Friday, March 23, 2012

Johnette Napolitano live at The Famous Spiegeltent (Melbourne): 2012

Venue: Famous Spiegeltent
Date: 15/03

The Famous Spiegeltent, a 1920’s-era tent/saloon bar, complete with its original fittings is one of the last of its kind in the world. Images of Marlene Dietrich seducing a crowd of absinth-drinking bohemians or a thrilling display by trapeze artists come easy to the visitor, but its another ‘last of their kind’ that's pulled a full house tonight. As striking as the venue is to the eye, it’s a real effort to take one’s focus away from Johnette Napolitano even for a moment during her short but engaging show in this iconic setting.

Not a lot of performers take stock of their career highlights with the relish shown by Johnette Napolitano, nor do they display the respect she does for her fans, and importantly, her own material. When the Italian/American singer is on stage, she is guttural, fragile, fascinating and hilarious as she participates in a one woman show as though there were multiple characters/musicians around her and the distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is forgotten. It is occasionally disarming to feel such a close bond with the artist as she is performing on stage, but Napolitano is a great communicator above all things and for this one-hour session at least, sat in a bar somewhere, each and every one of us feel the warmth and ease of old friends chatting.

Being an actual career retrospective, poetry reading and storytelling set, there’s an added emotional breadth to the show. The fact that the concert is so short is one of the sadder aspects to it when you consider Napolitano’s incredible voice, prolific solo work and the many years fronting Concrete Blonde. Her appeal above many of her American contemporaries though is the fact that unlike them, Napolitano is apparently devoid of any ego and acknowledges that proper hard work is required to maintain any kind of life in the spotlight. She feels no sense of entitlement, but considers fortunate to be able to scrape a living from performing. At this stage, her three-night residency in Melbourne - titled A Self Portrait: 2012 - suggests she has arrived at a point in her life that needed a line drawn under it. Her last visit to Melbourne was for the 20th anniversary of Concrete Blonde’s breakthrough album, Bloodletting in 2010, but these solo acoustic gigs are clearly much more personal affairs for her.

The shows are segmented into music, poetry and significant tales of her life thus far, coinciding with a book she’s written about her song’s back-stories. The ‘songs’ element to the concert range from her first ever written piece at aged twelve – a charming but ultimately sinister conversation between a frog and a fruitfly – to cover versions which have become Johnette standards, and of course plenty of Concrete Blonde material. The poetry is good if not a little hurried as Johnette skips over her hand written notes as though she is concerned she is boring us. (She’s not). And finally, there is the storytelling. “This one’s a drinking song….” She offers at one point. “Oh fuck what am I saying… They’re all drinking songs!” And so begins the tale of Joey, Concrete Blonde’s most famous track. The subject in Joey, Marc Moreland from LA new-wave band Wall Of Voodoo – and former Johnette squeeze - succumbed to his drinking, she recalls, as the show shifts – but doesn’t dwell - into a serious tone. Her recently deceased father also receives a poetic tribute, and it dawns that Napolitano’s energetic, sharp wit hides a good deal of personal sadness.

Further key moments in tonight’s show include a heart-stopping Wedding Theme which Napolitano wrote for the Heath Ledger film Candy. Performing it seems to bring the singer close to tears, yet with Jonette there are always the many laugh-out-loud moments to balance the mood. A spontaneous clap-along of Amy Winehouse’s Rehab during Take Me Home, for example adds a tongue-in-cheek angle to a somber, reflective song on excessive boozing. Also a roar of laughter follows Johnette’s mock anger at how ‘none of her friends drive fucking Porche’s… They’re always begging for lifts’ in an acapella cover of Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz. “Any requests?” Johnette asks finally from beneath her gigantic hat which barely hides her copious amount of long black hair. “Wendy!!!” Comes the unified reply from various points around the room. Unsurprising, as Tomorrow Wendy was many Australian’s first taste of Napolitano’s voice and the song’s impact has never abated.

Musician’s biographies usually focus on a few on the road hi-jinx, album sessions and in-band relationships, but often they make the reader feel like they are peeking into a foreign, unreachable world. But within one hour of doing her ‘live biography’, Johnette completely broke down the wall between artist and fan. Her openness itself makes her relatable. Even if most of us don’t live in the Mojave Desert, or front alternative rock bands, Johnette’s driven by the things that connect us all. Her parting words to her audience is a reassurance to everybody present, as well as herself, as though she knows instinctively what draws people to her music in the first place; “The sun will come out tomorrow and things will be better. I promise.”


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