Seymour’s sparkling tales of home and family

Mark Seymour & The Undertow, The Basement, Sydney – Saturday 19 August 2017

I first encountered Mark Seymour at the helm of Hunters & Collectors when, at a party at a local sailing club, the sounds of the newly released ‘Human Frailty’ sent the mostly 16 year old partygoers into a frenzy, singing along and dancing on tables – some even swinging from the steel rafters supporting the club’s roof. I headed straight to the source of the music, a turntable in the club’s kitchenette, on which spun some kid’s freshly minted copy of the album.

Thus began my affair with the music of Mark Seymour. Over the years I have seen him numerous times in venues ranging from the Sydney Cover Tavern to Selinas, in solo guise at Pier One and the Hunna’s recent reunion at the Enmore. I’ve collected each of his albums with the Hunters & Collectors, solo and, more recently, with the Undertow.

Tonight’s performance at Sydney’s iconic Basement was a fitting culmination of these years of fandom. Seymour remains at the top of his game – relaxed and with a focused intensity. Beside him, the Undertow (Cameron McKenzie (guitars), Peter Maslen (drums) and John Favaro (bass)) is a crack unit which serves as the perfect support providing highly accomplished playing and, most importantly, knowing precisely when to hold back to showcase the songs and when to step forward and lift them to the next rousing level.

The Basement’s low ceiling, crisp sound and cabaret tables provides the perfect setting in which to truly appreciate the songs – if only it wasn’t for the disrespect of the punters huddled around the bar, the transient self-obsessed blowhards whose constant talking made you feel sorry not only for those who’d come for the music but for the band and the real fans who’d missed out on tickets to the sold out show.

Each song is allowed to exert its own personality aided by Seymour’s informative introductions which provides an invitation to the listener to delve more deeply into the songwriter’s intent – for tonight it is very much about the songs and the songwriter. As the two sets unfold the themes of home, country and family emerge – coupled with a sensibility which mixes a robust Australian tone with Celtic songwriting tradition.

What could be more Australian than the opening lines of Home Free: ‘Shark attack on Tuesday/They shut the beaches down’; or Sylvia’s ‘Houses on the avenue/Where the eucalypts grow tall and strong’? The sense of place is strong with Seymour explicitly referencing “the great brown drain” which runs through Melbourne in “Westgate” – a very working class tale of Eddie Halsall, a rigger on Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge, who narrowly escaped death 1970 as ‘Hell broke free when the bridge came down’. And not one, but two, diversions to Adelaide. It’s there too in the historical ballad Castlemaine. But most of all it’s in Seymour’s fine tales which pay tribute to fallen Australian servicemen in ‘What’s A Few Men” and the delicate funeral tale of “Tobruk Pin”.

Then there’s the strong theme of family which is physically represented in the presence of Seymour’s daughter Hannah on supporting vocals adding both an extra dimension to the songs and familial intimacy to the performance. Seymour’s clear paternal pride is evident frequently throughout the night as he flashes glances and a wide smile across the stage. The sense of family is also present in the songs themselves. In ‘Classrooms & Kitchens’ Seymour reflects on his schoolteacher mother – from the early years in their ‘small country house’ in Benalla, Victoria listening to ‘Blue Hills on the radio’ to later times in a nursing home in Kew singing ‘Hail Mary’ and ‘counting angels’. Then Seymour turns to his father in ‘Kosiosko’, recalling the childhood moment, ‘driving high on a switchback road’, when he first discovers that his father was not the infallible person he thought he was: “I never get over the first time/When I saw that he was not that strong/Saw the white knuckles riding on the steering wheel/And I knew that he could steer me wrong”.

Yes, these are very honest Australian tales, told expertly by Seymour – a master songwriter – whose status as an Aussie rock icon often overshadows his rightful position, along with Paul Kelly and Don Walker, as one of the country’s finest songwriters. It’s a craft which Seymour  developed during the Hunters & Collectors days (witness Everything’s On Fire’s ‘kick the can around until all memory ceases’ and ‘fingers like ginger roots’) and continued through a string of sophisticated albums both solo and with the Undertow.

Underlying each of these Australian tales is a strong celtic songwriting tradition which is glimpsed intermittently thoughout the set on songs such a ‘Master of Spin’, ‘Football Train’, ‘Irish Breakfast’, a fine rocking cover of The Pogue’s siren tale ‘Lorelai’ and Seymour’s closing solo acoustic rendering of the traditional ‘Parting Glass’ (made famous by The Clancy Brothers).

Of all the times I’ve seen Mark Seymour, in various guises, perhaps tonight is the most focused, intense, pure and complete rendering of his songcraft. With the assured support of The Undertow, he presents these songs, over two hour long sets, for our appreciation with finely tuned arrangements which are equally capable of rousing rock and intimate solo moments – always in service of the songs.

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Rhiannon Giddens soars above the cotton fields

Rhiannon Giddens – The Factory Theatre, Sydney – 8 April 2017

RG

Rhiannon Giddens’ songs are  steeped in the traditions & history of the US South – not just the rich musical traditions, but the history of the place and the struggles of her people. She she sings from the soul, rendering heartfelt tributes to her civil war era forebears on her haunting trilogy of gospel infused originals which provide the backbone of this short but perfectly formed show.

‘At The Purchaser’s Option’ tells of the heartbreaking plight of a 17 year old slave girl advertised for sale with her 9 month old child being ‘at the purchaser’s option (the room audibly gasps at her introduction to the song’s origins). Then there’s the four innocent Sunday school girls at the centre of ‘Birmingham Sunday’ -murdered in the bombing of a Birmingham church by white supremacists – a tale  from which Giddens draws parallels to more recent world events.

Finally comes ‘We Could Fly’ – the last song penned for her current album ‘Freedom Highway (named for her cover of the Staples Singers’ song which appears on the album but is not heard tonight) – which takes the audience flying above the cotton fields of the deep South in her fine rendering of a folk tale of spiritual stoicism, defiance and emancipation.

If all of this sounds like it could result in a show which is nothing more than a dull, studied throwback to the past, then you couldn’t be further from the mark because Giddens and her band know that gospel music is a joyous celebration of the soul.

Giddens

The band is expertly led by Grammy award winning multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger Dirk Powell  and features Giddens’ Carolina Chocolate Drops bandmate Hubby Jenkins (guitar, banjo and, yes, bones), together with Jason Sypher (double bass) and Jamie Dick (drums).

They swing throughout, infusing  every song with an unbridled spirit which provides a perfect musical scaffold in, through and around which Giddens’ rich, evocative vocals, can soar, glide and swoop – just like the slaves in We Could Fly.

The show intersperses these Giddens’ originals from ‘Freedom Highway’ with traditional dance music from Louisiana and Canada (on which Giddens’ fiddle playing raises wafts of smoke), a Carolina Chocolate Drops duet with Jenkins, ‘Spanish Mary’ (featuring Dylan’s lyrics set to her music for ‘The New Basement Tapes’ project) and her interpretations of Odetta’s ‘Waterboy’, Hank Cochran’s ‘She’s Got You’ and a medley of Sister Rosetta Thorpe songs.

When Giddens’ announces – all too early – that she has just one song left and warns that there will be no encore as she has tonsillitis and is ‘pumped full of steroids’, our awe at her complete vocal, musical and lyrical mastery are only enhanced by our recognition of her dedication.

Tonight Giddens has broken the shackles of illness and taken us flying with her high above the cotton fields.

[Thanks to Jeannine Clarke for the photos]

Prince – Delving Deeper

 

Prince – Piano & A Microphone Tour                               Sydney Opera House Saturday 20 February 2016

Prince with just a piano and microphone? Isn’t he just a pop-funk artist peddling slinky, sexy, grinding funk lines with his suggestive lyrics and louche ego-centric persona? How’s that going to work? Sure, his razor sharp pop lines gave us a stunning, and constant, flow of hit singles through the 80’s and into the early ‘90s but how will those songs translate to this format? And won’t the more recent – decidedly under the radar – material dilute the strike rate in a show billed as including material drawing across his entire (39 album!) career? It’s fair to say that I had some misgivings about the show, not least the prohibitive pricing of any half-decent seats.

Still, beyond the singles, the gigantic ego, the shorthand song names and ridiculous ‘artist formerly known as/love symbol’ debacle, I had always suspected that there was something more – principally based on some of the less commercial material from the likes of Parade and (for me his career highpoint) Sign o’ the Times. Then there was the fact that so many friends – whose opinions I respect (many of them musicians) – rated him so highly. So the prospect of this gig intrigued me. It was an unrepeatable chance for me to challenge my preconceptions of Prince and his music. It provided the ideal opportunity for me to approach his music afresh and with an open mind. When a pair of $230 seats (warning: partially obscured view!) became available, I jumped right in.

IMG_1181As we entered the Opera House Concert Hall through a near vertical stair climb up to the choir stalls and took our seats in the rear Box-F, the sparse stage set up of piano and candles heightened my sense of intrigue. His 7pm entrance was at once surprising (orchestral introduction, the walk and bow of a renowned conductor – albeit with a showy pirouette) and quite predictable (purple suit, flamboyant afro and purple high heeled boots – not Johnny Cash cowboy boots or even Bowie platforms but slim stiletto heels!). It was clear that the format was going to fully explore the tension between the pop star and the consummate musician. It was not yet clear which would win out.

Prince appeared to revel in that tension. His opening trio of songs – Big City (from his current HitNRun album), Joy of Repitition (Grafitti Bridge) and The Ballad of Dorothy Parker (Sign o’ the Times) – may have seemed contrary to some but quickly satisfied my desire to delve deeper into his catalogue, to explore the full range of his compositions and  to revel in his sheer musicianship. Of course, the funk was never far from the surface and the hits were interspersed regularly enough for Prince to keep the audience in the palm of his hand. They were there to tantalise – as often as not co-joined like the early Little Red Corvette/Dirty Mind or the later Rasberry Beret/Coffee & Starfish pairings. In some instances the hits appeared – like Paisley Park – as no more than teasing intros inciting instant crowd squeals only to be abandoned on whim.

This structure gave Prince full license to take his adoring audience on a journey of his own choosing – to his roots firmly located in a jazzier territory than I (and probably many in the crowd) had hitherto appreciated. The revelation of the evening was the suppleness and subtlety of much of his piano work which proved him adept at caressing and coaxing the notes from his instrument like a seasoned jazz pianist. It was only after the show that I became aware that his father, John L Nelson was himself a jazz pianist of some note. And from our ‘cheap seats’ behind the stage we had the advantage of elevation allowing us to see the kaleidoscopic lighting on the surface of the stage but, more importantly, to look directly down upon the keyboard and enjoy every movement of Princes hands across the keys.

Of course, the underlying tension was there in his piano playing as well, so the jazz vein which ran through the evening as often as not segued effortless and suddenly into a pop flourish, a funky bass repetition or even a Jerry Lee Lewis run. For every studious conservatorium interlude there was a rock star pose as he contorted his legs at right angles – or lifted them in the air – prior to standing and kicking his stool aside. The variety in his solo accompaniment matched seamlessly with the range of his voice for which he is well known and deservedly loved – from the soulful baritone of Screwdriver to the plaintive falsetto of I Luv U But I Don’t Trust U Anymore in the space of two songs and occasionally scatting like a seasoned jazzman.

The set continued through a varied selection ranging from 1979 through to several tracks from the last couple of years. The quieter moments entranced – especially The Beautiful Ones, How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore and Venus de Milo. The funk anthems got the hands clapping with Breakdown, Girls & Boys and Cream standing out in their superior arrangements. When, during Cream he followed the line ‘You’re filthy cute and baby you know it’ with the quip ‘I wrote that line while looking in the mirror’, it somehow reminded us of the tension in this gig – simultaneously appearing as a shared intimacy and reminding us of his cultivated pop-star persona.

And then there were the covers, which arrived in the form of Unchain My Heart (good but surprisingly restrained – more Ray Charles than Joe Cocker), Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain, and a beguiling version of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You.

No matter where Prince took this Sydney Opera House audience, they followed willingly, lovingly, enthusiastically. I have rarely seen a better Sydney crowd. They sat is hushed reverence where appropriate (even shush-ing the odd fool who sought to break the spell with a banal song request). They clapped, sung and cheered enthusiastically where that was called for. At about the 90 minute mark as Prince segued from Cream into a rousing Free Urself, the crowd’s delight was clear. Suddenly the Opera House ‘choir stalls’ adjacent to my seat transformed into a the stalls of a Baptist Congregational. In the midst of this, Prince left the stage, signalling to the crowd to continue. The crowd dutifully obeyed, for several minutes, before Prince re-emerged to sit on his piano and simply take it all in.

It was then that we knew that Prince really had the crowd – and they  had him. When he later started into Paisley Park promising ‘one more’, he stopped after a few bars – looked at the crowd and said ‘No. I really need to play this one for you’ before launching into Kiss. Returning once more to the stage after that to cap off the evening with the majestic Purple Rain. At slightly over 2 hours, this was the longest set of his Australian tour to date. It honestly felt that the set had been extended on the spot to recognise the deep connection between audience and performer.

I left the gig in elevated spirits. I had ventured forth, challenging my own pre-conceptions and been rewarded with a show which surpassed my expectations and showed a depth and dexterity to Prince’s musicianship that I had glimpsed but had not previously been fully revealed to me. Sometimes you’ve just got to see artists live to truly ‘get it’ and the ‘piano and a microphone’ format provided the perfect vehicle. I’ll be surprised if I was not the only one at the gig to go from someone who enjoyed his string of pop hits to a fan with a true appreciation of the depth of his talent. Though, by the reception given to him by the crowd, perhaps they got there before me.