01 January, 2014

The year in gigs

Judith and Harry’s Holiday Sing Along – Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, 19 December, 2012
Okay, technically this was last year. In fact, there’s nothing technical about it, the show was in December 2012, which was last year and if you’re reading this tomorrow, then it’s the year before. I am including it in this list because it’s where the year in gigs really started for me.
Judith Owen and Harry Shearer’s Holiday Sing Along shows literally came out of Christmas parties they had in their home that outgrew the available space. They have since become an annual thing in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans, with proceeds going to local musicians’ charities and in 2012, Hurricane Sandy relief. I’ve been a fan of Harry Shearer, and particularly leShow, for many years now, so when I saw it would be on when we would be in New Orleans visiting dearest’s family, I suggested* it would be great if we could go. *(“Suggested,” as in, “Can we? Can we? Please? Huh? Can we? Please?”)

It was not the kind of show you could go into with any expectations but I didn’t care about that. The chance to see Harry Shearer doing whatever he wants with friends in his adopted home town was too good to pass up. Of course, Judith was the real host, and she did it wonderfully. Drinking, dancing, singing and cameras were all lustily encouraged. It was by no means just the Judith and Harry show. It was a get-together of their friends which, for this show, included The Pfister Sisters, Leah Chase, Phillip Manuel and Phil DeGruy. The Victory Belles from the National WWII Museum just around the corner from the theatre also happened to be in the front row and joined in on a few numbers.  Unfortunately, advertised guest David Torkanowsky couldn’t be there but the blessing in that particular disguise was that stand-in Matt Lemmler performed a solo piano & vocal version of Ode to Joy that was more beautiful than words can express. My throat was lumpy.

The night was an entertaining mix of the reverent and irreverent. Being a family friendly show, parents were encouraged to take young children out for an ice-cream when some of the naughtier numbers came up, like Judith Owen’s sultry version of Spinal Tap’s Christmas with the Devil. As each artist played, the others sat on a couple of couches at the side of the stage, joining in where appropriate – or inappropriate as the case may be. It really did make the small theatre feel like an extension of their lounge room.

The first “half” of the show went until nearly 10pm (from a 7:30 start) and Judith urged everyone to get as drunk as possible during the late 15-minute interval before returning for some real sing-along carolling. Only about two thirds of the audience did return for the sing-along set, which is understandable for those with young children and to be honest, dearest and I were dreading the threat of audience participation in The Twelve Days of Christmas. However, when it came time for that song, Judith divided the audience into twelve groups, one for each day, and there were prizes offered for the best performance-art interpretation of each present for the twelve days. And I have to say, it was a ridiculous amount of fun! I won’t tell you how dearest and I acted out the geese a’laying but I will say that it wasn’t nearly as attention-grabbing as the guys in the next row who were equally praised by Judith for their inventiveness and berated by her for improvising ‘eggs’ out of scrunched-up pages from her lyric sheets.

The evening concluded with Philip Manuel and Leah Chase standing on the edge of the stage with heads bowed and fists raised, Mexico Olympics style, as the rest of the company sang White Christmas.

We had intended to meet my brother-in-law at Loa for drinks after the show but it kicked on so long that the bar was closed by the time the show had finished. It had gone over three and a half hours and didn’t drag once. I even got to meet Harry afterwards and get my CD signed.

Mike Scott – Reading’s, Carlton, 15 January, 2013
Not a gig as such, but certainly a great performance from the head Waterboy. Mike Scott and his band had been invited to Australia to perform at the Sydney Festival and Mike had chosen to come a week early and immerse himself in some of the local culture. He had already picked out a favourite Fitzroy café, proving that he instantly understood Melbourne.

During his week off, he had been invited to do a reading from his memoir, Adventures of a Waterboy at Reading’s book store. Even though I was still adjusting after arriving home from the US, this was a drop-everything moment for me, as it clearly was for many other fans there. Mike read with gusto from several sections of the book, doing all the relevant voices which certainly helped us to picture the Minister he described at a New York Gospel church.

After reading excerpts, he took questions on everything from working with Karl Wallinger, to moving to Ireland, to whether he was aware of Hamer Hall’s no-dancing rule. And following the Q & A, he happily stayed to sign things and have photos taken. I was a bit concerned that he might only be signing his book because I had seen some stores and artists have that rule, but he was happy to sign anything. I felt a bit bad because I had bought his book in the US the previous week having not seen it in Australia. Apparently Reading’s had drafted every available copy in Melbourne into their Carlton Store. Fortunately, they also had the new album An Appointment with Mr Yeats there as well. It was the first time I had seen that album available in Australia too, and I was glad of the chance to justify Readings’ hosting the visit with a purchase.

I was incredibly impressed that he had just shown up on his own, without any agent or manager (he doesn’t have one) and following the event, he just walked off up the road to where-ever he had to go next. So many artists travel in a bubble. They travel the world but see very little of it. While it came as no surprise, it was nice to be reassured that when he visits somewhere, he means it, man.

The Waterboys – Hamer Hall, Melbourne, 30 January, 2013
Although the main reason The Waterboys were in Australia for the first time ever was to perform the An Appointment with Mr Yeats show at the Sydney Festival, their shows in other cities were a mix of old and new. While I always respect the artist’s right to play what they want to play, I admired their professionalism in recognising the fact that long-time fans who had waited decades to see them would be disappointed if they played only new material. So we were treated to a greatest-hits show, although without a whiff of nostalgia, punctuated by segments from the Mr Yeats show.

My friend H-bomb (who really deserves to be listed by the National Trust for his historically significant devotion to live music in Melbourne) had procured the tickets, and then managed to get a couple more, which meant that my friend T, who happened to be over from Adelaide, would be able to come as well. I had forgotten until T mentioned it on the drive up to the show that we had kind of cemented our friendship over listening to This Is The Sea many years ago so it was wonderful to be able to share the show. Unfortunately, H-bomb’s extra tickets were not beside the rest of us, so T had to make do with the front row.

The opening act was Oh Mercy and they certainly won some new fans that evening. I always make sure to be there for the opening act and listen to them respectfully and it was certainly no chore to do that for Oh Mercy; they were excellent.
Oh Mercy
The Waterboys’ set opened, as I had hoped, with Don’t Bang the Drum. The recorded trumpet intro was played as the band took the stage in darkness and then exploded into life as the main part of the song began. I had seen some spoiler setlists from other shows in the tour so I thought I might have a rough idea of what was coming but I was wrong. They were smart and mixed it up. Again, my admiration for them only grew because there are plenty of acts that keep the same setlist for a whole tour. Mike Scott knows exactly how to play the rock star roll, by being as just aloof and exotic as we expect our rock stars to be without ever becoming a dick or giving the impression he doesn’t care. At one point, following one of the quieter pieces, he just stood alone at the mic stand, not saying anything, not acknowledging the audience, just having a quiet think. This went on for several minutes as more and more audience members became more confident about calling out to him. Then he just looked up and grinned and said, “I knew I could draw you out.”

It went far beyond one of the best gigs of the year, it was one of the best shows I have ever seen. Having said that, I have to pause and wonder if it’s because I waited so long for it, but no. There have been other tours that I have waited decades for that still didn’t hit the spot quite the way this one did.

Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band – Festival Hall, Melbourne, 16 February, 2013
Ringo is now with his 13th incarnation of the All-Starr band and it has turned out to be a good thing for all of them. If we are going to be brutally honest, none of them could fill the kind of venues they play on a regular basis on their own – perhaps not even Ringo. Together though, they are always reliably entertaining and can put on a show that doesn’t need to be padded out with stories and album tracks.

This year’s model featured Todd Rundgren, Steve Lukather from Toto and numerous sessions, Gregg Rolie from Santana and Richard Page from Mr Mister, as well as perennials Gregg Bisonette on additional drums and Mark Rivera (also of Billy Joel’s band) on sax, keyboards and musical direction.
Unfortunately for everyone, the show was at Festival Hall – or Festering Hole, as it’s often referred to by regular gig-goers. It was originally designed as a boxing venue and has the acoustics and seating to match. It’s a bloody sweatbox at the best of times and this was the middle of February which only made things worse. It feels like a large pub, which is fine if you’re going to pogo along to whatever nu-punk band is fashionable this year but really not appropriate for a lot of mums and dads who are there to see The Funny One. Why they chose this venue above other far more comfortable, similar sized venues is beyond me, unless they were going on the fact that this is where The Beatles played in 1964.

There was a lot of chatter around the venue while waiting for the show about how this would actually be the first time Ringo had played there and it took an awful amount of self control not to tell them they were all wrong. Ringo was struck down with tonsillitis in 1964 and forced to miss part of the that tour, which was already booked since the Beatles were being worked like dogs at the time. Jimmie Nicol filled in on drums for those dates, which included the bulk of the Australian tour, but Ringo rejoined the band in the middle of the tour. Melbourne was Ringo’s first show after catching up with the rest of The Beatles, so Festival Hall is possibly the only Australian venue he has played twice (or indeed, three times since an extra date was added this year). Jimmie Nicol has since disappeared from sight, which is interesting given the fact that people who have had far less to do with The Beatles have made a career out of it on the convention circuit.

Be all of that as it may, the show was exactly what you would probably expect. Everyone played three of their biggest hits in between Ringo playing his best known songs from The Beatles and his solo career. There were a couple of surprises inasmuch as they didn’t open with It Don’t Come Easy, instead opting for Matchbox, and Ringo took to the keyboard for the first verse of Don’t Pass Me By. Although everyone knows these are meant to be hits-only shows, I was impressed that Richard Page played a brand new song, You Are Mine. Steve Lukather insisted that everyone stand for his Toto numbers because apparently Africa is a party song. Who knew? I’m sad to say it dragged a bit during Gregg Rolie’s numbers. Black Magic Woman just sounded like every other cover band that does Black Magic Woman even though this band had the real keyboardist and two legendary lead guitarists to play it.

It wasn’t an amazing or moving experience, it was just a fine evening’s entertainment. It has to be said that there is something a little bit sad about Ringo & the All Starrs shows. The elephant in the room is that we have someone who was in the greatest band in history needing help from his friends to put a full-length show together, and the fact that those friends are all giants in their field but not quite giant enough to be leading the band either. Not at a show this big, anyway. And it’s not even that Ringo lacks either the musical or showmanship talents to put on a great show in his own right – it’s just getting past the ingrained, unfair public notion that Ringo was an also-ran in musical history.

You might think that is the case. If you do, all I have to say is this:
Ringo was in The Beatles. And you weren’t.

The Hello Morning – Westernport Hotel, San Remo, 24 February, 2013
I first became aware of The Hello Morning when I happened to flick past ABC Dig Radio while channel surfing one night and being absolutely enchanted by a song which I now know to be Poolside Lover. Since it was digital radio, I jumped online to find out what was playing, and began quietly following them.

The Westernport had been doing Sunday afternoon gigs so I went over, and it was an excellent way to spend a stinking hot late Sunday arvo. They were playing in the front bar, just in a corner and the room was small enough that they really only needed the PA for the vocal mics.
The crowd was pretty sparse, so it almost felt like a public rehearsal, which was fine with me. It meant I could listen without the impediment of conversations around me.

There is something of a retro sensibility, with Gretsch guitar, Hammond organ and Leslie speaker, but it’s not a self-consciously old fashioned sound. They also do a smouldering slow version of Ring of Fire.

Unfortunately, they had forgotten bring their case of CDs that day so I couldn’t buy one. Bass player David Oxley very kindly offered to send me one for free but I couldn’t do that working musicians and there would be other chances.

Paul Simon – Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, 28 March, 2013
Dearest and I had previously seen Paul Simon with Art Garfunkel in 2009 when dearest was only a few hours off the ’plane. What was most impressive about this solo show was that while almost all the songs were instantly familiar, there were only six that were played at both shows. In fact, he only did four Simon and Garfunkel songs and the setlist didn’t suffer for it one little bit. Do you know what I’m saying, Paul McCartney?

The show was opened by special guest Rufus Wainwright who did very well with a 40-minute solo set. An artist of Rufus Wainwright’s stature ought to command an audience’s attention but he was professionally resigned to the fact that he would be accompanying stragglers still finding their seats. It’s a brave thing to do being the opening act at such a large venue on your own. The set was split between piano songs and guitar songs. He did do his version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which he freely admits is a cover of Jeff Buckley’s version rather than an interpretation of the original. In fact, we really need an international moratorium on covers of Hallelujah. It has become the singers’ Stairway to Heaven – something you do just to prove you can. I’m not accusing Rufus of that, but there shouldn’t be any more.

When he switched to guitar, it quickly became clear that he doesn’t play guitar nearly as well as he plays piano. In fact, he doesn’t play guitar very well at all. I don’t mean that as a criticism by any stretch. While I love hearing great players, I also have no problem with people who are just good enough to accompany themselves at a solo show. It just made his performance all the more gutsy. 
Paul Simon’s set opened with Gumboots, which was the first of several underrated album tracks from Graceland that he included. Banter and interaction was minimal, with Paul speaking just enough say hello and “I love you too,” to a call from the audience before adding (in the nicest possible way), “Not really, I don’t know who you are.”

I was somewhat disgusted to see almost a hundred people get up and leave the auditorium during So Beautiful or So What. I know that two hours can be a long time to go on hard seats without a pitstop, especially if you’re old enough to remember when Paul Simon was up and coming, but I really thought that such a conspicuous exodus during one of the songs from his new album was downright disrespectful. In fact, it seemed a lot of people were there just for the hits. Perhaps I’ve been to enough pub gigs to be immune to noise behind me, so I didn’t really notice the couple behind us talking through Crazy Love Vol. II (a highlight of the show for me – I’ve always loved that song. It’s like a Woody Allen film condensed into a four-minute song) but dearest did and to her credit, she turned around and told them to shut it or take it outside. It does make you wonder why people spend so much money on tickets only to wilfully miss half the show.

I don’t think he minded too much though because they came back for an additional encore of The Boxer (The first encore included a lovely version of Here Comes the Sun). Although clearly planned in the setlist, they gave the distinct impression that they kept that last song up their sleeve for if they felt like it.

Something that is rarely mentioned is that Paul Simon is a seriously underrated guitarist. It’s as if you can only admire an artist for one aspect of his work and since Paul Simon has been given the ‘songwriter’ tag, his guitar playing is overlooked. That’s a pity, because he was absolutely cooking and he knew it.

On the whole, it was an excellent show, although it didn’t come across as an event. They came, they played their music, they did it wonderfully well and they said goodnight. 

The Hello Morning – Westernport Hotel, 18 May, 2013
My second Hello Morning gig was on a Saturday night and although I enjoyed hearing them play in the corner in the front bar, I was looking forward to hearing them in the band room.

You can imagine my dismay when I got there to see that they had been shoved in the corner of the front bar again. Not only that, but I’d missed their first two sets. Usually there isn’t any point in going to a pub gig before 9:30 because they’ll still have the football on, and the Westernport has its big screen over the stage. So normally, 9:45 is a pretty fair time to arrive if all you want to do is see the band. However, for reasons unknown, they’d had the band start early in the front bar, without any lights, while the band room was used to show the footy – because where else can you watch the footy on tv? Be reasonable!

On the upside, I did get to hear the set I missed the previous time and they brought some CDs this time, but I really would have preferred it if the venue had treated them like a proper band and I told them so.

This was also the night that gave me flashbacks to things that shit me about pub gigs, like when I’m just standing there quietly listening to the band – specifically, being asked why I’m not getting into it when I am completely into it, I’m just not making a spectacle of myself being into it. It led me to design this t-shirt which you can order in your choice of colours for just $26.94 (or your local equivalent) right here. Bargain? I think so!

Bob Evans – Westernport Hotel, 24 August, 2013
Although it’s about half an hour’s drive away, the Westernport has effectively become my local for live music since all the pubs within staggering distance stopped getting bands except for the occasional hobby band playing Guns’n’Roses covers for beer money.

Bob Evans is the nom de solo of Kevin Mitchell from Jebediah. I have always liked his solo work, which is kind of odd because I’ve never really like Jebediah and still don’t. I had seen him on RockWiz a couple of weeks earlier and loved the song he did but I didn’t realise at the time it was a brand new song.

Laura Imbruglia opened for him. In case you’re wondering, yes, she’s Natalie’s younger sister but that won’t tell you anything about her. Her solo acoustic set had a strong alt-country feel which is slightly softened on her album. Straight to the Bar was a standout for me.

Bob Evans’ set was also solo acoustic. He made up for the lack of spectacle with a cute device of stringing fairy lights around the edge of his guitar. He began with a few planned songs and after that said, “Okay, what do you want to hear?” It was a courageous move and there were moments where he trod a fine line between improvisational and slapdash but he pulled it off extremely well. To his credit, he stuck to his policy of not playing Jebediah songs at a solo show, despite several requests for Harpoon

By the end of the show, he had won the audience over and they were participating in his make-it-up-as-you-go-along style. When he was close to the end he said that this is the point where he would leave the stage, wait a minute and come back, so he would just keep going unless everyone wanted to go through the motions. Well, the crowd did want to go through the motions, so he really made them work for the encore.

Cyndi Lauper – Palais Theatre, St Kilda, 29 August, 2013
I found out about this show when I got an email about the pre-sale. (By the way, why do they do this? There’s an agency-member presale, a fans’ presale, a specific credit card presale, all starting at different times before they go on sale to the “general public.” One can only assume they define “general public” as anyone who has never bought a ticket from an agency before, doesn’t have a credit card and has paid no attention to the act before). I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Cyndi Lauper, although I have plenty of respect for her, but dearest quite likes her and the show was coming up close to her birthday so this was her present. It was the first time I had been to a show primarily as Mr L.

There are some shows where you’re aware well in advance of who the support act will be and others where you don’t know until you get there. This gig was in the latter category and I was absolutely thrilled when we got to the venue and learned that the opening act would be Max Sharam. I didn’t even know she was back in the country. I had wanted to see her since she first appeared in 1994. It was a quiet set with just her and a guitarist, and she played guitar herself for a couple of songs. She opened with her biggest hit, Coma, and the rest of the set was previews of songs from her new EP, The Gods Envy, and forthcoming album. She also wasn’t backward telling people to wait outside if they weren’t going to listen to the support act. Good for her!
This was the She’s So Unusual tour, marking the 30th anniversary of the album by performing it in its entirety. Having seen a couple of shows based around whole albums, I was expecting there to be one set featuring the album and another set featuring other songs, but as it turned out, the entire show was She’s So Unusual. In between songs, she told stories about the making of the album and the times when it was made. This show was just a few days after the whole “zomg, Miley did what?” thing and Cyndi had plenty of choice words for Miley during the storytelling segments, none of them complimentary. While the show may have been one third talking, don’t get the idea that she has slowed down. She performed with an energy that would put artists half her age to shame. We didn’t have close seats, but you would never guess the lady is 60 years old.

Nik Kershaw and Kim Wilde – Chelsea Heights Hotel, 17 October, 2013
Okay, let me explain. I’ve got no time for 80s nostalgia, which this tour was unashamedly about. I was there the first time and they were crap. However, Nik Kershaw was several cuts above most of the singing hairdos of the time and I’ve always liked him.
When I booked the tickets for this show, it was the only date on the tour that had been announced, which seemed kind of odd. Later, there was a show announced at the Palais, which wouldn’t have taken much longer to get to, but I was glad I had already booked this show because it’s a big pub with a dedicated band room. The wait was a bit depressing though as all the 80s tragics were out on their (ahem) finery and, as someone who just appreciates the music, I really didn’t want to be counted among a bunch of nostalgic Gen-Xers. I will give credit to the guy who came in white makeup, spiked blonde hair, knee-high Docs and a black and white kilt (cross Johnny Rotten with Julian Clarey and you’ll be most of the way there) but the worst crime was the guy in his late 40s wearing stonewash jeans with pockets all the way down the legs and a tight, light brown collarless leather jacket. Mate, just no!

Nik’s set was excellent and although was a greatest-hits kind of show, he also played the sadly underrated Radio Musicola and a couple of songs from recent albums. 

During the break, I relinquished the position I had bagsed down the front for someone who might want it more. I admit to having a crush on Kim Wilde when I was 10 and I still have nothing against her, but I was there to see Nik Kershaw. I did somewhat regret it when the band came back though. Nik had played with Kim’s band backing him and when they came back, Nik played lead guitar for Kim’s set. That’s a nice touch.

Naturally, Kim did all her hits, as well as a cover of Black’s Wonderful Life and great version of I Touch Myself as an unannounced tribute to Chrissy Amphlett. They concluded with a duet of Pink’s Try

Clannad, Hamer Hall, 26 October, 2013
Some things just fall in your lap. I didn’t find out that Clannad were even touring until I saw a facebook post from H-bomb wondering how on Earth he hadn’t found out until then. He has his finger on the pulse way more than I do, and I’m already on every ticketing agency’s mailing list which means that every week we’re swamped with VIP pre-sale offers for a dozen wretched acts I’ve never heard of. How the hell did we miss this?

There’s no stopping H-bomb though. He got onto Gumtree and found someone selling two tickets. I called and left a message and the seller got back to me. She was a real fan who had an unfortunate scheduling clash, so a week later, we had our Clannad tickets. Front row, if you please!

The word Unique is overused and often misused but it truly applies to Clannad. They are rooted in traditional Celtic music, but not full of endless fiddly-dee rigs and jeels. (notthatthere’sanythingwrongwiththat) They mix the acoustic and electronic in a way that almost completely disguises the synthesised parts. They have done soundtracks and pop songs, and dueted with Bono back when they were the more famous ones. And they’re one of those groups who I have always enjoyed and admired without ever really going out of my way for, so I was really glad of the spur to reacquaint myself with their music.

After the show, they all came out to the foyer to sign things and just about everyone there took advantage of that. The signing lasted as long as the concert. That’s dedication, from both artist and fans.

If anything good has come from the arse falling out of the record industry (and I’m not sure it has), it’s the increased opportunities to see artists live who I never thought I would get the chance to. Even in the first quarter of this year, I felt it had been a vintage year for gigs, but it may be becoming the norm. This Saturday I am going to see the legendary Johnny Marr, two weeks later I will be seeing Edwin Collins and then in April it’s Suzanne Vega. And who knows what might happen in between? I can’t wait.
All photos by me. Click them and they get bigger.

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