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LIVE REVIEW: The Apartments @ The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival (24/01/16)

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This was a show that had a touch of ‘the artist returns’ about it due to Peter Milton Walsh’s rare live shows and that he is currently celebrating his first album in 18 years — No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal. The briefly one-time member of The Go-Betweens and the Laughing Clowns has carved out an intermittent yet critically acclaimed career as The Apartments and the Famous Spiegeltent proved to be the perfect venue to immerse oneself in the band’s emotive music.

With a band that included members of Knievel, Big Heavy Stuff and The Go-Betweens plus a drummer, pianist and horn player, Milton Walsh was able to conjure up a richly layered sound. You could hear the progression from his early jangly, indie pop songs — that melancholic 80s pop sound — to the songs on the new album that are built on a stronger soulful jazz-noir style where the bass guitar and drums shape the songs. In a musical sense, bands like Tindersticks, The Delines and Destroyer come to mind as comparisons.

Milton Walsh clearly enjoys a sense of the theatrical, from his Bad Seeds’ styled suit and sunglasses  to the melodramatic hand gestures and between-song stories that gave context to the songs and humour to amuse the audience. That same sense of artistic presentation mirrored his songs which detail breakups, loss, departure, love and regret. His ability to paint pictures of intimate moments with poetic clarity and then compose a chorus of only na-na-na’s is what positions his songs in the pop idiom. They are supremely catchy whilst retaining a depth of literary references and emotional gravitas.

Older songs like Mr. Somewhere, All You Wanted sounded sublime while the new album reinforced why it was so important that he released a new record. The title track opened the show and encapsulated all that followed over the next hour — the dark, majestic pop, aching, soaring vocal melodies and equally grand and eloquent music backing from The Apartments. Welcome back Peter Milton Walsh.

Chris Familton

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LIVE REVIEW: Dirty Three, Mirel Wagner @ State Theatre, Sydney Festival (15/01/16)

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I’d heard great things about Mirel Wagner and she played a good if slightly disconnected set that, for the types of songs she writes (acoustic gothic ballads), lacks an element of menace or otherworldly spookiness to match her visceral lyrics. The talkers in the lobby were a complete distraction too. I can never understand why people shell out close to $90 for a show and then loudly indulge in idle chatter in earshot of an audience trying to lose themselves in intimate music performed by a critically acclaimed songwriter who has travelled all the way from Finland to perform.

Dirty Three are a band that have never let me down with their live performances over the past two decades. Their recorded material on their last few records was very good but it lacked the brilliance of their earlier work. Particularly the classic duo of LPs Horse Stories and Ocean Songs. On stage it is a different story. Mick Turner, Jim White and Warren Ellis are the perfect trio where opposing tension, density and melodies collide and caress one another forming a magical and transportive listening experience. The way they create so much emotion out of a simple, lilting melody and sparse texture on a song like ‘Hope’ and then hurtle into the sonic abyss with the bullet train propulsion of ‘Indian Love Song’.

Warren was the usual madcap raconteur, gracing us with tales of delivering speed at festivals, travelling in semen-infested tour vans, impromptu and anonymous jams with Christy Moore and rejecting a role in Mad Max: Fury Road because he just doesn’t look good in a onesie. All those stories were folded into the introductions of songs, almost as essential a part of the Dirty Three experience as the music itself. It grounds them, connects the wild and febrile spirit of the band to the audience and most importantly it adds humour and irreverence to their performance.

Ellis’ playing is often, rightfully so, the focus of reviewer’s and the audience’s attention as he high-kicks accents within the songs, leaps onto a chair, hugs friends in the front row and throws his shoulders and greying hair back and bellows wordless howls into the lavish deco surrounds of the State Theatre. His violin is a pure extension of his personality… raw, unfettered and hopelessly romantic. He conjured up pain and loss, nihilism and wide-eyed optimism through dissonance, restraint and wild abandon. Without White and Turner by his side the effect would be distilled by two thirds. Their roles are equally as essential to the often overwhelming emotional impact the band creates.

Jim White was the effortless whirling dervish behind the kit, creating polyrhythmic travels through gypsy, jazz, avant-garde, Krautrock and post-rock worlds. The man just doesn’t stop playing – constantly adding tambourines, changing sticks, discarding parts of his kit and only really settling into anything resembling standard rock drumming in sections of ‘Indian Love Song’ and ‘Sue’s Last Ride’. Meanwhile, standing with shoulder to the seated audience, the near stationary Mick Turner is the calm at the centre of the storm, the musical anchor who fills the role of both rhythm guitarist and bassist. His droning chords hung in the staid theatre air, arpeggios were nonchalantly plucked. his majestically sombre playing sounding both ancient and mournful. Losing oneself in each of the player’s sound and styles is the key to full sensory immersion and the ultimate reward of a Dirty Three performance.

Ellis opened up the setlist to requests, paid tribute to Bowie with Ocean Songs’ ‘Authentic Celestial Being’, admitted his emotional feelings of playing with White and Turner again and with one last grand flourish left the stage to a standing ovation. Dirty Three continue to be one of the most honest, emotionally compelling and life-affirming bands I have and will probably ever see perform.

Chris Familton

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LIVE REVIEW: Moon Duo, Grinding Eyes, Glass Skies @ NSC, Sydney (10/12/15)

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MOON DUO

Opening this evening of psych rock was Glass Skies who whipped up a hard stoner/space rock barrage of riffs and grooves for the few early arrivals. The singer/guitarist overplayed his hand with teeth and behind-the-head solos but they nailed the ‘rock’ aspect of psychedelic music convincingly.

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GRINDING EYES (stage set up)

Grinding Eyes enhanced the tripped-out mood of the evening with a a sea of projected images flooding the band and stage as they dug out some dark and fine garage/drone nihilist rock sounds. Part Stooges, part Primal Scream, they possess a strong rhythm section led by drummer Cec Condon which allowed the guitar, Juno synth and Farfisa organ to carve out some visceral and hypnotic swirling melodies.

This tour sees Moon Duo touring Australia with their live drummer John Jeffrey for the first time and he made a real difference in adding a human element to the previous repetition and rigidity of their drum machine. With projections creating the effect of a swirling vortex the trio quickly laid down the template for the evening with their Krautrock meets Suicide rhythms, Ripley Johnson’s curling , hypnotic guitar phrasing and Sanae Yamada’s keyboards which provided the magical dreamy (and sometimes nightmarish) textures and melodies. To new ears it would have sounded like one extended set-piece but fans of their music know the subtleties and the reward of tension release when Moon Duo exit their long, head-nodding passages and hit rare and uplifting choruses. The songs from this year’s Shadow Of The Sun album stood out with their more precise and brighter sound. Wilding, Night Beat and Free The Skull sounded like T-Rex and Bo Diddley reconfigured into ghostly and psychedelic drone rock and a room full of closed eyes and trance-induced head nodding was testament to Moon Duo’s masterful use of endless simplicity in primal rock n roll.

Chris Familton

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LIVE REVIEW: Julia Holter, Marcus Whale @ NSC, Sydney (09/12/15)

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IMG_4209This was a night for a light to be shone on the more distant edges of pop music, where obtuse angles and bold and wilder imaginations take flight. Marcus Whale had emailed Julia Holter requesting a support slot and his wish was granted. Holter and local label Mistletone’s trust was more than rewarded with a riveting opening set that took militant drums, a caustic electronic backdrop and Whale’s soulful, effect-laden voice into territory that artists like Bjork and Zola Jesus inhabit.

Julia Holter’s year has culminated in her appearing at or near the top of many respected end-of-year lists which will no doubt see her cache and audience sizes increase in 2016. That made this show feel like we were witnessing an artist on the cusp of being elevated to the next level of music industry exposure. After a tentative start adjusting equipment and a music stand Holter steadied herself and began an 80 minute set that started with a measured and almost rigid feel and ended in a rousing avant-jazz trip complete with wordless incantations and splintering melodies and rhythms. In the interim Holter showcased this year’s Have You In My Wilderness album with the light-stepping Silhouette a particular highlight as well as musically compatible selections from her earlier albums. Holter has slowly become more confident on-stage since her earlier Australian visits, this time chatting, laughing and making wry song introductions that gave the more avant garde songs glimpses of context. Though the first half of the set too often displayed the conservatorium roots of its composer, the second 40 minutes became richer, more resonant and full-blooded as the mood lightened and the musicians began to sweat and loosen their shoulders. Holter’s recorded music is progressive and avant-pop music but her live set effectively added another layer of personality and approachability to her unique and otherworldly songs.

Chris Familton

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LIVE REVIEW: Mercury Rev @ OAF

MERCURY REV, JAMES DELA CRUZ (DJ SET) @ Oxford Art Factory, 07 December 2015

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Eschewing the usual opening band, the warm-up honours went to James Dela Cruz (The Avalanches) who played an eclectic hour long DJ set that stretched from Neil Young to warm techno flows and some fine turntablism skills.

FEPX1684Mercury Rev hold a fairly unique position in music with their fantastical, dramatic sound that hits both the extremes of shoegaze and the fragile beauty of Catskill Mountains Americana. This was quite possibly the smallest venue the band have played in Australia so it was a chance for fans to experience them in full flight in relatively intimate surrounds. From a sea of dry ice pierced by dreamy washes of blue light emerged Jonathan Donahue, Grasshopper and their bassist, drummer and keyboardist/flautist. What followed was the full Mercury Rev experience that was in no way downsized or compromised for the club venue. Their recently released album The Light In You got a fair showing in the setlist but they know that their audience peaked with the seminal Deserters Songs album. Early fans were treated to Frittering from Yerself Is Steam (1991) but it was tracks from the aforementioned album that drew the biggest cheers from the enthusiastic crowd. Holes, Goddess On A Hiway and Opus 40 were exquisite in their delivery with Donahue commanding the centre of the stage with conductor flourishes and grand gestures like a magician conjuring up some dramatic illusion. Opus 40 rounded out the main set with an extended and accelerated surge into sheets of distortion with a sonic dizziness that seemed to spin the room on its axis.

Mercury Rev were art rock in dazzling glory, almost too grandiose for the small setting but they never overcooked it. The mystery in their music had the audience immersing themselves in its dark romance while at the same time trying to figure out just how they create such an ornate and wonderful sound from their standard rock band format.

Chris Familton

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LIVE REVIEW: Thurston Moore @ Metro Theatre

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Thurston Moore, Gold Class @ Metro Theatre, Sydney (05/12/15)

When you have half of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine’s bassist on stage one would expect the venue to be fairly brimming with indie rock fans right? It was a surprise then, and somewhat disappointing, to be greeted with a curtained off and reduced capacity theatre that still only made it to two thirds capacity.

IMG_4124Gold Class were back after recently supporting The Fall at the venue and they again impressed with their considered, dramatic and artful post-punk. Dressed all in white, singer Adam Curley barked out his lyrics in a sonorous voice while staring down the arriving audience with a detached cool. All the while the jagged and propulsive rhythms and slash and churn guitar cut equally impressive shapes around him.

After some scene-setting ambient atmospherics Thurston Moore, Debbie Googe, Steve Shelley and James Sedwards lurched into the primitive grind of Forevermore, the opening track from last year’s The Next Day. That album got a strong airing but Moore also previewed a couple of songs from the band’s next album that was recorded back in May. In the encore he also turned back the clock to his first solo album Psychic Hearts with Ono Soul and the quiet/loud rawness of Pretty Bad. Moore was still the uncomfortable frontman between songs but as soon as the music begins he shifted into a trance-like mode, swaying, flailing or just standing with eyes closed, immersed in the chaos or tranquility of the music. Guitarist Sedwards was a wonderful foil and equally adept and conjuring a myriad of hypnotic avant garde and classic rock sounds from his instrument. Behind them, Shelley and Googe were essential to the grounding and forward movement of the songs, workmanlike yet possessing seemingly infinite variations on rhythm and groove. In the end the attendance numbers mattered little as the band played with intensity and passion for the enthralled and tuned-in audience.

Chris Familton