that one?
Oh, highly, that’s a magnificent record! No, that’s definitely a high point and it’s a great place to start getting into the music that Go-Betweens or myself have made, it’s a great record.

It is a record that feels quite out of time…
It is personal, and besides the songs, which I think are really strong, that record was made in 1985 and I don’t think there’s many other albums made like that in 1985. It’s bass, drums and guitar, recorded quite naturally and beautifully. There’s vibraphone, organ, acoustic guitar, a lot of singing. These weren’t things that were done so much then. That’s not a collection of instruments and an approach that was at all fashionable in 1985. I think that’s one of the reasons, besides the songs, why the record has lasted and sounds as fresh as it does now.

You’ve moved into music criticism recently, with your work for The Monthly. I think it’s always hard to gauge how lasting a record is going to be when you get it to review, do you find that aspect of it difficult?
That’s true, but I just try to write about how a record hits me. Normally, records that I’ve really liked have stood the test of time. I still think the first Vampire Weekend album is really good and sounds really good. I am a Bird Now by Antony and the Johnsons still sounds fantastic. I think there are records that come out and knock everyone out for a year and then you listen to them six months later and think ‘Hmm, that’s not going to age well’ or ‘that doesn’t feel as good as it did then’. I think the records that I’ve reviewed and really like have a sense that they’re going to last. I definitely feel that way about those two albums.

It’s noticeable that a lot of the electronica which was praised to the heavens in the mid ‘90s nobody really plays any more. Do you think it’s the more melodic stuff which stands the test of time better?
I do, I do and someone like Sarah Blasko you can throw in as well, her latest album. It’s the same as when we were talking about Liberty Belle… which I put up with these albums as well. Just talking from personal experience, and also little bit as a critic, I think all these people went to make a record and were just totally consumed with what they had to say and were following something that was inside them. They weren’t looking continually over their shoulders to try and fit their record into what was going on at that particular moment. I think all these people are aware of what’s happening but are also very driven to get their songs over. You start to not be looking around so much, but you’re following your vision and I think that’s what makes these records sound fresh.

Kurt Cobain apparently said something like when they were working on Nevermind, they weren’t trying to make history, just a second record. Do you think it’s a mistake to actually set out to make a timeless record?
Yes, because I think a lot of timeless records basically come about by accident. To go further back, something like Astral Weeks by Van Morrison or Tonight’s The Night by Neil Young or even the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, a lot of these timeless records are made by artists at a point in their careers when they’ve made a lot more commercial records, or at least tried to, and for some reason they’re in some sort of fucked up situation or things have taken a turn for a worse around them and they just make a record almost out of these circumstances. I think that can often make a great record, the chemistry of the moment. They’ve just taken their eyes off the top 40 and got the songs they want the way they want to record them and it’s just… happened.

The Van Morrison and Neil Young records you mentioned were both recorded really quickly, have you ever worked like that?
Depends what you mean by really quickly. In comparison with U2 or The Flaming Lips or someone, I guess so. The Friends of Rachel Worth’ was recorded in 3 weeks, that’s pretty quick. Liberty Belle… you’re talking about four weeks. An album of mine that I like a great deal called Danger in the Past was recorded and mixed in 12 days. Going in and doing something like Astral Weeks or Blood on the Tracks, these are albums recorded in 3 days, so I think you can do that, but I haven’t ever gone in and made a live in the studio album. It may happen one day, but not at the moment.

Do you find being a critic is pushing you to listen to things you wouldn’t normally listen to?
Well, I get sent a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have got. Mainly it’s a lot more new artists, so I get to hear a lot more new music than I would normally, so I find myself doing that, which is really good.

In your book The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll one of the rules you come up with is that ‘Great bands look alike’. Do you think it’s because they have a unity of purpose or because great bands recognise that how they look is a hugely important part of who they are as a group?
That’s a really good question and a good point. I think what you said is true and also I think what happens with bands is that you spend so much time with each other that you start to look the same. Especially with successful bands you’re in the practice room together, on the aeroplane, on the bus, so you can’t help it. It’s almost like human behaviour, a psychologist could explain this. If you put four people in a house or on an island together they’d start to morph into the same person in a way. Bands that start to spend a lot of time travelling alone together, you’re in the clothes stores together, your hair all starts to look alike. I think it’s impossible to fight.

It’s not one of your rules, but you often hear the idea that rock is a young person’s game, made by and for young people. Do you that’s becoming less true now?
Well, I think it was a young person’s game in 1954, and in 1964. But now, I find it interesting, the breadth of who’s making good music is a lot wider now. And that’s good and bad. There’s part of me that would wish all the good music was being made by unbelievably talented 25 year olds, but it’s not. And that’s fine, that era is now gone.

In one of your stories, you chose ten bands you’d have loved to have been in. Are there any contemporary bands you look at and think ‘Yeah, I could slot in there’?
Oh yeah, I’d love to be in Vampire Weekend. Around the first and second albums, I’d love to have been in Franz Ferdinand. I’d love to be in Glasgow, look as good as those boys, strut around writing great songs with the world at my feet. Fantastic! So there’s two bands I’d love to be in. You know, I’d like to be in a hippy west coast band, do you know Vetiver? I’d love to be in one of those hippy, strummy, San Francisco share house, eating muesli kind of bands. Long hair, bare feet, listening to ‘70s Neil Young, growing some organic veges in the garden, i’d love it!

I can see you in Fleet Foxes…
Fleet Foxes! Oh, they’re a great band. I can definitely imagine being in Fleet Foxes and there’s part of me that likes the New York boys and the Glasgow boys as well. Any of those really, there’s three.

Lately, you’ve been producing John Steele Singers, who are also part of the Bridge concert. What’s that been like? Are you a hands-on kind of producer?
I am, but they’re a band that it’s very hard to be hands-on with. They have their own sound, they’re very determined with what they do. I produced another band called Halfway and I was a lot more into the arrangements and stuff like that with them. But John Steele Singers, apart from the enjoyment of working with them, what I really enjoyed was what I was just talking to you about, it was great to be around six guys in their mid twenties. You just pick up things they’re doing and things they talk about, the music they like. It was a lovely way of reconnecting with that world and just being a part of it.

Thanks for talking to us today…
Daniel, it was an absolute pleasure. Thanks for the questions. And keep listening to Liberty Belle…!

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Notes: The Go-Betweens are my favourite Australian band ever and this is definitely one of my favourite interviews. I initially thought of not including Forster’s final comments at the end because it seemed a bit indulgent, but I’m glad I left it in there because it shows what a gentleman he is. Not many interviewees think to thank the writer for coming up with the questions.

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

Gig review – The Flight of the Conchords, Sydney Opera House 2012

Less a regular Thursday night show and more a triumphant, agonisingly belated victory lap, New Zealand’s self-styled “fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk comedy folk duo”, The Flight of the Conchords, have finally made it to our shores. It was worth the wait. In front of a capacity crowd at Sydney’s “hat-shaped building”, the answer to their rhetorical question “Who wants to rock the party?” was pretty much everyone.

First though, the unbilled support act was FOTC collaborator and honorary Australian Arj Barker, whose ‘I just smoked some cones and now here’s some weird shit I observed’ demeanour has now been polished to slacker perfection. There’s a deceptive art to what he does, his apparently casual looseness belying his precise timing and ability to extract every ounce of humour out of even the slightest of anecdotes. Jokes about Michael Phelps smoking weed, ‘freeballing’ a solar eclipse and having corrective eye surgery may appear tossed off and almost improvised, but there’s serious polish and comedic know-how here. Taking in crowd-pleasing local references (“I’ve been doing tourist stuff. I went to see the famous 3 sisters…up in Kings Cross”, Breaking Bad impressions and recurring riffs on ‘Marley and Me’ (“Spoiler alert: the sequel is just called Me”), the themes of Barker’s set would have been fairly familiar to anyone who’s seen him before (is there anyone who hasn’t?) but he proved the ideal, crowd-pleasing appetiser for the Conchords.

Mercifully appearing straight after Barker, the Kiwis had the crowd, if not at ‘hello’, then about two lines into first song Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor, which Jermaine explains is not just a literal re-telling of their experiences, but something of an analogy: “It’s about how there are a lot of dick-like people on the dancefloor of life. If you explore its hidden meanings, you’ll be richly rewarded”. We’re then left pondering the possible metaphorical implications of Robots, the hilarity of which is added to by the pair’s cardboard robot heads which leave those side of stage basically watching the side of a box. “They’re getting a very different show up there” Brett observes, dryly.

One of the triumphs of their instant-classic show was how the duo seamlessly transitioned from the all-conquering musical chameleons of the musical interludes to the uber-gormless, provincial naifs who bumbled through the storylines, forever confused by their big city surrounds. So it is tonight, with the pair skilfully skewering every genre from lovers rock and folk balladry to futuristic glam rock and then basically reverting to their hapless personas between songs. New Zealand’s image as a backwater is played up throughout, with the ‘New Zealand Symphony orchestra’, consisting of a single member called Nigel joining the pair for most of the set.

The focus throughout, however, is firmly on Brett and Jermaine. Unlike many comedy pairings, there’s no straight man here, no half of the duo that’s a bit smarter or a little more worldly. Both are equally out of their depth at all times, a dynamic beautifully explored on the hilarious We’re Both in Love with a Sexy Lady and the not-quite-gangster rap Hurt Feelings. The banter between them is priceless, not least when they negotiate with the lighting desk for an appropriate backdrop to one song: “Can we have something that’s like the smell of heather and the woods?” Brett asks. “I think they mainly just do colours, Brett” Jermaine deadpans.

The straight-faced absurdity of The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room and Inner City Pressure keep the laughs coming, and their deadpan banter between songs is almost as amusing. There are hilariously stilted non-anecdotes about getting free muffins in a hotel (“complementary means free. The muffins weren’t flattering me” explains Brett), getting stuck in a lift and a truly ridiculous gag involving misuse of a fish where we have to wait until the end of the show to hear the pay-off.

In many ways it was a night of firsts. It was surely the first time anyone has led the Opera House Concert Hall in a mass sing-a-long about epileptic dogs, and almost definitely the only time a song featuring the phrase “David Bowie’s nipple antennae” has graced the venue. There were also some newer songs to complement the favourites we’ve all long since memorised, including the mock-heroic Summer of 1353 which recounts the difficulties of wooing in the 14th century, and the typically ludicrous Fuck on the Ceiling, which takes them a few goes to get through.

Most comedy rock has a limited shelf life, but the Conchords’ songs were always better than novelty numbers. You get the impression they could have carved out a successful career in any number of straight musical guises, but that they decided this was way more fun. Having had the good grace to end their TV show before it risked getting stale, this unlikely cultural phenomenon shows no signs of coming to an end, and by the time they get to the last song, a roof-raising Sugalumps, you’re already hoping their return visit comes around quite a bit sooner. I missed favourites like Hiphopopotamus v Rhymenoceros and If You’re Into It, but maybe next time. Otherwise this was a joyous, faultless Australian debut. They have no peers.

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Tegan and Sara, Sydney Opera House, 26th April 2013

DANIEL HERBORN gets a taste of TEGAN AND SARA’s new pop stylings at the Sydney Opera House.

In most walks of life maturity is a good quality, but for pop bands it can often be a kiss of death. It’s a trap Tegan and Sara have sidestepped on their latest record ‘Hearthrob’, which instead of “maturity” opts for a slick pop aesthetic that seems made for shopping malls and sized for arenas. It’s big, fun and unabashedly pop – a record clearly unconcerned with the vague yet powerful notion of indie credibility. A decade and a half into their career, they’re producing their most youthful sounding music in years.

While an obvious stylistic departure from previous work which sometimes saw them pegged as indie folk or pop-punk, the melodrama of chart pop has always been a feature of what they do – the setlist on a previous tour featured a cover of Rihanna’s top 40 masterpiece ‘Umbrella’. The new synth-heavy, ‘80s-referencing stuff is perhaps too easy to dismiss on first listen as a collection of shiny but shallow pop baubles. However, Hearthrobtracks ‘Goodbye, Goodbye’ and ‘I Couldn’t Be Your Friend’, which both feature early in the set, show a depth and emotional complexity that establishes Robyn as the best reference point.

The audience at tonight’s Sydney Opera House performance skews young, but it’s probably the older songs that get the most enthusiastic response; the intricate and urgent ‘The Con’ and the terrific ‘Back In Your Head’ being greeted warmly. ‘Alligator’ demonstrates their knack of writing seemingly simple songs with awesome staying power and ‘Walking With a Ghost’ retains all its raw-boned energy and vitality.

Always a chatty band, much of their conversation tonight ends up circling back to the weird and fascinating theme of fandom, with hilarious, self-effacing anecdotes about meeting their teen idols (Billy Corgan) and slightly less credible pre-teen pop crushes (The New Kids on The Block), and being disappointed that the experience didn’t amount to much.

One of the reasons Tegan and Sara have such a loyal fanbase is their charm and honesty, a sense of openness and a habit of peppering every show with self-deprecating tales of their unglamorous lives on the road. Whether they’re passionately advocating for marriage equality, discussing the embarrassing tourist photos they took at the Sydney Opera House on previous tours, or wondering out loud whether they can just go ahead and tweet Billy Corgan now, they’re the most likeable of bands.

They’re now in the strange position where fans meet them and feel as overwhelmed and emotional as they did meeting their heroes. At one point Sara mentions how she senses everyone in the audience are lovely, genuine people, but that she could be “off” with this feeling and we could actually be “a bunch of dickbags”. It’s a funny moment, but also a telling one. As if to underline the uneasy dynamic that can exist between a band and its hardcore fans, they later have to tell one such fan – who says she has flown all the way from Ireland to be here and wants a hug – to move away from the front of stage.

The bigger fanbase brings with it bigger venues though, and they seem both proud and self-conscious about bringing their pop songs into the rarified surrounds of the Opera House. At one point Sara comes out with the theory that an Opera House gig is like a wedding, where the guests initially feel stifled by their formal surroundings before eventually kicking back into drunken party mode. The atmosphere has definitely tilted towards the club by the back end of the set, which takes in the slick but thoughtful ‘I’m Not Your Hero’, the windblown epic ballad ‘Now I’m All Messed Up’ and ‘Closer’, an irresistibly silly, fizzy dance pop song reminiscent of Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’.

After joking about the inevitability of an encore and the silliness involved in the charade of going off stage, they deliver the crowd-pleasing ‘Nineteen’, a song with lyrics as naked and plainly emotional as a teenage diary entry: “Flew back home to where we met / Stayed inside I was so upset”. It’s apparently the song fans are most likely to be seen crying to, which is perhaps unsurprising. It’s not their most sophisticated song, but it’s still their best. After this highpoint, a version of ‘Feel It In My Bones’, their underwhelming collaboration with trance megastar Tiesto, seems something of an anti-climax, but it doesn’t detract from the general mood of euphoria.

After a string of consistently strong albums that worked as variations on a theme, Tegan and Sara have changed things up with a shiny new pop makeover, finding themselves in an interesting and slightly awkward stage of their career. With ‘Hearthrob’ they’ve aimed bigger than before, but managed to retain what made them special. They’ve embraced a wider audience and find it embracing them back. But like a hug from a stranger, it’s equal parts warm and weird.

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Blondie & The Stranglers, Enmore Theatre, 6th December 2012

DANIEL HERBORN discovers that The Stranglers still have it and punk legends Blondie wouldn’t ever do anything as uncool as pandering to what their audience wants.

You know you’ve got some pulling power when your support band has 23 Top 40 singles. That’s the UK track record of The Stranglers, who rose to fame (or more accurately, infamy) during the punk explosion. Influenced by that movement’s energy and spite without ever neatly fitting into it, The Stranglers were initially dismissed as bandwagon jumpers and misogynist yobs, yet their music has proven strangely enduring and its sense of strangeness remains undimmed.

Featuring a 74-year-old drummer and a ring-in lead singer, The Stranglers circa 2012 may be rubbish on paper, but they are dynamite in reality. Dressed all in black, like a uniform, they are a purposeful unit and Baz Warne makes a menacing, more than capable replacement for the original but long-departed frontman Hugh Cornwell.

The greatest hits set takes in the surging nostalgia of 1986 hit ‘Always The Sun’, a paranoid, clattering version of the controversial ‘Peaches’ and a funeral-march paced, pitch black cover of ‘Walk On By’.

A rare detour into new material comes in the form of ‘Mercury Rising’ which is a strong addition to their canon, featuring an almost spoken-word rave from Warne and some howling guitar work. They’re soon back to the classics though with ‘Golden Brown’, its instantly memorable harpsichord hook and haunting, lysergic rhythm making for a hypnotising highlight. Most bands never write a song this good.

In a tight, filler-free set their cover of The Kinks’ ‘All Day and All of the Night’ stands tall, before the title track of their best album ‘No More Heroes’ brings their set to a triumphant finish.

Recently Blondie’s Clem Burke told FL that “we were almost the perfect band”, a statement that at once seems outlandish, melancholy and difficult to refute. That sense of past perfection hangs over tonight’s set, in which the towering pop highlights and ongoing star power of Debbie Harry are the dominant themes.

Dressed in three-quarter length red pants, with a gold jacket, glitter-skull belt buckle and red-tinted ponytail, Debbie Harry looks equal parts glamorous and ridiculous, still every bit a rock star. For the first few songs, which include a raucously received ‘Hanging On The Telephone’, the delirium is such that it’s almost irrelevant what they sound like, the experience of being at a Blondie show being more important to a mainly middle-aged, often drunk audience hungry for nostalgia and familiarity.

“At one point Harry whips her sunglasses off, a gesture that gets a bigger response than some of the new songs. ”

Harry’s voice is still as refreshing and clear as cool water and she remains a charismatic figure. When a friend asks me a few songs in about Burke’s drum shield, I realise that I haven’t actually looked at the drummer, or any of the other members of the band at all, such is the dominance of Harry. At one point she whips her sunglasses off, a gesture that gets a bigger response than some of the new songs. Later, she hides at the back of the stage, apparently to let the others have a much-deserved share of the spotlight.

When the initial excitement wears off, new songs like ‘D-Day’ and ‘Wipe Off My Sweat’ prove to be perfectly serviceable pieces of dance pop, but fail to elicit much of a response. ‘What I Heard’- another track from last year’s largely ignored Panic of Girls – has a cruisy disco feel. It’s fine, but again finds the band at odds with its audience.

‘The Tide Is High’ fares better, a kind of easy listening reggae torch tune- virtually unknown in the pop world until Blondie covered it – it’s a shining example of a band making a song their own. ‘Atomic’, meanwhile, is huge and ‘Call Me’, featuring some choice keytar action, pulses with energy.

The strange pop of ‘Mother’ segues into an unlikely, but winning version of the Beastie Boys’ classic ‘No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn’, before the encore begins with a solid (if inessential) cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’. The endpoint and pinnacle is of course, ‘Heart of Glass’. A completely perfect slice of pop and a sunny, detached ode to romantic indifference (how many other pop songs have ever shrugged off infatuation as “a pain in the ass”?) Bringing a close to this uneven but enjoyable show, it’s a reminder that Blondie wouldn’t ever do anything as uncool as pandering to what their audience wants.

Originally appeared in: FasterLouder