The Whitlams with The National Pops Orchestra @ Canberra Theatre Centre, Friday May 5

Column: Gig Reviews   |   Date Published: Sunday, 14 May 17   |   Author: Noni Doll   |   1 month, 2 weeks ago

When you look at the history of The Whitlams, it’s almost surprising that they made it to five years, let alone two decades more. Inconsistent line-ups and tragedy tangled with their most successful years, tours all over the country and the world, six studio albums and a live album nobody talks about: just reading their Wikipedia page is a trip. The trajectory of this beloved Australian band has never been smooth, so why would the execution of their 25th Anniversary concert be?

While opening with Eternal Nightcap’s ‘Charlie’ trilogy, played in chronological order, was a fantastic idea on paper, in practice it fell short, ironically by reaching too far. While the first two in the series reflected the original recordings well, with the added embellishment restrained enough to colour but not overpower, the grand sorrow of ‘Charlie No. 3’ was dragged down by extravagant additions to what is already a very full song. The opening notes sent shivers down my arms, but they were smothered by unnecessary orchestration that strangled out the core rock elements. ‘You Sound Like Louis Burdett’ also felt like it’d had an unwieldy arrangement foisted upon it, the joyous filth of the song getting muddied among all the strings and grandeur.

But for every misstep, there were three or four grand revelations. ‘Up Against The Wall’, an often and regretfully overlooked track, was transformed from its original state of an embittered post-love rock song, with the addition of a massive brass arrangement brimming with a sinister energy that sounded like it had been ripped out of a Bond theme. ‘12 Hours’ and ‘Keep The Light On’ felt like they had been made for this orchestra, the performance and arrangement highlighting the delicate quiet of both, while the addition of Psycho-style strings after “she took me home … to meet her mother” in ‘I Make Hamburgers’ elicited belly-laughs from the crowd.

The interlude of ‘Out The Back’, a gorgeous, undeniably Australian work crafted by the late Peter Sculthorpe, was entrancing. It transformed what is an otherwise unremarkable song about surfing into a panorama of the seaside landscape, painted with nothing but sound, best enjoyed with eyes closed, leaning back into the seat, matching streaking strings to the images of seagulls dancing behind your eyelids.

After the interval, Freedman paused to acknowledge the special connection his band has with the capital, with original bandmates Stevie Plunder and Andy Lewis both being originally from Canberra. With both tragically no longer with us, it was left to Freedman to deliver two of Plunder’s songs: jolly, no-hoper, working-class drinking song ‘Happy Days’ and the tragic gay love story ‘The Ballad of Lester Walker’. Both were done with gusto and joy, covering their rather bleak themes with bluster and cheer. It was a bittersweet demonstration of Plunder’s remarkable songwriting gifts: what would The Whitlams have become if he hadn’t left so soon?

It surprised nobody that they earned a rapturous standing ovation: the crowd had come for nostalgia, and it had been brought in spades. We got to pretend to be classy, watching an orchestra playing songs forged in pubs and band rooms. We got what was on the tin, and really that’s all we needed.

And finally, a side note: next time you see them live, watch Terepai Richmond on drums. His ability, his technique is poetry in motion. Absolutely mesmerising.


National Folk Festival 2017 @ EPIC, Thu–Mon April 13–17:

Every National hosts unique performances and unique workshops and new discoveries, and one of its perennial delights is the formation, whether in its annual themed competition (this year, the Infinite Beach Boys competition) or in the Session bar’s nearly continuous jam sessions, of new combinations of musicians to perform together after meeting just a day or two earlier. It’s possible to detect, in these new combinations, frissons of barely conceived possibility. But there are some ensembles you hope will always return, and very often they do.

One standout for me, The Mae Trio – appearing this year as The [five-piece] Mae Trio Band – characteristically sings in three-part harmony, accompanying itself on some combination of cello, violin, guitar, ukelele, and banjo. Its sound, simultaneously dynamic and soulful due in large part to its exquisite vocal harmonies, is magic. Another, The String Contingent, is an Australian–Scottish trio that, though purely instrumental, offers a lovely variety. It plays its own compositions, and of late those compositions have become imbued with a beautifully sophisticated emotionality. (The String Contingent’s members also play in a five-piece, Lucy Wise and the B’Gollies, intermittently, largely performing Lucy Wise’s gentle vocal songs, but this combo had no formal gig at this year’s National.)

There were plenty of other reliably fabulous musicians too this year, notably including Guyy and the Fox; all-round musical wizard and funny man – even his website is funny – Mal Webb (whom I confess I didn’t manage to actually hear this year at all); The Spooky Men’s Chorale; and two of Canberra’s own: charming “The Voice” contestant Lucy Sugerman, and provocative living treasure Fred Smith.

And then there were the ones you hadn’t seen coming: the pleasant surprises. My pleasant surprises were:

Mélisande: A French-language “electrotrad” four-piece (named after its lead singer) from Canada, Mélisande was lively, musical, and tight and had its listeners tapping and dancing.

Flats and Sharps: Blending bluegrass, folk, and country genres in a sound sometimes reminiscent of Allison Kraus and Union Station, Flats and Sharps, hailing from Cornwall, England, has a high-energy sound and harmonic approach all of its own.

Desert Child: As well as being a blast to listen to, this Fremantle duo, with its impeccable fast guitar work and humorous improvisation, is a great deal of fun to watch as each of the pair plays off the other. The pair’s interaction with guest violinist Andrew Clearmont was a joy to behold.

Harpeth Rising: This U.S. trio adds fresh vocal harmonies to a good variety of instrumental styles in a fusion of “folk, newgrass, rock, and classical” genres. Its website is fun too.

Exaudi Youth Choir: If you’ve ever heard a sweeter choir than this Melbournian supergroup, then you’ve been very fortunate. Its arrangements are musically interesting and rich, too.

Jarlath Henderson: A “firebrand” multi-instrumentalist and singer from Ireland, Jarlath Henderson appeared with two of his four usual fellow musicians, playing and singing pieces that were moving, even haunting.

Mic Conway’s National Junk Band: This act, less a surprise than a shock, was to me the absolute highlight of this year’s festival: musical, zany, and enormously funny.

It’s very easy to understand what turns upright festival-going citizens into itinerant festival habitués: a steady diet of such talent as appears every year at the National would surely create a high difficult to surrender. But this pop-up community of cheerful creativity is something we’re capable of nurturing whenever we invoke our own generosity of spirit. May the National long continue as an opportunity to players and listeners alike for such enrichment.


Billy Bragg & Joe Henry @ The Playhouse, Thursday April 20:

Two highly regarded international musicians came to Canberra, played to a sold out theatre and brought a beautiful dichotomy to the stage, and it was a match made in heaven. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry showed off not only their exceptional musicianship, but also their outstanding storytelling skill. Their earnest voices and the mysteriousness of their accents were powerful in transporting the listener to a faraway land – the railroads on the USA. Bragg and Henry’s album, Shine A Light, was recorded on an American train trip from Chicago to Los Angeles over five days on trains, in hotel rooms, and in the great halls of train stations.

The result was a fantastic lesson in music history, as well as plenty of great yarns. There was an element of nostalgia too – many of these train stations are no longer used for their original purpose, and especially in a big country like America, plane travel has taken over. Bragg and Henry covered folk, Americana and country songs by Leadbelly, Lonnie Donegan, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, like the well-known ‘Lonesome Whistle Blows’. Their version of ‘Midnight Special’ was energetic and loud, and ‘Accident Waiting To Happen’ was comically dedicated to Theresa May.

The highlight of the night was ‘Rock Island Line’, a song with a wonderful story. The first recorded version was by inmates at a prison in Arkansas in 1934, and it has since been covered by everyone from Lonnie Donegan to Johnny Cash.

There was constant reference to our current political situation, which was perhaps a coincidental, but meaningful tie. Trump, Brexit, refugees and the politics that surround them were likened to the railroad and US society of the 1950’s and the skiffle music that was inspired by those times. Just as travellers using the trains were in search of a better life, so are the refugees in today’s world. Bragg spoke solemnly about the demonisation of empathy and “the war on empathy,” and ‘Why We Build The Wall’ summed up these sentiments perfectly.  A night of nostalgia, superb music, and of course, important messages.

Cinnamon Records Farewell @ Transit Bar, Saturday May 6:

Cinnamon was established in 2012, with label founder Jordan Rodger having his hands on every part of the operation. Since then, Cinnamon were able to put out nearly forty releases by both local and interstate bands; a positively breakneck pace. Cinnamon also put on a number of high quality shows around town – reviews of which have littered this publication. Unfortunately, on this Saturday night, Cinnamon Records drew their last spice-scented breath.

The final hurrah featured a sample of the diverse range of talent that the label fostered. The night started out with abstractions from Brother Gozu and Alphamale, an auspicious yet pleasant start to the night.

Mikey Shanahan has a story or two about Canberra if you’re willing to listen. Joined by Rodger on the night, Shanahan’s set firmly focused on storytelling – as all good folk-related music should. Lurid tales of the Capital wash over strummed guitar, all climaxing in a Springsteen cover.

Passive Smoke represented a fair change of pace, with the quartet trading heavily on rocky yet deft guitar licks. After a couple of years together, the band works off each other with little effort; all to fuel the greater good. They closed their set with a cover of Cali Girls’ ‘Disorder’ – which worked a treat.

The gig also doubled as the cassette launch for Little Lunch, a local three-piece who blend lo-fi rock with male-female vocals, and the occasional pop touch. Little Lunch drew more and more of the crowd in with every tune, with the new EP getting a favourable workout.

Primary Colours were probably Cinnamon’s most outwardly brash band; a fitting band to close the label. They were at their best at their fastest and most chaotic, with tracks like ‘Compact Disc’ resonating with the fullish Transit crowd. Near the end, Rodger invited Alejandro Alcazar for an impromptu partial Mornings reunion – one of the first bands of the label. Close to full circle, really.


Kate Miller-Heidke With The National Pops Orchestra @ Canberra Theatre Centre, Friday April 7:

It has to be said, the unfashionable, somewhat niche genre of operatic vocal wizardry is not something that you’d expect to hear in a pop context. Yet Kate Miller-Heidke’s choral kind of legerdemain, that peripatetically wanders between pop, folk and opera kind of like a spinning zoetrope, offers up a uniquely baroque tiramisu of audible pleasure.

I guess you could call it eccentric pop if you had to try and put her into a particular box. Listening to her is, as writer Neil Gaiman said, “like being fucked by butterflies”, which is as insightful as it is cheeky. You kind of half expected her voice to summon an animal posse into the theatre a la Snow White. 

Miller Heidke’s triple-octave, classically trained vocal pyrotechnics were plain to see on the night and the orchestral backing by Canberra’s very own 38-piece National Pops Orchestra emphasised her operatic talents. Especially during her song ‘O Vertigo!’ which has what I guess you would call a vocal solo towards the end, similar to the glossolalia technique that Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins occasionally uses to such good effect.

There were a few songs where Miller-Heidke and guitarist Keir Nuttall (who is also Miller-Heidke’s partner) split off from the rest of the ensemble. They performed a couple of pretty little ditties together that served as nice diversions from the bombast of the sinfonietta.

The inclusion of an orchestra was definitely a marked departure from her usual performances and it was plain to see that her songs took on an element of sonic metamorphosis and weaved an altered tapestry compared to what you would hear on Apple Music (think along the lines of Metallica’s S&M).

Those who attended were also treated to a few tunes from Miller-Heidke’s Helpmann Award-winning musical The Rabbits, which is a product of her many years of performing in various operas and is also based on the children’s book by acclaimed Australian author John Marsden. As she explained during her performance, The Rabbits is an allegorical depiction of Australia’s colonisation. It’s kind of like an antipodean Animal Farm and, in a way, it’s rooted in reality as the crux of the play is focused on the invasion of a species not endemic to the area (being the rabbits or the British) tearing up the countryside and ruining the native marsupials’ (the Aboriginals) ecosystem.

In conclusion, it is definitely something else seeing her in concert. Her versatility is such that she went from a velvety dulcet to a cacophonous, fenestration wobbling wail that would not be out of place in a Puccini production. She possesses a certain je ne sais quoi on stage which definitely came out during her interaction with the audience, all of whom were glad they took the opportunity to come out and see her technical bravura in person.


The Phoenix Has Risen @ The Phoenix, Saturday April 15:

When you think of a good night out, what comes to mind? And no, the answer is not Mooseheads.

Mine was at The Phoenix Has Risen gig. It featured a range of different acts – Helena Pop, Sketch Method, H. and Semen and Garfunkel.

Unlike what happened with the all-male line-up drama a few weeks ago, for the poor ANU Finale event promoter, this had a mixture acts so everyone stayed calm…

Singer-songwriter H. had a great set, she showcased her amazing falsetto range that could quite possibly kick some girls’ butts. It was just her and the guitar (and a cute beanie). While she was playing I couldn’t help but notice how the audience was reacting as they were in her zone, which is usually quite difficult for a musician. She sounded a bit like Tash Sultana mixed with Missy Higgins.

Then Sketch Method hit the stage who almost instantly made the crowd love them from their funny comments before and during their songs. They were more rocker than the other two previous acts. They had an old-school punk rock vibe going on with humour that the crowd was getting into. Their guitar solos were ace and vocals were very powerful so I would say that they stole the show…

I had never been to the Phoenix Bar before and the venue is really nice. It had cool artistic vibes with awesome dark walls. I felt like I was at a proper underground gig with everyone being there for one reason, and that reason is great local music.

Overall there was a good turn out and everyone seemed to be having a good time. So for a gig day before Easter, this my friends was better than eating chocolate.


Bonnie Raitt @ Canberra Theatre Centre, Saturday April 8:

The first thing that struck me is how small she is. I had imagined tall, buxom and broad shouldered. Lesson learned – powerhouses come in all sizes. With a career spanning 45 years, Bonnie Raitt is a living legend. As such, her largeness quickly filled every corner of the Canberra Theatre. She kicked off with a few tracks off the new album Dig in Deep, immediately showing off her mad guitar skills. 

Her lifetime of acclaim includes ten Grammy Awards, a position at number 50 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and number 89 on their list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. So seeing her in action is a rare treat. Her mix of dynamism and authenticity is remarkable and was evident when she spoke to us like old friends, setting a standard of true glamour, strength and musicianship like she has done for decades. This woman will be belting out great songs for the rest of her life. She takes to the stage like she’s strolling in for a jam in the lounge room – with ease, confidence and the joy of playing with good friends.

While mama wolf clearly leads the pack, she generously shared the space with her band. She introduced them after just two songs before tearing up the sound in a guitar battle with exceptional guitarist George Marinelli. While an artist in his own right, Marinelli has been with Bonnie’s band since 1993. Their connection and joy was palpable. Later, Bonnie played support guitar while keyboardist Mike Finnigan displayed his impressive singing capabilities in a tribute to B.B. King.

Against a backdrop of painted sunset clouds, with the pink light bouncing off her red tresses, Bonnie and her fine band delivered a top-notch performance. But it’s when she sat alone on a stool with only a guitar that we saw exactly why this resplendent performer is one of the most successful artists of our time. For some reason, it’s at this point that I thought of Michelle Pfeiffer straddling a ladder in Grease 2 in her leather jacket and tight black jeans. Until now, I thought that was the perfect image of cool. Raitt’s movements were simple and sexy. She oozed class, and it didn’t hurt that she’s a fricking guitar titan.

The changing of guitars however was almost comical. With every song came a new guitar which she explained is because each one is tuned slightly differently. Man, I feel for the guy in charge of handing her the right one at the right time.

The set included new songs as well as known classics including a beautiful rendition of her heartbreaking 1991 hit ‘I Can't Make You Love Me’ written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin. 

Bonnie Raitt is one of those performers that, whether you’re a fan or not, you just must see. To witness such beauty and showmanship is breathtaking.


Death By Stereo, Yoko Oh No, Fight Milk and Sketch Method @ The Basement, Tuesday May 2:

I wanted to write a bunch about our great locals but once Death By Stereo (DBS) hit the stage and delivered one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, I realised my word quota was not going to cut it. Here’s my shorthand: Sketch Method (nicely toned screeching vocals with driving rhythms), Fight Milk (classic rock metal, ‘War Pigs’ interlude a highlight), Yoko Oh No (melodic hardcore with Bodyjar-esque riffs).

The start of this gig reminded me of youth centre gigs of yesteryear. A sign on The Basement’s front entrance directed you to the tiny courtyard bar. The crowd was dominated by the support bands, their friends and girlfriends. There was a sense of dedication and faith to live music. DBS took this mood and then immediately transferred you to a place where nothing mattered outside this show. Frontman Efram Schulz launched himself off the railing I didn’t know existed on this stage and began engaging the crowd by pointing the mic to dedicated fans to sing and enticing others off couches. His stage antics and banter, combined with the genre boundary cros­­sing and exceptional musicality of the group meant the faithful were rewarded and the curious converted.

Twice they got a fan on stage to sing “their newest, gram-winning song, ‘my name is … and I’m going to drink this beer before the song is over’,” offering a shot before the beer. Guitarist Dan Palmer soloed over potentially inappropriate comments from other members (Schulz then requested this for all future comments), and did the old pick stuck to the forehead as he delivered a tapping solo. A musical highlight was ‘Neverending’ dedicated to the punk music scene and their recent signing to Australia’s Arrest Records. They’ll be back next year – don’t miss them!



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