Archive for March, 2012

Brown, it’s all brown. Brown, orange, mustard, gold ochre. Earth tones – the album artwork is all earth tones; nostalgic, warm and earthy 1970s earth tones.

But in this case, to paraphrase another popular 1970s signifier, Brown is (definitely) BeautifulMichael Kiwanuka’s debut album, Home Again, is earthy, rich and fertile all the way through. Even its title, Home Again, has a golden-hazed loveliness about it. The 24 year old UK singer-songwriter’s voice is deep brown too – the brown of chocolate, cocoa, old wood, long-loved leather. You could climb into the gnarled arms of this album and look down on the silly-speeding world, protected by the haze of an eternal late-Autumn afternoon.

Kiwanuka was one of UK mag MOJO’s artists to watch in 2012. And while MOJO often tends to get a little hot and bothered over anything that remotely whiffs of the fragrant 70s, their taste is, in the main, pretty impeccable. It is understandable that they went for Michael Kiwanuka – this album could easily have been the singer-songwriter hit of 1971, ranked alongside Carole King’s Tapestry or Jackson Browne.

I personally hear it as in the groove of Sixto Rodriguez’s Cold Fact or Donny Hathaway before the hits – an urbane and urban (urban in the original sense, before hip-hop urban) masterpiece of soul-folk with one sandal in the street and the other in the garden. Like Rodriguez, Michael Kiwanuka’s voice seems the voice of experience, not bitter, just full and knowing. Its old-wood and sepia timbre lends each song a lot of weight, and they are heavy songs to begin with.

Opener ‘Tell Me A Tale’ is a jazz groove, but a la Astral Weeks – open and flowing, complete with brass, flutes and a gnashing tenor sax solo by Gary Plumley over the coda. Very lush, very full, none of the album seems over-produced. Producer Paul Butler has gone for a gorgeous, chart-friendly sound in the full knowledge that Kiwanuka’s songwriting and delivery will always keep the material deep and real.

From ‘Tell Me A Tale’ the album drops down a gear or two, and stays there – Home Again unfolds at its own pace, the main focus being to frame Kiwanuka’s ochre voice and deep-rooted songs – the Paul Simon-like shuffle of ‘I’m Getting Ready’, the country-blues of ‘Rest’, the lovely finger-picked title track, ‘Home Again’. 

‘Bones’ has a strangely distant sound about it – distant in both space and time – when I listened to this haunted ballroom tune I felt like I had dropped the needle on a scratchy Sam Cooke 45 unearthed from a garage sale. Quite gorgeous, topped off by the touching and humble line ‘Without you I’m just bones…’

By the time I arrived at the closing track, the minor blues ‘Worry Walks Beside Me’ I realized that Home Again – like Back to Black or even Adele’s 21 – is not a nostalgia trip; it just doesn’t seem to give two shits about the current way music is made (whatever that may be). Like those two monster albums it deserves to be a significant and enduring hit. And like poor Amy and rich sweet Adele, Michael Kiwanuka has a voice that is of the ages, unforgettable.

Published March 2012 on

I was late for Krystle Warren and it was one of those kick-my-own-arse moments. The lady is really quite the intense woman artist – a lot of Odetta soul and sanctimony, leavened out with just enough Roberta Flack L.O.V.E. – no, that’s wrong: Krystle Warren is Krystle Warren and completely Krystle Warren. When I got there she had abandoned the mic and unplugged her guitar to bring it all down to acoustic level. She was working the room, moving amongst the diners’ tables, conducting the Basement crowd in a sweet, gospel three-part harmony which she moaned and blues-preached over. My kind of Church! – I will watch out for Krystle Warren in the future. So should you.

Eric Bibb’s big smile seemed to hit the stage before he did – that New-York-via-New-Orleans Cheshire Cat grin is as unmistakable as Bibb’s flip-brimmed hat. It’s a big smile, attached to a big man with a big heart and a lot of Soul. Anyone who has followed the roots revival of the late 20th Century to now knows this of Bibb – one of the most authentic country-blues voices in a genre that over flows with its share of the truly authentic and the merely “authentic”.

He introduced his foil and accompanist, Swedish Telecaster master Staffan Astner and the two men got to work. ‘Shingle by Shingle’ was the perfect opener – it was pure and simple Bibb: a workaday lyric simply linked to daily struggles and triumphs. Folk-blues at it best – a world away from clever-clever poetic conceits or arty straining. This is music like nature; like water in a stream or leaves blowing in the wind. Predictable, eternal.

By the end of the song we were all in Bibb’s world – maybe a world of days past, maybe a world that still exists under the noise and electronic chatter of  life today. His beautifully evocative song of the 1927 Mississippi floods – which he dedicated to the victims of our Eastern States’ recent deluges – told one story. ‘Sinner Man’ – a song his father had taught him – told another. Great chuggin’ blues such as ‘Tell Riley’ or country blues such as ‘Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad’ told of yet other real happinesses and real sads.

A word needs to be said about Staffan Astner. Armed with a Fender Telecaster and a small amp, Astner conjured whining woman, singing wind, soughing riverbank and ragged street choir to Bibb’s acoustic and voice. His playing was transparent and background – needling, embroidering, gilding – until Bibb stepped back and let him go. Whether bristling Nashville-style chicken-pickin’ or SRV-Texas blues bite, Astner delivered and delivered. His playing caused Bibb to whoop and grin (even wider) and exclaim “He’s HOT tonite!” (Also, a word needs to be said about the Fender Telecaster guitar itself – one of the iconic electric guitars of the rock age, and one of the simplest – and in the hands of a humble virtuoso such as Staffan Astner, one of the most exciting and expressive…)

Bibb held the audience with nothing but a simple message and his obvious joy in this music. He dedicated a song to a young couple in the Basement crowd who were celebrating their first anniversary; the song was ‘Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down’, an ancient message to young love. All around me, people – young old bankers musos wild cool men women – were charmed and uplifted by Bibb. And we all walked out with a little more spirit than we had walked in with that humid Sydney night.

Photos by Katja Liebing. Check out Katja Liebing’s great shots of Eric’s gig here

Published March 2012 on

The true artists of modernism make very much out of very little. In fact, many of the greatest have shaken the world with a handful of slight elements – in music: Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Black Sabbath and James Brown come to mind.

In 1971 Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger formed the band NEU! in Germany. Their musical philosophy and mission statement was to make a new music from the barest elements repeated until the idea was exhausted (a philosophy mirrored in the minimalist art music of the time and also in the visual arts). A way into this music was to expunge all traces of American rock, pop and blues influences from the performances.

On paper it looks frigid, inhuman and flavourless. In reality – in the hands of Rother and Dinger, with help and guidance from engineer Conny Plank – the music of NEU! (and Rother’s bands – such as Harmonia – and solo works that followed) contain some of the most uplifting, noble and achingly beautiful music of the late 20th/early 21st century. It is the musical path that lead to David Bowie’s “Heroes” and its tremors can still be heard today across all modern rock music.

Sydney was treated to an historical team-up for Michael Rother’s show at the Oxford Art Factory on Saturday night. Performing with Rother on the night was his Harmonia cohort, Dieter Möebius and on electric drums, Hans Lampe who played drums with NEU! in 1975. But this was not just an historical event –  the trio’s music sounded as sharp as tomorrow and full of power and surprise. And ecstatic beauty.

Before a large rectangular projection of pale olive and lime green blurs (a colour-shifted wheatfield swam in and out of focus) Rother would begin a groove or a vibe with a few notes; he would be joined by Möebius who would give further shape to Rother’s ideas as they built. The music would swim in and out of aural vision until Lampe started the motorik beat, and the whole thing would move forward, as if down a dot-lit highway in some European night.

Not enough can be said of the effect of the ‘motorik’ (trans: ’motor skill’) beat. It was perhaps one of the greatest aescetic thrills of NEU!’s 1971 debut, as heralded by the opening piece ‘Hallogallo’. A flat, straight eighth-note beat with backbeat on 2 and 4 of the bar, it does not vary in tempo or dynamic, rarely even utilising fills, and when there are fills, they are just more eighth-notes played across the toms. It is a perfect beat for rock and roll – see Maureen Tucker’s American take on motorik on the Velvet Underground’s early albums – primitive and modern all in one. Because it rarely varies it implies man-as-machine, but, as with everything about this music, it is deceptively funky. When Hans Lampe got going, every head in the place was bobbing to his motorik groove.

When I spoke with Michael for The Orange Press back in February ( and we discussed his upcoming Australian shows and he said that “There was no chance to rehearse, but I know exactly what Dieter Möebius is capable of creating on the spot. So I am preparing the ‘backbone’ of the music, and I rely on Dieter adding special colours and spices to the music – that’s what he’s really great at: he can pick up the situation and come up with crazy ideas. I look forward to that experiment very much.”

With such an improvisational aspect to the music, it was even more surprising that it came together so seamlessly and with so much – dare I say it? – soul. As I looked around me at the height of the trio’s hurtling and thudding musical enmeshments, I saw many listeners bobbing their heads in time to the 8/8 beat, eyes closed, off in a world of their own.

And I asked myself: how can a music so devoid of harmony, so stripped of any syncopation or sophisticated rhythm, with melodies that are often flat and astonishly spare… how can that music conjure such feeling and high emotion? How can such bareness be so beautiful? Like so much contemporary art, this music gives the listener only part of the picture, often hazy suggestions, sometimes barely anything – we fill in the voids from the puzzle pieces of our own minds and experience. This is not any sort of explanation: the music is of course still utterly magical.

It is a magic road that rock music has gone down for 40 years now and it stretches out into the mapless future. To be taken for a ride by Michael Rother, Dieter Möebius et al was more than a thrill – after all, these men laid the diamond stones of that very road.

Published March 2012 on

The dislocation of space and time has always been a big part of the character, and attraction, of progressive – or PROG – rock. From the 70s prog of Hawkwind, Genesis and Pink Floyd to the more current prog-metal works of Dream Theatre and The Porcupine Tree, the best have always taken the listener away to a place and time far far away.

So it is no surprise that one of the strongest albums of the genre I have heard in a while comes not from London 1970 or Los Angeles 1990 but from Brisbane, Australia in the year 2012 AD. Yet Ben Craven’s Great & Terrible Potions – entirely written, performed and recorded by the artist – is no touching but provincial attempt at the genre. The album nails it down from every angle.

Great & Terrible Potions has garnered comments from no less than Van Dyke Parks, Brian Wilson’s lyricist on Smile (a touchstone for any experimental or wide-minded musician) who called the album “seriously well-distilled and blended”PROG ROCK magazine (one of the UK’s Classic Rock stable) included the album track ‘No Specific Harm’ on their Prognosis 2.2 cover-mount CD, distributed internationally.

Nice words have also been earned from many international music – progressive, rock and pop – publications: Anil Prasad’s Innerviews calls Ben Craven a “heavy-duty prog-rock monster” while The Midwest Record refers to him as a “prog-rock Todd Rundgren hiding out in Australia”.

Sorry Midwest, but Ben Craven isn’t hiding out anywhere – he just might single handedly turn Brisbane into a prog-rock lighthouse, as The Saints did with punk and the Go-Betweens did with mod pop. (It must be something in the water).

Craven sets out his stall early on Great & Terrible Potions – the overture (yes! every great prog album needs an overture) that is ‘Diabolique’ opens with the surrealistic SFX couplet of an ancient door creaking open – the same door will slam shut at the end of the album – and an oldschool telephone ringing. This is followed by a repeated 5/8 piano arpeggio that could be from Mike Oldfield’s 1973 ambient masterpiece Tubular Bells, which then leads into an orchestral riff, complete with crunching bass which has to be a nod to the genre’s bass baron, YES’s Chris Squire. Some knockout Rick Wakeman-esque Hammond riffs and smears and heavy guitar’n’drums á la Dream Theatre’s John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy and our 2:27 mini prog-rock history lesson is over – and we are firmly in Ben Craven’s world.

And this is what I particularly enjoy about the album – the mix of original progressive rock flavours (Yes, Gentle Giant) and prog-metal muscle (Opeth, Symphony X) is so nicely balanced. This is definitely a 2012 album but would satisfy any lover of 70s progressive music (the era before the term was truncated to PROG). Craven’s pop smarts – face it, all the greats, no matter how far-out, always hooked us with a hook, before throwing us back into the Topographic Oceans to fend for ourselves among the time-signature weeds – together with his Swiss Army Knife musicianship make this album a delight on a number of levels.

The tracks fade/segue into each other, which together with the overture gives Great & Terrible Potions a suite-like feel. ‘Nobody Dies Forever’ is divided into two parts, split by five tracks. The instrumentals – the lush ‘Aquamarine’, the lovely ‘The Conjurer’ (dedicated to late Floyd keysman, Richard Wright, whose ‘Great Gig In the Sky’ is recalled by the piece’s major-minor melancholy) and the impeccably recorded acoustic guitar chamber-piece ‘Solace’ – divide and relieve the album’s dense, orchestral songs.

The almost pop ‘Ready To Lose’, with it’s gorgeous organ line and intriguing philosophy is balanced by the Arabic frenzy of ‘No Specific Harm’ (like Led Zeppelin jamming on Tatooine…). But the magnus opus (‘magnum’ and ‘opus’ are words that any critique of progressive rock is just begging for) is the title track ‘Great & Terrible Potions’. A nine-minute-plus sonic trip, the track has a spacey Alice in Wonderland carnival waltz vibe that pulls you willingly down the Rabbit Hole. Equating self-determination with the great and terrible potions – opportunity, will, chance – we choose to embrace or ignore in life with an Alice-like adventure, Craven leaves us completely sated musically, but with something to think about.

Listen to this album on headphones at the highest quality you can – there is talk of a vinyl limited-edition release soon – and run your eyes across the Roger Dean designed cover art. However fragrant your mental state is or is not at the beginning, no matter – by the end you will be in another place and another time. And it won’t be Brisbane.


The OrangePress put some questions to Ben Craven recently. Here are his responses:

1. Your new CD ‘Great and Terrible Potions’ is entirely performed, written and recorded by you without any other musicians. Why did you prefer to work this way?

It’s not that I necessarily prefer to work that way, but it’s the only way I could have made this album. These songs have been buzzing around in my head for a long time. Years, in fact. So I had very clear ideas about the arrangements and how I wanted them to sound. By the time I’d figured out all the parts, I’d already learnt to play them so most of the hard work was done. And I’m sure you can imagine this is not the sort of album you’d record in a hurry, so it made sense to do it, slowly, in my own studio.

Interestingly enough, I’m rehearsing these songs now in a 3-piece configuration, and the arrangements are entirely different. They’re getting a complete makeover so they’re physically possible to play live in a band. But when I make an album, the sonic palette has no limits and anything is possible. Usually I have enough trouble trying to sort through and cram in all my own ideas, let alone anyone else’s!

2. Why does a young musician decide to invest so much time and expense in a musical genre as boutique as progressive rock?

Poor planning and poor market research!

No, I didn’t set out consciously to make Great & Terrible Potions a prog rock album. The songs just took their course and the arrangements came about naturally. Great & Terrible Potions is an honest snapshot of where I’m at musically when I just let things happen. “Progressive rock” is a term that other people have used to describe my music, after the fact. But I’m incredibly grateful for that because up to that point I had no idea how to describe it to anyone. Prog rock is the genre that chose me and I’m only too happy to embrace it.

3. I can hear flavours of many great prog-rock artists in your music. Who have been the most inspiring influences?

Pink Floyd and Yes are pretty major influences. Beyond the awesomeness of their actual music, there are all sorts of lessons they’ve taught me. For example, the struggle for dominance between lyrics and instrumentation, the power of a name, and the fact that you can’t please everybody all of the time! Mike Oldfield is also a huge inspiration, especially his orchestral approach to making music and his skill as a multi-instrumentalist. Of course everybody does it now, but when he played all the parts on his albums himself it was something to behold.

On the other side of the coin, the great film soundtrack composers like John Williams, John Barry and Bernard Herrmann are incredibly influential. Their ability to take the classical form and popularise it as an instantly memorable theme is something I’m in awe of. I’ve been trying on the soundtrack hat a little bit lately, especially on songs like ‘No Specific Harm’ and the album’s title track.

One big surprise for me is the list of prog rock artists that reviewers have been citing as obvious influences on this album. A few names keep popping up, and I don’t want to mention who they are because I’d be embarrassed to admit I haven’t heard them yet. But I’m scared to start listening to them now, just in case I start second-guessing my own writing.

4. The track ‘The Conjurer’ is dedicated to Pink Floyd keysman Richard Wright who passed away in 2008. Has he been a particular influence on you?

Rick Wright is extraordinary because he managed to shine in a band which featured, arguably, not only the greatest guitar player in the world, but also the greatest lyricist and conceptualist in the world. Yet Rick somehow worked unconsciously, and almost made his absence known more clearly than his presence. If he wasn’t there, something was missing. He didn’t need to be flashy but he had the knack of choosing just the right notes at the right time.

When I was writing ‘The Conjurer’, I was vaguely aware of the significance of the gently plodding piano part and the dreamy slide guitar. It took me a long time to find the courage to leave it as an instrumental piece. I think I managed to come up with a title that described both the music, and one of its biggest influences.

5. Your album artwork and title lettering was created by Roger Dean, perhaps the most famous graphic artist of the progressive golden age of the 70s. How did his involvement come about?

As the album got close to completion, I started letting a few people listen to it. A particular friend of mine loved it, recognised it for the prog rock album that it was, and suggested that a Roger Dean cover would be a perfect combination for the music. Naturally I agreed with him, but knew it would be impossible. Unbeknownst to me, he was actually friends with Roger! So we contacted him, sent him a demo, one thing led to another, and now I find myself in this completely surreal situation of having Roger Dean artwork associated with my album.

I’ve had a few people not-so-subtly demanding a vinyl version of Great & Terrible Potions. Luckily it just so happens that Roger also designed a gatefold vinyl sleeve, and I’m expecting a shipment of LPs turning up at my door any day now.

6. What are your thoughts on the state of music in 2012 and how do you feel progressive rock fits into it all?

The music industry in 2012 is a massively complicated beast and you’d be a fool to be involved in it for any reason other than blind passion.

The most frustrating thing for me is that I know there’s great music still being made out there, but its increasingly difficult to find. Some of my greatest discoveries have been by chance. The major record companies still own commercial radio, and purport to represent the mainstream. Yet music genres and audiences are fragmenting, and it’s arguable whether there really is a mainstream anymore. Boutique genres – like prog – are suddenly becoming viable.

Prog might not have a huge audience in Australia at this time, but Potions has been received incredibly warmly in areas like Europe where the audience is big enough to dedicate entire magazines only to prog. It’s not a dirty word anymore. But I’m sure it will never again reach the dizzying heights of popularity it enjoyed in the 1970s, which is probably just as well. Once something becomes that popular, there’s only one direction it can go.

Published March 2012 on

In an age where we really don’t feel we can trust our senses anymore – Photoshop tricks our eyes, Pro-Tools and AutoTune bamboozle our ears – it is no surprise that music fans are turning to more acoustic, rootsier forms of music for a thrill that can only be enjoyed first hand. The less production steps between the musician’s instrument and our minds/hearts, often the better. The recent resurgence of Gadjo (or Manouche) music – Gypsy Jazz, mon ami! ­– is one example where intimacy and immediacy pay off in spades, emotionally and viscerally.

The trade-off of course is that there is little or no studio retouching required or even desired – the artist has to get it right, in the moment, to capture all the charm and life in the music as it rushes by. And with a music as technicially demanding and virtuosic as Manouche Jazz it is a rare artist that can pull it off with a (gallic) smile on his face.

Sydney’s Gadjo Guitars feature well-known Sydney virtuoso Nigel Date who has made jaws drop for a while now whenever he plays a solo or duo show. Nigel is joined by Jose Zarb and Cameron Jones – all three playing the peculiar wide-mouth manouche guitar. Their debut album is called L’Amour En Douce and it is a gem, containing all the charm and artistry that this French form of jazz is known for.

The towering figure of Manouche Jazz (and French jazz in general) is Django Reinhardt – an illiterate gypsy with a damaged fretting hand who made everyone who ever heard him sit up and take notice. The GGs open with Django’s ‘Douche Ambience’ and pepper the repetoire with his classics – ‘Nuages’, ‘Djangology’ and a particularly spry take on Django’s ‘Dinette’. Standards such as ‘Le Feuilles Mortes’ (known outside of Montmartre cafés as ‘Autumn Leaves’) and ‘Summertime’ are there but tastily arranged and used as musical material for the three guitarists to have some good Gadjo fun with.

What Stan Valacos and Nigel Date’s production has got so right with this is they have retained a very ‘live’ feeling to the performances. Each of the cuts feels nice and immediate – string squeaks, a couple of almost-flubbed notes and some slightly ragged endings are all included. Over-production such as reverb and extensive EQ or compression are eschewed in favour of immediacy. The vibe very much reminds me of The Pizza Tapes of a few years back – the LP The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia made with bluegrass buddies Dave Grisman and Tony Rice. A very different style but just the same afternoon haze – three friends getting together to make some music; it could be in your lounge room.

The rhythm-guitars chop away with a grinning swing as the melodies and solos are passed around between Date, Zarb and Jones. The whole thing has a real feeling of joie d’vivre to it. This music is irresistible and holds enough dazzling virtuosic runs and effects – check out the chiming harmonics in Django’s ‘Sweet Chorus’ – to keep the guitar-freaks out there happy (and practicing). I know I am.

L’Amour En Douce is available through the Gadjo Guitars’ website

Published March 2012 on

The last time I saw the remarkable duo called TonksGreen – multi-instrumentalists Matt Tonks and Syd Green – perform I thought they sounded like five people. Their Heavy Yen project is five people, but now they sound like ten, sometimes twenty.

The addition of vocalist/guitarist Bridie O’Brien, vocalist/cellist Kate Adams and fretless bassist Richard ‘Bongo’ Davidson to the already cinematic TonksGreen sound has yielded an album – Heavy Yen – of widescreen, atmospheric rootsiness. By turns both wonderfully large and sweetly small – big and open, or intimately whispered – this great collection of songs was cooked up over four months in a country farmhouse near Bowral. The quintet of friends and collaborators wrote, arranged and recorded everything here, surrounded by trees, marsh and mist – and you can hear it.

Tonks and Green brought song ideas to this five-person kibbutz and they were developed organically by all concerned over time. Eight of the nine songs on Heavy Yen were written by Matt Tonks (with lyrics on the shimmering ‘Patterson’s Curse’ by Bridie O’Brien). And time seems to have been as much a musical ingredient as melody, rhythm and groove – the shortest tune is three-and-a-half minutes and the longest almost six, each song taking its own time to build, unfurl or circle back.

The only cover here is Peter Gabriel’s ‘Digging In The Dirt’ rearranged away from electro-throb of Gabriel’s original towards a more rolling, winding feel, wrapped in vines of fingerpicked guitar. The cello passages on ‘Digging In The Dirt’ have an astonishing effect, widening the music suddenly as if a window has been thrown open on a view of fields and clouds. The cello, across the whole album is by turns sighing string section, throbbing ostinato or stabbing jabs.

In fact, the collective uses every music-making thing at their disposal to great effect throughout – at their fingertips they have voices, lap steel, dobro, acoustic and electric/acoustic guitars, cello, ukelele, mandolin, bass, drums and percussion.

The massed voices that open and close the melancholy ‘Mary’s Bells’ are reminiscent of the ethereal Beach Boys’ most spiritual harmonies. The use of Bridie O’Brien’s highly distinctive voice, harmonising, singing passages, weaving in and out of Matt Tonks’ lead vocal filigrees the music like fine gold thread through rougher fabric.

Richard Davidson’s bass adds a jazzy suppleness here and there amongst the acoustic guitars and slapped brushes – his fretless opens the album at the beginning of ‘Till The Money Runs Out’. The driving bass of the harrowing ‘Candid’ – with its repeated refrain of ‘This time you’ve gone too far…’ –reminded me of Danny Thompson’s double bass with the UK folk-jazz group The Pentangle.

It is these touches that snatch this music away from the skeletal sea-hag grip of the folk-roots purists and give it back to all of us. TonksGreen have always been pretty much unclassifiable – melding celtic folk, flamenco, blues and rock’n’roll (even surf music) with an open-eyed awareness of today’s music as well as yesterday’s. With the additional talents that they have now fused with to create Heavy Yen they have stirred jazz, country and classical music flavours into the heavy, heady brew. The Heavy Yen album points the way to an exciting journey – a trip I can wholly recommend.

Heavy Yen is released  18th March and is available from the Mononest website –

Heavy Yen will be performing at the Blue Mountains Folk Festival on the 17th and 18th March and at Lewisham Livehouse 30th March.

Published February 2012 on

I was dodging the flailing arms and hair of the wildly dancing girl in front of me, as well as trying to balance my red wine (plastic) glass here stuck between all the heaving grooving bodies, when it suddenly struck me: I was in the presence of the anti-Elvis Costello for the New Shiny Age. But I will get to that…

Who do you get to support such a self-assured, yacht-rock-pop-Motown übercool überGeek such as Mayer Hawthorne? Both supports – the big voiced Fantine and the astonishing Electric Empire seemed too grown up and too serious for this silly, fun party.

Fantine, supported by her lone guitarist (well, as lone as a guitarist with a loop-box of tricks at his feet can be) was perhaps the most truly original artist of the night, or at least the one who buried her influences deeper than E.E. or M.H. Her voice was huge, her songs cool yet accessible – keep a weather eye on Fantine; she should be big.

Electric Empire of course thrilled as ever – with three knockout vocalists and strong strong material, we always gladly overlook the too-close Stevie and Marvin 70s capital-‘s’-Soul references and grooves. Their Soul was from Motown (Wonder, GayeInnervisions, ‘Inner City Blues’) as was Mayer Hawthorne’s (Supremes, Temptations, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’) but like the gulf between 60s and 70s Motown, their musics were a galaxy apart.

Heralded by his band, The County’s funk groove (his bass player gets the award for best hair of the nite – Afro d’Excellence), Mayer Hawthorne bounced onto the stage in a swirl of hyper-energy and fun. The small fact that his vocal mic wasn’t in the mix for the first few seconds was overshadowed by his perfect Yacht Rock styling: white jacket, white Bermudas, stripey socks and white trainers (he would later team this ensemble with a white Epiphone Les Paul – ahh, I could almost hear Hall & Oates sighing with envy from a sunny marina far in the distance). I guess it was at this point that the niggling thought entered my head for the first time tonight: Is Mayer Hawthorne serious or is this all some (albeit-beautifully-constructed) post-modern gag?

The music is great: three songs in ‘The Walk’ – the single from his new LP How Do You Do? – put the party into drive. A perfect groove, a perfect hook, delivered to an audience that Hawthorne could point his mic at at any time and they would sing back the next line – it was all too good to be true. A little like Mayer Hawthorne himself.

He welcomed us to the ‘Mayer Hawthorne SHOW’, emphasising that this was not a ‘concert’, or an ‘orchestra’ (sic) but a Show – directing all the Party People down to the front and shoo’ing the party poopers up the back where they belonged. This of course was pure 60’s Motown – pure entertainment for the people (he says his favourite show as a child was the after school dance show ‘The New Dance Show’ – perfectly recreated for the clip to his song ‘A Long Time’). Pure entertainment for the people – or is it?

Hawthorne bends to give a female audience member his guitar plectrum. He takes a picture of all of us for Twitter. He lets us take a picture of him holding a bouquet of flowers like an Academy Award winner. He tells us to now put our cameras away and ‘pretend’ we are at a Show enjoying it in ‘real time’. A friend said Hawthorne reminded her of a pop music Jeff Koons – the US artist who replicates cheesy ads starring himself that walk the thinnest possible edge of irony.

The girl dancer flailed, the audience heaved around me, my red wine spilled. It flashed on me that Hawthorne was the anti-Elvis Costello for the New Shiny Age. All the parallels and opposites were there: both Elvis Costello and Mayer Hawthorne draw upon 60s pop music as the base template for their songs – E.C. used 60s British Pop, M.H. the sweeter Motown equivalent. Both affect a speccy-nerd style, with ill-judged/perfectly-judged clothes to match – with E.C. it accentuated the bitterness of his songs, with M.H. it charms us into his (supposedly) irony-free world of party party party.

Elvis Costello was a razor-sharp signifier of his place and time, Britain in the late 1970’s – the intelligent, sensitive loner in a bleaker and bleaker world of Government thuggery and societal fragmentation. Mayer Hawthorne is equally a spot-on signifier of his own place and time, 2012 USA. The breeziness of his delivery, the uncrackable smile, the tan, the summer-weight clothes suggest an American Dream free of cares or thoughts or woes. His is the music of a youthful affluence that America and the world cling to against all signs to the contrary. And it’s great to dance to.

Check out Katja Liebing’s pics of the show here

Published February 2012 on