Dr. John, Aaron Neville @ State Theatre, Sydney (24/04/14)

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They are both heavyweights of soul, jazz, funk and blues-rooted American music but it was still a surprise to see Dr. John open a show on which he was billed the headliner. He kicked things off with one of his signature songs in Iko Iko, a New Orleans classic, before giving the audience a trip through his back catalogue. Looking somewhat more frail than the voodoo styled Mardi Gras Indian of many of his album covers he occasionally shuffled/sauntered across the stage to play impressive guitar solos but for the most part it was his piano playing that commanded proceedings through Mess Around, Let The Good Times Roll and the highlight of the set in I Walk on Gilded Splinters. His band were accomplished players but it meant we got a fairly sanitised version of Dr. John’s music. It the lacked bayou spookiness of his Gris Gris persona and had a whiff of going-through-the-motions much of the time.

Aaron Neville’s band showed off their impressive musical chops before the singer entered the fray looking a few decades younger than the man who preceded him (they are both 73). His was also a greatest hits set that swung from the sublime to the saccharine with the adult contemporary sound of Don’t Know Much, Everybody Plays the Fool and the medley of soul classics like Stand By Me and Chain Gang a tad staid against devastatingly good renditions of Tell It Like It Is, Summertime and Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine. Brother Charles Neville was on hand providing sublime saxophone solos throughout, showing that melodic control and sensitivity runs in the family. There was no Hercules, no doubt a big disappointment for many but Neville showed what a magical voice he still has and how effectively he can apply it to a range of timeless classic songs.

Chris Familton

this review was first published in The Music

LIVE REVIEW: David Byrne & St. Vincent @ State Theatre, Sydney (18/01/13)

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by Chris Familton

Take a musical icon who has made a career out of balancing art and popular music, combine him with a quirky indie songstress and you have a fascinating meeting of age, gender and artistic creativity. David Byrne & St Vincent released their album Love This Giant last year and received much praise for their translation of the songs from record to stage, making their appearance at this year’s Sydney Festival one of the ‘hot picks’ – as they say in the biz.

On arrival we were greeted with a stage haphazardly littered with all manner of brass instruments, a drum kit and keyboards. The air was full of the sound of loud chirping and tweeting birds, the  purpose of which never became clear but it signaled that the performance was going to be richly imbued with arthouse aesthetics, a creatively constructed mood.

Opening with Who, the first track on the album, the immediate impact of the horns was a physical one. Dynamic, uber-tight and covering the full sonic spectrum these weren’t instruments intended to add mere accents and colour to the songs, they were the songs – replacing percussion, bass and most of the time providing their main melodic impetus. The result was an exhilarating fusion of New Orleans funk, low-slung hip hop and art pop. Musical pop art in its purest sense. What also quickly became apparent was the dismantling of the traditional horn line standing at the rear or side of the stage, static and devoid of personality. These players had been given the task of both faultlessly playing the songs (which they did) and performing choreographed movements around the stage. The result definitely enhanced the performance by giving it motion and treating the stage as a complete spatial palette rather than just a band playing to a crowd.

Byrne and St. Vincent generally remained front and centre as they wove most of the album and selected highlights from their own catalogues into the ninety minute show. As is always the hope with a band’s live performance, everything sounded much better live than on record. It was as if the songs had come to life like characters leaping from a page. Byrne is still the definitive quirky frontman, both the consummate performer and the slightly behind the pace, middle aged man trying to keep up in an aerobic class. That is a central part of his charm and why he has become the enigma he is. Vocally his voice is still superb, full of range and those sliding notes he utilises so well. St Vincent on the other hand is a much tighter performer, possibly more self-aware but not to the extent that it hinders her. She shimmied about via tiny stuttering footsteps and marionette movements all the while playing some standout guitar solos. She started off sounding slightly off, missing a few notes and sounding weaker in voice than Byrne but after a few songs she hit her stride and never looked back.

Of the album tracks, I Should Watch TV and a beautiful rendition of Outside Of Space And Time rose above as real highlights but the crowd unsurprisingly reacted the strongest to versions of some of Byrnes finest moments. This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) was faithfully and gorgeously rendered while Lazy and the ‘hits’ Burning Down The House and Road To Nowhere were perfectly suited to the horn arrangements and had many on their feet nostalgically enjoying the present moment. Not to be outdone, St. Vincent delivered wonderful takes on her songs Cheerleader and The Party.

This show took an album that didn’t always work and successfully transformed it into a living, breathing piece of musical theatre that felt like a fresh take on contemporary music performance, full of personality, quirk, intelligence and humour.

this review was first published on Fasterlouder

LIVE REVIEW: Beck @ State Theatre, Sydney (14/11/12)

by Chris Familton

It is always a pleasure to visit the ornate surroundings of Sydney’s State Theatre with its outlandish detailing and proclivity for gold and chandeliers. It creates a certain mood and atmosphere and definitely lends a sense of occasion to whichever band is gracing its stage. UK’s Dark Horses had the opening honours and, with quite a different sound to Beck, they played a set of dark and dramatic rock music that took in moody psychedelia, some minor krautrock influence on songs like Boxing Day and the occasional gothic overtone. It all worked pleasantly well but often felt too measured in both song and presentation. Singer Lisa Elle showed she possesses an undeniably strong voice, especially when she shifted gears from deadpan to displaying some fragility and emotion but those moments were few and far between.

The stage for Beck looked distinctly bare with only one keyboard and a few racks of guitar pedals and as the lanky one appeared he cut a solitary figure in leather jacket, wide hat and playing some back porch slide guitar, but then the audience’s ears latched onto that familiar set of notes that kickstarted his career, the curtains parted to reveal his full band and a lighting rig and we were treated to Loser, the first of many, many highlights.

The first half of the set saw a mixture of early tracks like One Foot in the Grave, his mid period hits such as Devil’s Haircut, Girl and Que’ Onda Guero and a great cover of Dylan’s Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat. The style pendulum swung wildly as one would expect with funk, soul, hip hop, new wave and rock all fighting for a place on the setlist yet Beck himself was a picture of slacker calm (gone are the dance moves), offering the occasional hilarious anecdote about playing Bondi Beach in the late 90s and discovering a lost 80s guitar solo in the bowels of the State Theatre before effortlessly dispatching another highlight from his now burgeoning back catalogue.

One of the best moments came with a retreat to some acoustic, countrified songs, particularly a trio from his excellent Sea Change album. The Golden Age had a gorgeous drifting quality and highlighted what an exceptional singer Beck is when he plays the traditional song card.

As we headed towards the two hour mark Beck and band upped the party vibe with a stellar run of songs – The New Pollution, Nausea, Gamma Ray and a show-stopping Where It’s At that brought the audience to their feet and toward the stage, able to scratch that dancing itch that had been bugging them in their seats for much of the night.

At roughly thirty songs the night was a real sonic survey of the man’s brilliant songwriting cache and showed that he has excelled at pretty much every stylistic corner he has explored. He seemed relaxed and enjoying the chance to stretch out, untethered from festival stage times and as a result it felt like one of those special shows that those in attendance will rave about to friends in years to come.

this review was first published on FasterLouder