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: 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