LIVE REVIEW: Robert Plant & The Sensational Shape Shifters @ Sydney Entertainment Centre (28/03/13)


by Chris Familton

Everyone heading to the Sydney Entertainment Centre would have been sure of one thing – that they were about to experience arguably the greatest rock vocalist of the last forty years. For many there would have also been doubts about whether they were going to get a trip down Led Zeppelin memory lane or whether Robert Plant would be exploring his fascination with world music and other decidedly non-rock diversions. The good news is that Plant delivered on both fronts with a set that honoured some of his greatest moments yet recast them in a new and fascinating light.

The opener Tin Pan Alley was the perfect way to ease the audience into the sonic world they would inhabit for the next 90 minutes. With its low key beginning the song erupted into a 70s glitter stomp guitar explosion with Plant kicking the mic stand high, signalling that the band were here to both rock and mesmerise. Plant still shows flashes of the Viking rock god persona that defined him in the 70s but now live he balances it with a self-effacing sense of humour and genial personality, all the while wandering the stage like a mystical druid figure channeling and steering the music.

The band contains members of his mid 00’s band The Strange Sensation so it was perhaps no surprise that all of the non Zeppelin songs (aside from Howlin’ Wolf and Bukka White covers) came from that band’s Mighty ReArranger album while many others received the same musical treatment of both acoustic and electric guitars, heavy and complex rhythms and a strong electronic component that at times gave the songs a heady psychedelic sound akin to the work of David Holmes and Death in Vegas.

Of course the biggest cheers were for the songs that defined 70s folk and hard rock for a generation.  Plant admitted late in the show that many of the crowd would have been playing ‘spot the tune’ due to the way the band re-configured and re-imagined iconic songs like Black Dog – played in a slow voodoo style, an African-tinged Whole Lotta Love and a stripped back and richly grooved Heartbreaker. Surprisingly the crowd were wholly respectful and joyfully immersed in the alternative versions with little sign of the Dylan-esque dissent or Neil Young fan frustration that often comes from such musical diversions.

Some Zeppelin songs were played close to their original recorded incarnations, particularly a wonderful acoustic take on Going To California and the warm jazz tones of What Is and What Should Never Be. They highlighted how intact Plant’s voice is after four decades of use. He can still get primal and urgent when required but it was his subtle melodic phrasing and that yearning ache that he soaks his words in that conjured the more magical moments.

At two points in the show Plant made reference to seeing us again next year and “soon” with a cheeky grin and gleam in the eye that could only be read as an allusion to a visit down under by the mighty Led Zeppelin themselves. Nothing spoken, nothing confirmed but the embrace of that back catalogue and the warmth and obvious respect that Plant and band showed for the songs suggests that even though he is creating his own absorbing and creatively inventive shows, the time might be just right for a another trip back in time with the old firm.

this review was first published on FasterLouder

LIVE REVIEW: Neil Young & Crazy Horse @ Sydney Entertainment Centre (10/03/13)

photo by Leticia Nischang
photo by Leticia Nischang

by Chris Familton

The previous night at the Bimbagden Estate winery in the Hunter Valley was a superb 2 hour show from Neil Young & Crazy Horse with only one thing missing – his full stage setup. Of course musically it didn’t matter, everything still sounded as widescreen and epic as usual but it certainly felt comforting to arrive at the Sydney Entertainment Centre to the sight of those giant road cases and mad scientists busying themselves onstage. It’s all part of the grandeur and eccentricity of Crazy Horse and particularly Young’s quirky sense of humour.

The start of the show, with the giant mic stand being lowered to the stage before an Australian flag appeared as the backdrop and the national anthem played with Young and Crazy Horse standing hands on heart was a tad cringeworthy. Neil has never shied away from some cheesy elements in his performances; Greendale comes to mind, but it mattered little in the context of the show and was no doubt included with good intentions. From the opening clarion call of regular set opener Love and Only Love and into Powderfinger it was clear that the band were firing on all cylinders. Those long wandering solos and riffs of Love and Only Love separated by comparatively brief verses really summed up the essence of Crazy Horse and they way they balance beauty and brutality in simple yet challenging musical contexts.

photo by Leticia Nischang
photo by Leticia Nischang

Everyone who had half a brain should have been aware that this was the tour in support of Psychedelic Pill, the expansive album from last year that captured the spirit of Crazy Horse after 96’s wayward Broken Arrow. The highlights of the new album were again the highlights of the live show with Walk Like A Giant and its contrasting sections of whistling, beautiful vocal harmonies and crackling, electrical storm soloing lumbering across nearly 20 minutes of sonic landscape, culminating in a wasteland of decaying sound, rumbling low frequencies and mechanistic snare shots from Ralph Molina that sounded truly astounding. Discarded newspaper tumbled across the stage, Young reached into his amp to physically wring more caustic distortion and feedback from the speaker while flashes of the band at various stages of their lifetime appeared on the screen as if we were experiencing cracks in the time/space continuum.

After the intensity of Walk Like A Giant the sweet lilting refrains of the new song Hole In The Sky sounded positively angelic, belying Young’s stinging critique of the environmental practices and the damage we are doing to the Earth. It is surely one of the sweetest sounding Crazy Horse songs since Change Your Mind. That change in musical mood led to the solo acoustic rendition of Heart of Gold to massive cheers of recognition for Young’s only #1 song. It still sounds perfect, now with even added meaning to the line “and I’m getting old”. Twisted Road worked well acoustically with its catchy chorus and it should have concluded the mellow section of the set as Singer Without A Song was the only song of the show that failed to generate any kind of spark as Young played upright piano and a ‘lost’ girl wandered aimlessly around the stage with a guitar case.

In the live setting Ramada Inn has emerged as a real tour de force of the band’s new songs. With Young’s best set of lyrics in years it detailed a relationship poisoned and threatened by alcohol yet maintained by love and devotion. The closeups of Young’s face on the screen as he delivered the words “she does what she can” portrayed real emotion and you wonder if there was more to his recent decision to give up alcohol and pot or if he merely used that change as seed for a great lyrical idea. With each verse/chorus he stepped back from the mic and leaned into a new solo, each one more intense than the last. With Billy Talbot and Poncho Sampedro pulled in close he delivered some truly visceral moments on his guitar Old Black, hitting his pedalboard to dial in apocalyptic crunch and distortion and coruscating notes that tore through the air and throughout the Centre.

photo by Leticia Nischang
photo by Leticia Nischang

The final third of the show was given over to some of the seminal moments of the Crazy Horse discography from a primitive, stomping Cinnamon Girl, to a blasting Fuckin’ Up that descended into an ad-libbed rap comedy act but was still hilarious. Buffalo Springfield’s Mr Soul was a highlight with its borrowed Satisfaction riff before they wound up the main set with one of the best versions of My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) that I’ve seen. It was ferocious and anthemic and was the perfect culmination of all that preceded it.

At the previous night’s show we were left on a mellow note with Roll Another Number as the encore. In direct contrast Young pulled a couple of real surprises out of the bag with the rarely played Prisoners of Rock ‘n’ Roll from their Life LP and Opera Star from Re-ac-tor. Both are songs that reaffirm the band’s commitment to the essence of rock ‘n’ roll and the pride they, or primarily Young, take in their autonomy and habit of doing only as they want to do. We may never see Neil Young perform in Australia again with Crazy Horse. Let’s hope that isn’t the case but if it is this was the band at the top of their game, displaying the full range of their sound from epic to intimate, doo-wop vocals to thunderous rock. It was an astonishingly good show, a testament to Young’s pig-headedness and boundless creativity. Long live Crazy Horse.

LIVE REVIEW: The Smashing Pumpkins @ Sydney Entertainment Centre (31/07/12)

by C. Familton

With a new album Oceania under his belt it feels like this is a consolidation period for Billy Corgan and The Smashing Pumpkins.  He weathered the storm of indifference to the comeback album Zeitgeist and proved he was still the master of grand themes and dreams by announcing the massive ongoing Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project. He has diverted from that to release Oceania (though it is still part of the aforementioned collection) and his conviction and belief in the songs meant we were to be treated to a full performance of the record before the hits were rolled out.

First up Wolfmother had the usually daunting task of warming up the crowd in the soon to be demolished Entertainment Centre. They already had a large mass of bodies in front of them as they rolled out a best of set that included Woman, Dimension and Joker and the Thief. Their expansion to a five piece with a Delta Rigg providing additional percussion, keyboards and harmonica meant there was more room to stretch songs out with extra jamming, soloing and repeated hammering home of some of Andrew Stockdale’s classic rock riffs. It all sounded great in the arena sized room with Stockdale appearing relaxed and playing up to the caricature of the retro rockisms of the band. At one point mid song he even took the extraordinary step of taking triple j to task over their lack of belief in his band and others and their lack of risk taking. “Left wing conservatives sitting up in their offices on their government paid wages” he railed, explaining that they never paid attention to him and his early demos until Wolfmother started getting hyped and as soon as everyone began to ‘hate’ Wolfmother they stopped playing them. “triple j can go fuck themselves!” was his venom laced message to the station.

It is always a weird feeling when a band arrives on stage and you already know what song they are going to play first. The lack of anticipation was muted but there was still the prospect of whether the sound would be good, the visuals exciting. Corgan has a new stage setup with a massive white orb suspended above the band with the lighting rig surrounding it from floor to ceiling. The giant beach ball was used to project an endless array of images, designs and tripped out animation that for the most part looked cool but it was hard to discern any real meaning or connection to the songs they were accompanying. As for the sound it was loud, and suitably delivered that sonic surge that personifies the sound of The Smashing Pumpkins.

Quasar, the opening track from Oceania was pulverising, an exhilarating collision of tumbling drums and piercing, wailing guitars that announced the band were here to play with intent and conviction. From there on the new album slowly revealed itself over the next hour, shifting between the riff heavy tracks and the moodier, quieter moments that often featured additional synths and loops. My Love Is Winter felt like the moment where it all began to gel with Corgan delivering the melodically anthemic chorus that felt like a return to some of his stronger songwriting moments. One Diamond, One Heart  and Pinwheels continued the same vibe with an added electronic nod in the direction of M83 and LCD Soundsystem in their twinkling synth lines.

Though Corgan IS The Smashing Pumpkins, the rest of the band fill their roles perfectly. Drummer Mike Byrne nailed everything and played with bombast and subtlety in equal measures and Jeff Schroeder was Corgan’s equal in terms of paint peeling solos and some wonderful textural playing to match.

Once the band hit the huge Siamese Dream sounding The Chimera and Inkless it felt like we were on the downhill stretch toward the greatest ‘hits’ section with those tracks two of the best of the Oceania section of the evening. It took a while for the crowd to cotton on the first of the non Oceania songs but as soon as Corgan stepped up to the mic it there was a cheer of recognition for Bowie’s Space Oddity that became a glam space rock beast in the hands of the Pumpkins.

From there on the patience of the audience was rewarded with a run through some of the band’s finest moments and a chance for the faithful to scream in unison and relive those seminal moments of 90s rock. X.Y.U allowed that release perfectly though it still sounds like Corgan’s attempt to be as angry and ‘rock’ as possible which made it feel like ‘out of character’ posturing to some extent. The grand beauty and melodrama of Corgan was represented by Disarm and Tonight, Tonight while the crowd went quite rightly into overdrive for Bullet With Butterfly Wings, Cherub Rock and the positivity overload of Today. After two hours we were finally left with the churning epic Zero that allowed Corgan to unleash those bent knee, flailing arm solos to send us home with ringing ears, a satiated sense nostalgia and a mixture of affirmation and cautious optimism for Corgan’s ongoing abilities as a songwriter and musician.

 this review was first published on FasterLouder