Posts Tagged ‘the beatles’

In a year of the deaths of giants we say goodbye to George Martin. The fifth Beatle, the producer who made them sound like The Beatles. The man who framed those songs in those patchouli psychedelic frames, or equally in those woody bucolic or cut-glass European classical frames.

The Beatles were the first band to break the hegemony of the popular artist in the early 60s – usually a solo singer whose songs were written for him by profession songwriters, then arranged and produced by his record label. The Beatles brought their own songs and presented as a four-headed entity entirely, it seemed, self-contained. Martin’s ever-sympathetic arrangements and recordings brought out every wonderful nuance and flavour – paisley, bitter-sweet or child-like sweet – in those wonderful songs; however cinematic the arrangement (think ‘I Am The Walrus’ or ‘All You Need is Love’) the song was always to the fore.

Even from the very beginning, he seemed to entirely ‘get’ the songs – the splashing hi-hats of ‘She Love You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)’, the surreally moonlit space of ‘And I Love Her’ or ‘Yesterday’s bare acoustic guitar and silvery strings. Perfect.

They used to sneak weed behind the old man’s back like naughty schoolboys – then go back into the classroom and, giggling and chilled, create Revolver. But despite his pin-sharp, conservative appearance, Martin wasn’t a fuddy-duddy at all – he had been around the entertainment and comedy scenes (he had worked with the anarchic and surreal Goons) long enough to create a picaresque world view. So when he was called upon to wrap ‘Walrus’ or ‘Lucy In The Sky (with Diamonds)’ in a psychedelic wizard’s cape, he could call upon a lifetime of artistic experience, which he sharpened with a keen sense of innovation and imagination.

John Lennon said at one point “George Martin was always more about Paul’s songs than mine” and used Phil Spector on his solo albums (and on Let It Be, the final Beatles record). Yet Martin had seemed to know just what to do with Lennon’s songs – putting his trippily dry vocal against the  throbbing shamanic tribalism of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, cutting up tape and playing avant-garde games for the lysergic circus background of ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite’ from Sgt Peppers – in a way that Spector never could have.

Martin constructed an entirely new world for every song – especially during The Beatles’  hyper-compressed creative explosion that began with Revolver. Although an academically schooled musician and orchestrator, he happily flung tape splices in the air with Lennon or ran George Harrison‘s guitar solos backwards. His sense of play, though a generation apart, was equal to that of the Fab Four. martin conducting beatles2

It is one of the sweetest serendipities of modern art that Martin found The Beatles and he, them.

Suggested listening? Too many to list – in fact, the entire Beatles catalogue – but some peaks always stand out to me. The bad trip orchestration of ‘I Am The Walrus’; the children’s merry-go-round of ‘Lucy In The Sky (with Diamonds)’; the movie-for-your-ears of ‘Eleanor Rigby’s strings (double tracked, close-miked string quartet); the cut-ups of ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite’; the stoned green pasture of ‘Mother Nature’s Son’; everything (every single thing) about ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and Sgt Peppers ‘A Day In The Life’ (it’s final monster E-major chord made by three pianos and a harmonium).

Hello. Goodbye.

 

A friend rang me yesterday and said “Have you heard? Bowie has died.”

I had only just come off Facebook and there had been no mention. How could he have passed? He looked in apparent rude good health and had only a few days ago released his new album, his twenty-seventh studio collection, Blackstar. All appeared good in BowieWorld.

I prayed his death was a cruel social media hoax, so I jumped back on. The entire wall was Bowie, top to bottom, as long as I scrolled. The news had just come over… and it filled the world.

Such is the universality of David Bowie and his music. One of those rare, rare artists – I can only think of The Beatles as the other – who could truly be all things to all people. Wherever they were in their lives.

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Bowie came into my life just in time to save me from Trinity Grammar School.

I had not been aware, nor did I care of his earlier incarnations as the Mod rocker, David Jones, as the opaque folkie of Hunky Dory or the proto-glammer of The Man Who Sold The World (all of which I would come to love). I was only dimly aware of his chart hit ‘Space Oddity’, which at the time, looked to be his first and last stab at fame.

For Christmas I had been given The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars and it turned my world around 360 degrees. Each school day I would come home and disappear into my bedroom, where David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust would take me away into his mirror-maze universe, making the grey strictures and eon-long boredom of School fade far far away.

His universe – slightly dystopian, endlessly new – was rich in imagery and characters, all told in a poetry that I could not always fathom and yet which spoke directly and strongly to me. What it said was that I could be me, and Bowie gave me permission to be so. If he, with his orange fright-wig hair, girlish moves, androgynous clothes and wonky eyes could take on the world, then I certainly could take anything Trinity Grammar School could level at me.

And it took some time to introduce this strange new music into our boys-school circle – we were all Status Quo, Led Zep and Free fans: hairy hetero denim rockers to a man. It was now lyrics such as “Inspirations have I none / just to touch the flaming dove“. And as for our parents: to them David Bowie was a queer Pied Piper who threatened to take us away to Gay Glam Land and keep us there (he could have with one wink). He really messed with their minds. David_Bowie_-_TopPop_1974_10

To we 70s kids, Bowie was ours – he was neither of our parent’s post-War culture that threatened to suffocate us, nor of the counter-culture, the Hippie movement of older brothers and cousins that was passing. He was entirely New and entirely Ours.

The irony is of course that he was not entirely New, far from it. David Bowie’s genius lay in his remarkable artistic ability to sift and riffle through the Twentieth Century and to fashion the Pop Culture odds’n’ends he found there into shiny new shapes that dazzled, and still do. These exquisitely cracked mirrors also served as a lens through which we could make some sense of the cultural shit-storm that made the Century so dizzying.

Like Andy Warhol – the subject of one of his finest songs – he seemed one of the very very few ‘modern’ artists who truly grokked (Google it) the times he lived through.

Bowie – like Miles Davis, like The Beatles – leaped so far forward with every release and dragged so many in his wake, his influence is still being analyzed and considered today. This influence is obvious, and immense. Would contemporary rock and pop sound the same without Bowie? Would Punk have so quickly ditched the yobbos for the art-students and forked out into indie, New Wave, post-Punk and all their sizzling tributaries without the possibilities he revealed and hinted at?

His latest album (and its videos) were created in the knowledge he was dying ­– it is littered with messages and farewells to us all. Even in the terrifying knowledge time was slipping away, he still performed.

If that is not an artist whose Life is inextricable from his Art, I can’t imagine what is. But that is what he has always been.

Bowie came into my life just in time to save me from Trinity Grammar School, and over the years, through the challenge, vision and plain ecstasy of his music, he has saved me over and over again.

Farewell.

Published January 2016 on megaphoneoz.com

 

 

 

For her latest album, Nightlight, Sydney singer, songwriter and pianist, Rachel Collis has reinvented herself.

For many years a creator and performer of music at the sharp and witty end of cabaret in a series of one-woman shows, this time round Collis has dug deeper, painting bleaker vistas of both landscape and the heart with her songs.

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And there is some serious songcraft at work here. At a time in pop-musical history when the various Song(s) of The Year are too often simple-minded earworms more suited to tipsy beach sing-a-longs than anything to do with our deeper lives, Collis’ songs are a welcome jolt – a jolt back to the time of Jim Webb, Carole King (circa Tapestry), Stephen Sondheim and Joni Mitchell.

Beautifully realised by the sympathetic yet full-blooded production of Collis and Sean Carey (Thirsty Merc), the ten songs on Nightlight range from the heart-swelling and wide-screen to the introverted and folded-inward. Collis and Carey’s musical vision never gets in the way of the songs, remaining transparent and thoughtful.

The supporting musicians equally read the songs beautifully – two tips of the hat to bassist Michael Galeazzi and drummer Michael Quigley for their sure yet light footprints over all this. Jack Wiard‘s clarinet solo deserves a mention for lighting up the faintly silly but charming ‘A Duck Named Sybil’ (yep, you can take the girl out of cabaret, but you can’t, etc…)

Yet speaking of cabaret, it is those lessons learned from Collis’ previous musical incarnation(s) that give this music so much of its drama, ease of storytelling and direct emotion connection. Lighter forms of music – music tooled for ‘entertainment’ rather than cap-A Art – have often informed the supposedly ‘higher’ levels of the form: Miles Davis transformed popular Broadway showtunes of the day for his exquisite mid-1950s jazz quintet recordings; the Beatles, especially the early 60’s tunes of Paul McCartney, drew heavily on showtunes, cabaret favourites and pop hits of previous decades for their bittersweet loveliness.collis2

The direct yet personal voice across opener ‘Tomorrow’, the smoothly strident ‘Those Words’ and closer ‘Make Room’ – a delicately held piano ballad – is reinforced by Collis’ smart piano voicings: here Top 10 cap-P Pop, there Aaron Copland autumn rustic, each track knits the piano around and behind the voice to variously luscious, bleak or colourful effect. Comparisons to early Elton John and Billy Joel are obvious – yet i was reminded more of Joni Mitchell’s piano songs, such as ‘Court and Spark’.

Nightlight‘s centrepiece is the seven and a half minute ‘Winter In Munich’ – a long-form song that rises and falls through several cycles, as Collis meditates on loss and transformation, her piano icing the edges of our window. The Kinetic String Quartet‘s strings (arranged by Collis) widen the screen, painting the bleak winter of earth and heart.

The ambition of ‘Winter In Munich’ appears to be Collis’ mission statement with Nightlight –  a banner of her maturing and growing as an artist. The ten songs here hit the mark in every way and i know we will hear more of the good stuff from her.

One does wonder though whether there is a place for songs this good anymore? In an age of fast-forward-to-the-good-bit, instantaneous gratification and throw-away downloads dripping like a tap, do pop listeners still give anything the chance to grow and unfurl, as Collis’ songs do? I do not know the answer and am betting on the side of quality over convenience, despite all indications to the contrary.

Whatever the answer, Rachel Collis’ Nightlight deserves as much of your time as it asks.

 

Rachel Collis’ website is http://rachelcollis.com

 

 

 

 

Walking in late, two minutes into the first number of US tenor icon Ernie Watts’ gig at VJ’s, I was blasted by four cats utterly grooving high. No warm-up for these men – it was straight into the blistering bop of ‘To The Point’, a Watts original from 2008. The power and hurtling momentum of the band hit me so hard I remained standing until they had finished.

This was going to be good.

Watts-the band

The auditorium of Chatswood’s VJ’s jazz venue was packed and every head was bobbing, riveted. Watts is en route to the glamour of the Brisbane Jazz Festival, but he and his band played as if this small room gig was their last on earth. Even when Watts led his men through the calmer waters of a Christof Saenger (piano) original, the electricity didn’t die off, it just glowed cooler.

After some wry (and elliptically droll) banter from Watts, the band played through the title track of his latest album ‘Oasis’ – an arrangement with a definite John Coltrane minarets-and-dunes vibe to it. In fact, Coltrane’s deep blue-brown shadow cast its shape over much of Watt’s music, tone and phrasing (those delicious phrase endings…) not least in moments such as his sparring duet with drummer Heinrich Cobberling during ‘To The Point’ – its firepower bringing to mind some of the famous Coltrane-Elvin Jones horn-drums rave-ups.

Watts-111But this is hardly surprising knowing Ernie Watts’ deep sense of the history of his music, Jazz. In a recent interview with the ABC’s Gerry Kosta, Watts spoke of the presence of jazz history in the playing of the Free Jazz virtuosi, something not immediately obvious in the wiry tangled skeins of their music. Watts himself seems a living repository of many voices now gone – and he speaks of them most eloquently through his horn.

Which is not to say, of course, his own horn’s voice is in any way derivative or pastiche – his balance of skyscraping technique and real blue soul exemplifies what is the true twin-gift of Jazz, albeit one heard too rarely. The band gave us a light-speed reading of the Parker-Gillespie 1945 be-bop head-spinner ‘Shaw ‘Nuff’ that proved the point, no argument (and at times threatened to go off the dial).

After a short interval (really, VJ’s?: only a gold coin donation for a glass of wine? You don’t know jazz fans…) the band was back with Coltrane’s ‘Crescent’ and The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’. The latter, as well as featuring a tasty 6/8 blowing middle section, showed the eclecticism that has taken Watts beyond the sometimes trad-Dad borders of Jazz into sessions with Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa (Watts plays ‘mystery horn’ on Zappa’s 1972 big band album The Grand Wazoo).Watts-Rudi Engel bass

This wider view of the music characterises the smart and eclectic arrangements that Watts puts before his quartet. Usually, a group this small plays only ‘head’ arrangements, groping and hoping for shape to evolve during performance. Watts’ group could – and did – certainly move freely through the ‘open’ sections of the tunes but there were also smartly considered ensemble sections – such as on the coolly swinging Keith Jarrett tune ‘No Lonely Nights’.

Encore was a lithe blues that featured a rolling bass solo from Rudi Engel before Watts returned to ‘converse’ individually with each player – bass, drums piano – to take the tune out. The conversation was bright, good-natured, sweet and hot – much like the conversation Ernie Watts had been having with the crowd at VJ’s all night. He really gave us the good word.

All pics: AlanS Photographics

Published June 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

In all the arts – music and film especially – many sins can be forgiven if a work has heart. The Beatles’ chirpier songs, The Sound Of Music, most Country music, Sly Stallone’s original Rocky – all beloved by millions, and who cares why. They all have heart.

Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace and Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Traynor

Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace and Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Traynor

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Lovelace, screening as part of the 2013 Sydney Film Festival program, has a big heart. A simple story of the trials and tribulations of early 70s pornstar Linda Lovelace that doesn’t delve too deep beneath the skin of its characters, Lovelace pushes all the right emotional buttons – goodies, baddies, pain, suffering, triumph.

lovelace posterEx-US soap star Amanda Seyfried is nicely cast as the innocent Linda Boreman who is manoeuvered into acting in porn films by her slippery husband, Chuck Traynor – played with coked-up menace by Peter Sarsgaard. He finagles her a starring role in Deep Throat, where her cino-fellatio skills make it a massive hit – the “’Gone With The Wind’ of porn’. Pretty soon we see Hugh Hefner offering to make Linda (now Lovelace) a ‘real’ movie star.

That is the brief, meteoric version of her success. Andy Bellin’s script then doubles back and replays the story in finer detail – allowing the darker truths and violent pain behind the seemingly endless party to bleed through. (And this party has a great soundtrack – as in most films evoking the 70s, the music is almost as much a star as any of the leads).

But Linda Lovelace’s life was anything but a party. Shunned by her Catholic-hard mother – an unrecognisable Sharon Stone – bullied into degrading porn by Traynor, who beat her, terrorised her and pimped her out to ‘associates’ for hotel room gang-bangs, Lovelace suffered long and hard. In the short version, we see their wedding night as tender lovemaking; in the longer, later version we see this is only a prelude to Traynor violently sodomising her.

When she tries to escape to her parent’s house, her mother lectures her about obeying her husband and sends her back; when he beats her in the street, one of the policemen who pull up in a squad car asks her for her autograph before telling Traynor to take her home and ‘clean her up’; when she finally writes her memoirs (entitled Ordeal), the publisher makes her take a polygraph to see if she is telling the truth.

Sharon Stone

Sharon Stone

No one believes her; she doesn’t exist. It is a continuation of the idea that pornography is about power over the powerless. But because the movie is more about people than theory, the other idea here is that of survival.

Chloë Sevigny plays a jaded porn actress, Rebecca, who explains to the newbie Lovelace that after a few years she will need to develop other ‘skills’ in order to survive. Seeing the bruises on Linda’s thigh – black-and-blue fruits of Traynors’ beatings – she answers Linda’s limp excuse (‘I’m so clumsy’) with a knowing ‘Aren’t we all…’.

Chuck Traynor survives his own way, cruel and parasitic as it is. The Deep Throat filmmakers – played with oily, perma-tanned relish by Hank Azaria and Bobby Cannavale – survive their own way. Even the shady financier, Anthony Romano – Sex and The City’s Mr Big, Chris Noth – is a survivor. Although at different levels on its slippery slope, they are all scratching away at the same gold mountain to see what flakes off.

We can look at Lovelace and tut-tut about the objectification of women, and the whole dehumanising aspect of pornography in those Bad Olde Days. However, today, women’s heightened awareness of themselves and their potentialities seems to be countered by a gargantuan pornography industry that makes its 70s version look like a slightly goofy and almost adolescent Amateur Hour.

But that is not what Lovelace is about – the film chooses to leave these larger thoughts alone. The big beating heart of this movie is Linda’s story: one of survival. Linda Lovelace was one tough little nut that they didn’t crack and Lovelace tells her story beautifully.

Lovelace screens as part of the Sydney Film Festival, Saturday 15th June. http://sff.org.au/films-container/lovelace/

Published June 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

Firmly established in its 24th year as one of the premier music festivals of the world, the Byron Bay Bluesfest continues to top its already heady highs. The lineup for this year’s festival was a dream program for lovers of blues and roots music and anything else festival director Peter Noble decided to throw our way.

Criticised in the past for veering too far from its original blues brief, Bluesfest has outgrown these criticisms purely by booking the biggest acts in the world, and some of the most interesting – over the past few years headliners have been Bob Dylan, B B King, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Yes, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, Paul Simon and (almost) Roger Daltrey performing Tommy (even though Daltrey didn’t show – next year maybe?).

Noble’s knack for picking the greats, blues or not – and a demonstration of the power he wields on the world festival circuit in doing so – was vindicated by this year’s record attendance: capacity crowds of 17,000 per day which adds up to 85,000 in toto.

And I was one of those fools dancing in the rain. And the smile is still on my face.

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Taj Mahal

Accompanied by Gaz T, my intrepid local tracker and native guide, my 24th Byron Bay Bluesfest experience started on the Friday with the wonderful Taj Mahal. Mahal was one of those bluesmen – like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee – that the 1970s hippie freaks took to their hearts back in those fragrant days. His popularity has remained undiminished since then. As is often the case, I expected a creaky veteran, tottering on a chair – but what we got was a big man, standing tall, whipping his trio through modern blues, pre-war country blues and even calypso flavoured blues. Yeah!

And if Taj Mahal surprised me with his age-denying vigour, reggae and ska legend Jimmy Cliff utterly floored me. Cliff was already a star in Jamaica while Bob Marley was merely learning his trade, and at 65 he has lost nothing – twisting, dancing, leaping through his set. It is this pin-sharp showmanship that reminds us of the huge influence classic 60s Motown had on pre-Marley Jamaican artists. Slick, soulful and bang-on, his beautiful songs had heart, message and groove.

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Jimmy Cliff

Shuggie Otis

Shuggie Otis

While everyone headed to Steve Miller in one of the big tents, I moved towards the smaller Jambalaya stage and blues guitarist Shuggie Otis. Otis was a child prodigy of the blues guitar, the son of rhythm-and-blues bandleader Johnny Otis. After a few semi-hits in the 70s he faded from view. After a 40 year hiatus for whatever reason, he is back touring the world and I could not miss him. Rail thin and now with the angular almost-Latin good looks of his father, Shuggie seemed troubled and ill at ease. But when he found his zone and soared, he soared higher and higher. His beautiful playing took my breath completely away. In a way it was more exciting to see an artist who could easily miss, but hit it so well; compared to all the other in-the-pocket coolly-pro bands at Bluesfest, Otis’s set had that element of danger. Sublime and edgy.

Then the rain hit and my Bluesfest experience sprung a leak. Not having brought a raincoat or wet-weather gear I was soaked to the skin in minutes. Not being able to squeeze into the Steve Miller tent I stood in the rain and watched him play ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ – rain will come and go, the beautiful epoch-defining voice of The Space Cowboy (some call him Maurice…) singing this glorious freedom song was here and now. Around me, teenage fans danced in the rain to Miller’s golden period hits, singing every word to ‘Rockin’ Me Baby’ and ‘The Joker’. It’s only rain, it can soak our skin but it can’t dampen our spirit.

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Carlos Santana

Keeping the San Fran psychedelic vibe going – albeit in a very very different way – Santana’s set began with cosmic interstellar graphics fading in and out of the two huge screens either side of the stage. Then it was a brief drum roll from drummer Dennis Chambers and the Santana band roared into 1971’s ‘Toussaint L’Overture’. As well as Chambers, the percussion backline was made up of long-time conguero Raul Rekow and Karl Perazza on timbales – who together propelled the music like a freight-train, but a freight-train which skips and dances lightly along the track. Of course the main voice of this band has always been the elegant guitar playing of Carlos Santana – always lyrical, always going for the emotional connection over the empty dazzle of technique. Which ultimately makes him, above and beyond his Latin and jazz phrasing, one hell of a great blues guitarist – as we heard from a short (and all too rare) snatch of Santana playing some straight blues during the set. Can music reviewers still use words like ‘celestial’? I guess I just did, because it is the only word I have left to describe Santana’s unearthly performance.

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

The day ended with a truly soulful set from The Tedeschi-Trucks Band. The absolute highlight of my first ‘Fest two years ago, the band of slide ex-wünderkind Derek Trucks and his wife, vocalist Susan Tedeschi never fails to amaze. For their 2013 return they brought their three-man horn section along and their firepower went up a notch. The thrilling ‘Midnight In Harlem’ – a song that is built on an almost sexual upward curve – had Trucks’ solo coda taking it up and up into that region that Carlos Santana used to (and I am sure still does) call ‘spiritual orgasm’.

I was saturated with rain, good vibes and killer music. And I still had two days to go.

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Allen Toussaint

Saturday we eased in with the once and future king of the Big Easy himself, New Orleans magus Allen Toussaint. The man’s CV is virtually a history of modern R&B, soul and funk and his urbane cool belies his immense impact in shaping these musics. As if his beautiful, artfully funky music (and stunningly virtuosic piano playing) wasn’t gift enough, he threw Mardi Gras masks (and green and yellow AFL footballs?) to the crowd. A charmer in every way.

After a while cruising the human river and people watching (a Bluesfest pastime in itself) I chanced upon Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. And it was one of those wonderful music moments when seeing a band live makes you an instant fan – all subsequent listening experiences filtered through that thrilling ‘Eureka!’ moment of discovery. Wilco’s music seems to beat with the same American-classic heart at the centre of the songs of Neil Young and the darker Bruce Springsteen material. The band (especially guitarist Nels Cline) seem to be able to paint perfect soundscapes behind any of Tweedy’s songs, be they dark rockers or sweeter country-tinged ballads. A revelation.

Floating on the beauty of Wilco’s music I was yanked back down to earth by Status Quo. Britain’s answer to AC/DC, the indestructible Quo have been playing the same song for over 40 years – a variant on 12-bar pub boogie that has sold 118 million albums (think about that figure for a minute). Watching their flawless set, with mainstays Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt rocking hard before banks of white Marshalls, I could (almost) forgive them their awful Coles ads. Some bands are simply a force of nature and Quo are a blast of the simple joy of undiluted rock’n’roll.

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Robert Plant’s Sensational Shape Shifters

The straight-from-the-botttle thrust of Quo was perhaps a good brain-scourer –  an astringent appetiser – for the almost too-rich feast that was Robert Plant, which followed next. The fabled Led Zeppelin vocalist has been the main obstacle to any Led Zep reunions, as he has always moved forward with his music, taking his former band’s world-music aesthetic to greater heights than they ever did. His new band, The Sensational Shape Shifters, are the best version of Plant’s patented future-primitive groove – to one side of the stage we have Juldeh Camara working a Gambian wooden banjo, to the other side keyboardist John Baggott (ex-Massive Attack) sits in a nest of synths and laptops. Plant acknowledged the faithful with a few Led Zeppelin tunes, but messed with their anthem ‘Whole Lotta Love’, bedding it in a chugging African drum figure. Unlike almost every other ‘legendary’ act at Bluesfest he made no attempt to recreate his past, instead giving us a show we would think about for many months to come – a show driven by the restless creativity and often contrary nature of a true and uncompromising artist.

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Sunday we awoke to clouds and gray skies over the succulent green of Byron Shire. At the ‘Fest, Tony Joe White’s Swamp-Fox baritone conspired with the dull skies to lull us into maybe too deep a state of ‘relaxation’. We needed a wake-up!

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Saskwatch

And we got it in the shape of Melbourne nine-piece Saskwatch. Bursting with chops and youth – and fronted by their not-so-secret weapon, vocalist Nkechi Anele – the band mixes soul, funk and Afrobeat horns to great effect. Like Mayer Hawthorne in the US they also take the bouncier, pop-soul side of Motown and do great things with it. Last year it was The Eagle and The Worm that assured me music is in good hands for the future – this year is was the snap, crackle and (soul-)pop of Saskwatch.

My 2013 Bluesfest experience wound to a finish in a mix of rain, muddy dancers and 1970s progressive rock classicism. Jon Anderson, the vocalist of perhaps the greatest of all Prog bands, YES, played an intimate solo show for us that was quite sublime. (Oddly, YES played Bluesfest last year with –surreally – a replacement vocalist who was drawn from a YES covers band). Listening to Anderson peppering his set with acoustic, folky versions of YESsongs made me realise that it was in this form these tunes were written and presented to the band – who then proceeded to inflate them to Prog size. Unadorned with pomp, they are lovely songs, Anderson’s voice is one of the sweetest in all Rock and the man is once of our most beloved space cadets.

My prize for 24th Bluesfest Festival Moment goes, however, to the experience of standing in the teeming rain, with my 5 dollar poncho disintegrating on my back as I listened to Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson singing ‘It’s Raining Again’ (with not a drop of irony from what I could gather). But of course, the magic of his songs – one beautifully uplifting hit after another – sung in his spacey tenor blew away the rainclouds in my head and warmed the souls of all who listened. Once again, it’s only rain; this was bliss, a good reason to live right here, right now.

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stilts

Beautiful people

So that was it – right there, right then. Bluesfest 2013 – a festival beyond belief in so many ways. Criticisms? Around me I heard faint grumbles of over-selling and over crowding, and yes, it seemed fuller that previous years. But it is never anything like a problem – considering the logistics of an event that has grown to such proportions, artistically and attendance-wise.

What will Peter Noble conjure up for us next year? Being the 25th Bluesfest, he and his intrepid team will need to go beyond the pale to top the jaw-dropping line-ups of the last few years. The Jimi Hendrix Experience? The Beatles? Elvis Presley (pre-Hollywood of course)? I am just putting it out there – and knowing Noble’s almost supernatural powers (coupled with the soul of a true music fan), I really wouldn’t entirely put it past him.

 

Published April 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

Several months ago I happened to catch a performance of a band called Video8 at The Annandale. They were tight, edgy, obviously influenced by the sharp end of the 80s and surprising. Surprising in their originality and sound, but also surprising because they were fronted by Maxine Kauter.genre maxine cred chris allen

I had only recently been enjoying The Maxine Kauter Band’s album Alibech The Hermit – a collection of literate, acoustic-flavoured songs that could not have been more opposed in style to the glassy funk of Video8. Yet the same Maxine Kauter who yearned and purred from within the carved wooden walls of Alibech… was up there before me proclaiming with equal intensity and depth from a very different place, an Orwellian synthetic tube-farm of right-angled rhythms and 80s guitars.

And she got me thinking about genre in music.

How can an artist seem totally and fundamentally committed to more than one genre? And how can their creativity work entirely effectively within both? Or in as many genres as they choose to work in? How can they even like such diametrically opposing stuff, let alone love it?

genre richard maegraith cred rifton recordsIt is not the pastiche of the teevee ad jingle writer, or the jack-of-all session muso or the numbed human jukebox of the RSL musician – it is original and fully-felt in creation. I’m thinking of Elvis Costello’s brief switch from caustic new wave to the alkaline pop-country of 1981’s Almost Blue, hippie roots-rocker Neil Young’s techno album Trans, and even Igor Stravinsky’s sudden dumping of High Art Modernism in the 1920’s for the cool marble touch of Neo-Classicism.

Thinking further on it, I realised this thing of genre-or-not can reveal something about the approach and mind-set of the creative artist – in music moreso than any other Art form – and that is something I always think is worth the price of admission.genre luis rojas cred john snelson

And thinking yet further I realised that it was probably best if I asked hose who knew – three Sydney musicians whom I have long admired for their individuality, genre-defying and plain great music.

As well as Maxine Kauter – who is always good copy – I sent the same six simple questions to jazz saxophonist Richard Maegraith and guitarist Luis Rojas. Richard has long been a leading light of Australian jazz and fronts his unclassifiable band Galaxstare. Luis is a member of the tranvestite-metal band Mechanical Black as well as Shanghai, an experimental group unfettered by genre, style or expectations.

Here are their responses.

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1. Why do you think so much music binds to one genre or another?

Maegraith: Humans love to compartmentalise. Genres help us feel safe and secure, and like we’ve got control over it.

Kauter: I think it’s because we need patterns to understand things right away. It’s the way we learn to play music too. Certain ideas are grouped together under particular headings known as genres. I think all of that comes back to narrative and to the way we pass on information. Like why is the Madonna always front-on in Madonna and child picture? Because that’s what tells me what the picture is about. It’s sort of like that with genre. Put a pedal steel on a simple chord progression and everyone will say ‘it’s country’, or ‘alt country’. Why? Because the Madonna is face-on.

Rojas: Two things spring to mind: Instrumentation/equipment and Influence.

A lot of genres are formed as a result of like-minded use of instrumentation, the line up of a band and the instruments played (eg. 4 piece: drums, bass, guitar, vocals) and the influence of past musical groups with similar instrumentation.

Take ‘post-rock’ for example, a non-specific genre that popped up out of nowhere, is basically a rebellion against the stereotypical 4-5 piece rock band sound. Compositions can involve classical and electronic influences performed within the confines of a typical rock band’s instrumentation. Different playing techniques and use of effects further help to differentiate from a typical rock band sound. A lot of these bands have a similar mindset, creating a community with a similar approach to their music and their influence. Influence begets influence until these bands end up painting themselves into a corner or pigeonholing themselves into that specific genre.

From a composer’s point of view, you have a choice of whether to compose for the limitations of an instrument (eg. an acoustic guitar may not be able to perform something written for piano), or the perceived rules of a genre etc.

A composer can begin writing a multi-instrumental piece on piano, for example, however, they would need to understand the various limitations and expressive playing techniques of the instrumentation for which they are composing.

A genre can arrive through a natural and organic process involving the progression from an initial musical idea which is then influenced by the choice of instrumentation and available equipment, as well as with the composer’s knowledge of musical styles and how instrumentation is used to create and execute certain musical ideas.

2. Is the idea of genre important to you and your music?

Maegraith: Not really.

Kauter: Yes, but in the sense of a history. Some ‘genres’ are really pointless. Like ‘indie’. Indie is the shark jumping moment in bending the definition of musical genres. That and ‘world’. In fact world might be worse because it’s also really racist. These genres are not really about music and are unhelpful as designations because other genres actually describe certain musical attributes that people have found a helpful name for grouping them together. ‘Indie’ and ‘world’ are the devils of genre. They’re the product of minds that actually don’t listen. Probably marketing minds. ‘Make it sounds like it didn’t cost a million dollars to make and then we’ll say it’s indie’.

For me the idea of genre is important when it is capable of evoking a history. For example ‘folk’ tells me about a long tradition of travelling musicians who comment on the political situation of the day and societal pressures on the common human, infusing these with their own personal stories so that the listener is reminded that they are part of something. Society exists. There is American, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese and on and on. There are lots of sounds in folk, patterns of playing that are particular to regions. All are characterised by the fact that they focus on acoustic instruments and a prominent singer. Lyrics are important. Emotion, story, the listener… all king. It’s democratic, it’s for the people.

In this sense, genre is important to me. I want to exist in that history, it informs me. I don’t have to sound a certain way. The patterns played, the roads travelled etc, they don’t have to be the same. I don’t need to stand in a field with my shoes off to say ‘folk!’ I just need to acknowledge that history and genre by recognising what it is at its essence. But that’s for me, not really for others. It helps me to stay connected to an idea of music that is important and poignant to me. I imagine people feel this way about a lot of different genres of music.

So, actually, the genres we bandy about are wonderful language devices that conjure whole histories comprising musical motifs, patterns, standards, instruments, repeated narratives, certain innovations, particular regions, sounds, political revolutions, great love myths, heroes, heroines, failures and villains. They all manage to be referenced by this one word that shoots out great lightning pulses like neurons into the collective consciousness, lighting up a whole galaxy of meaning and culture. And that can happen with any of these genres.

It’s for this reason that certain ones are really offensive like ‘world music’ because the history it lights up is such a boring one about ‘you’ vs ‘me’. This idea that there is me and all of my nuanced history with the many genres needed to express it and then there is all the other people who make this one kind of music called ‘world’. That’s the kind of story we don’t need to be lighting up. That’s bad logic that only gets worse the more we use it.

Rojas: Audiences use genre in order to make it easier to seek out music they may like according to their individual tastes.  I think as a composer, genre can be a hindrance, more than anything. Catering to any particular audience is quite easy to do once you know how, usually rendering the resulting compositions stale and derivative. As a fan of music, I can relate to the need for people to categorise music into easily to digest genres, but when I have my composer’s hat on, that need is superfluous.

I rarely start writing a song with any specific genre in mind.  As a song is formed though, it becomes clear which particular musical project I am involved in it would be most suited for.  Having said that, I have been able to translate a heavy metal song into a classical piece quite easily, because the compositions do not rely on the limitations or confines of any particular genre or instrumentation, rather their adaptability comes from a strong emphasis on melody and structure

3. Here are 3 genres: what are your brief reactions? – 1. Pop-country, 2. Blues-rock, 3. Hip-hop

Maegraith: Keith Urban, Gary Moore, Lecrae

Kauter: I think immediately of the film The Player by Robert Altman. There’s that great first shot that goes on forever and at one point we listen in on a writer pitching a film to a producer and he is describing a film in which a political candidate has an accident that results in him being able to read minds. The producer says, “So it’s a psychic-political-thriller-comedy… with a heart.”

I also think, “Hyphens are fun”.

Rojas: POP COUNTRY: Pop was my first love. I grew up listening to ABBA, The Village People, Elton John, and The Beatles.  I usually apply a pop mentality to everything I write. Pop music to me is catchy, concise and to the point, so just because you’re writing an avant-garde noise piece, doesn’t mean you can’t apply those same elements to it.

Coming from a guy whose standard answer when asked “what kind of music do you like?”, is “I like pretty much everything”,  I can honestly say that country music comes very close to the bottom of the list.  The amalgamation of something I love with something that I loathe can result in either one improving on the other, or one ruining the other.  When ‘pop country’ springs to mind, I would say it is the latter.

BLUES ROCK: I love rock music but I really do have a love/hate relationship with the blues.  As much as I appreciate its influence and importance in modern music, it is not the kind of music that inspires me or excites me on a day-to-day basis.  Having said that, my guitar playing is for the majority influenced by blues.  One of the only scales I know is the blues scale and so any solos that I play end up sounding very blues influenced regardless of genre.  Despite my apathy towards blues, it is very much an integral part of how I developed musically and currently unwittingly express myself.

HIP HOP: Growing up through 80s, hip hop was an unavoidable part of my musical shaping.  There was a particular movie called Beat Street that introduced me to artists such as Grand Master Flash, Kool Moe Dee, and Afrika Bambaataa, at an early age.  Later on, I also found an appreciation for NWA and Public Enemy.  A little known fact is that Shanghai sampled a Public Enemy track from ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ on our first EP, ‘Esoterica’. In more modern times, two bands that stick out to me are The Beastie Boys and The Avalanches.  The Avalanches’ first EP ‘El Producto’ is one of my favourite hip hop releases of all time, especially with its use of Theremin being a personal highlight.

genre rojas - shanghai

In more recent times, I appreciate hip hop when it is approached organically.  For instance my appreciation of Beastie Boys and Avalanches stems from their incorporation of rock band instrumentation as opposed to relying solely or very heavily on samples, synthesisers and drum machines. It’s the fusing of real world instrumentation with the electronic realm that works best for me in this particular genre.

A lot of recent hip hop does absolutely nothing for me as its stagnated into this pool of sexist, macho, repetitive, derivative, formulaic droll.  The only artist of late that has stood out for me is Kendrick Lamar and his second release ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’.

4. Is current music, in general, moving further away from genre constraints or aligning tighter to them?

Maegraith: Both, at the same time, I think. There are what I call ‘archivists’ (people/groups who seek to retain the ‘true’ or ‘original’ genre) in all genres of music. They can be forthright about what is ‘jazz’ or ‘swing’ or the notion that any jazz after bebop was rubbish, or whatever. These archivists appear in most genres. Thankfully, they’re in the minority, but they’re usually pretty vocal about it. These people are keen to keep genre lines tight. At the same time, globalisation has allowed a new kind of genre blurring o occur which is exciting for the most part, I think.

Kauter: Further away. We assign genres to things merely as a way of branding the music in a certain way. Usually we really need to talk about bands or musicians that a particular artist sounds like because the genres have become either very mixed or perverted by people hijacking them as a way of falsely associating certain music with other music. That perversion sort of builds up on itself until genres mean so little there really isn’t much to move away from. That in itself is an interesting thing to think about. The fact that when designations become so important that people feel they need to manipulate their meaning to infer greater importance, eventually those designations come to mean nothing and yet it is still very important. You might say assertions of genre are only as powerful as the agents making them, whether that is musicians, executives, critics or others.

Audiences are never involved in assigning genre. I think that’s significant, especially when it comes to the nonsense end of genre meanings. Only certain agents can assign genre and now they’re saying things like “indie/alternative grunge/dance” and the listeners brain explodes, they have nowhere to put it so they HAVE to listen. It’s genius. Delusions of genre.

Rojas: I would say that the genres themselves are actually expanding.  For example, heavy metal – once fairly easy to define – is now awash with a sea of sub-genres.  While it’s easier for people to describe themselves as heavy metal fans, a metal-core kid could quite easily detest a founding band of the heavy metal genre, eg. Iron Maiden. Black Sabbath fans may also detest the latest djent masterpiece.

The blanket term ‘Heavy Metal’ is a good example of where there are bands that have similar influences aligning under one broad banner, yet move away from each other in terms of sub-genre.

5. Have you ever been pressured to conform to a saleable genre for fame, limos and hoes?

Maegraith: No

Kauter: As a matter of fact I have. I was once playing at an open mic in a really upbeat afro-cuban bar in King Cross. It was a competition of sorts and my band and I were very much in the wrong place. It was the kind of place that you need to be high on cocaine to enjoy. The entire dance hall was crawling with B and C grade wannabe celebrities (now there’s a genre). After we had played I misplaced my drink and I headed to the artists’ dressing room to find an alternative. Metal featured heavily in in that room and from between a pair of bronze neo-celtic relief sculptures a woman appeared. It was Chan Marshall, aka, Cat Power: the queen of indie/folk. I’ve always really loved her so I was shocked. She said, “I really loved your set”. I looked at my shoes. She bought me a drink and told me that if I could ditch my band and become a lo-fi, ambient, trip hop artist that I could join her on a world-music tour as her support act. She had a lot of samples she’d been working on on her vintage casiotone and I wouldn’t have to write new songs, just set them to tiny drum beats and simple synths. I was quite freaked out.

She showed me her limo and told me she’d found a way to take the carcinogens out of cigarettes. She offered me one and it tasted sort of like the way I remember Malboros tasting when I was about 19 and they were still called Malboros. Of course, those days are over now. Hers were in these blue plastic bags marked “experimental house”. We made it to Japan before I woke up. My musical dream, in which I struggle with selling out and in the end reconcile myself to a life of public fame and personal sacrifice, was over.

Rojas: Not pressured, no. The only pressure in that regard would be any pressure that I put on myself in the past as a naïve young composer to try to fit into the stereotypes that I thought necessary at the time to progress successfully in a musical career.  Now with the benefit of hindsight, limos and hoes do not appeal to me, although some fame would be nice.

6. Who are your genre-bustin’ heroes? Why?

genre maegraith - Chris PotterMaegraith: There’s the obvious people like Ry Cooder and Bill Frisell but I’m pretty taken by Avishai Cohen and Chris Potter. They both have so many current influences permeating their music but still sound like jazz musicians. I dig that. Sometime world or really blurry genres end up sounding like what a potluck lunch tastes like. Neither this, nor that. And the musical conviction suffers.

Kauter: Hmmm, this is a tough one. Maybe my mother. She left school at 15 as a wayward fun loving, pubescent puberty blues-esque tearaway. At 16 she ran away with her sweetheart to Queensland where the odds were stacked against them and from where they returned 8 months later pregnant, prodigal. She worked as a checkout chick and had three kids by 22, a tough and kind-hearted down-on-her luck mother, fiercely protective of her kids and husband. Young and hopeful she began work for a major insurance company answering phones, ambitious and hard-working in a man’s world. Eventually she became a senior manager and policy writer at that company and was the high flying executive who feels guilty about leaving her kids at home alone after school. She was the perpetually busy career woman whose husband resents her success on some level. She was also a triathlete. Then she was the stay-at-home wife and mother who has seen the light and forsaken her career for the sake of her man and children. Now she is the happy, empty nester and grandma who spends her time working for the church and taking motorcycle trips through rural Australia with her teenage sweetheart.

Rojas: Frank Zappa. He has probably been the biggest influence on me since I first discovered his music, around the very early 90s, just before he passed away.  His prolific tendencies alone forced him to explore more musical styles within his lifetime than most composers of any standing.  I know that his roots lay in styles such as the blues, pop music and doo-wop, but even as a child, Frank appreciated the avant-garde music concrete just as much, with Edgard Varese and Stravinsky being two of his favourite composers.  He not only influenced me as a player – giving me a new found appreciation of the electric guitar – but also as a composer seeking out ways to fuse and reinvent different musical styles in a coherent and palatable way.genre frank zappa

John Zorn: Another prolific composer that has had a big effect on my writing, as well as exposing me to new musical ideas, approaches and artists.  From his covers of classic film soundtracks, to his intelligent use of musical game pieces, Zorn, and in particular his band Naked City, taught me that genre need not be a limitation on songwriting, and that the only restrictions as a composer or a musician are the ones placed on yourself.  Never did I think that an improvisational death metal grind-core band could exist with alto saxophone at its centre, totally devoid of guitar, but Zorn made it work in his band Painkiller, which also featured Mick Harris and Bill Laswell.

Carl Staling: Also a major influence on Zorn, Staling’s infinite smashing of genres and cut-and-paste aesthetic rings through my music in Shanghai.  I guess spending all that time watching Warner Brothers cartoons as a kid is paying off now.

Maxine Kauter, Maxine Kauter Band – http://www.maxinekauterband.com/
Richard Maegraith, Galaxstare – http://galaxstare.com/
Luis Rojas, Shanghai – http://www.myspace.com/shanghaimyspace
Published March 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

When the bands and polemicists of Punk Rock created their Year Zero circa 1977, they ushered in a new age of creative play in music. The 20th century had already gone through a Jazz Age from the roaring 20s through to the late 50s, when it was supplanted by Elvis et al (artists who the Punks’ frenzy and danger ironically mirrored) and the new Rock Age.

When the Punks decided it was time to wash the past away, their theories (if not always their practice) opened rock music up – a dam-busting which gave birth to Punk’s obsessively creative monster children: New Wave and Post-Rock. Musically it was the Miasma Age, where anything goes and the only artists sticking to the bindings of a particular genre were those who did so out of purism, zealotry or blind love.

It is obvious and plain that this Big Bang still reverberates today – but a bright surprise that it is present in non-Rock musics, such as Jazz.

Melbourne guitarist Tim Willis and his band, The End, have as much rock going on in their jazz as jazz in their rock – and who cares anyway? In the Miasma Age, this is what all music should sound like. The End’s second album, Keep Your Chin Up is eight tracks of sublimely creative music that packs a funky rock-edged punch.

Openers ‘Chers Amis’ and ‘Save Me From The Rednecks’ are a pair of great rockers – the first brisk with a tautly unfolding jazz solo from Willis, the second a muggy half-time skank – that have everything we knew and loved from their 2011 debut album, The End (see my review here): the tough rhythm section of double-bassist Gareth Hill and drummer Nick Martyn, the unusual twinning of the alto and tenor saxes of Jon Crompton and John Felstead, and the heavy powerchords/fleet jazz lines of Tim Willis.

But it is the third piece, the evocatively named homage to Willis’s partner ‘Lying On Her Bed Listening To Steve Reich’ that shows how far the band has evolved in the short time between The End and Keep Your Chin Up. The piece is built on a lattice of stabbing eighth-notes that fade in and out, leading to a remarkable middle section where the band passes these eighth-notes around almost mechanically, yet to extraordinary effect – mirroring the music of minimalist maestro Reich. It’s jazz, Jim, but not as you know it.

Extra horn player Jack Beeche is brought in for the meshed sax harmonies of Jon Crompton’s piece ‘The Rose’ which rolls along on a heavy blues-boogie shuffle over which Willis solos entirely unhinged but in complete control. Title track ‘Keep Your Chin Up’ has a strutting swagger that reflects its positive title. (Willis dedicates the album to his sister’s courage during her battle with breast cancer).

The drive and looped melody of ‘It’ll Be Ok… No It Won’t’ calls to mind 70s proggers Van Der Graaf Generator more than it calls to mind any Jazz artist I can think of. And why not? Such is the nature of Jazz in the Miasma Age – and this is one of the best bands and albums of this Age.

The End’s website is here – www.timwillis.com.au

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Prior to publishing this review, TheOrangePress asked Tim Willis for his top 5 ROCK albums. Here are his responses:

1. Jimi Hendrix – Axis Bold As love
I love this album cause Jimi plays his arse off on every track and it has some of his most beautiful and most rockin’ tunes. I love albums where you can listen to every tune and not want to skip through it, this is one of those. It sounds so raw and energetic, it’s still so fresh and exciting!

2. The Beatles – Abbey Road
Fantastic songs and I love the way the album flows from one song to the next. I love the lesser known tunes on this album such as I want you (She’s so Heavy) and  you never give me your money.

3. Rage Against The Machine – Rage Against The Machine
This album made me want to join the young socialists and burn down the local Liberal Party member’s office. It rocks out hard and has some fantastic grooves. It’s so angry and you can feel all that in the music.

4. Radiohead – OK Computer
Once again, It’s an album  where you can listen to the whole thing without skipping through tracks…every song is gold and has it’s own story to tell. The overall mood is one of melancholy and loneliness, it’s beautiful.

5. Faith No More – King For A Day Fool For A Lifetime
I love this band because they are impossible to categorize and every-time they do something new it’s different and out of left field. Standout moments on this album are Richochet, Evidence, Cuckoo for Ca Ca, Star A.D. and Just A Man.  This Album rocks out hard and has something for everyone!

Published June 2012 on theorangepress.net

What is Style? Style is a spectre, a ghostly sheen that is impossible to describe and pretty much impossible to buy, steal or fake. In short, you either got it or you don’t.

Today’s styles tumble over each other with such rapidity that the more style conscious among us are almost perpetually dizzy with Style’s glittering spin. The truly stylish – whether in fashion, music, food, even politics – seem to have an enviable ability to cherry-pick what they want from this or that and make it their own.

Sydney singer-songwriter Vanessa Raspa has all the Style she needs and more. Her look and vibe are an impeccable and captivating combination of much of the best of the 20th century – 40’s chic, 50’s sass, even a splash of 70s and 80s pop smarts -– while being entirely of today. The same goes for her music.

La Raspa’s recent launch of her single Movin’ took place at Newtown’s Vanguard. She could not have selected a better venue – part Paris bordello, part über-urban jazz bar, The Vanguard’s décor was a perfect fit for an entirely stylish night of music.

Opener, Tether (singer Cat Robinson) chilled the room with her intimate tunes including a hushed and lush version of The Church’s ‘Under The Milky Way’. The Conscious Pilots’ brand of extroverted rap-funk-with-horns woke us out of our revery and prepared us for La Raspa and her band.

Strutting out with Motown belter ‘Like Candi Says’, Raspa’s band – the wonderfully named Zombie Cats – pricked our ears up. These are some of Sydney’s sharpest young jazz players but they don’t mind putting their foot down as the music commands. Cameron Henderson’s SRV-style solo spat some sparks during the opener. Yet for ‘Real Deal’ the Cats laid back, evoking the smoothest of smooth jazz – with a wonderful Chick Corea-like solo from Emma Stephenson adding a pearlescent lustre.

Raspa’s songs demand this level of switched-on musicianship – her fashion sense is smart and eclectic, and so is her music: there are flavours of soul (not Nu-, but the Detroit stuff, the real stuff), pure pop, finger-popping jazz and more than a nod to cabaret. The torchy ‘Broken’ or the hip-swinging ‘Superman’ put out velvet textures that hung perfectly among The Vanguard’s rich, deep drapes. ‘Sometimes Silence’ had the band flamenco-clapping to a Spanish 6/8 with drummer Oli Nelson kicking up some Andalusian dust under it all. Elsen Price, on electric upright, began the tune ‘Carousel’ with complete authority over the groove. 

But it was Vanessa Raspa’s night – she was chanteuse, diva, blues lady, jazz baby. Like all the most truly musical singers, she worked with the band – over it, within it, around it – a synergy all too rare in this age of counterfeit Stardom, but always a startling thing to experience. By the time Raspa and her Zombie Cats hit us with the single Movin’ – its launch was the reason we were here – the Vanguard was hers. A sharp slice of Motown soul-funk – with horn man Jack Shanley working and sweating like a whole section – Movin’ raised everyone’s temperature on this chill late Autumn night.

We wouldn’t let her go, but her impromptu encore of The Beatles’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ (by way of SRV’s ‘Pride and Joy’) left us all smiling. As does La Raspa’s music and pin-sharp style – which she gets just so right.

Photos by Lily So. Check the full gallery here.

Published May 2012 on theorangepress.net

Sometimes the best things in life (and music) come from wrong turns. The Beatles trying to replicate Motown hits and getting it so gloriously wrong. The Ramones‘ attempt at being a bubblegum band, botched but ultimately birthing a new direction for rock. It is said the ‘blue’ (or flattened) notes in early blues – the basis for so much in the vernacular of popular music – came from slaves’ inaccurate hearing of distantly played Western classical music. Who knows?

Joe Camilleri set out to make a Hank Williams-inspired record in Nashville. Instead, he ended up making a triple-album set, holding 24 new songs, with almost everyone who ever played in his band The Black Sorrows, and housing it in an art book with original paintings by Sydney artist, Victor Rubin. This wrong turn (or series of wrong turns), led to Crooked Little Thoughts. All hail the wrong turn, summed up neatly in Camilleri’s lyric, “The world’s a sea of stories and nothing goes to plan…”

Camilleri says of his beloved Black Sorrows “On a good night we’re a great band… On a bad night, we’re a train wreck. And I reckon that’s the way bands should be… I’d rather fall on my face than be the same every night.” It is this mission statement that not only gives Crooked Little Thoughts its restless ecleticism (covering rock’n’roll, reggae, country, blues, gospel etc), but also its rollicking and blood-pumping live feeling across all 24 tracks.

From horn-and-string-laden funk opener ‘Money Talkin’ – with great blues-guitar from Claude Carranza – the ‘family’ vibe is evident. The lead vocal is shared by Camilleri and Sorrows newcomer (and quite a find!), the wonderfully named Atlanta May Coogan, with big bad backing vocal from the Wolfgramm sisters, Eliza, Kelly and Talei. There are 14 people on this track, yet they are all driving the same bus, all working towards making the song live its own life for 4:36.

This ‘family’ vibe is all over Crooked Little Thoughts – some tunes are sparser of course: the Tex-Mex ‘Our Town’, the Nashville ballad ‘The Spell is Broken’, the Bakersfield boogie ‘Dustbowl Blues’ – but every tune has just what it needs; the gumbo cooked up from the amazingly rich pantry of the Sorrows wonderful instrumentalists: Rockwiz’s James Black, jazz guitarist James Sherlock, tenor man Wilbur Wilde, drummer David Jones.

And they can rock too: ‘Shelley’ cooks with Stonesy guitars, ‘I’m the One’ takes us back to the humid Melbourne days of Camilleri’s hit band, Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons, ‘Waitin for the Hammer’ bristles with Stax soul excitement. Unlike too many double- or triple-album sets (of which it is often said that they would have made one great single album), every song here counts; the riches on Crooked Little Thoughts are many and varied. The moods, colours and stories here are tied together by something as simple as ‘heart’ – all the characters, streets, towns, kisses and sads are real, and very human.

Mention needs to be made of two huge talents, apart from the raggedly glorious Mr Joe Camilleri, that contribute indelibly to the album: that of vocalist Atlanta Coogan and artist Victor Rubin. Atlanta May Coogan (her name could come from a Camilleri tune!) is a great voice; her stamp is all over the music here, whether sharing lead vocal with Joe (‘Its Only Xmas’ is standout), or taking the lead on her own on the torchy blues ‘Lovin You’, one can hear why she made Mr Camilleri’s ears prick up when he first heard her on the Fogg album he produced in 2003.

Lastly, the other creative personality who undoubtedly makes Crooked Little Thoughts really something is painter Victor Rubin. The artworks he has created for each of the 24 tracks – they each face the song’s lyrics on double-page spreads – are timelessly modern, brilliantly original and full of a passionate lunge of feeling in their execution; in this they fit with the Black Sorrows’ music so well: nothing clever-clever, nothing too clean, slick or pointlessly polished. They are just right, and help to elevate this remarkable package of song- stories, story-songs and song-pictures into one of the great artifacts of Australian music.

The Black Sorrows website is here.

Victor Rubin’s website is here.

Crooked Little Thoughts is out on Head Records.

Published April 2012 on theorangepress.net