Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mike Scott (The Waterboys) interview: 2012


Mike Scott is so much the archetypal quirky, poetry-obsessed troubadour, it's as though he was written into being by the very scribes who inspired his love of words. As a young man, the Scottish-born singer made no real distinction between the value of The Beatles or Bob Dylan and the poets CS Lewis and WB Yeats as artists. They simply all wound up in his pot, along with a well-considered fascination with paganism and non-religious spirituality, which resulted in The Waterboys; a band he has remained the sole ongoing member of the 30 years now. Over the course of ten albums, Mike explored in great depth several points of fascination, but arguably none more than the work of poet, William Butler Yeats. To understand the impact of Yeats on Scott's work, you only need delve into a random selection of Waterboys songs. The early 20th century Irish poet's own interests – paganism, the occult - heavily reflect those of Scott's greatest works, so when The Waterboys released an entire album of Yeats' words set to music last year, it was somewhat inevitable. Discussing the album – An Appointment With Mr Yeats - and  the tour, which will include Australia for the first time, Scott from his adopted home (and Yeat's birthplace), Dublin, is finding the concept of embarking on new terrain strange and delightful.
“I only have a vague outsiders perspective of Australia, but I do also have a kind of expectation I guess.” He explains, anticipating his impending visit. “I completely expect my preconceptions to be shattered, but that's the exciting thing about travelling to new places.” His band's invitation to bring their Appointment With Mr Yeats show to the Sydney Festival prompted a long-overdue full major cities tour. On the origin of The Waterboys' Yeats project, Scott explains, it was an idea planted within his psyche from a young age. “I knew about Yeats when I was ten or eleven, because my mum was, and still is a university lecturer in English and she would often  mention this Yeats guy, but I didn't start to really focus on him until I was in my teens. At the same time, I was discovering music and the two things were very closely linked for me, and still are.” He recalls, “But I envisioned doing this show as long ago as 1991, so it only took me 21 years to make it a reality.” While developing his style, Scott was not only drawn to the poets his mother lectured about, but also literature on maritime symbolism, faeries and folk music which set his band well apart from many of their British contemporaries in the '80s.

Yet in the post-punk era, The Waterboys managed to remain accessible, however traditional their influences, and even found themselves lumped in with the media-hyped Scottish 'Big Music' scene along with Simple Minds, Big Country and World Party. Big Music was at the time defined simply enough as having 'big, powerful choruses in the vein of U2'. Scott, however was far from interested in contemporary Edinburgh. Preferring instead to split his time between Dublin and New York, environments which inspired his writing as much as any book of verse. “Dublin in the 1908s was such a wonderful place to come home to after being on tour. It's where I wrote a lot of The Waterboys songs and the music for the Yeats poems, but also I've found that New York has had a profound effect on my work. It's this huge melting pot of all the world's music, and is a place where I feel quite creatively unrestrained.” By the time The Waterboys had released their third and most successful album, This Is The Sea in 1985, they had already introduced listeners to Celtic folklore, Native American Indian rites, political scrutiny and pre-religious spirituality. The latter, a topic which has often been widely mis-interpreted by groups claiming Waterboys to be both Christian and heathen, depending on who you ask.

“I never subscribed to any religion. I always found magic to be much more interesting. When I was in my early 20s, I discovered spiritual literature and found there was a much greater depth to non-religious ideas about the world.” The deity Pan, from Greek mythology, is a favourite of Scott's, turning up in a number of songs (The Return Of Pan, The Pan Within), he discusses, “To me Pan represents our connection to one another and to nature. A lot of Christian religion seems to be about escapism, but Pan is a reminder to me that being connected is what's important.” Amongst the magic and mythology, on one occasion Waterboys did weigh-in on then current issues. Old England - an anti-Thatcher statement, put Scott among the many writers to 'turn political' in the '80s. “Well no bands emerged because of Thatcher and her government, but many songwriters were driven by a hatred of her. All I can say is, I wasn't immune.” While his ability with words seemed clear cut to the listener, Scott's signature tune - The Whole Of The Moon - was an admittance of the author's inadequacy, as he saw it, compared with 'the master writers'. CS Lewis is often cited as the song's inspiration, as is 18th century lyricist, Robert Burns. Burns - the Scottish poet, who is credited with  penning the original New Year's party anthem, Auld Lang Syne - was renowned for adapting old folk tales into his 'contemporary' lyrics; a tradition that Scott has carried on.

“I recently wrote my autobiography, and you know... what I found is that I have learned so much from making music and being musician, but it never stops. It's like everything I've written is me working towards something that I only glimpse now and then. I need to read to make me feel like I am living a full life, and writing is less a decision I make – it's more a task really... but I have to do it so I can know what lies ahead.” A lyric from Scott's, A Pagan Place; Drink my soul dry/There is always more – seems to describe a triumphant writer, never in fear of failing in his work. However, Mike points out, autobiographical it isn't. “That should be read as; the more you give, the more you get back. If you're willing to be fearless, you can always give more. I try to live by that rule.”


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Blixa Bargeld (Einstürzende Neubauten) interview: 2012


Ear, nose and throat specialists everywhere would probably cut off a limb for the chance to examine Blixa Bargeld. Nowhere short of an old miner's club would they find a better study of the long-term effects of industrial noise pollution on the human body. His signature 'inward scream' alone has meant scarring of the larynx and multiple throat nodules are a constant companion. “I have many, many doctors calling me... all the time.” Further more, for the last 32 years, the original 'grinder-man' has been flanked by more eardrum-punishing power tools than most tradies would see in a lifetime as leader of the - quite literally - industrial Berlin group, Einstürzende Neubauten.

Bargeld and his band of racket-mongers are Australia bound for next year's All Tomorrow's Parties festival, and as a former long-term Bad Seed, Blixa, who's services to Mr Cave's ceased in 2003, is keen to get back. “I haven't been to Australia since we (the Bad Seeds) recorded Nocturama, but there was a time when I was there for a few months out of every year.” Bargeld begins via our Skpe conversation, “I can't talk on the phone... I am the same as Nick (Cave) in that regard. If this was a phone interview, it would be over in about 5 minutes, I can promise you that. I love Skype though, I can stay home and still see who I am talking to. In the past I would have to get on a plane and get flown to meet the journalist... that is how much I hate talking on the phone. This is better hmm ...Don't you think?” From his rather cold, clinical office/study room, Blixa Bargeld comes across as a man who has heard it all before, and many times. Bizarre rumours and legendary stories about his band's activities have elevated them to cult icons among fans of industrial, new wave and experimental music. But Bargeld himself is most contented by the fact that there really is no other band like his. “You have heard of this thing called 'google notification', yes?” He asks without waiting for my answer, “Well I find it very amusing to see what context Neubauten is mentioned on the internet.... and it is usually in reviews for albums by bands I have never heard of... 'these guys sound like a cross between Neubauten and some other thing'.... Many bands have been compared to us, but at least I am 'not like anything else' or Neubauten are not 'like' X, Y, Z bands out there.”

It's a fact that Neubauten didn't have any kind of pre-existing blueprint to work from. Their music was devised from a combination of the band member's imaginations and found objects in the form of power tools, shopping trolleys, suspension coils and building site waste. Although Blixa finds it is near impossible to explain how his band found a way to compose cohesive music with no instruments, musical training or influences, he offers, “All I can tell you is, when we make music we always have done so with the idea that you don't think about it, you react to it. You listen and you add to what each person in the band is creating on his own... It was never about artistic decisions. We never decided to get our instruments from building sites, they were the only things we could get our hands on. We had no money for new instruments or any of that sort of thing. You could say that for a band from West Berlin, this way of finding materials to use for music was easy. There was still so much urban decay in the early '80s which became a resource for us when we were starting out. I always thought that it was strange that more bands hadn't thought to do something like what we were doing with so many materials just left to rust.” Blixa speaks passionately about his memory of Berlin as a city divided. In his sector, wreck and ruin were a part of everyday life and whether consciously or not, it influenced his unique form of expression. Einstürzende Neubauten were simply born out of a very human need to create when destruction is seemingly all prevailing. As we talk about his youth spent scavenging in his neighbourhood's many gutted buildings, Blixa occasionally glances out of his window at  Berlin: the 2012 Model.

“I don't recognise this place any more.” He says, deflecting attention from himself. “When the Wall came down it looked as though World War II had only just ended the week before. It's all gentrified now and it is taking its toll on this city. It used to be so much cheaper to live here than most other European cities, and Berlin suddenly became very appealing for the wealthy to move to. It's like being in a brand new city now.” His tone of voice suggests Blixa would be quite happy if the shiny new apartment blocks and multiplexes indeed did collapse, as his band's name - which translates as Collapsed New Buildings - would suggest. It doesn't even feel like a stretch of the imagination to think Neubauten are driven either by love of, or a desire to punish architecture as if its perfect dimensions and stubborn inflexibility is both admirable and an affront to them. Either way, from their debut album Kollaps to 2005 release Anarchitektur, the subject is hard to avoid when browsing their catalogue. Perhaps it is this particular fascination that has fueled the endless wild stories about Neubauten's alleged venue-destroying live shows. Some stories are even true, but reminding Blixa of the often-referenced jack-hammering of Manchester's Hacienda club's ceiling support beams at an early show, has him battle-worn.

“We never had a jack-hammer on stage.” He says sharply. “We had an electric hammer, it is a very different thing. Besides, I still have a video of that show, and I can tell you, that did not happen. Neither I, or anybody in the band tried to drill through the Hacienda ceiling support beams. That story came from (Factory Records honcho) Tony Wilson's autobiography? ...Well you should know autobiography's are always great works of fiction.” Still, the classic image of Neubauten as a group of leather-clad, heroin-eyed noise-terrorists, intent on burrowing through stages rather than actually playing on them, has been hard to shake off. So when Bargeld joined Nick Cave's own band of brutes - The Birthday Party - in 1983, any pre-existing opinions were unlikely to change. More practically though, Blixa's new double role meant for the first time he would analyse his approach to guitar playing, and to performing within the relative confines of a more traditional band set-up.

“Well first of all, if Nick had've asked me to join his band on clarinet, I still would have said 'yes'. But the thing is, I have always looked at the outside techniques of what is considered 'normal' use of an instrument. What is the word in English... when the rabbit runs back and forth....? Zig-zag! This is how I play, using this zig-zag strategy to make music that nobody would expect whatsoever. In The Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds, although the music was very different, I could still play guitar without actually playing it in any conventional way. I approached singing in the exact same manner... If you don't do the 'normal thing', you are free to make discoveries, like finding I could scream while sucking in air to get a much more powerful sound to come out.” Bargeld was by no means a casual member of Nick Cave's band, but his role had diminished considerably following Murder Ballads album in 1995 when the Bad Seeds began to explore their softer side. He finally left in 2003 among rumours that he was annoyed about the direction they had taken.

“There was no quarrel between Nick and I. I left only because of my personal life, I mean I had gotten married and playing in two bands was no longer an option for me. But we are good.... There is no bad blood there.” The 'distraction' from Neubauten resulted in a much more focused Blixa, he admits. “Neubauten would not exist any more if everybody in the band wasn't busy with other things. It helps us to clarify what it is we do as Neubauten, because there are things we can only do within this band... If someone wants to go off and write music for a jeans commercial, then that's fine, but we could never do that as Neubauten.” For a band heavily reliant on improvisation, recording their albums was more a process of rehearsing as if for a live show than trying to get a perfect take. In Einstürzende Neubauten, a successful studio session is when nobody has be told to 'come in on the fourth scream'. “When we are playing together, of course it can sometimes be awful, but then you don't have to release those things. What you need to make a band like ours work is a metre level of communication which is without words. I know some bands who are able to do this well, like Can for instance, who famously improvised most of the time and the results were quite magical I think. They could sound like they were working with arrangements that had been written before, and I'm happy to say that Neubauten, when we are good, are playing like that too. We are improvising in a way that sounds like we have fully composed it beforehand and that is a very, very satisfying way of making music... using pure instinct.” Not surprisingly, in the band's beginning stages, Blixa's lack of any form of musical training was crucial to how he would ultimately function within the band.

“I had an idea that music could be anything you wanted it to be. We were very indignant about this because it meant we had no rules to follow. We knew no other way than that way, but then, you can't be involved in making music for as long as I have without learning a lot about how it is made. You can't keep approaching the guitar as if it is the first time you picked it up. I am 54 years old now, I know how to write, I know about music theory... I even have an invalid pass I can use here in Germany for the bus.” He laughs, “Also I had to learn how to produce when we made our first album. Our record company had no money to pay a engineer, and so the guy who owned the studio just showed us what buttons to push and then left. After that if a producer tried to tell me what I could and couldn't do in a studio, I would say well yes I can, I have done it before. Over time these limitations on how to make music in a studio have become silently accepted, but if you don't destroy all these rules you become enslaved by them.” Blixa says, suddenly becoming agitated. “Nobody can tell me how to record music because I have done it in ways a lot of producers wouldn't even dream of,” He adds, “and no doctors can tell me how to use or not use my voice because I have been singing like this for over 30 years, and my voice is still here.” He snorts.

In light of Bargeld's solid grasp of his own capabilities, I wonder if intentionally shocking or frightening of his audience was ever a motivation. It's hard to think not, judging by output like the 1986 collaborative conceptual film Halber Mensch, which saw Neubauten along with Japanese director, Sogo Ishii create a nightmarish, subterranean world where half-human beasties scurried about to the strains of nails-on-blackboard screeches and rattling chains. “No, I think in your more democratic, free speech Western societies, provocation is very outdated concept. I never employed that as an artistic strategy. How people react to our music, is a personal thing for them, it is not something I can control.” However, during their most intense industrial period, Blixa concedes, there was a genuine risk to one's safety coming to an Einstürzende Neubauten show. “There have only been a couple of injuries to people in the audience, but it was always accidental.” He reassures, “I have learned to know when to duck if Andrew (Chudy – percussion) is wielding some huge piece of metal around on stage, but our audience were usually in no danger at all... it was always bouncers that got pissed off with us. They thought we were just trying to destroy the place... they had no clue.” Despite their notoriety, Neubauten faced quite a lot of ignorance over their 'strategies' as Blixa puts it. At a show in America, they were booted off stage after just half hour, once the angle-grinders were wheeled out; and again when opening for U2, they were forced to pull out of their support slot on the massive Zooropa tour for 'causing an affray'.

Their intention however was never to destroy. From Berlin's shattered urban landscape, where work to mend the city was minimal at best, came the sudden, long-absent sound of men building. Neubauten could be seen as an expression of your average Berliner's feelings about their neglected environment and its constant reminder of war. The band grew fast though, and coincidentally or not, changed their approach to music almost overnight following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Blixa discusses. “There was a show we played in a haunted house in Copenhagen, where Andrew climbed up the wall at the back of the stage, and did some let's say, 'architectural improvements' by drilling into the ceiling and removing the decorations that were there, and some people saw that as an attack on their house. As a result of this, Andrew had his electric hammer stolen from our van, which we never were able to recover.” He recalls, “So from that moment on, we never had an electric drill, but we went on to find other ways of making music.” In advance of the band's first show in Australia in many years, Blixa ends our conversation by enforcing the point, Australia's popular live music venues are quite safe, and more than likely to survive his band's visit. “I hope nobody is going to be disappointed, but when they come to see us, there's won't be any fire, or anybody drilling holes in the stage or tearing down the walls... It's going to be some middle-aged men playing what I think is some pretty interesting music... not sawing their arms off or anything like that. If people want to see that, they should go and see Rammstein instead... We are NOT Rammstein!”

Blixa: enjoying a rare moment of peace and quiet.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Iva Davies (Icehouse) interview: 2012


For Iva Davies, the clichéd mullet and leather jacketed Aus-rocker image was never a good fit for him, even in the 1980s. In fact the Sydney native multi-instrumentalist, while writing future classic singles for his band Flowers (and ultimately Icehouse), was in the late ‘70s, moonlighting as a bow-tied oboist in a symphony orchestra, in order to give himself options. “I was living a real double life back then!” Thankfully, the rock path held greater appeal, and in the coming years, Iva would find himself front and centre of one of the most successful bands in the country, before inexplicably disappearing without a word in the mid-‘90s.

Equally unexpected was the break in Icehouse’s 17 years of inactivity, when in July last year, an unannounced ‘secret’ gig at the Espy was swamped by hundreds of fans who’d turned up in the hope the rumours were in fact true. The huge response soon prompted further dates being booked, and ultimately lead to a tour in celebration of the respective anniversaries of the band’s two biggest albums; Primitive Man and Man Of Colours. Before the so-named Primitive Colours tour hits town, Iva looks back at the songs that made him a household name and tells why he decided make such an understated return.

“Part of the reason we did that show was basically to see if there was still interest in the band. Before that show, I really wasn’t confident at all but when the word got out that the surprise guests were us there were lines around the block, which was a huge relief.” Davies recalls. “It was also quite appealing playing a proper pub gig again. It was a bit of a return to our roots as well.” After Icehouse called it quits in 1995, Davies, holed up in his home studio, threw himself into writing scores for films (Master & Commander), the Sydney Dance Company and a Millennium performance piece called The Ghost of Time, which centred around an updated version of the Icehouse classic, Great Southern Land. For all intents and purpose though, it seemed as if Iva had suddenly turned his back on Icehouse and pop music in general.

“Playing in a band is actually a very gruelling lifestyle.” He reasons, “I’ve always needed to offset all that by grabbing as much quiet time as I can in order to work, which means pulling the phone out of the wall just so I can avoid any distractions. That’s how I’ve always made music; whether that’s pop or film scores.” He adds, “I look at someone like Prince, who I know for a fact had a studio on 24 hour stand-by while he was in Sydney a few months ago, just in case he had an idea for a song but for me, I’ve never been able to stop and start the process at will. It’s a bit of fragile bubble that once broken can never be regained.” His method of music making no matter how isolating resulted in a tonne of credible hits throughout the 1980s. Radio in particular loved Icehouse so much that based on playlists alone, one would have assumed they were the most popular band in the country for a time. Davies’ memory of such support however, is a little less than enthusiastic.
Davies: Not just the 'Electric Blue guy.'

“I never wanted to be known as the ‘Electric Blue guy’.” He laughs, distancing himself somewhat from the 1987 single, which was famously a co-write with John Oates (of Hall & Oates). “That song was actually our only number one hit in Australia, but it wasn’t what I thought best represented Icehouse as I saw us. Still it is the song that I get asked about more than any other even to this day.” Electric Blue was in truth far from the band's only moment in the sun. Second album 1984’s Primitive Man, was Icehouse’s first real mover on the local and overseas charts, however label doubt over the finished product’s hit-potential pushed Iva into an unexpectedly rewarding situation. “The American record label, who wanted to push the Primitive Man album, sent us back to the drawing board because they didn’t think we had a big single on there.” He explains, “Basically I ended up sleeping on the floor in Giorgio Moroder’s studio – who was of course this massive disco producer in Hollywood, where we had recorded most of the album – and in the wee hours, using this guitar with a missing string, I wrote Hey Little Girl, which became our first international hit.” The mention of Moroder prompts Davies’ to quickly remind me his allegiance was always to the rock world and that Icehouse were never in real danger of making a disco record.

“Back then, you were very much into one or the other, and I was never a disco fan at all.” He confirms, “Led Zeppelin and T-Rex was what I really was into at the time, although I did like what Moroder was doing with synths and sequencers.” As it happened, it was during the same year Moroder was enjoying success with the uber-cheesey Together In Electric Dreams, that Icehouse delivered what would become their signature single and sure-fire Aus anthem; the haunting Great Southern Land. “That song went through quite a number of changes before it was completed.” Iva recalls, “I remember the producer on that track had just done Billy Idol’s Hot In The City, which was a massive record at the time, and he replaced all of my synth parts with live drums and so on, and basically made it into this big Billy Idol-type production piece, but it was just awful.” He laughs, “But the finished version you know today was basically the untouched demo that had taken me around two hours to mix and complete and it ended up becoming this massive thing that has become our real defining moment. But I really was disconnected with what it was people seemed to love about that song at the time. All I knew was I’d written a song about Australia and if I got it wrong then there was a real potential of it blowing up in my face!”

The simplistic beauty of how Southern Land was ultimately completed indicates a high level of self-belief in Iva’s way of working. While he generally allowed producers and labels their input, trust in his own judgement delivered the best results. Furthermore, while sales and accolades have informed which Icehouse albums are the most loved, In Iva’s own view, 1986 album Measure For Measure was closer to Icehouse’s defining moment. “I’m not necessarily consistent about it, but if pushed I would say that album was the most pivotal for us.” He considers, “It turned out that that album was only the third fully digital recording made ever, but we didn’t know that at the time.” Davies recalls, “How it happened was, a few years before we made it, we met a guy in London called Rhett Davies, who was a penniless roady at the time, but in the space of a few short years he had amassed this warehouse full of amazing gadgets, including a brand new digital multi-track.” Iva continues.

Big Wheel and its floppy attachment.
“As with anything new, there were more happy accidents when recording in digital than there were plans. Having said that, Rhett wasn’t in any way flying blind. This is a guy who had produced all early Roxy Music and Brian Eno albums, and so we were very lucky to be in his company at the start of the whole digital music thing.” After embracing digital recording and the CD in the mid-‘80s, Icehouse were again at the forefront of a burgeoning technology in 1993. The band’s seventh album, Big Wheel was initially packaged with a floppy disc – only the second album in the world to do so – although it would prove to be a much more short-lived diversion, Iva recalls the “bonus floppy” with fondness. “It was actually developed by our keyboardist Tony Llewellyn, who was a real techno-boffin and one of the first people who bought a Macintosh and carried it around in a bag on tour. Once again, I was lucky to be around incredibly clever people, but it was always going to be a risk seeing as technology can be so transient, but it was something nobody else was doing and even though it took a while to fire it up once the disc was inserted, it was a fun little extra to play around with.”

Iva with Flowers; circa 1980
As our interview begins to wind up, the future of Icehouse is only discussed briefly as Iva had revealed earlier in our talk, “I can’t even think about recording or writing when I am preparing for a tour. They exist in two completely different sides of my brain!” He has however been sporadically recording music up until recently for an unfinished project known as Bi-Polar Poems, hinting at a possible further Icehouse album. In the meantime though, Davies is ticking off towns and venues around Australia in one of the band’s most extensive local tours of their career. “Most of the places we are playing this time around will be new to us. I mean take the Espy gig for instance, we had never played that venue before even back in the Flowers days. There was however a whole strip of music venues down that way (St Kilda Esplanade) at the time, one notably called Bananas, which was just tiny and I remember having to walk up about four flights of stairs, carrying all our gear to get to it.” Iva laughs, “We played there a number of times, but by the time the Espy was up and running as a live venue, we had already had a bit of success and were actually able to play bigger venues like Festival Hall.”


The 'Primitive Colours' tour promo slide.

Iva at the 'surprise' Espy gig, July 2011

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Darebin Music Feast presents: Up Late With Kate: Celebrating the music of Kate Bush (live review)

Venue: Northcote Town Hall
Date: 22nd September 2012

Sitting somewhere between dreaded tribute show and cabaret performance – Darebin Music Feast's Up Late With Kate was at the very least Kate Bush fans only chance to experience their idol's hits in a live setting. Bush retired from touring 33 years ago, and seldom releases new music, yet her ability to fascinate and inspire musically has never waned. Over time, that reverence has translated as everything from bad cover versions to camp parodies, and while all done with a sense of admiration, have only served to highlight how hard it really is to ‘do Kate Bush’. This fact was surely in the minds of those guests brave enough to try and interpret the enigmatic singer's numerous classics tonight at Northcote Town Hall in a celebration of all things Bush.

The artists involved in tonight’s show come from all areas of music and stage, but are united geographically within the surrounding arts-rich Darebin electorate. The show’s MC, co-ordinator Benn Bennett, provides links between each artist, shares some Kate anecdotes and even awkwardly gives his own spin on a few of her songs. However, this attempt at taking on so many roles makes him hard to connect with and leaning more on his guests to carry the performance side of things would have boded well. The talent, after all, was phenomenal and every act rose to the challenge with genuine class. Jimmy Stewart's re-working of Cloudbusting in the style of Kim Salmon for instance, is proof early on that there's no guessing as to 'how' the artist's would approach their chosen song. Comedian Scott Edgar (of Tripod fame) takes on Hounds Of Love on solo electric guitar – which owes little to the original's template, yet lost nothing in his surprisingly tender re-telling. Though a tad more literal, Tina Del Twist, perfectly embodies a sad old character actor for Wow, as dictated by its lyric. Though creating the first truly grand moment of many is Sarah Ward, who's show-stopping This Woman's Work, is so true to the original, a near-sighted Kate Bush tragic would be pressed to pick it as a cover.

The real triumph of the night however belongs to Sat In Your Lap. Sung as a duet between Ward and Bennett with accompaniment on drums by a topless, horned female percussionist, the trio bring the song's nightmarish video to life right before us. The business end of the concert arrives following a quick interval in which fans flock to inspect the one prop on stage: the actual dress worn by Queen Kate in her Sensual World video, apparently procured for this event via Guy Pearce! (I didn't ask). As unpredictable as the first, the second act boasts accapella gems, In The Warm Room and Dream Of Sheep; an outstanding piano and vocal run through of The Man With The Child In His Eyes by an unfortunately staged Ali McGregor – her back is to the audience – and a smouldering Running Up That Hill by Rebecca Barnard. The finale, a fun, all-in sing-a-long of Bush's signature hit, Wuthering Heights is a hot mess, but nobody really cares as we all join in, howling through the chorus. The occasional amateurish bits in this mostly well-presented celebration are easily forgiven, with perhaps one exception. Benn Bennett's ill-advised Babooshka performance, in which he, while clad in a sarong nappy, slams an image of Kate into a rubbish bin full of broken glass for no apparent reason. The performers for the most part however treated the material well, keeping the camp comedy routine to a minimum and avoided falling into a Kate-karaoke situation, and overall put on a show worthy of such a rare talent.



Ran Tan Waltz
Under The Ivy
Army Dreamers
Mother Stands For Comfort
This Woman's Work
Sat In Your Lap
In The Warm Room
Kashka from Baghdad
And Dream Of Sheep
Hounds Of Love
The Man With The Child In His Eyes
Running Up That Hill
Wuthering Heights

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Joe McKee (Snowman) live in Melbourne, 2012

Venue: The Grace Darling
Date: August 11

After breaking away from the grand and ghoulish Snowman, former frontman Joe McKee has found a more subtle form of expression as a solo artist. While his old band expertly drew listeners in using suspense and tribal drumming as its main weapons of seduction, in his new incarnation, loops and well-pronounced vowels do all the work. As an environment, the Grace provides buckets of support for Joe’s Burning Boy solo album launch, which tonight is attended by a comfortable – for that sized room - number of punters. The stage, merely a foot off the floor, feels less like a forced focal point but rather just a place for Joe to stand. Casually he glides on and off his cramped quarters and through the crowd when the mood suits him in order to sidle up close to a fan as his looped guitar shimmys away, never out-ranking the deep, sombre vocal in volume.

In these kinds of intimate performances, it’s not unusual for my attention to wander and fixate on some insignificant prop or even the movement of the performer’s feet as they jab at guitar peddles, but McKee had me and everyone in my immediate view hanging on every note sung. Even when fronting the raucous Snowman though, Joe has always displayed an effortless ability to draw you in and make all else melt away.

This fact is helped by several well defined staples of McKee’s performance. Firstly, he mixes with his audience mid-song, while still retaining that important sense of intrigue. Secondly, his band – a drummer, violinist and keyboardist - hop on stage only sporadically to add accompaniment and thirdly, he sounds out every word he sings, imploring us to listen. As a solo artist, Joe has slipped into the role of story teller, but even more so, he is exploring the power of words as sounds.

He understands that a deep resonant voice, which he possesses, drawing out every syllable can be just as powerful as any percussive instrument, and hold as much sway as the words themselves. I find myself held up by a lyric early in the set; “You just keep getting louder, while I fall into lunacy” where McKee’s seductive tone shifts suddenly into spine-chilling terrain, and any chance of an easy ride ‘polite singer/songwriter’ type gig is lost. Thankfully.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about McKee’s show however is the complete lack of ceremony. Album launches are typically coupled with a sense of occasion, and maybe a ‘funny thing happened on the way to the studio’ story or two, but not this time. It’s as though McKee and his occasional backing band swept through the room on a wave and we all got caught up in it before being plopped back down again as it retreated out to sea. I left feeling as though I’d had my heart warmed and my bones chilled all at once. Pretty good result for a 45 minute set that featured all new, unknown material, I’d say. 


Joe signed my CD, "You have great taste in music!" So humble!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Rufus Wainwright: Out Of The Game (review)

Rufus Wainwright
Out Of The Game

Reviewing the new Mark Ronson-produced Wainwright album, I was deeply concerned that I would be faced with a “Mark Ronson featuring Rufus Wainwright” situation. Not that this decade’s hottest producer is all that bad – his work with the Business Intl was killer – but Rufus’s major talent is in dramatic subtlety, while Ronson usually chucks a load of horns and synths on everything, resulting in a more bombastic product. With that in mind, Out Of The Game was touted as a “return to pop” ahead of release. However Wainwright’s last “pop” album, 2007’s Release The Stars, explored some of the most un-pop themes you could get, so it’s with some hesitation (and excitement) that I invest in what Wainwright is calling pop these days. 

Although Rufus is 38 years of age, he has made a much older man’s album this time around. There are no handsome princes on the horizon coming to sweep him away, or nights spent trawling New York’s dive bars with his phone on vibrate. Instead, the now married singer is on the other side of the picket fence, baby in arms, and his “game” is essentially over. On the title track, his older, wiser self berates his younger self for being so tacky and shameless; “Look at you, sucker/Does your mama know what you’re doing?” Wainwright grew up very fast, and it seems in hindsight he is lamenting the early loss of his own innocence. 

From reflecting on his youth, Rufus’s focus goes to the very distant future on Montauk. The track is an open letter to Viva, the child he fathered with Lorca Cohen (Leonard’s daughter), where he hints at a fear of future rejection by her for being raised in an ‘alternative family’, however, it could just as easily reflect the thoughts of anybody on the verge of first-time parenthood. Becoming a father means the game isn’t so much over for Rufus – it has simply become a different game and he is scared that he won’t be able to play it. The singer worries that he has little useful advice to offer in terms of how to get by shy of ‘it’s better to have laid in the gutter than lived in fear of life.' Autobiographical Rufus is always charming, but it’s his political stuff that’s often the strongest in terms of expression.

Jericho - a kind of sequel to 2007’s Going to a Town – makes a soft attack on religious oppression in the Middle East. Whereas Going to a Town saw Wainwright openly washing his hands of America, on Jericho he evokes a broken relationship cliché to make his point; “I keep thinking you’re gonna change/I keep thinking you’re gonna rise…” . Best of all, however, is Candles, with its most trademarked of Rufus-isms; highlighting those insignificant details in a remarkable situation which we rarely voice, but that seem to stick in mind somehow. Also Candles boasts a full Wainwright family sing-a-long, including sister Martha and their estranged father, Loudon, and is quite clearly a tribute to the late Kate McGarrigle - complete with a bagpipe solo, choir and absolutely no Mark Ronson-ey horns farting all over the place - as is the case on Rashida and Welcome To The Ball.

Although Ronson does manage to squeeze in some of his own trademarks here and there, Out Of The Game is actually quite musically restrained for both producer and artist. What made Release The Stars for example such an outstanding album was the level of risk Wainwright took, and although Out Of The Game has many glorious moments, it is in fact the pop album it was proposed to be. In other words, musically quite safe, and even a little dull in parts which is a side to Rufus we’ve seldom seen before. Further more, he doesn’t challenge himself vocally as much as on 2010’s Songs For Lulu, but then fans will love the familiarity of songs like Respectable Dive and Perfect Man, either of which would have sounded quite at home on Want One or Want Two. Whatever shortcomings there may be here though, a pop album by Rufus Wainwright is still a shed load better than a so-called epic masterpiece by many other contemporary singer/songwriters who’d struggle to grasp the idea of the game, let alone know how far they are in or out of it.



Rufus Wainwright: Out Of The Game (official video featuring Helena Bonham Carter.)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sinead O'Connor: How About I Be Me & You Be You (review)

Sinead O'Connor -
"How About I Be Me and You Be You"
(One Little Indian/Shock)

Sinead O’Connor came out fighting on her 1987 debut, The Lion & The Cobra, and 25 years on, she still sounds like that girl with fire in her soul and a foot looking for an arse to kick on How About I Be Me And You Be You. Yes, anger has continually infiltrated her work, be it directed at her parents, the opposite sex or the Catholic church, but during the last 25 years, we have also come to know Sinead as a highly contrary artist. One thing that is a constant however, is her dissatisfaction with the status quo. Confusing and confounding fans and critics alike, in the last decade Sinead came out as a lesbian before being ordained as a priest and later rejected both lifestyles when she become engaged to Australian musician, Steve Cooney. No sooner had she announced she would be ‘settling down’, news came through of a quick divorce from Cooney and a further marriage to a man she met online followed. It’s these recent developments in Sinead’s life that forms the basis of How I About I Be Me
The album’s title – a re-writing of the traditional marriage vows - and its content deals directly with O’Connor’s brushes with matrimony – her recent wedding to Barry Herridge lasted only 17 days – and the institution itself. As far as wedding albums go, there is little romantic merit in O’Connor’s words, as to be expected, but rather she challenges the suitor to forget the fairytale (and the Catholic church) idea of marriage. On the first single The Wolf Is Getting Married, Sinead owns the public’s image of her as an unstable - even lamentable - woman of contradictions.  Firstly, she decides marriage will bring her unending happiness and keep away the ‘wolves’ – an animal, in literary terms, sometimes associated with depressive syndromes. The question that the song raises however, is how serious is she? At any given moment the listener could expect to be slapped in the face with a renouncement of all this new-found comfort.

The track 4th and Vine further reinforces O’Connor’s belief that matrimony holds the key to her satisfaction, and is nothing short of a re-telling of The Dixie Cups’ saccharine 1964 hit, Chapel Of Love, yet considering the singer’s recent past, a sarcastic subtext can’t be ignored.  The album takes a sudden and more familiar turn on Take Off Your Shoes, where Sinead is all ‘blood of Jesus’ and ‘hallowed ground’, while V.I.P. is good old fashioned theology in verse. Musically, her later releases veered into reggae which is reprised here. The mostly mid-tempo pace and acoustic instrumentation allows the narrative to take the lead, keeping with Sinead’s folk singer styling and the tradition of reggae’s ‘songs of rebellion’. The album overall is a fantastic observation and summary of O’Connor’s often difficult to relate to personal life and favourite subject matter. She offers an even sharper perspective than on many former revelatory releases, and is still one of the most brutally honest song-writers around - “I was always crazy”; she growls on If I Had A Baby. O’Connor is at her best when she flaunts what most of us would be happy to deny. How About I Be Me And You Be You is a purposeful blurring of the singer’s wishful thinking and the stark reality of her inability to settle down and play house. Perhaps she feels such a compromise would be mean disconnecting from her muse, and so within the safety of music, she has dared to go where she just can’t seem to in life.


 "The Wolf Is Getting Married" official video.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Pogues: live in Melbourne, 2012 (review)

Venue: Festival Hall
Date: 04/04

If there’s one holiday Australian’s truly get behind with gusto, it’s the celebration of St Patrick’s Day, and so having Celtic punk legends The Pogues in town was excuse enough for a mini-reprise of the festivities. Oversized green leprechaun hats, Irish sport shirts, endless shamrocks and the guff of whiskey breath fills Festival hall, along with the general rowdiness of your local watering hole near closing time.
Being a Pogues gig – their first in Australia for 22 years – mass alcohol consumption is a given. The only question yet to be answered is who will be the most pissed; the fans or the band’s renowned lead singer, Shane MacGowan. Pogues concerts have never adopted the official warning; ‘show may conclude early depending on Shane’s ability to remain standing’, yet it is a real possibility as their touring history will support. Tonight we are treated firstly to the original eight-piece line-up who take to the stage as the sound of The Clash’s Straight To Hell fades over the PA, and finally an unhurried, slightly wobbly MacGowan, who emerges to a welcoming roar.
Before a note of music is even played, the man who has done nothing to remove the stereotype of the Irish drunk, is shouting erratically into his mic. “I can’t fuckin’ believe ish been twenny two fuckin’ yearsh, Melbourne….” He says, followed by some indecipherable mumbling, and finally, “Sorry about all the fuckin’ swearing.” He takes a defiant drag from a cigarette and grins broadly, revealing what little remains of his front teeth as the band burst into life with Streams Of Whiskey. In those 22 years, The Pogues have gone through many changes before arriving here on what is their retirement tour. MacGowan was booted out for his out-of-control behavior, and the band recorded one album without him - which remains their last studio set – before going into hibernation. No new music means of course tonight is all golden-era Pogues anthems, pulled mainly from Rum, Sodomy & The Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace With God.
Despite the ever popular Dirty Old Town and the rousing Fiesta, Australian fans are clearly in favour of The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, and begin calling for it not three songs into the set. Shane introduces the boozy sing-a-long classic, but nobody seems sure what he’s actually saying in regards to it, and nor do we care. The chance to link arms with total strangers and sway to its waltzy tempo, shouting the refrain is all that matters now. If you’re not among the great heaving all-in sway, then you’re one of the brave bastards at the front, dodging crowd surfers and angrily moshing, or avoiding the projectile spit drops leaping from MacGowan’s ravaged mouth. The momentum changes dramatically though as Shane suddenly leaves the stage, hurling the microphone onto the floor, leaving more than a few of us wondering, ‘is that it?’.
To be fair to MacGowan, he seems to be working hard on stage tonight and is as coherent as can be expected, but a brief exchange between himself and tin-whistle player (and one-time lead-singer) Spider Stacey, ends abruptly. The fray, it turns out was all bluff, yet the show reaches a turning point here. Spider Stacey reprises his one-time role as band leader for Tuesday Morning – the best non-MacGowan Pogues song – and the crowd, perhaps still wondering if Shane’s done a bunk, respond with folded arms. Personally, I love Tuesday Morning, and being the only person shouting his approval and pogoing around - I suddenly feel quite lonely in the packed venue. Thankfully, for the sake of recapturing the all-in atmosphere, MacGowan re-emerges - only this time he’s packing booze. Swigging from a bottle of red – most of which goes down his shirt, on the floor - and on the front row - he receives a bigger applause than his first appearance. It’s as though he’s suddenly complete in people’s eyes. The dribbling and shouting Shane is here at last but it’s hard to ignore the whole pantomime element to the sight. I guess some things are just too intertwined; Iggy Pop wouldn’t dare go on stage in a shirt, just as Pogues fans expect to see a certain amount of drunkenness for their dollar.
The playing-up-to-his-image thing is fine, but what surprises me is MacGowan is determined to make the songs sound good and is less concern with getting so smashed, that he sacrifice’s the ability to perform. It’s a big step for the man in my eyes, but maybe a let down for some here who perhaps were looking forward to a good first-hand Shane MacGowan crash and burn story, like what happened in the old days of the band. They’ve all learned a few lessons no doubt, but The Pogues still put on the best rabble at an age where many ‘former-greats’ are cranking out piss-weak covers album or flogging Time Life CD compilations on TV. The sight of a greying accordionist performing a stage-length knee-slide and a banjo being thrashed in the fashion of electric guitar still somehow suits this band of merry makers. It’s as though through playing Celtic-punk, they earn a golden pass to act anyway they please at whatever age. Besides, the encore consisting of Sally MacLennane, Rainy Night In Soho and Fiesta might well be one of the finest ever seen at Festival hall.



Streams Of Whiskey
If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Broad Majestic Shannon
Greenland Whale Fisheries
A Pair Of Brown Eyes
Tuesday Morning
Sunny Side Of The Street
Repeal of the Licensing Laws
The Band Played Waltzing Matilda
The Body Of An American
The Boys From County Hell
Thousands Are Sailing
Dirty Old Town
Bottle Of Smoke
Sickbed of Cuchulain
Sally MacLennane
A Rainy Night In Soho
The Irish Rover
Poor Paddy On The Railway

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.”


Monday, March 12, 2012

Roxette: live in Melbourne, 2012

Venue: Rod Laver Arena
Date: 18/02/2012

Swedish duo Roxette have endured as a pretty successful band for around 25 years, both here and around the world. However, somewhere along the line, attention to them waned in Australia, whose love for the band’s edgy pop/rock songs was unrelenting early on, evidenced by a string of top 40 hits between 1989 and 1993. The latest album, Charm School was released last year but with little local fanfare - just as the bulk of contemporary Roxette albums - so a ‘90s-heavy setlist is in order for the Swede’s first Aussie show in 17 years.

The songs selected for their current tour offered both an interesting peek into Roxette’s idea of what would best appease their Australian audiences, and what they themselves feel works best live. These two notions work to varying degrees of success in what is a tremendously fun, yet occasionally flawed concert. Considerable time is given to 1991 album, Joyride for example, which errs on the side of ‘too much’, while breakthrough set, Look Sharp is under-represented in a way. Later releases, Have A Nice Day and Room Service are all but forgotten, but the general polite applause offered to anything post 1994 possibly scared the band out of getting too clever with the set list. After all, the last time Roxette moved mass units here, it was in the form of cassingles sales – so naturally they drew a full crowd of fans who see them as more a nostalgia act. Energetic guitarist/songwriter, Per Gessle – looking in exquisite shape for his age – accepts this fact; “We’re going to play a few songs off our new album Charm School…. (muted response) but mostly we’re gonna be playing all your favourite Roxette classics!” (thunderous applause.) 

Perhaps Roxette are a nostalgia act in terms of ‘when they had hits’, but you can hardly call their later material a weak by comparison. 2011 single, She’s Got Nothing On (But The Radio) is pure pop heaven, showing only the tiniest shift to what we might call an ‘updated sound’ for a band who never really change what they do, and hey why would they… the formula works. Aside from the songs, the band is also highly functional – most are the original touring line-up from the early days - and it shows in their polished precision. For many here tonight though it’s all about that platinum blonde chick with the incredible voice that so many mistakenly referred to as Roxette herself; Marie Fredriksson. In concert, Marie is all about poise and delivery. She can do intimate, she can do subtle, she can soar and she can even roar when required. Even still, the plucky, white-funk of Dressed For Success proves to be a bastard to sing. Marie is at an age where her vocal range is gradually lowering therefore, the songs she sang as a 20 year-old are not going to be resplendent with the all up-and-down-the-scale glory.

These changes to familiar songs are at first jarring but over the course of the show, that slightly rougher vocal style becomes enchanting. Several times, as if to highlight Fredricksson’s deeper register, the band bow out and allow her to sing accapella for a few bars and it never fails to impress. A run of back-to-back power ballads gives Marie further chance to shine but Roxette are always a greater option when she and Gessle duet. How Do You Do!, Joyride and Dangerous lift the roof with the power of their combined voices and you wonder why they don’t just make ‘em all like that. Marie’s own It Must Have Been Love - which gets a wordy introduction as the song that ‘paved their way to Hollywood’ – suddenly makes perfect sense in an arena-proportioned building. Then just as the pleasant, uplifting vibrations seem to be in unending quantities, the pre-encore exodus is upon us - and I do mean exodus. For a hundred or so fans, the best bits have already been and gone, so either they’ve never been to a concert before or the babysitter’s about to start earning overtime. Us left behind are dealt an almost wonderful Listen To Your Heart - which sadly never quite gets off the ground - and a bizarre Church Of Your Heart, which just sounds a bit too Sunday school sing-a-long church-y weirdness making it a bit of a soggy blanket among an otherwise well chosen set. Still, it feels wrong picking fault with Roxette, especially after a storming, The Look which concluded the main set. Basically, we were witness to one of the finest bands in their field, especially when you consider many of the subsequent rubbish acts who now represent the Europop scene. Even if their time is past, Roxette at least remind us of a really fantastic time in pop music, when the composers/song writers were also the performers and the reality TV schlock was still unheard of. This alone makes it a time worth revisiting and even relishing.



Dressed For Success
Sleeping In My Car
The Big L
I Wish I Could Fly
Only When I Dream
She's Got Nothing On (But The Radio)
Perfect Day
Things Will Never Be The Same
It Must Have Been Love
Fading Like A Flower
Crash! Boom! Bang!
How Do You Do
Watercolours In The Rain
Spending My Time
The Look
Listen To Your Heart
Church Of Your Heart