Category Archives: GIG REVIEWS

Emmylou Harris at the State Theatre, January 9 & 10

If you’ve ever wondered what a breaking heart sounds like, wonder no more. It is strong and sweet, full of sorrow and grace. It is fragile and full of breath, warm and tender, sincere and soaring and as you might imagine, it literally breaks. As it moves steadily, mournfully towards a chord change it cracks on high, becoming so full of air it is almost silent. It is the voice of Emmylou Harris: country music legend, silver siren and purveyor of the saddest of sad songs.

If you were lucky enough to see her at the State Theatre as part of the Sydney Festival last week, you will know that when I write “saddest of sad songs” I mean no embellishment. From her early days singing alongside Gram Parsons, to her biggest solo hit ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ and beyond, more than any other female country artist, Emmylou Harris has trademarked pain. It lingers large in every song, in every line, in every note and over two nights (yes, I went to both shows) she and her Red Dirt Boys showed us that pain can also be beautiful, uplifting and life-affirming.

Playing classic covers, a hint of gospel, a dash of bluegrass and some heart-stopping a cappella, Emmylou and the band showed us why country music (despite its many detractors) is so adored by those who to choose to embrace it. Crowd favourites like ‘Pancho & Lefty’ and ‘Making Believe’ were nestled comfortably alongside her more recent songs like ‘Bang the Drum’ and ‘Michelangelo’. There were moments of humour, such as when Emmylou noted the beauty of the State Theatre and observed that “if we had a theatre like this in the States, we’d have knocked it down by now and built a mini-mall.” There were moments of embarrassment, such as when Emmylou lost track of herself and the band during Red Dirt Girl and had to back track a verse or so. And there were moments of precious sadness so exquisite I am sure I was not the only person in the room wiping away tears. In particular, her tribute to the recently deceased Kate McGarrigle, ‘Darling Kate’ and her cover of Steve Earle’s post-rehab lament ‘Goodbye’ were especially moving.

As an indie geek who made the conversion to country more than a decade ago (via Ryan Adams Heartbreaker) it is no news to me that Emmylou Harris is great. But if I have learned anything in recent years, especially as a radio broadcaster, it’s that many remain resistant to the genre’s achy, breaky charms. I have spent countless hours trying to convert fans of Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago, Beach House’s Teen Dream and Tallest Man On Earth’s The Wild Hunt to country bands traversing similar themes of heartache and desire, albeit with a little more twang. Some people get it. Others get a cold chill at the mere mention of a banjo. As such, I understand all my crushing on Emmylou might be lost on FBi listeners, who are probably more inclined to be lining up for any number of more hip Sydney Festival shows over the next few weeks than reliving moments of Emmylou Harris magic in their mind.

However, if you have a feeling that this country music thing might not be so bad, get your hands on an Emmylou Harris record. Play it over and over again, let it tend to all your heartaches and keep your fingers crossed she comes back to Sydney soon. You won’t regret it.

n.b. This review was first published on FBi radio’s FLOG. You can check it out again here, same words different format.

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A Spoonful of Sugar: Old Crow Medicine Show at the Factory Theatre

Band: Old Crow Medicine Show
Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee
Gig: Factory Theatre, Sydney
Date: Saturday, March 27th
Photos: Kerri Ambler

Marrickville’s dim lit industrial fringe is even more dim this evening. It’s just gone past eighty-thirty and Earth Hour has plunged Sydney into darkness. With few streetlights on and the few homes scattered in the concrete clad factory streets lit by candles, the sky is a cloudy grey against an unseasonably warm March evening. The darkness, the grey slab buildings, the abandoned quiet, it’s not exactly the right atmosphere for an old-timey, bluegrass ho-down. But that’s okay. If I close my eyes I’m somewhere in the American south, in a button down blouse, outside a rundown bar and about to see Old Crow Medicine Show.

For the uninitiated, how best to describe OCMS? They make the kind of music you imagine old-school banjo slinging dudes from a different time and place playing at barn dances and porch sing-a-longs. It’s a raw, authentic, down home sound. Fiddle, blues harp, flat-picked guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonies so sweet and sad and uplifting it is easy to forget you’re in an industrial wasteland in Sydney’s inner-west.

More than ten years since the band were discovered busking on the streets of North Carolina, the group are back in Australia for the second time in just under year, having finally started to build a dedicated fan base Down Under. And dedicated they are. The audience is diverse, young and old, fresh faced and haggard, all keen to catch some Old Crow magic. Check-shirted alt-country city boys blend with genuine country folk who’ve travelled up from regional Victoria just to see the show. There are girls in cowboy boots, men in dungarees and women old enough to be my mother screaming like teenagers as band leader Ketch Secor swaggers onto the stage and greets us in his butter-wouldn’t-melt southern drawl.

For just over two hours (with an interval midway from which they all return looking suitably wired) the Old Crow boys take us to the heart of the American south and we hoot and holler accordingly. The band have been to charm school and work their way through an eclectic set list of party tunes and heartbreakers with ease. ‘Down Home Girl’, ‘I Hear Them All’ and ‘Caroline’ stir the crowd into polite sing-a-longs before ‘Cocaine’ and ‘Wagon Wheel’ sway us into a rousing chorus ready for more. When the show comes to its inevitable close, the crowd stumbles out into the Marrickville night and heads where all nights of this kind inevitably end, Newtown’s Town Hall Hotel. Every single one of us wishes we were drinking whiskey out back of the Factory with the band. But in the absence of the band, we fondle our beers and reminisce and already start to talk about when we’ll get to see them again.


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Neko Case, City Recital Hall

January 12, 2009

Oh Lord how l love the rich, velvet tones of Neko Case’s gutsy soprano voice. She is a singer’s singer, as effortless on those crisp clean top notes as she is deep down in the bottom of her range. It’s a femme fatale of a voice, perfect for Country Noir – strong and expressive and seductive but with just a hint of sweetness. Case is in town as part of the Sydney Festival, a sprawling showcase of some of the best arts and culture experiences happening across the globe. The festival is famed for bringing great musical talent to the city and putting them in venues that aren’t typically used as performance spaces, and that is perhaps where the problem lies with this show. Case hates the venue. And because it’s her second show, most of the audience already know there’s a problem with the space because a pretty disappointing review of last night’s performance has been published in the Sydney Morning Herald .

I wasn’t at the fateful first gig so I can’t say if I agree with Herald reviewer Bernard Zuel’s sentiments or not. But what I can say is that the City Recital Hall is a pretty lame place to watch a rock show. It’s a well-lit room with tiered seating and polished surfaces and white wine served in tiny plastic cups. As someone who prefers guzzling beer in venues where I can feel my feet sticking to the floor, I can empathise with Case, who belongs in dimly lit bars with squelching gin soaked carpet and not on a stage designed for string quartets and chamber orchestras.

But… the show must go on…

Neko and her band bring a humble and endearing presence to a stage that they are clearly uncomfortable on. There is a gorgeous camaraderie between Case, who barely talks between songs, and her bawdy backing vocalist Kelly Hogan. Hogan is unafraid to joke with the audience and with the band, and of course, effortlessly provides that rich haunting echo that makes the harmony hit you were it hurts. Most of the set list is made up of the most recent record Middle Cyclone, with highlights including ‘This Tornado Loves You’ and the tender, mournful ‘Vengeance is Sleeping’. In jeans and sneakers, Case’s casual stage presence is juxtaposed with the glamorous melodrama in every drawn out note and by the time the band breaks into ‘That Teenage Feeling’ from 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, I’ve been well and truly wooed. But somewhat foolishly, I am lulled into a false sense that the rest of the audience is swooning too… until this happens…

Idiot lady in the audience: Can you turn the amps off?

My internal monologue: Hey rude festival twat, don’t ruin the vibe with your rude interjections and clear lack of knowledge about the artist, her back catalogue and the finer points of Country Noir (i.e. the necessary use of an amp!)

Rest of the audience: silence, collective sip of alcoholic beverage, more silence.

Neko Case: What a fucking stupid question. This is a rock show. Can you go and sit in the toilet? You might enjoy the show a whole lot more from there.

It’s hard to say what happens to the gig from here, except that it is tense. Case has defended her right to play her songs the way she always has, to someone who clearly hasn’t listened to any of her albums and is probably there on a sponsor affiliated freebie ticket. The overwhelming feeling in my section of the audience (i.e. diehard country fans in the back row of the second tier) is one of embarrassment and hope that the show can go on.

Indeed it does, and Case’s full, sad melodies echo across the hated hall and the hater(s) in the audience. I soak it up, grateful just to hear one of the finest voices of her generation live in my city. But I can’t help but sit there hoping that next time Case comes to town, if she braves our fair city again, we’re in a seedy, dark venue with seedy, dark patrons to listen to seedy, dark music without festival types doing their best to make it seem as though beautiful music is falling on deaf ears.

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Cat Power, Newcastle Entertainment Centre


January 9, 2009

It’s with awkward anticipation that I venture by train from Sydney to Newcastle to catch Cat Power. I’m excited, because the husky cover versions that have dominated Chan Marshall’s most recent set lists are sublime, intelligent reinterpretations of some of my favourite songs. But I’m also nervous, because the last time I saw her perform in Sydney a little more than four years ago, the singer was at the peak of a much publicised breakdown. Frail and tormented she stopped and started her way through songs, nervously muttered in between and spent the whole performance (which was as beautiful as it was heartbreaking) looking distinctly like she wanted to be somewhere else. I spent the night in awe of her talent and mesmerised by her vulnerability but also feeling like a pervert, indulging in the sadness of a stranger.

This time around, Cat Power is thankfully joined by the talented, charming and too-cool-for school four-piece the Dirty Delta Blues. With Jim White from The Dirty Three on drums, and Judah Bauer from Blues Explosion on guitar, the once solo songstress seems more relaxed as she delivers her opening song, a breathy cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’. Her vocals are divine, she smiles nervously at the besotted audience, it’s a promising start. And from there, the Southern belle of down and out indie folk doesn’t disappoint. She’s charming, shy and effortlessly sexy, no more so than when she breaks into her version of the Lee Clayton classic ‘Silver Stallion’. As a devotee of Outlaw Country, The Highwaymen version of this song is pretty erotic to my ears. But when Cat Power drawls over the lines “just a touch of sadness in his fingers/ thunder and lightning in his thighs” it as though the whole room is a quivering pre-orgasmic mess.

Overall, the show is an engaging and endearing performance of cover versions, peppered with originals.  She wraps up the gig with a bluesy version of ‘I Don’t Blame You’ from 2003’s You Are Free. The song is almost unrecognisable now it has been given the full treatment by band, and makes the perfect end to the evening. It is still unmistakeably Cat Power but like the songstress herself, a little bit stronger and a little more mature.

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