Brahms 4 & Isserlis

With a world of ear splitting amplification and all night dance parties you often forget that the origin of all rock and roll behaviour was in the classical music halls of Europe.  And the Australia Chamber Orchestra, led by Richard Tognetti, with Steven Isserlis performing as soloist for Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, played in the same program as Brahms’ 4th Symphony, is no exception.  The ACO is well known for its vibrant and eye-popping performances, and this was definitely the kind of concert that you most certainly do not experience with your eyes closed.

Renowned British cellist Steven Isserlis is attracted to orchestras that use period instruments, using gut strings on his cello himself, and the instrument nerdery was in full swing with on this evening, with much of the orchestra, especially the wind section, using pieces from Brahms’ time.  The acoustics of Hamer Hall complemented these instruments, with the sound warm and lifting.

The Dvořák was what most of the audience was there for, and Isserlis’ performance seemed to be done with such passion and ease – the piece was written to, in parts, reflect a certain level of improvisation, without actual improvisation taking place.  This made parts of the piece seem more free-flowing, with ample room given for the virtuoso to show his stuff.  Isserlis worked great in tandem (and seemingly with great affection) for Richard Tognetti, who is known himself for his rock star approach to classical chamber music, building the ACO to be known as one of the world’s best chamber orchestras.

Brahms’ 4th Symphony acted as part of the Melbourne Festival’s theme concentrating on the ‘War of the Romantics’, when manifestos and cat calls went back in forth in Germany between the more conservative Brahms and Clara Schumann, and the uppity, more progressive Liszt and Wagner.  Enough time has passed for the politics of composition from that time to be put aside for a greater appreciation of Brahms’ technical brilliance.  Also Brahms’ 4th was lush and summery, coloured by melancholy, and again had the audience transfixed by the ACO’s masterful and seductive playing style.

See the original review on Beat here

Freeway: The Chet Baker Journey

Chet Baker was the ultimate screw up – with film star looks, the softest voice and crooning trumpet, he was meant to take over the world, but instead ended up defenestrated before he was sixty.  In Freeway cabaret star Tim Draxl has created a retrospective work, channeling Baker in every way except for the chaotic and destructive persona that crept behind him his whole life, the ultimate example in modern society’s struggle to look at the ongoing feud between genius and disaster.

And Chet Baker was a disaster, churning his way through addictions, prisons and women, leaving his figure at the age of 58 ravaged and ancient.  It’s understandable how hard it was for Draxl, with a stellar cabaret background and astounding four piece ensemble, to cover the whole story to a sympathetic and knowledgeable audience.  The addictions and fast cars (and the emphasis by Draxl, whether it is to make him more palatable or not, is on the fast cars) shapes the Chet Baker legacy. To me the problem of Baker is finding a way to reconcile the smoothness, the coolness of his jazz with his troubled life behind the scenes.

Which makes Draxl’s position so difficult; his performance is engaging and flawless, and that’s just the point.  When the lights change and he becomes Chet narrating his life, you can see that he, a seasoned cabaret performer, understands, connects, with so many parts of his life.  But when he is narrating Baker’s life to the audience, and sometimes even when he is singing, when Draxl is singing Baker almost note and sultry-perfect, when he is scored along with is amazing, seasoned backing band, even though you are enjoying yourself, part of you nostalgic for why you connected with Baker in the first place.  Though Draxl and his ensemble give a remarkable performance, and the recounting of his life is informative without being overwhelming, when watching Freeway, you do find yourself searching for the more definitive cracks, that made the light get in.

Freeway played played in the Fairfax Studio at The Arts Centre.

See the original article here

The Divine Cabaret

Neil Hannon and The Divine Comedy remind me of that peculiar time in the Eighties when a musician could meld together any series of genre-bending ideas and quite easily cast them into the welcoming arms of any number of eager listeners. One only has to think of Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman (For Massenet)’ – a song that is both brilliant and, if you are driving, makes you want to crash into the nearest brick wall by the seventh minute – which, in 1981, spent a week at number two in the British charts.

The Divine Comedy were and are a strange little band that wrote songs about public transport, bondage loving knighted public officials and gin soaked boys, and it’s this storytelling element that imbues the Melbourne Fringe show The Divine Cabaret.

Geraldine Quinn, Mark Jones and Karlis Zaid belt out a striking tribute to the group, but the beauty of the show is that the three singers, as well as the magnificent backing band are such consummate musicians in themselves that you don’t need to have a lick of an idea who the Divine Comedy are. I barely did, save for a few cheeky downloaded tracks so I could pretend to know what I was talking about.

The sense of Hannon’s original vocal style easily translates to the live, cabaret tinged performance that is given by Quinn, Jones and Zaid. Jones is also on keys, but the three vocalists beautifully spot each other’s solos with great harmonising. There wasn’t an off note in the evening, something that is usually expected with any performance.

There is an attempt by the three to construct a narrative, woven between the songs, coupled with a peculiar sense of humour that you can guess has been inspired by Neil Hannon, sometimes making you wish you understood the joke a little better. At the end of songs you find yourself trying to concentrate on the frenetic storytelling coming from one of the singers before you finally realise the reason it’s so hard to focus – the other performers have also launched into a barrage of noise at the audience, so that the stage is transformed into a chaotic storytelling battle, rattling along, descending into confident silliness. I liked the slow burn of it; it’s unexpectedness.

And gosh could the singers really wail. It especially came out when Geraldine Quinn sang ‘Thrillseeker’, with the other singers hanging back, happy to harmonise as she took over the stage, always on the edge of really physically thrashing about. Karlis Zaid was more self-contained, his gaze outward as at a target, especially when recounting the sexual dalliances of an unnamed knighted public servant (excuse me if I’m not sure of the name of the song, it felt weird to try and steal a set list). Mark Jones only once ventured out from behind his keyboard to tell a spoken word tale of what was lurking in his woodshed, other times approaching his singing with a more casual air that belied the intensity of his vocals.

This was a show of seemingly effortless musicianship that had a startling and vivid air, and a damn good, if subtle, sense of humour too.

The Divine Cabaret at Trades Hall, season concluded.

Melbourne Fringe Festival, September 22 – October 10

Jon Jackson / Walk on the Wild Side

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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The Hello Morning: Northcote Social Club

I’ve been reading too much Greil Marcus lately. A pretentious way to start a review, but there it is. He is not a writer to bandy about phrases, to use a scattergun approach to describing a band. His is about the essential element of a moment, whether, for him, it is the first crackling chords coming from a newly purchased record, or the moment in a performance where the band refine their purpose through one gesture, whether it is of aggression or wonder, its apex Johnny Rotten’s question to a San Francisco audience in ’78, just after quitting, or being fired from, the Sex Pistols, “Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?”

I write this blather around my review of The Hello Morning because there’s not a lot to write. After watching the tail end of Downhills Home – a band that was also inoffensive, but not very interesting, its rhythm section wallowing in the background, the fate of many a band who can’t see beyond the instruments they use to write songs in their bedrooms on a Sunday afternoon – we nipped outside the Northcote Social Club for a breath of fresh air. When we came back the band room was packed with punters, who, as the band progressed, steadily slunk away into the main bar, outside, home, leaving the venue half full by the time we left at the end.

The Hello Morning were promising enough at the start, at least visually they were well put together, emanating the latest trend towards gothic western that you get more convincingly from bands like the Kill Devil Hills and Clinkerfield. But The Hello Morning’s sound tends more towards Calexico, Lambchop territory, but without the resolve towards musicianship that both these bands use as their primary weapon. Certainly guitarist John Citizen seemed more interested in checking out the front row of the crowd than communicating with the rest of the band. Exceptions to this bland instrumentation was the occasional solo releasing of John Cope on keys, and the bringing on of female vocalist Kimberly Johnson to harmonise on another track.

Lead singer Clifford Stevens’ physical styling as a Melbourne version of Chris Isaac didn’t pay off either, with his vocals buried in the mix. In fact the entire gig was a frustrating venture into moments where something could have been made out of the swathe of other musicians in the band, only to have them be put back in their box by the front man and his guitarist sidekick Citizen. To have a horn section that is only used two or three times in the gig seems like a waste of everyone’s time. Similarly there was a moment when the drummer seemed to leap out of the song with a mass of dynamic energy, only to fade away into the background again, not to reappear.

The biggest mistake that any band can make, and it’s a mistake that The Hello Morning has made, is that they think that the audience won’t know when it’s been cheated, that they will take part in the big lie that the band is trying to purport, that they will happily go to a gig if the hairdo is right. Not so. Despite the cynicism of Melbourne’s hipster infestation the crowd will still always know if a band is good or not, and the polite, middle-class, sneaking away of a visible percentage of the audience last night is a review in itself.

The Hello Morning played the Northcote Social Club with Downhills Home and Joe Neptune.

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Back to the Bathhouse: Wet on Wellington

Back to the Bathhouse: Wet on Wellington

Mzzz Erin Tasmania is a stalwart of the Melbourne cabaret circuit and her new show, Back to the Bathhouse delivers in all its trashy high camp glory. The show is based on Bette Midler’s early career as an entertainer in New York’s Continental Baths, a gay sauna. Tasmania tells the story of Midler’s early days, and her transition from singing what was essentially background music to her creation of the Divine Miss M and her subsequent success. Tasmania, along with her accompanist Tom Williams and the backup Dancing Fagettes (Anthony Cleave and Brent Fox), recounts these stories along with her own recent forays into the casual sex scene.

Madame Brussels is the main venue for the show, but one show a week is performed in an operational bath house, Wet on Wellington. Unfortunately because this venue is still running during the show, and despite Tasmania’s best efforts, these particular nights of the run are male-only affairs. This does make you feel like you are missing out on an extra colouring to the show, but no matter, Madame Brussels with its opulent salon room and camply-dressed bar staff make up for the lack of a hark back to the original venue of Midler’s bathhouse shows.

There is a handmade quality to Tasmania’s show that belies the enormous talent of not only herself but her supporting team. Hannah Cuthbertson has created a fun and diverse costume for Tasmania and the dancing Fagettes, who relish their role as the camp supporting dancers. Williams seems to be slightly shy of his half dressed state while accompanying the group, but is still a talented and personable player. Mzzz Tasmania’s voice has incredible and surprising range, allowing her to cover many of Midler’s songs and moods with ease. The emotional range of the material is diverse, from the cute The Tale of an Oyster by Cole Porter, to the double entendre filled Hot Wet Tight Bald Pussy, and the surprisingly moving Midler cover of Beast of Burden.

Back to the Bathhouse is a chatty, informal evening of song and dance that leaves the audience feeling lively and involved. Mzzz Erin Tasmania has produced another soiree that showcases the many talents of Melbourne’s queer scene.

Back to the Bathhouse

Shows at Wet on Wellington, 162 Wellington St Collingwood.
Thurs 10, 17, 24 Sept at 8:30pm Tickets $18 at the door.
(MEN ONLY. Clothing optional.)

at Madame Brussels (up the rear), lvl 3, 59-63 Bourke St.
Fri 11, 18, 25 Sat 12, 19, 26, Sun 13, 20, 27 Sept at 6.30pm. Tickets $20/$15
(ALL SEXES welcome. Clothing encouraged.)

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Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen: The Toff in Town

Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen never fail to impress with their dark theatrical style and brilliant musicianship. They played two shows on Sunday to launch their new album Dead Men Tell a Thousand Tales at the Toff in Town, a great venue that, while being aesthetically pleasing, consistently seems to fall down when it comes to its audio/visual rig.

Mikelangelo, Rufino, Little Ivan, Guido Libido and the Great Moldavio brought out new tracks and older favourites, whilst using their signature cabaret style, beating a traditional night out where bands churn out one song after another. The group are sure to turn the night into a theatrical evening of stories and banter creating an intimate experience no matter what the venue size. Highlights include the charming fiddler Rufino’s part song, part sorry tale The Struggle to be Human and the multi-part tableau of Ten Long Years in the Saddle (Waiting for Death to Come), the song set in a lonely saloon in the Old West, with a final showdown between Mikelangelo and the surreal-voiced Guido Libido.

The beauty of the group is the showmanship they all display, never breaking out of their very distinct characters, even when members of the audience disrupt their flow. And Mikelangelo revels in being the front man, constantly breaking the audience/performer divide without embarrassing or annoying the punters. Let’s face it, we all respect a well-pomaded man who is willing to get his kit off, especially if it means parading around the audience in a pair of Edwardian era swimming trunks. Mikelagelo does this with such grace you’re disappointed he didn’t come out like that sooner.

The group’s show does rely on heavily theatrical and intricate lighting tableaus, which seemed to overwhelm the venue’s lighting department. As well as this the sound was at times a bit patchy and buzzy. Both of these are not the fault of the Gentlemen, but rather of the venue, as the tech system has been sub-par every time I’ve been to a gig there. The Toff in Town needs to work on this if they are to continue to book high quality artists who are attracted to this increasingly popular venue.

Mikelangelo & the Black Sea Gentlemen are finishing up their Australian tour to launch Dead Men Tell a Thousand Tales before heading off to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

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