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 – 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: 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 – Martha Wainwright @ Sydney Opera House (2013)

“The reviews could have been so good” Martha Wainwright mock-sighs at one point, during one of her lengthy digressions before a cover by one of her songwriting inspirations, Nick Cave. She needn’t have worried – the tune is ‘The Ship Song’ and it’s a suitably dramatic version, finding depths of emotion in the sweeping, hymnal melody.

As an interpreter, she is sublime – capable of shifting gears from a gutsy, soulful bellow to a delicate rasping whisper, but there’s also some affecting tunes in her catalogue, many tonight plucked from last year’s instantly enjoyable though somewhat overlooked ‘Come Home To Mama’.

Those songs include ‘Four Black Sheep’ and ‘I Am Sorry’, both which showcase her vocal gymnastics, injecting real energy and drama to songs which could come across as tasteful rather than exciting in lesser hands.

As well as her voice, her other stock in trade is bracing honesty. It’s no coincidence she appears artfully nude on the album’s cover – naked emotion is the album’s dominating mood. Older favourites like the confessional ‘Bleeding All Over You’ and ‘Factory’ go down a storm, the latter complemented by backing vocals from touring partner Bryter Later.

There’s a mid-set interlude featuring a single song by Bryter Later, who don’t appear in their own right tonight due to the venue’s policy of not having support acts.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a band who take their name for a Nick Drake album, the duo deal in a hushed, gently pretty brand of folk.

Having given her peers a chance to shine, Wainwright returns in a new outfit, a ‘Come Home to Mama’ T-shirt (“gotta move some of the merch”) and jeans, having changed out of a tight dress she quips made her look “like a sausage”. More oversharing follows, as she explains the inspiration about her “song about male genitalia”, ‘Ball And Chain’.

Subject matter aside, it’s a real family affair tonight, with husband Brad Albetta on bass. The dynamic between them is a joy to watch with Albetta giving knowing looks and resigned shrugs at her more outlandish moments. There’s even a charming appearance from their young son, who apparently demands to come onto stage every night by chanting the words ‘stage’ insistently. “I’ve got to get him to hang around with some doctors and lawyers” she sighs.

Then there’s ‘Radio Star’, a song that she explains was partly inspired by artistic jealousy at brother Rufus’ ability to write danceable songs and partly by seeing Melancholia, Lars Von Trier’s film about a planet crashing into earth and bringing an end to human life. It’s a confusing mix of influences sure, but makes for a memorable song in this case.

There’s also a couple of tracks from a former project where Wainwright tackled the Edith Piaf songbook, and despite her familiarity with the works, she has a sheet music in place on a stand in front of her. “These songs just have too many words. They’re not about me so I can’t remember them” she deadpans. She also gives a lengthy explanation of the story of ‘L’accordioniste’ which is arguably as entertaining as the song itself.

The set winds to an end with the nuanced emotion of ‘All Your Clothes’, inspired by her grief at the passing of her mother, acclaimed folkie Kate McGarrigle. She ends the set proper with a disarmingly beautiful reading of ‘Proserpina’ which McGarrigle wrote, its simple refrain of ‘Come Home To Mama’ having added poignancy in this context.

In the encore, she takes on the old chestnut ‘Stormy Weather’ and ends up lying on the floor in a kind of gentle mocking of the tortured artist. “I should really take myself more seriously” she says, but of course her withering self deprecation and irreverence are all part of the charm. Finally, she plays her best known song, ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ to rapturous applause. No need to worry about this review – a great show, with spirit and personality to burn.

Gig review – 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