Archive for December, 2012

We all love big band jazz. We all love small group jazz. But I also have a very soft spot for those little-big bands in between – those eight, nine, ten piece outfits (which go by the beautifully alien appellations of octet, nonet, decet).

In many ways the smaller ensembles produce a more ‘jazz’ sound than the big bands. The contrasts between solo and ensemble passages is not as jarring as in a big band – the whole thing seems cut from the same cloth. Just by dint of pure logistics, the medium sized group is going to breathe better as a unit and allow for more telepathy and magic to happen. (Look at Birth of The Cool for a place where the medium is the message).

There is a lot of magic on Mace Francis’ recent album Land Speed Record recorded with his New York Nonet – named for the NY natives and Oz ex-pats that make up the nine.Mace Francis Land Speed

In his liner notes, alto player Jon Gordon mentions that the group only had a short time to rehearse prior to recording in New York. In one way, you can’t tell (it is as tight as you would want); in another, you can – each piece leaps from the speakers with an immediacy and life that shows all players had their antennae right out. Gordon also writes of the “depth and searching quality” in Francis’ music – and he is right-on there.

Opener ‘Rosé’ sets up an impressionistic veil of horn textures over a languid ostinato groove. Tenor player Dan Pratt solos in and out of horn groupings (or are they moving in and out of his solo?). The whole thing lattices and meshes beautifully – this is smart horn writing, and the transparency in sound of the smaller group allows all the voices to stand out in high relief.

The organic nature – the ‘breathing’ of the group – is evident on the title piece, ‘Land Speed Record’. A suspended Mat Jodrell trumpet intro leads into a thicket of time-signatures, the band accelerating and moving as one until a free-blown section opens up into a typically inventive and astringent Sean Wayland solo. It sounds like a lot is going on, but Francis’ writing never spends too much time gazing at its own navel. It flows instinctively because the writing and the playing have a lot of humanity – a lot of soul.

The moody ‘Pandora’s Mood’, the gorgeous brass choir intro to ‘Samsara’, the driving mutant bossa of ‘Orla’ all show the ‘heart’ in this music, which extends to the soloists – Alan Ferber’s joyous trombone solo on ‘Orla’, Jon Gordon’s bopalicious alto fun on ‘Samsara’ (big kudos to the rhythm of Matt Clohesy on bass and drummer Mark Ferber, too!), the surreal bass clarinet of Doug Yates on the resigned ‘Well… Maybe Someday’.

The track that leaped out to me was ‘Why A?’ which features guitarist Nate Radley. (I am guessing the title is a question from the Bb and Eb horn guys, the answer being that A is guitar friendly, dudes). Over an A pedal, descending guitar chords are soon reflected by the horns before a snap, crackle and popping swinging solo from Radley. He is one to watch.

Mace Francis is one to watch too. On the strength of ‘Land Speed Record’, I will be watching (and listening) – I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.


Prior to posting this review I asked Mace Francis a few short questions. Here are his responses:

1. Your new CD ‘Land Speed Record’ is recorded with a nonet – what was your thinking behind choosing this particular format?

I have pretty much only worked with big bands, as my creative vehicle, since 2003.  I love big bands and will continue to work with them.  The nonet idea came from working with alto player Jon Gordon here in Perth a few years ago.  He gave me a couple of CDs of his which featured a nonet he had worked with and while it still had a large ensemble feel, it allowed the individual musicians to feature more predominantly like in a small group ensemble.  The nonet line-up seemed to have the best of both worlds.  When Jon and I were talking about the recording I asked about that nonet and the recording studio they used and suggested that I would like to do a similar thing.  Jon helped me get a group of musicians together that he trusted and we went from there.

2. Your nonet includes bass clarinet and guitar – they seem a unique choice for such a limited grouping of instruments (they sound great by the way). Why did you include these instruments?

I am a guitarist and have always had a guitarist in my big bands instead of a piano player.  I just prefer the sound of a guitar blending with saxes and brass more so than piano, but having them both was very cool as it meant I could use the guitar to voice with the horns and still have a comping instrument.  As for the bass clarinet it was just because Doug Yates is so awesome.  Jon suggested him because he can double but when I checked him out I decided that having him on bass clarinet would sound great.  His sound is enormous and his solo on the last track “Well, Maybe Someday” is just awesome.


3. Of course the nonet format brings to mind ‘Birth of The Cool’ and the Gerry Mulligan little-big (big-little?) bands. Did these recordings influence the sound of ‘Land Speed Record’ or did you start with a clean slate?

I have listened to Birth of the Cool and Mulligan’s bands a lot so it may have influenced the music a bit but for most of the pieces they were written to feature different members of the ensemble.  Having less instruments (compared to a big band) was a real challenge as you need to be more specific orchestrationally.

4. You are based in Perth. Perth is known in rock circles as a place from where some quite unique sounds emanate. is it the same for jazz?

I was born and raised in Geelong in Victoria and moved to Perth in 2000 as I was accepted into WAAPA on jazz guitar.  My focus went from performance to composition in 2nd year.  Perth has a great scene with WAAPA pumping out great musicians every year, WA Youth Jazz Orchestra has a great annual program featuring 3 big bands and we have The Ellington Jazz Club putting on 7 nights a week music, Perth Jazz Society etc.  We just get on with business over here in the West.

5. What is your view of jazz today and the place of large-group composition/arrangement in it?

Jazz is strange and it is usually only people who love it – love it.  I love that now jazz is pretty much anything you want it to be, it is always evolving.  It is a shame that so many people, and musicians, think that it needs to sound like something that happened 60 or 70 years ago (or more).  I think jazz is as strong as it has been.  We have to enjoy what is happening now, get excited what will happen and stop reminiscing about the Golden Era or the Good Ol Days.

Large jazz ensembles seems to be coming back into popularity, especially with younger musicians/composers (while we are young and stupid).  Most bands being started now are by people who want to present their own music, which is great.  There are a few here in Perth that have popped up recently and quite a lot in Sydney and Melbourne.  There is something really special about creating music with a large group of people.  It is great to see and I take my hat off to anyone who can organise that many people for a gig and rehearsals.  My hair is a lot greyer than it was 7 years ago.

6. What is your view of music in general today? (You are allowed to swear).

I love most music and especially music with craft, groove, humour and heart – the Idol/x factor phenomenon shits me.  The public are getting bombarded with watered down rubbish on these shows that eat up these useless singers and then spit them out when they stop making them money.  If you are fed only white bread your whole life and then try something else, like a ripe (real) tomato off the vine, it will taste crap to you because your body is used to no goodness, nutrients or flavour.  I will stop now.

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Published December 2102 on

The twin pillars of modern blues are Chester Burnett and McKinley Morganfield – better known to blues fans and the wider world as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Both artists had their origins in country blues but their intense creativity, charisma and force-of-nature blues power helped progress The Blues rapidly into its modern electric form.

Howlin’ Wolf was a giant in every way: physically huge and big-hearted, he seemed to enjoy putting the willies up his audience, albeit with a large spoonful of humour. Muddy Waters was almost the opposite in character, exuding a much cooler, more worldly and magisterial air – an almost regal presence in person and on record.

muddy poster

Muddy Water’s music – as well as hugely influencing Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and all the British Blues Boom bands (and all the bands they influenced) – continues to resonate through to today’s music, blues or otherwise. Its honesty, wit and dignity keeps it sounding as fresh as the first time Muddy and his rusty-throated Telecaster lit up Chicago in the early 1950s.

Sydney’s white-bread Double Bay is about as far as you can get from Muddy Waters’ Chicago. Its one saving grace, The Blue Beat jazz and blues venue hosted a tribute to Muddy – with pretty much the crème of Australian blues paying tribute. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

Johnny Cass – he of the cowboy hat and groovy Guild thru EC Fender – opened with ‘Blow Wind Blow’ – a nice ease in before the voodoo sex-brag of the Willie Dixon-penned ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ (“I got a black cat bone/I got a Mojo too/I got a John The Conquerer root/I’m gonna mess with you…” – chilling stuff).

But before we all got too hot and bothered, slide-guitarist Jeremy Edwards relaxed the groove with a pair of drummerless tunes – ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ and ‘Long Distance Call’ – the drummerless rhythm (bass player Tim Curnick providing a smooth subtle groove) adding a lonesome surrealist vibe to the music – Blue Beat was now a ghetto street in an eternal night of reverbed guitar. ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’’s lyrics added to the dreamlike trip – “I’m going to buy me an airplane/And fly all over your town”.muddy2

Piano boogie-man and Oz blooz grandmaster, Don Hopkins gave us rockin’ full-band versions of ‘Rolling and Tumblin’’ et al and the women at the bar couldn’t keep still. His preaching style suited Muddy’s declamatory delivery down to the ground.

I don’t know if it was the man, the song or the full moon, but when Kevin Bennett took the stage to deliver his version (of the Allman Brothers’ version of Muddy’s version) of ‘Can’t Lose What You Never Had’, the whole thing went up a notch. That’s the magic of the Blues – the musicians are working with such slender elements that it only takes a little more spark and the thing can go through the roof (even in Double Bay). On ‘Why Are People Like That?’ (which is still a good question), the “guitar weaving” of Bennett and Jeremy Edwards was up there with that of Keef and Ron Wood.

Harp wizard Ian Collard gave us a loping and snake-hipped ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ – the sound of a blues harp played through a distorted guitar amp has to be one of the most marrow-chilling in all of music, and Collard does it so well. His long-time confrere, slide-master and Backslider Dom Turner gave us a winking ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ – cutting up the rhythm with switched-on drummer Curtis Martin – before leading the full band through ‘Country Blues’.

muddy1After the break the full band filled the stage for a gospel-style ‘Take Sick and Die’, Reverend Turner presiding over a choir of guitarists. The choir’s response (“It done broke down!”) to Don Hopkin’s call of ‘What’s The Matter With The Mill?’ was a little more raucous as befits the sexual double-and-triple entendres of the song.

And I realised that it has been not too much over 50 years since Muddy Waters sang ‘What’s The Matter With The Mill?’ to an audience who were close enough to farm life to understand the lyric. He was living history, mapping the lunatic forward hurtle of 20th Century life, astride an electric Fender just to keep up.

The Blue Beat crowd may or may not have related to the lyric, but on some level everyone relates to the Blues and they loved every note put out by this frankly remarkable line-up of musicians. For myself, I had a wide grin as I left Blue Beat – now, where do I find a John The Conquerer root in Double Bay at this time of night?

Photos by Katja Liebing

Published December 2012 on

Anyone who caught the wizard of Katoomba, Claude Hay supporting US blues guitar hero Joe Bonamassa at his recent Sydney gig would have been as amazed as I was that Hay’s music held its own against Bonamassa’s road-toughened four-piece band – and there was only one of him.

For years the remarkable Hay has travelled the world with only himself and his collection of loop-boxes, jim-jams, boo-bams, junk instruments and kitchen-sink guitars (‘Stella’, who we heard at the Bonamassa gig was a baking tin in a former life). Hay’s independence – no, self-sufficiency – has extended to his music which has always been a highly personal take on the Blues – taking in country, zydeco, slide-blues and hard-rock – as chopped and channelled and welded together as his guitars.


To check Claude Hay live and hear his huge rockin’ sound come out of so few people (one) is astonishing. There is always the danger that, on an album with no visual, the novelty will disappear and the music will disappoint.

Thankfully it never does. It didn’t on his first two LPs – 2007’s Kiss The Sky and 2010’s Deep Fried Satisfied – and it sure doesn’t on his latest, I Love Hate You. Hay’s talent, instrumental ability and country-strong songwriting always errs on the side of deep feeling and rootsy honesty.

For the first time Hay has used trusted outside musos on an album – notably, the rhythm section of Sydney blues-rockers Chase The Sun. Does this toughen the sound? Who knows – sounds pretty wild to me from opener, the title track ‘I Love Hate You’, a stomper that hangs out Hay’s shingle of heavy blues, more Hound Dog Taylor than B B King.

The stompin’ vibe continues through ‘Good Times’ and into the stringy funk of ‘Stone Face’ – Hay’s self-production on every track is as tough and as sparse as I needs to be, just perfect for each song (it helps to be a One-Man Band).

Power-ballad ‘Close’ seems a departure for Hay – his website suggests his songwriting is beginning to show the influence of his childhood love of 80s cock-rock – but I hear Jeff Buckley in ‘Close’: swooping, highly wrought vocal (Hay is a hell of a singer) and one of those Led Zep builds that made ‘Grace’ so irresistible.

Also from Hay’s site: “‘I Love Hate You’ is a concept album – dealing with the things Claude loves, hates and loves to hate. From loved ones, great gigs, motor vehicles and treacherous trans-continental bus rides, bad customer service and indifferent radio programmers.ClaudeHay_SingelCover_LoveHate_LoRes1

Further listens will reveal who or what these love and hate objects just might be – through acoustic porch-rocker ‘Narrow Mind’ and banjo-led roller coaster ‘Blues Train’, all the way through to moody back-street crawler ‘Hound’ and closer, the Chilli Peppered junk-funk of ‘Turn It Up’.

Claude Hay lives in a dome house he built himself, plays instruments he built himself and tours the world on the wings (or wheels) of a career in music he built himself – he doesn’t seem to need for much. But we need the Claude Hays of this world now more than ever. As Big Music cuts out its digitised cookies in ever-increasing numbers and turning the AutoTune off is the definition of spontaneity, we really do need music like this.


Published December 2012 on

Often in modern popular music – especially that of the blues and roots flavour – the city of the music’s origin can become, in a way, another member of the band. It can become a silent but also very loud member, as the city’s voice, spirit and mojo can colour the music as much as any of the living, breathing human members involved. That city could be New York, London or Chicago – but more often than not that city is (yes, we are talking about voice, spirit and mojo) New Orleans.nola-1-267

Funk godfathers, The Meters, were that rare thing – a ‘muso’ band that gained huge everyday popularity from the start. Astounding musicians individually, they conjured an easy yet hard-hitting groove style which epitomised that Holy Grail of musicians: ‘loose-yet-tight’ (if you have to ask what that means you will, sadly, never know). Their hits, such as 1969’s ‘Cissy Strut’ and 1970’s ‘Look-Ka Py Py’ were instantly influential among musicians and yet equally a hit with people on the dancefloor as well (and greatly loved by hip-hop samplers such as LL Cool J, Run DMC, NWA and, well… everybody). This is down to a large degree to The Meters’ New Orleans origins – it seems an unwritten law of any music that emanates from the city known as ‘The Big Easy’ that if the people don’t dig it, it ain’t worth a fig. This applies to artists from Fats Domino through to Dr John The Night Tripper and today’s Trombone Shorty and jazz trumpeter Christian Scott.

On 5th May this year, the original Meters – keys man and vocalist Art Neville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter Jr., and drummer (the wonderfully named) Zigaboo Modeliste – reunited for a concert at New Orleans’ club Howlin’ Wolf. This was one of only a handful of times the original Meters had got together since splitting in 1977. (Apparently tickets to the Howlin’ Wolf show sold out in an hour and a half). I just want to say, God bless the person who decided to turn on the tape machine – the resulting Live Album is a gem.

fm-1-251The band tear into opener ‘Fire On The Bayou’, originally from the 1975 album of the same name, as if they have never been away. The four just love to play together – the vibe oozes from the speakers. Art Neville jokingly refers to the gig as “senior citizen funk” (adding that in five years it will be “food stamp funk”) but there is nothing remotely creaky or stiff-jointed about The Meters tonight.

In fact, this is the toughest i think i have ever heard them sound. Nocentelli’s guitar is cranked and his solos are, as Buddy Guy used to say “so funky you can taste it”. Modeliste is utterly in the pocket and together with George Porter Jr – especially on a churning groove such as ‘He Bite Me (The Dragon)’ or the iconic ‘Cissy Strut’ – prove yet again why they were the most imitated funk rhythm section of the 70s.

Once the band get on a groove they don’t want to let go. The three-song medley that begins with the laidback ‘Africa’, turning into ‘Look-Ka Py Py’ and then morphing into ‘Funky Miracle’ is 22:17 of pure, undiluted funky joy. Hits like ‘Hey Pocky A-Way’ seem to turn the band on like the first time they jammed it in rehearsal (‘Hey Pocky A-Way’ stretches to a hot and sweaty nine-minutes-plus) and the closer ‘People Say’ goes to seventeen-and-a-half minutes – you can feel that The Meters just don’t want to let go.

The live recording is beautifully LIVE in every way – living, breathing, dancing its ass off – with nice verité touches like not editing back the band’s stage announcements and intros. You really feel as if you were there. The Meters don’t care about taste or restraint or any of that anaemic jazz-funk knitting – they invented this music and they will play it as heavy and dirty as they like.

The Meters Live at Howlin’ Wolf Album is available from

Check Katja Liebing’s fantastic gallery of shots from the actual Howlin’ Wolf gig here

Photos by Katja Liebing

Published December 2012 on



British artist Francis Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington, London was as much a work of art as any of his paintings. So much so that in 1998, years after his death, the entire studio – a rat’s maze of rubbish piles, old paint palettes, torn and scattered photographs and other source materials for Bacon’s art (7500 objects in all) – was dismantled by archaelogists, conservators and curators and painstakingly rebuilt at the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.

bacon_studioBut the whole, military-strength exercise was more than just the preservation of a museum curio. Much like Australian artist Brett Whiteley’s preserved gallery (Bacon was a friend, mentor and a huge influence on Whiteley’s own work) in Sydney’s Surry Hills, the Bacon Studio reveals much about the artist’s methods, inspirations and creative spurs. Various pieces of the studio’s ephemera – photos, magazine clippings, torn images – make up a display at the centre of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ current blockbuster, Francis Bacon: Five Decades which runs until February 2013.

Yet, despite Bacon’s chaotic working environment, his paintings have always exhibited cool control and incisive technique – which usually serves to make their subject matter even more harrowingly repulsive/attractive than if they had been heatedly dashed off. His harsh self-editing over the years (he routinely destroyed paintings throughout his life) helps too.

The 50 plus paintings on display for Five Decades span Bacon’s work from the 1940s through to the 70s and 80s. And they are 50 of the best, drawn from 37 collections internationally including the Tate and MOMA, New York. The AGNSW curatorial team, helmed by Anthony Bond, has really landed a beauty here. The exhibition includes many major works, including several of his well-known three-panel works such as “Triptych August 1971”.

Francis Bacon has been called the greatest British painter since Turner and with good reason – he is. To be able to see the paintings on display here – up close brushstrokes, textures and handwork, the jaw-dropping balance of colour, the audacity of form and shape – is one of the great experiences of Art. His technique is often beyond belief, and the aesthetic leaps he makes are foolhardy at best, insane at worst (Bacon was an obsessive, lifelong gambler) – yet they come off again and again and again, brilliantly.

So much for technique. Bacon’s subject matter is another thing altogether.Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion circa 1944 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

The first impression is that of a pornographic butcher’s shop. Many pictures seem to be shining a harsh light on a private act – an amorphous or distorted writhing man-animal entity of flesh contorts on a stage which is often a cube or room-like space. The beings writhe or copulate or bleed as they present themselves to us, for our pleasure/revulsion. Many figures seem twisted into a corkscrew or spasm of agony/ecstacy. Their flesh is blue-pink, blue-grey – the bluing of bruising or decomposition.

The detachment alone is shocking – the neon strobes lighting these works is that of the surgeon, the scientist, the pornographer. Bacon worked often from photos of screaming people, or medical books on diseases of the mouth. Robert Hughes said of Bacon, “It takes no mean feat of self-removal to be able to inspect the gums and saliva of a screaming mouth as Monet did a lilypad”.

But, of course, there is much more to these pictures than their shock value. Bacon seems to use the shock of the image to jar us, to shake the blinkers from our eyes (and minds), so that we can then experience what is happening in these paintings “directly to (our) nervous system”. In interviews he always played his cards very close to his chest. Unlike pop-artist Andy Warhol’s banal statements (which were as tactically premeditated as his art was), Bacon seemed to constantly deflect from thinking too hard – or at all – about his work (he once said “I have nothing to express”) and just feeling it.

And yes, despite the apparent detachment, there is much to feel here. Upon the death of his lover George Dyer, Bacon did not grieve publicly, but embarked on creating several triptychs depicting Dyer with the shadows around his figure either black menacing Death or lilac puddles of Life draining from him. They are touching and truly tender.

Portraits of friends and lovers (Bacon was a popular and hugely social person) such as “Portrait of Michael Leiris” or the studies for his own self-portrait, show an incisive, almost Cubist analysis of planes and surfaces – but also more than we would expect, give away the sitter’s personality or Bacon’s feelings towards him or her.

And that contradiction – together with all of Bacon’s (and all of great Art’s) contradictions – is what will make you never forget Francis Bacon: Five Decades. It truly does hit you “directly to the nervous system” as you are drawn by the beauty and mastery of the pictures but repelled by their subjects – back and forth until you are left in a place of pure feeling, pure sensation that, if you let it, yields some answers to what we are when the chatter of life stops and the lights go out.


Published December 2012 on

The innovators in any genre are always remembered kindly by history. But the popularisers of any artform are also as important, if in some ways not more so. Jazz icon Dave Brubeck, who died yesterday aged 91 was both.

Like Stravinsky, Miles Davis or Thom Yorke, pianist and composer Brubeck managed to stay true to his artistic vision while enormously expanding the audience for his chosen music. His most popular album, 1959’s Time Out (the first million selling jazz record) was largely an experiment in playing jazz over odd rhythmic meters or time signatures. Nothing on the record is in the usual 4/4 – and the biggest hit of his career, ‘Take Five’ is played over a five beat pulse. ‘Take Five’ (actually composed by Brubeck’s long time foil, the über-chilled altoist Paul Desmond) seemed to epitomise the ‘cool’ of the time – not as weirded out and dissolute as the beatniks but still not as straight laced as 1959 America wanted you to be. To this day it has lost none of its freshness and eternal hippery.


Brubeck’s compositions were always heartfelt, soulful and innovative – among them ‘The Duke’ (covered by Miles Davis on his groundbreaking 1957 album with Gil EvansMiles Ahead) and ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’ (covered by everyone, everywhere) – and contained harmonies and ideas as much from European classical music as from American jazz (he had studied under the French composer Darius Milhaud). His exclusion from the pantheon of jazz greats for many years was as much due to the inverse racism which existed/exists in American jazz as it was to his genial, sunny, un(bad)newsworthy character.

Dave Brubeck’s energy was known to have put pianos out of tune in clubs across the US. He never really learned how to sight-read music properly and was often accused of not being able to “swing” (usually by music critics whose own prose swung like a housebrick). Like Herbie Hancock, he was always interested in the music of the times – in the mid 1970s he mounted a world tour with his sons, Darius, Chris and Danny as The Two Generations of Brubeck, mixing in jazz-rock fusion elements and night after night wearing out the young’uns with the relentless drive of his playing.

US sax giant Dave Liebman put it well when he said, in a tribute: “Dave had the misfortune in jazz to become popular … how dare you?” For those that care about such things, walk on. For the rest of us, it will do to put ‘Take Five’ on the stereo, raise a glass of something cool and chic and whisper a thank you starward to Dave Brubeck who managed to alchemise something timeless and universal out of the thin air of jazz.

Published December 2012 on

Among the slew of bedroom Beyoncés and preteen chirrupers that grind through the X-Factor/Idol/Voice talent-quest mill it is nice to see the occasional hardworking muso get up. It is also nice when success in these nationally broadcast spectacles pushes the career of said hardworking muso into a better place.

Sure, there is always the danger of being seen as ‘selling out’ (whatever that can still possibly mean today) or losing one’s hard-won street fan base, but it is a danger the artist’s popularity should over come. I was happy to see Wes Carr get up on Idol in 2008, and I was even happier to see Darren Percival take out runner up on this year’s The Voice.


Percival has been a well respected and admired performer on the scene – always a knockout as the looping Mr Percival – for years. The story goes he had 18 dollars in the bank when he received the call-up from The Voice – now he tours nationally. And long may he run.

His recent release, A Tribute To Ray Charles – apart from being a great listen – is a smart move. In one fell swoop, the choice of recreating, beautifully, fifteen tracks made famous by Brother Ray will simultaneously satisfy his new fans (his Voice persona was soul man supreme), not alienate his existing fans (anything to do with Ray Charles will be eternally cool) and move him into the next phase of his journey (tuxedo’d no-sweat big stage performer).

Another smart thing about this choice is that it doesn’t take much for Percival to slip into Ray Charles’ musical skin. Neither man has a conventionally smooth voice, yet both exude a larger than life joyousness in delivery which can generate an excitement that whips the audience (and their bands) along – witness Percival’s take on Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Believe (When I Fall In Love)’ on the Voice finale, a brave choice of song which he turns into a vehicle for some gospel-sized intensity.

Of course, gospel-sized intensity was always Ray Charles’ forte. After all, the man invented Soul music by secularising (and sexualising) the frenzied church music of the American South. He didn’t have to do too much to it either – the call-and-response, high stepping rhythms, melismatic vocal swoops and fevered abandon were already there.

Despite going for a broader appeal, on A Tribute To Ray Charles Darren Percival keeps the wildness and ecstatic edge of the Charles’ originals intact. The band behind him bristles with Australia’s finest – James Morrison, Hamish Stuart, Matt Keegan, go-to-guitar-guy Rex Goh among them – who sound as if they are having as much fun as Mr Percival on the stompers such as ‘I Got A Woman’ or ‘What’d I Say’. But they can equally sound like they are weeping into their beers on the country-Soul gems ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’.

Charles always had great fun (not only with the music but also often too with the sexual politics of the time) with his female backing vocalists, The Raelettes. Vocalists Prinnie Stephens and Mahalia Barnes step up and spar with Percival, most excitingly on ‘Hit The Road, Jack’, recreating Charles’ 1961 sass session with Margie Hendricks.

All the hits are here. By the end of the fifteen tracks on A Tribute To Ray Charles the listener has been hipped, flipped, seduced and hallelujahed into a sweet submission. I would perhaps have liked to see a little more play with the arrangements and delivery, but I am sure the decision to not veer too far from the Charles’ originals is all part of the plan.

I sincerely hope the plan comes together perfectly for Darren Percival. He – like all hardworking musos – deserves it.

Published November 2012 on