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

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

LIVE REVIEW: Ben Frost, Tim Hecker @ Sydney Opera House (11/01/15)

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Experimental electronica, avant garde, instrumental composition, sound art… all these and more were at play when Canadian Tim Hecker and Australian native, now based in Iceland, Ben Frost brought their immersive and extreme synthetic music to the magnificent surrounds of the Sydney Opera House as part of the Sydney Festival.

Tim Hecker performed his set in near darkness, the only visible objects were two red guitar amp lights and two faint spotlights pointing upwards, intersecting in a swirl of fog high above the audience. The lack of lighting gave weight to Hecker’s collage of textures that were built on dense and grainy drones, swelling and retreating in his on-stage mix. The volume was possibly the loudest I’ve heard at the Opera House, another key factor in translating Hecker’s music from headphone listening to a primal and physical sensory experience where the actual shifting of air was important as the fragmented melodies and screes of interweaving digital noise. Over the space of an hour the impact of Hecker’s set became diluted by a lack of variation. There was little sense of narrative or journey and that combined with the darkness resulted in quite a claustrophobic mood.

Ben Frost’s career has seen him rise from independent releases to internationally acclaimed albums, soundtrack and theatre work in the space of a decade and it was that inter-medium experience that gave his performance such expansive and detailed qualities. Twin towers of guitar amps, one guitar and a table of laptops and other digital ephemera were Frost’s instruments as he set about creating a journey through sci-fi, cinematic composition. There were percussive explosions that rippled through the audience’s bodies, bass drones that blurred vision and layered on top of those weapons were sharp hi-res detailed snatches of sound, rippling keyboard notes, and genuinely disturbing snarling wolves. Frost’s use of sustained tension combined with hypnotic repetition made for a cerebral experience where the listener could be willingly disorientated by 60 minutes of strobe lighting or close their eyes and be transported elsewhere. Either way Frost’s was a majestic and magnetic display of sensory overload, right on the cusp of art, rock and futuristic experimentalism.

Chris Familton

this review was first published in The Music

LIVE REVIEW: The Clean @ Sydney Festival (19/01/15)

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The Clean are one of those bands that possesses a mythical aura about them. Across multiple decades they’ve remained an underground act yet they’re constantly being touted as an influence on a multitude of bands as each indie rock generation emerges. Their own influences – Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Byrds, Can, 70s punk and post-punk – formed their sound and in the process posited them as worthy heirs at the junction of pop, rock and the avant garde.

5:15pm in a vaudevillian tent in the middle of a city park is a strange way to experience The Clean and it certainly took a handful of songs for a vibe and a communal rock n roll atmosphere to form. Once it did the trio of David and Hamish Kilgour and Robert Scott seemed to find their groove with some glorious and beatific moments.

It wasn’t all early hits for the 50 year olds, they dipped into their 2009 album Mister Pop for the catchy brilliance of ‘In The Dreamlife You Need A Rubber Soul’ and 1990’s Vehicle gave us ‘Drawing To A Whole’ but it was their best known songs that elicited the greatest response. The hypnotic and mesmerising psych gem ‘Point That Thing Somewhere Else, ‘Fish, ‘Anything Can Happen’ ‘Too Much Violence’, ‘Getting Older’, ‘Billy Two’ and the single encore of Tally Ho (devoid of its descending organ riff) all showed what a strong and diverse body of the work the group have produced across only a handful of albums.

There was stage banter aplenty with references to drugs, prime ministers, Palmerston North and roses. They seemed to be having fun playing together, Scott’s bass and Hamish Kilgour’s urgent drumming digging into menacing grooves beneath David Kilgour’s jangling pop strum and Crazy Horse-styled wig-outs. As tight as they often were every song either ground to a halt or unceremoniously yet fittingly collapsed in itself. A sign that they never sacrificed feel and ramshackle appeal for polish and soulless professionalism. The Clean are still The Clean. In their own words – Trapped In Amber.

Chris Familton

LIVE REVIEW: John Grant, John Murry @ Paradiso at Town Hall, Sydney (16/01/14)

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John Murry – photo by Chris Familton

Darren Sylvester opened the show with a solo set that felt a little dwarfed by the expanse of the Town Hall and the slowly arriving punters. With the aid of backing tracks he hit similar territory to 90s Suede and 80s dream pop but would be a much more interesting proposition with other musicians around him.

John Murry’s The Graceless Age (2012) has been a slow burner of an album, spreading via word of mouth to the extent where it has brought Murry to Australia. One man and a guitar was all that was needed for him to play a set that cut right to the core of his songwriting ability. Sadness, pain, despair and redemption populate his songs and he communicated all of those brilliantly on stage. His voice at times coarse and abrasive, other times contemplative and optimistic he silenced the Town Hall on a number of occasions, particularly with the devastating Southern Sky and Things We Lost In The Fire. Murry’s performance highlighted an exceptional writer, just on the cusp of realising his talent.

Like Murry, John Grant has had his share of personal demons to deal with and his show was a wonderful example of how to do that via humour and song. With a band predominately comprised of Icelandic musicians, Grant focused on tracks from last year’s Pale Green Ghosts album. The electronic slant of that record lent itself well to the live setting with most songs sounding warmer and more alive than their recorded versions. Grant’s voice sounded exceptionally good, high and confident in the mix and never missing a note. Glacier, Pale Green Ghosts and Vietnam were highlights before the main set concluded with an explosive quiet/loud rendition of Queen of Denmark. Tonight showed how Grant has finally discovered and is reveling in his own unique take on synth-pop, soul and literal Nilsson-esque pop.

Chris Familton

this review was first published in The Music

LIVE REVIEW: Bombino @ The Spiegeltent, Sydney (09/01/14)

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The Sydney Festival always provides the perfect opportunity for open-minded music fans to discover new and diverse acts and styles of music. Listening to a few conversations in the queue before the doors opened it appeared there were a quite a number of attendees with little or no knowledge of the music of Omara Moctar, otherwise known as Bombino. What they witnessed over the ensuing hour no doubt converted them as his newest fans.

The first quarter of the performance was a gentle introduction to the quartet’s sound with Bombino playing acoustic guitar and two of the band members playing percussion. The gentle, trance-like nature of the music was the perfect medium to allow the audience to sink into the music of the Niger-based Tuareg musician. The show really stepped up a notch when Moctar swapped his acoustic for an electric guitar and the drummer moved to a full drum-kit. This was when the songs that make up most of his recent Nomad album took flight with extended African highlife and disco-flavoured rock grooves making it near impossible for the crowd to remain stationary. Bombino either closed his eyes and titled his head back or gazed out with a beaming smile around The Spiegeltent as his fingers darted about the fretboard of his guitar, firing stop-start licks that twisted and droned hypnotically. There was just the right mix of funk, rock and though few if any knew the meaning of Moctar’s lyrics there was an innate soulfulness to his singing that transcended translation. Bombino struck the perfect balance of African and Western musical forms, visually complemented by their brightly coloured robes and scarves that made the performance a mesmerising, kinetic and thoroughly absorbing experience.

Chris Familton

this review was first published in The Music

LIVE REVIEW: Nuggets: Antipodean Interpolations @ Paradiso at Town Hall (25/01/13)

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by Chris Familton

In a rare use of the Sydney Town Hall for rock n roll, Sydney Festival honoured both the original and seminal 1972 Nuggets 60s garage rock compilation and its recent Australian tribute Antipodean Interpolations of the First Psychedelic Era. The night was a chance for six of those bands to play short sets that gave a snapshot of their own Nuggets-spirited sound. It would have been amazing to see the hall packed to capacity, heaving to paint-peeling psych garage rock but though the crowd wasn’t disappointing it was still far from capacity.

The trio Bloods christened the stage with an endearing mix of enthusiastic and pop-leaning primitive rock. Though their cover of Farmer John wasn’t a touch on the original their other songs showed they can write catchy hooks. A band was needed to embody the spirit of ‘kicking against the pricks’ rock n roll attitude and The Gooch Palms were the ones to do it. The drums/guitar pair have their Cramps /Iggy schtick perfected and were only one song in when singer Leroy dropped his gold hotpants to reveal all before turning and proudly spreading his cheeks to the crowd. For all the aping and shock value they backed it up with some excellent primal theremin swamp rock that also drew from 50s rock n roll and doo-wop. Step-Panther took a few songs to get into their groove but they showed their are continuing to evolve, dropping some of their ADD song structures and making use of Steve Bourke’s great guitar playing. Melbourne representatives The Murlocs and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard felt like a double act – sharing members, sounding like authentic 60s garage rock outcasts and providing the peak of the events offerings. The Murlocs have a blues streak, complete with harmonica while King Gizzard threw in rnb basslines amid a ramshackle punk dive vibe. The sound of the venue best suited these acts with their white-hot treble sonics and while it was decidedly average overall, if any type of music was going to make the most of the acoustics it was this bunch. The Laurels always deliver but here they sounded out of place, their songs felt like lumbering, epic space rock, lacking the knife edge sound of the other acts. It was left to hometown heroes Straight Arrows to put the exclamation mark on the night and they staggered and lurched through a set of new and old tunes that concluded with a volley of toilet rolls into the audience.

The venue was oversized for this type of music but Nuggets was still fun, primarily due to the spirit of the audience and the bands. Hopefully the organisers take note and build on this foray into underground local music for future arts festivals.

this review was first published in Drum Media / 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