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

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Nile Rodgers in-store Q&A at Polyester Records

Legendary dance producer, songwriter and now story-teller wows an intimate audience at inner city Melbourne record shop.

Whenever the subject is music, and no matter how banal it might seem to the eve’s-dropper, you’ll always find me tingling in a nerdy haze as the speaker proffers some tidbit or insight that might be new to me. You see, I think about it all the time (as George Michael once confessed, although regarding an entirely different subject), and can usually hold my own in a frothing discussion about anyone from XTC to Right Said Fred. However, us music trivia tragic’s sometimes encounter a golden egg-laying goose of such magnitude, we can do nothing but mentally drop to our knees and bow, chanting, “We’re not worthy… We’re not worthy!” In the last three or so years alone, I’ve had insights into some of music’s most intriguing characters during interviews, but an encounter with one Nile Rodgers at an in-store Q&A session would instantly overshadow even the most tingle-inducing sound-bite.

Rodgers’ was in town to promote two things; His career retrospective in concert along with Chic – the band he was best known for – and his new autobiography. The addition of a music shop meet and greet session allowed fans to ask the man himself the stories behind the ridiculous amount of hit songs he helped create as a writer/producer, as his discography will contest. Although the most remarkable story Nile shared with the hundred or so fans piled into Polyester Records tiny city store, was not of his involvement with music at all, but of pure survival against some pretty heavy odds. At just 13 years of age, his mother – a New York native living in near-poverty – became pregnant during her first sexual experience. Nile recalls interviewing her for his bio with grace and wit, but the reality was quite shocking. A failed backyard abortion resulted in Nile’s unwanted birth, and as everyone held their breath for the stories conclusion, he hits us further with tales of a childhood spent in foster care and criminal activity.

The one beacon of hope in Nile’s young life was music, and a pure imagination which he described as vivid beyond most of our comprehension. “I sound-tracked life in my head.” He claims, “I would be out playing with the other kids and I would hear music in my head every single moment of the day.” Over the course of his eventually charmed life, Nile seemingly was in the right place at the right time with unnerving regularity. Following his nightclub debut with The Big Apple Band – who became Chic, once the BAB name was ‘borrowed’ by a more well established act – Nile got his big break. The Chic song, Everybody Dance became a massive club hit, earning Rodger’s the respected title of the “Everybody Dance guy” for a time. “People would come up to me, all smiles, and be like; “Hey brother man, I can’t believe I’m meeting the Everybody Dance guy!”
Nile is sat with his guitar at the ready, and his talk is punctuated by bursts of whatever song he’s in discussion about. “Diana Ross made this one famous”. He smiles, as I’m Coming Out leaps from the amp. Rodger’s in his best Diana Ross falsetto sings; “I’m coming out, I want the world to know, got to let it show…” Recalling the moment of inspiration for this song, Nile is side-splittingly hilarious. “I was in a gay club, and it was just after a show with Chic – I’d say it was early 1980 – I went to the bathroom and while I was there, I noticed three drag queens - all dressed as Diana Ross - standing next to me peeing!” The image is so outrageous, laughter suddenly fills the air. “I thought to myself, I gotta write a song for Diana Ross, she must be huge!” The single was written and to this day Ross begins every show with it, Nile tells us. One fan asks about the hidden meaning, in some of Nile’s songs, to which he replies, “The meaning of I’m Coming Out… That was the only song I ever lied to the artist about! Diana Ross asked me was it a gay song, and she was worried what that might do to her career, can you believe it?” He laughs, “All I said was, it’s like you’re ‘intro song’… When you ‘come out’ on stage, this is the song you come out playing – it’s like ‘I have arrived’!” He enthuses. “The record company thought a ‘gay song’ would be career suicide, so I kept quiet about that, but you know what Diana Ross’s biggest record is to this day…?” Rodgers smiles the smile of a man who subverted the clueless record label honchos and is met with more cheering and applause.

Although we could have happily stayed and listened to Nile freestyle about making deals with gangsters to secure artist contracts, surviving cancer or dropping acid in central park – “every step I took, the buildings and trees took a step with me” – but his tight schedule cut in to what was nothing short of a feast for the ears. “One last question,” He says, irritating his tour manager. A fan asks about David Bowie and Nile’s involvement on Let’s Dance. “You all know this one, right?” Cue Nile and one hundred joyous music nerds crooning Bowie at the top of our voices, as bemused onlookers flocked to the window of the shop to see what all the racket’s about. Nile ends his visit by personally meeting with and signing stuff for everybody who came to share in a little bit of his story, yet it was the camp-fire sing-a-long conclusion of Let’s Dance, that trumped just about everything. It was quite simply one of the most remarkable live music moments I’ve had here in Melbourne despite all the cramming in of gigs after gigs. Nile shared some of his life’s most amazing moments, but more than that, he gave every one who turned up to see him an amazing memory of their own to take away.


Chic - Everybody Dance
Chic - Le Freak
Diana Ross - Upside Down
Diana Ross - I'm Coming Out
Sister Sledge - Love Somebody Today
Deborah Harry - Koo Koo
David Bowie - Let's Dance
David Bowie - Black Tie, White Noise
Madonna - Like A Virgin
Duran Duran - Reflex
Duran Duran - Notorious
Thompson Twins - Here's To Future Days
Laurie Anderson - Home Of The Brave
The B-52s - Cosmic Thing
The B-52s - Good Stuff
INXS - Original Sin
Grace Jones - Inside Story

Sunday, March 4, 2012

New Order: live in Melbourne, 2012 (review)

Venue: Festival Hall
Date: 01/03/2012

Increasingly desperate shouts of “C’mon!” punctuates each chorus of Love Will Tear Us Apart, as New Order reach the end of their first Australian concert in 11 years. Front man, Bernard Sumner wants us to show him exactly how much we love the song and how much we’ve missed his band. His enthusiastic cry is stunning and muscular, as it may well be. After all, Joy Division’s swan song will forever be a significant marker in New Order’s career. But their set tonight is nothing but continual proof of how much the band achieved subsequently, and is presented as a chance for them to share every mile stone – beautifully framed and hung - with their unwavering supporters.

The framing in this case is the fascinating visual projections accompanying each song. Film producer Michael Shamberg and graphic artist Peter Saville gave New Order’s music a very specific identity and here these songs and images combine to transport us to the heart of the Hacienda dance floor, sometime in the mid-1980s. The band manage the near impossible and deftly shift the atmosphere in Festival Hall like some alien race adapting its environment after a hostile take over. Resistance is not an option worth entertaining either. “Sorry about the weather…” Sumner apologises at one point, ”it feels a lot like home tonight.” As the words leave his mouth, vintage video footage of the band playing an early show in the actual Hacienda suddenly fill the screen, and they launch into a “never played live before” Here To Stay. The film, 24 Hour Party People told the whole story of the Hacienda’s importance to the Manchester scene; but the venue had significance enough for New Order to be immortalized in song. New Order’s true celebration of their past begins at this point - albeit in reverse order - but then there are also those bits of their past they’d rather soon forget.
In all the pre-tour media, as expected the focus was on matters of new band members (bassist Tom Chapman and guitarist Phil Cunningham) and the absence of Peter Hook. Its hardly the elephant in the room, but Sumner addresses it all the same tonight, “Oh look, we’ve got a new base player... How about that?” We cheer and welcome the slightly altered line-up, and if any Hooky die-hards are here tonight, they’re keeping pretty quiet. Chapman (Hook’s stand-in) chugs through the set with all the precision and fat riffs the songs were built on, smashing any worries that ‘it wouldn’t be the same without him’. There are plenty more standard New Order-isms in place to distract from the absent Hook and his famous low-slung bass stance anyway. A recently returned Gillian Gilbert is frozen behind her keyboard, serenely jabbing out those renowned melodies in apparent deep concentration; the very picture of familiarity. Sumner is bopping his head, eyes closed as he sings into a mic held delicately by one hand; as all images of him in concert will support. These details, along with a distinctly retro light show bring so much warmth on this wet, drizzly night.

The set is packed with carefully chosen ‘signature hits’ from start to finish, but the strong start – Elegia, Crystal, Regret – sees only sporadic pockets of dancing from the cross-generational crowd. It’s True Faith at the midway point that finally brings the crowd to full, pulsing life, while Bizarre Love Triangle starts the closest thing to a mosh pit seen all night. It’s during this track I notice members of System Of A Down watching motionless from the side of the stage, casually chewing bubble gum, perhaps even harbouring a little envy after their own lackluster Soundwave sideshow show the night before. New Order, despite being a much older band, never sound tired or careless with the material. Sumner’s never been the most powerful vocalist, but following a fantastic 1963, he gives himself a mental pat on the back for striking ever note. “That was the best one so far tonight, I think.” He grins. The audience might argue that point though – Temptation as with True Faith is a clear favourite, still sounding incredibly fresh at 31 years-old, although it takes a good minute to become familiar. Many of the older tracks have been sharpened up, extended and even remixed with the help of some sweet advances in live electronic music re-creation, but the focus never really drifts too far from the ‘live band’ sound.

They are going to close with you-know-what, but after a brief exodus, New Order return to the stage in silhouette for an encore which is still loaded with expectations. Blue Monday’s juddering beats begin from out of nowhere. The stage is in darkness except for an animated orb roving around the drop screen, and on cue, the audience clap in time. Sumner finally emerges to join the others, just as his vocal part is scheduled to begin and blue light saturates every corner of the hall. For the moment I’m all goose-bumps, and believe me it’s not cold in here. Blue Monday’s in-concert life actually began in Australia on the band’s 1983 tour where it was first ‘road tested’. I can’t help thinking its debut was a huge hit with local crowds even back then, otherwise would we even be chanting its haiku-like verses three decade later? Thanks to things such as, we knew there was no second encore coming, so the final applause seemed unfittingly brief.

Having grown up knowing New Order’s later material first, I was still left with the feeling that this was as authentic an experience of a ‘classic New Order show’ as anyone could want. Maybe they’re a few kilos heavier, and they’ve tidied up their sound and lost a member or two, but nothing about this concert spelled desperate last stab at relevance. If anything, the celebration of their musical history was indicative of a bright future at a stage in their career where there is no certainty at all beyond this tour. Here’s hoping the show was as good for them as it was for us and it isn’t long before we get to party with New Order like its 1989 all over again.


Age Of Consent
Here To Stay
Bizarre Love Triangle
True Faith
The Perfect Kiss
Blue Monday
Love Will Tear Us Apart