Saturday, March 30, 2019

Laraaji


RCC Fringe – Elder Hall, Sun 17 Mar.

Like many, I was introduced to the concept of ambient music via Brian Eno’s Music For Airports in the late ‘70s. LARAAJI was ‘discovered’ by Eno around that time. Ambient music is about space and silence as much as it is about sound. LARAAJI’s single composition 90 minute concert began slowly with lots of space and silence. Gradually the sonic voids are filled as he builds a wall of soothing sounds using an array of instruments (zither, kalimba – the African thumb piano, gong, brushes, bells and other assorted percussion) and boxes of effects with sounds of nature and multiple looping possibilities.
Musical events like these tend to challenge preconceptions and can lead to fascinating ‘what is music?’ discussions. It’s interesting that in the contemporary and related unsound movement the performer(s) is barely even visible at live events, and there was a similar sense of that here too. It’s meditative music where the agent or performer is of less consequence than normally is the case but it was intriguing to see the orange clad LARAAJI play the various parts of musician, composer, technician, and percussionist. The ‘kid in a candy shop’ analogy came to mind!
It was largely instrumental with some occasional spoken sounds of affirmation – ‘light is everywhere,’ ‘I am consciousness,’ ‘pulsation’ – and vocalised effects that were looped back into mesmerising chants.
Ambient music has the potential to bore or exhilarate – it’s your state of mind that dictates how you receive it. After a period of adjustment I settled in and just let it all wash over me. A unique experience – literally. I’m sure LARAAJI’s live compositions are never played the same way twice.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Friday, March 29, 2019

Ukulele Death Squad – “Fifty Shades of Uke”

Regal Theatre, Sat, March 16th
Arriving on stage looking like the Blues Brothers’ ukulele cousins the Ukulele Death Squad don’t waste any time launching into their peculiar brand of musical freneticism. Three ukes and a saxophone is the line up as they attack their original songs with a dramatic and physical style that exudes and creates energy.
The three ukulele players may be playing little instruments that look like ukes, but such is contemporary sound technology that much of the time they sound equivalent to the standard bass, rhythm and lead guitar line-up of many groups. They do play songs where they actually sound like they’re playing ukulele, but often they occupy this curious space that crosses the lines of many musical boundaries – think Dan Hicks, or Pokey LaFarge. It’s a blend of jazz, swing, gypsy, flamenco and a fast paced shuffle. But whatever it is they’re playing they play it really well. Julian Ferguson on baritone and Ben Roberts are almost in the virtuoso class such is the speed of their playing – all the while hamming it up with comic movement like Split Enz used to do. It’s no mean feat, compelling to watch, and must be totally exhausting to play.
Lots of comic banter spills out between songs – Eamonn Burke on bass and Reuben Legge on sax seems to cop most of it, but they also give plenty of it back. A deliberately out of key sax solo played with great feeling was a really funny moment. Everyone shares responsibility for vocals and many songs feature all four voices in harmony.
The Ukulele Death Squad has created something special and the big crowd was testament to their appeal. They’ve cannily exploited the incredible recent rise in popularity of the ukulele. Someone wrote that the Death Squad may just make the ukulele cool again. Well it’s mission accomplished! I think I might just go and buy one.

(This review also published in The Clothesline.)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Ralph McTell - Church Of The Trinity (14 March, 2019)

Streets Of London is 50 years old this year, and both the song and its composer are aging gracefully.
Ralph McTell is a Londoner born and bred but learned to play guitar by listening to black American blues and ragtime players like Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Blake, so there’s a lot more in his musical repertoire than just standard folk. Indeed, the breadth and scope of his original material covering several decades is just awesome.
In a wonderful concert he played songs about his childhood (Barges, Mr Connaughton), a mate he met on a building site (the beautiful From Clare To Here), his affinity for Australia – a song written for Billy Connolly (In The Dreamtime), a paean to the poetry of Dylan Thomas, and a dedication to the black musicians he is indebted to in what was my favourite of the night – The Ghost of Robert Johnson. Inevitably there was reference to those who have gone, and After Rain was dedicated to his old friend and musical collaborator Maartin Alcock (ex-Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull). McTell suggests “tears refresh the soul.”
Every song comes with an interesting tale – told many times I’m sure – but still told again with sincerity and enthusiasm for us as if he were telling it for the first time. And the music aside, that has always been one of McTell’s strengths as a performer. He just has that knack of effortlessly bringing you into his world – two hours of chat and songs just flew by.
I could be picky and say I noticed a few occasions where he didn’t quite hit the melody as purely as he might have decades back, but his voice is still strong, deep and rich. His songs are also rich in metaphor (Peppers And Tomatoes), and frequently come with a tinge of melancholy but it’s more the pensive type of melancholy that comes from an acceptance of what life brings rather than sadness. An evening with Ralph McTell is in fact quite life affirming. He certainly refreshed my soul.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Tim Ferguson – A Fast Life On Wheels

The National Wine Centre – Exhibition Hall, Tue 12 Feb.

Tim Ferguson is fortunate enough to have had a glittering career, and much of it is on film, so this show is peppered with filmed highlights and funny stories of his rise and fall. The fall in Ferguson’s case is, of course, quite literal – it happened when he got out of bed one day and couldn’t stand up.
He begins with tales of his journalist father and his dedication to sedition when covering the Vietnam War, and places much of what he himself has done over the years in that same ‘tradition of sedition’. He’s a natural born story teller, and has lost none of his hard edge. That outrageous politically incorrect bravado from the days of the Doug Anthony Allstars (DAAS) is still there. Among tonight’s unfortunate targets were millennials – maybe it explains why there weren’t many in the audience – and the ABC.
His old mates from the Allstars, especially the now very hairy Paul McDermott also get to be the butt of many good jokes, but it’s important to reflect on just how big those guys were. They even had their own show on British television! Ferguson is older now and acknowledges that he too was once a stupid millennial, and he has the poetry to prove it!
Of course the MS elephant in the room has to be addressed at some stage so frank descriptions and incredibly candid footage lays it all bare for the world to see. Then we move on… just as Tim Ferguson has done. His personality, his track record, his network, and his talent will always ensure that he has satisfying options to distract him from his MS, and he capitalises on them to the max and leads a remarkably full life.
Thoroughly entertaining, irreverent as ever, funny, sad, intelligent – Tim Ferguson is still very much a star.

(This review also posted on The Clothesline.)

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

WOMADelaide 2019 ~ Day 3 Musings

Botanic Park/Tainmuntilla, Sun 10 Mar.
Sona Jobarteh
No music was scheduled until 2pm but hundreds of early birds took advantage of the free yoga sessions and performed mindful stretching routines in front of two of the small stages. I thought I’d check out the new expanded Planet Talks venue. There was a talk advertised on the Magic of Mushrooms! I was pretty sure it was not going to be about tripping around in the Adelaide Hills but I was curious. It was in fact about a ‘mycelial path to save the planet.’ I now know that there are people working to use fungi as a substitute for plastics in the making of construction materials. Fungi can also apparently eat plastics, absorb radiation, and treat illnesses. Who knew? WOMADelaide is not just about music…
But that is why most of us go there, and down on Stage 3 Sona Jobarteh was about to start playing her kora. The 21-stringed African harp is associated with some of the finest WOMADelaide moments over the years and this performance didn’t disappoint. Perhaps the most photogenic performer that has ever graced a WOMADelaide stage, Jobarteh has a soulful husky voice and soon had the audience singing along with her in a west African language. And in what is always a good sign, her band were clearly having a great time playing together.
Sometimes WOMADelaide challenges you with really hard choices. Back at The Planet Talks The First Dog On The Moon was talking about how to survive the impending apocalypse, and the Silk Road Ensemble were on the main stage at the same time. Decisions, decisions… I chose Silk Road. Silk Road are like a travelling promotion for WOMADelaide festivals. A collective of about 60 musicians from all continents, it was established by cellist Yo Yo Ma. This performance featured about 10 members of the collective. It began with a duel between Galician bagpipes and a traditional Chinese horn called the suona. A curious 3 person hand percussion piece followed, and then an eclectic melange of instruments and styles from everywhere and anywhere. This is truly world music.
Two ethnic communities that have had huge impact on the fabric of Australian life have been strangely absent from WOMADelaide over the years – Greeks and Italians – but happily not this year. The Italians were forcefully present in the form of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino. With no looping or other electronic interference in sight they generated tons of excitement with high energy, high speed playing with accordion, guitar, traditional pipes, bouzouki, and tammorra (like the Irish bodhran). Exhilarating.
Greece was represented by Rembetien, exponents of Rembetika. Rembetika is sometimes referred to as Greek blues. It certainly has a moody feel that one could associate with blues, but the music of Rembetien is more deft and delicate. Nothing too raw here. Lead vocals were shared around, and the impromptu dance group off to the side of the stage grew as the pace got quicker. Soulful and soothing. I started to wander off to the Greek Islands….
Earlier Sharon Shannon (ex-Waterboys) and her band from Ireland entertained a big Foundation stage crowd with largely instrumental music based around the accordion. Her countryman, Alan Kelly, introduced WOMADelaide audiences to this delightful form of Celtic music several WOMADelaides back. But this wasn’t just Celtic music. Some of it was, but much of it had a more modern feel in what the program described as “genre-defying music”. It is hard to place. But strong insistent melodies were a feature in a thoroughly enjoyable set. A cameo performance of Janis Joplin’s Piece Of My Heart from a guest female vocalist was a knockout!
The honour of performing the sundown concert on stage 2 this year went to Morocco’s Maalem Hamid El Kasri. El Kasri’s featured instrument is the guembri, a traditional 3 string bass instrument. Languages spoken by peoples across adjoining borders often sound quite similar. And so it is with music. Tinariwen are another north African group that have played WOMADelaide and their style of ‘desert blues’ sounds very reminiscent of El Kasri and group. Driving bass undercurrents and repetitive rhythms create a hypnotic feel for the chanting vocals to float across. And his percussionists looked wonderful in their robes and dreadlock caps.
It was a shame to leave before the headline act of the day, Angelique Kidjo, but I’d had my fill. In terms of the weather you couldn’t have ordered better for a day at WOMADelaide – just a gentle breeze, overcast, no rain and about mid-twenties. And I found enough of ‘old WOMAD’ to keep me interested all day – ethnic music that stayed close to its roots.
WOMADElaide has changed a great deal – many more Australian acts, and many more amorphous global funk acts save money and attract a different and younger crowd. But as mentioned earlier, it’s not just about music. WOMADelaide is an experience. It’s just as much about ideas – whether in The Planet Talks program, the agitprop stalls that dot the park, or in the informal conversations that take place under the trees and in the bars. There’s the hugely popular Taste The World program and the ever expanding range of food options. It’s about kids playing safely, and enjoying activities just for them; the healing village, the market stalls, and it’s one of the few places where all generations gather to celebrate being alive. It’s still a remarkable event.

(This review also posted on The Clothesline.)

Monday, March 25, 2019

WOMADelaide 2019 ~ Day 1 Musings


Botanic Park/Tainmuntilla, Fri 8 Mar.

WOMADelaide
  #23. But who’s counting?! A gentle breeze blew across the park under an overcast sky as the first act on the Foundation Stage got underway. In a WOMAD first they actually started early (WOMADelaide has been incredibly punctual over the years and shows have typically begun smack on the hour.)
Amjad Ali Khan was back at WOMADelaide after a 13-year break. This time he was with his two sons and together they sat front of stage and played sarod. With the better known sitar, the sarod is a central instrument in Indian Classical music. Also joining them on stage was a stripped back version of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra to present Khan’s Samaagam – a piece that purports to demonstrate the bond between eastern and western classical music traditions. Devoid of any wind or brass sections it is strings that assumed the major role in the orchestral parts. As the sarod is a largely plucked instrument it was curious to hear the difference between the plucking and bowing techniques of the different strings. There were times when a violinist or three played together with Khan and sons but in truth much of the piece was more about turn taking rather than playing together. A beautiful piece of music nevertheless and it was an ideal way to kick off a world music festival.
As I walked towards Stage 2, rainbow coloured people began to appear in the crowd – courtesy of the Colour Of Time, another of India’s cultural gifts to world music festivals. On Stage 2 several women from central Australia had gathered to appear as the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir. Singing songs in Western Arrarnta and Pitjanjatjara languages, and dressed in indigenous themed fabrics they looked fantastic in the fading dusk light. Though some of these songs are original pieces written by our desert peoples it is hard not to hear the Christian influence and much of their repertoire is basically hymns from the Christian tradition.
First up on the Zoo Stage for the weekend was Timberwolf. I don’t know how a local Australian artist comes to be called Timberwolf, or how the program notes could describe his music as folk. He does have a rich soulful voice but unfortunately the vocals were too loud and quite distorted. No one else seemed to care but once again the sound quality at a WOMADelaide performance was inferior to years gone by.
But things were about to get magical back on Stage 2. Yo, Carmen is a reimagining of the operatic tale of Carmen, and was a stunning spectacle in every respect. Wonderful songs from live musicians at the back of the stage provided the musical palette for a group of female flamenco dancers to strut and twirl about the stage in scenes from the opera. What a fabulously sexy phenomenon is flamenco! The dancers from Maria Pages Compania from Spain were so elegant, so dramatic, so bewitching.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Two Jews Walk into a Theatre

Odeon Theatre, Thu 7 Mar.
Image courtesy of Bob Mendelsohn
You’re sitting near a total stranger. As time goes by it becomes weird not to talk so you make the tentative awkward attempt to strike up conversation. It’s trite to begin with – you talk about the time, public transport, the kids. Lots of awkward silences. Glimpses of humour emerge. You slowly begin to understand each other. Trust grows. You share more about who you are and then suddenly there’s an explosive difference of opinion.
More awkward silence. Someone tentatively reopens the conversation…..
The kind of normal scene played out all over any town thousands of times every day. But in the hands of Gideon Obarzanek and Brian Lipson it is immensely entertaining. Working within a loose framework that allows plenty of room for improvisation they share their astonishment about experimental arts, and scoff at a world with “too many options and not enough structure”.
Their Jewish identity is eventually revealed and they end up passionately talking over each other in loud disagreement in a parody of many Jewish conversations – it’s really very funny.
And then the wait is over – it’s show time. Time to watch their sons do their experimental dance which they don’t understand, nor enjoy. Movement replaces words as the means of expressing personality and it seems so free and fluid in comparison. Free of the need to talk, and unencumbered by bitter memories of a war torn past their sons float around the stage and speak with their bodies. Again awkward, ironic, but also somehow quite beautiful.
It’s a poignant contrast and a fitting conclusion to a show that manages to reconcile many seemingly opposite elements about life. L’chaim!

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Monday, March 18, 2019

La Reprise. Histoire(s) Du Théâtre

Adelaide Festival Centre – Space Theatre, Wed 6 Mar.

Technology has had a significant impact on live theatre, and when coupled together with the creative vision of director Milo Rau you get something quite special. The story told here is the senseless murder of a young man in Liege, Belgium. Part of Rau’s credo of good theatre is that the inner workings of the production be open to public view, and we are therefore treated to a parallel tale of how this production came about. A short introduction guards against acting for its own sake, and we see the cast being auditioned for their parts in dual live modes – simultaneously live on a large screen, or by just observing the actors on stage.
This dual mode is used to offer a split focus at several points. At times the video and live action are in sync; at times the filmed sequence mirrors the live action but with slight differences. At other times the split focus is diametrically opposed – love versus violence for example. On each occasion you get to choose where and what to watch – unmediated direct observation, or on screen.
Another tenet of Rau’s work is that plays should be in multiple languages. In La Reprise Dutch, French and Arabic are spoken. English is in sub-titles only.
The graphic re-enactment of the murder is both disturbing and clever – and again we can choose to watch it directly, or on screen just like you might do at home on TV. Rau believes theatre should change the world. It isn’t entirely clear to me what La Reprise might change about the world but regular exposure to this method of presenting violence might serve to re-sensitise those who have grown used to on screen gratuitous violence.
This is powerful and gripping theatre. Thankfully there are intelligent laughs along the way to ease the tension. The cast is uniformly strong, authentic and humane. They do indeed appear to deliver a story and not just act. This creates a more engaged relationship between audience and cast, and also makes it harder to be blasé about the grim reality being played out before you.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)
Image courtesy of Michiel Devijver

He's Every Woman

Gluttony – Empire Theatre, Fri 1 Mar.
Way down the far end of Gluttony lies the Empire Theatre. A small crowd waited in the thankfully air conditioned venue for a real treat. Justin Clausen and Jamie Burgess are simply a great double act. Professing their love for pop divas from an early age they trotted out their favourites from Celine Dion, Tina Turner, Olivia NJ, Whitney Houston, Tina Arena et al and were superb.
For contestants on The Voice, Australia’s Got Talent and the like – listen to Justin Clausen to hear how you belt out a song with passion and power while still respecting the melody – he has a wonderful voice. And he reaches that place where the melody is fuelled with real emotion and had me close to tears more than once.
And behind him, super competent on piano, Jamie Burgess provided deceptively complex harmonies that added another delicious vocal layer. As well, Jamie taunted and teased his partner with some good-natured bitching, and kept him from straying too far down the X-rated road.
They obviously have a great affection for each other, and their on stage banter was humorous and well timed. Stories from their own lives lent an air of honesty that was refreshing and sometimes deeply moving.
This is an unusual show. Clausen and Burgess are great musical talents, but it is their ability and willingness to share who they are in a winning mix of personal and professional that sets them apart from other similar acts. Great music, great showmanship and despite making fun of themselves and their divas, an obvious love for their craft and the songs they sing. I loved it.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Saturday, March 16, 2019

John Safran - Jew Detective


The Garden Of Unearthly Delights – The Factory, Wed 27 Feb.

John Safran’s Wikipedia entry describes him as radio personality, satirist, film maker and author. In Jew Detective: Sarcasm is Not a Crime he is attempting to add stand-up comedian to his list of pursuits. It’s certainly worth a shot. Many of the elements are there. Safran is a natural born trouble maker and his ability to draw satirical/sarcastic insight from the absurd situations he finds himself in should make for plenty of hilarity.
But this show may demand too much subtle thinking to be very funny. Safran pitches his show within a framework that pits the artist against the ideologue. Even assuming enough people understood the concept of ideologue, the audience found this show hard to fathom. Is he making fun of the far right? Is this Jew anti-Jew? Is he making fun of artists? Why does he mock so many people who defend causes? And of course all of these things are true. Safran treads a lonely, risky, grey area exposing the shortcomings of all the various -isms people march to defend.
He does this with sarcasm and satire, and runs the risk therefore of coming across as a smart arse. Safran says he just gets out of bed in the morning and finds himself mixed up in fights and disagreements. But this would be after taking a photo of a far right rally that he posts to Instagram with some provocative jibe and strangely enough someone at the rally challenges him! Which is exactly what he wants of course.
We’re shown lots of photographs from his past stunts, the occasional video, cuttings of amusing and threatening social media posts; there’s even a little live music. But it felt like he’s still learning the craft of the stand-up comedian. He read a lot from prepared notes, and at times it felt like he was reading one of his books out loud to us. But the certainty and conviction of his words in print or in the scripted narration of a documentary were not quite as sure in the live medium of stand up. But as Safran himself said, artists have to deal with loose ends and that he hasn’t quite mastered yet.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Monday, March 11, 2019

A Dark Comedy about Brahms

Bakehouse Theatre – Studio, Wed 20 Feb.

In Vienna’s City Park there is a grand statue of Brahms depicting the composer as a grumpy old man. This new work by Neil Salvage reinforces that view and goes some way to explain why he became so grumpy. In what could be seen as just another tortured artist scenario, albeit from the 19th Century, Brahms it seems was the only person in Vienna at the time who didn’t like his own music. Or so it appears at this party to celebrate the first performance of his new violin concerto.
Rather than play the gracious guest of honour Brahms spends much of his time drinking in a back room and berating all who commend him on his achievements. Cycles of praise and recrimination ensue between the composer, his publisher, violinist and musical collaborator, old friend Clara Schumann, and an influential critic. Bitter and resentful, Brahms seems intent on bringing everyone down with him to wallow in misery and self-doubt.
All these various roles are masterfully played by Salvage himself, Nicholas Collett – both eminent actors from the UK stage, and local emerging artist, Stefanie Rossi. Having excerpts of Brahms’ work played live added immediacy and context, but having the violinist overplay her silent reactions to the dialogue unfolding before her was a mistake. They need to be far more subtle.
Billed as a dark comedy, there’s not much room here for laughter. Ironic smiles perhaps as we watch Brahms himself try to reconcile being the author of the famous Lullaby with the angry person he’s become.

An entertaining play with solid acting performances, and a really good way to learn something about Brahms the person, and become (re)acquainted with his music.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Judith Lucy vs Men


The Garden Of Unearthly Delights – The Vagabond, Tue 19 Feb. 

Dysfunctional relationships, gender stereotypes, feminism, toxic masculinity, ageism, online dating, social media – you could write a thesis on Judith Lucy v Men. But with the skill of a veteran comedian she turns serious stuff into laughing matters. Judith Lucy bares all about much of her own life in a story that could easily turn sad and sentimental, but she keeps a professional distance from the emotional impact relationships with men has had on her, enabling her audience to laugh with her, but still feel close enough to care. And she wants us to care – at least enough to cast a vote at show’s end as to whether she should give up men altogether.
If half of what Judith says is true she has indeed had a bum deal with straight white men, and they come out of this show looking pretty much like bastards. But she’s not bitter about it; she’s quite resilient in fact, and willing to concede that there may be something about her that invites relationship disaster.
Much of the show is about sex but Judith Lucy has a way of addressing the lewd and lascivious with a touch of class that makes sex part of a larger more important story – the desire to be wanted and how to cope when relationships go wrong.
She delivers much of her material with this wonderful brand of sarcasm that draws the humour out of situations without whinging, and it adds a keen edge to her story telling. Lots of audience members get to join in the discussion, and by show’s end everyone cares about what happens to her next.
Amid the laugher and the joy however there is also a sense of pathos. Great that she can makes us all laugh along with her about her failed attempts at love, but perhaps she’d rather not be alone, treading the boards night after night getting laughs from her failures? But that only Judith Lucy can know.
In the meantime we all get to go and enjoy a really funny show that is engaging and full of raw humanity.  

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)