I admit that I arrived late to Jon Jackson’s performance on Thursday night, lost in the unfamiliar territory south of the river. Waiting outside the closed doors of the performance for the next song to finish, I absently said to myself, ‘Oh, that sounds like Carmen, I wonder why they’re playing a tape of that?’.
I didn’t know who Jon Jackson was, all I knew was that he was a cabaret singer of good repute. The song finished, the door was opened for me, and I rushed to the nearest seat I could find before looking up to find the stage empty except for a single man, an accompanist, and a piano. It took a few seconds before I realised that the pitch-perfect recitation of an aria usually performed by the likes of Callas had come from Jackson himself. In a casual suit he may have been, but Jon Jackson’s ability to capture and recapture the vocal stylings of performers as diverse as Johnny Cash and the entire cast of Sweet Charity made him mesmerising to watch.
The audience clearly had a much better idea of who Jackson was than I did, with many singing along to a lot of the songs. This was due to a combination of familiarity of material as well as the intimate nature of the performance.
This was in many ways a retrospective of Jackson’s career, something brought up in his lamentation over the loss of live music venues across the city in the late 80s and early 90s, something that evoked a sea of heads in the audience nodding in agreement. In my relative youth, I reflected on the recent angst caused by the closing of The Tote, a venue one would not associate with cabaret, the bars more conducive to that style of music having been reduced to a mere handful; places where once Jackson’s style of music would have been performed regularly. I feel like I have missed out on knowing every one of these songs, performed by a brilliant vocalist who brought his own personality to everything he sang, given how performances such as this used to be held nearly every night of the week all over the city.
And of course there was a particular Australiana to his camp pitch. Before breaking into a near perfect rendition of ‘Ring of Fire’, Jackson talked about the small Queensland town he grew up in, with its annual rodeo beauty queen contest. Things got a bit bawdy with one of Noel Coward’s more fruity ditties, and, as one of his two encores, Jackson gave a rendition of the final aria from Catalini’s opera La Wally, after first introducing its fascinating context. Having heard it countless times, to then find it comes just before the heroine hurls herself into an avalanche in the Tyrolean Alps – a story hilariously recounted by Jon Jackson – listening to it now gave the song a new and astonishing edge. This is indicative of Jackson’s whole act, one that which relies, as it should, on brilliant musicianship, but with the edge of a performer who is a veteran of the business.
Jon Jackson: A Walk on the Wild Side
South Melbourne Town Hall – Ballantyne Room, 210 Bank Street, South Melbourne.
Melbourne Cabaret Festival, July 22 – 26
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