Rolling Thunder ride

Rolling Thunder Vietnam

QPAC, Concert Hall

April 21 – 22

It can sometimes be difficult to energise a matinee audience. However, from the moment that Christian Charisiou springs onto stage with Steppenwolf’s ‘Magic Carpet Ride’, the rock drama “Rolling Thunder Vietnam” does exactly this, thanks to the exceptional musicianship of its tight band, as much as is stellar vocalists.

The psych-influenced hard rock, heavy bass and funky beat song is the perfect opener to give the audience a taste of the talent to come from members of the legendary John Farnham band (Angus Burchall on drums, Brett Garsed on guitar, Craig Newman on bass, Joe Petrolo on keyboards and James Ryan on guitar). Garsed is especially memorable throughout the show, no more so than in an arresting ‘Black Magic Woman’ evocation of the enticement of Vietnamese bars.

As suggested by its title, the show centres around the turbulent time of the world’s first televised war, showcasing the music and stories that shaped a generation. Writer Bryce Hallett’s story, developed from interviews and conversations with many veterans, and actual letters, is of three albeit archetypal Australians and one American. Whereas Andy (Charisiou) has been conscripted via the birthday ballot, happy-go-lucky Johnny (original cast member Tom Oliver) has enlisted to have an adventure and see a bit of the world rather than work on the family war in Warwick, leaving behind his faithful sweetheart Sarah (Brittanie Shipway). And then there is Johnny’s friend Thomas (Jerrod Smith) who was an exchange student in Australia before becoming a US Marine.

This is a unique show, a decade in the making. While it feels very much like a concert, it is one that comes with distinct narrative threads. There is limited dramatic interaction between cast members, with their dialogue directed, instead, only to the audience. And Director David Berthold easily connects Bryce’s stories and musical director Chong Lim arrangements of cleverly chosen songs of the era, weaving them into the drama of the four principal characters’ stories. Joe Cocker’s ‘The Letter’ concludes a segment of share of homesick letters to loves back home, full of missing, memories and foreshadowed longing for future dreams to be realised as the soldiers promise to be home soon.

It is refreshing to have the story focussed so firmly on experience from an Australian perspective. Similarly, it is an appreciated touch to have iconic American anti-war songs such as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’ sitting alongside Australian numbers like John Young’s ‘The Real Thing’ and a lively ‘Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy’, which serves as an early highlight as a crisp-sounding Oliver has the audience clapping along.

After Act One ends with reminder of the realities of the horrors of war, the social scene of protest become a more prominent theme after interval as Sarah begins to embrace the anti-war sentiment. Act Two provides some powerful moments as, for example, Smith leads a mighty ‘War’, full of striking visuals in contrast to the coming more serene numbers of ‘What’s Going On’ and also ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, which is beautifully sung by a quietly-assured Oliver.

The talented primary cast is well-supported by artists Imogen Moore and Sam Richardson. Smith’s voice is particularly textured in lead of many belting rock numbers and the male voices harmonise especially well in a pumping ‘Born to be Wild’ signpost of changing aggression and increasing question of the war’s worth. It is Shipway, however, who carries most of the show’s emotional weight. Her ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ is a soaring conclusion to Act One and in the later poignant and particularly gripping ‘Killing Me Softly’, she holds audience in the palm of her hand.

The provision of light and shade serve the show’s uniqueness, reminding us that for all of its commanding rock show feel, that it is also stemming from real stories. Video images (screen and lighting design by Toby Harding) across four screens shows archival footage of war ships heading from Australia, of life in ‘The Dat’ military base that becomes the soldiers’ temporary home and the small town life on the land that Johnny has left behind, and while there are some distracting technical issues in Act One, these are soon sorted. Archival audio and video, similarly, reinforces the complex, changing political climate of the time, in emphasis of Sarah’s letters from home about the societal attitudes and experience of families on the home front.

Much as it is about the music, “Rolling Thunder Vietnam” is also about the ravages and causalities of war. The theatrical concert is thoughtful, but also an uplifting, entertaining magic ride through the music and politics of a distinctive time in history, that, thanks of the immense talent of its cast and creatives, continues to roll along almost ten years after its world premiere at QPAC in 2014. When a late show share of The Animals’ anthemic ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ enlivens us towards the show’s conclusion, it is met with calls of “do it again”. Luckily there is an encore of numbers to get audience members on their feet before post-show rave about how welcome its return Australian tour is.

Mixtaped memories

Mixtape: Rewind to the 80s (Outside The Jukebox)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

March 9 – 11

A mixtape is a homemade compilation of music, typically from multiple sources, traditionally recorded onto a cassette tape. The songs are either ordered or grouped with a deliberateness in contribution to an overall messaging, usually of love. This is the idea appropriately at the centre of Outside The Jukebox’s “Mixtape: Rewind to the 80s”, which is conceptualised around the idea of its performers finding a box containing clothes from the 1980s and a series of said tapes. By listening to the tapes’ mixes of music, they set about contemplating who might have put them together. Was it chronicle of love blossoming, lost or platonically shared? With each person hearing the songs differently in terms of take-away meanings, there is a lot of room for speculation.

The world-class vocalists of Outside The Jukebox are not only highly-skilled but incredibly versatile as they harmonise in fast-forward suite snippets of songs and present full numbers as part of their determination to convince others as to their imagined backstory behind the mix-tapes’ creation. Each song is a surprise as they restyle, rework, reinterpret and mashup favourite numbers, from Whitney to Wham, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways (an almost-operatic ‘Back in Black’ certainly fits this brief, even though its styling seems somewhat jarring with the sensibility of the rest of the show’s program).

With original arrangements for the production conceived by the group themselves, led by musical director Marcia Penman, and with additional arrangements and tracks created in collaboration with local musicians Tom Collins and Alex Van den Broek, there is much depth to the different musical approaches on offer. The result is something quite special as the group restyles songs to give us a jazzily-provocative version of Olivia Newton John’s Physical, a mournful ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, which allow the audience to consider lyrics anew. While some, like Toto’s ‘Africa’, led by associate producer, creator and performer Oliver Samson, remain quite true to their original layered and anthemic sounds (down even to a synth whistle accent), others represent more substantial departures from their source material, for example, when Penman gives us a whimsical re-take on Prince’s “Kiss” complete with a dainty “I think we better dance now”.

There are also some robust medleys, including of Michael Jackson hits from producer, creator and performer Hayden Rodgers and an ensemble ABBA encore, and surprising mashups, such as of Fleetwood Mac and Survivor. ‘Material Girl’ and ‘Uptown Girl’ seem like an organic fit, while ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ and ‘Don’t You Want Me’ capture the spirit at the heart of the era whose soul was firmly set in its Brat Pack movies. And, the inventive ‘Push It’ merge in and out of ‘Love Shack’ is a genius combination that both showcases the creative, original arrangements that represent the core of the show’s appeal, but also capture its essentially playful spirit.

Numbers showcase a range of rich vocal experience and include opportunities for harmonious unite in ensemble numbers like an early, boppy ‘Take On Me’ retake, and the vocal stylings of each performer are effectively utilised to suit each song’s essential re-imagined messaging. From within a program that features a lot of Madonna and Prince, creator and performer Hannah Grondin gives us a goosebumpy belt of ‘Purple Rain’, full of fierce emotion as much as undeniably skilful vocals, to represent a late show highlight.

“Mixtape: Rewind to the 80s” is a one-of-a-kind concert that is both a unique experience and all sorts of infectious fun. The show’s 80(ish) minutes of high-energy performances, thrilling vocals, and tongue-in-cheek comedy are jam packed with highlights both in musical memory and re-imagination, as Outside The Jukebox finds new ways to interpret things. For those who experienced the ‘80s IRL, it represents opportunity to experience favourite iconic tunes of the era as never heard before. And, as “Stranger Things” has shown, there is always a new generation ready to come Running up that Hill to discover songs anew too.

Photos c/o – Kyle Head Photography

Cathedral classics

An Evening with Amy

St John’s Cathedral

December 9

Brisbane City’s St John’s Cathedral is a structural and engineering feat and the richness of its neo-gothic aesthetic and accompanying acoustics makes it the perfect location for one of Brisbane Music Festival’s final 2022 shows, “A Concert with Amy”. Performing from its nave, Helpmann Award winner Amy Lehpamer echoes her crystalline vocals around its columns to the lofting ceilings, especially in numbers like the charming ‘Vanilla Ice Cream’ from “She Loves Me”.

The concert features a full and varied smorgasbord of modern classic songs about matters of the heart in some way or another from Lehpamer, alongside woodwind multi-instrumentalist Luke Carbon and the festival’s director Alex Raineri on keys. Lehpamer and Carbon both performed in 2015’s “The Sound of Music” (in which Lehpamer earned nation-wide critical acclaim as Maria), so it is appropriate that a Rodgers and Hammerstein number makes an early appearance. The show tune ‘I’m in Love’ from “South Pacific”, not only showcases Lehamers bright vocals in capture of the elation at the core of its declaration, but illustrates Carbon’s impressive musical dexterity in mid-song jumps between flute and clarinet, never missing a beat in its warmly lyrical soundtrack, despite the different holds and embouchure of each instrument.

In Raineri’s new arrangement of George Gershwin’s iconic ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ for woodwind and piano, Carbon is an entire orchestra, luring us in through the number’s full and round opening clarinet sounds to pave the way for Raineri’s brisk keyboard work. It is a dynamic show highlight, irresistible in its vitality and rhythmic invention, yet still full of familiar musical motifs and crescendos for our listening comfort. It is a brilliant interlude to Lehpamer’s performance and it is clear that the two musicians are at ease in work with each other, having collaborated to produce the album “Liquid Crystal” of new arrangements of cherished pieces of the clarinet/piano repertoire. And it is wonderful to also have experience of their combined might in the later pastiche-filled version of hip hop idol Lizzo’s ‘Cuz I Love You’, arranged by Carbon.

From an intoxicating Burt Bacharach to the more overtly melancholic, lower-register The Man That Got Away’, epitomised by Judy Garland in “A Star is Born”, there is an integral light and shade to the show, but also a spirit captured in Stephen Sonheim’s epitomic ‘Being Alive’ from the celebrated “Company”. A through-line in her between song commentary, is Lehpamer’s life as a new mother and it is appropriate, therefore, that Carole King’s ‘A Natural Woman’ features as its celebratory closing number, complete with audience backing vocals singalong, so infectiously unifying is the joy of its experience.

Lehpamer is a genuinely charming performer of clear vocal prowess and Brisbane audiences are fortunate to be able to experience her full flight in such an intimate event. Along with Carbon and Raineri’s talents, “An Evening with Amy” serves as a reminder of the triumphant beauty that live music can convey. As well as showcasing the skill of its performers, the vibrant hour long concert serves as an excellent reminder of the annual year-long festival’s versatility beyond just its usual classical musical program repertoire, and an urge to check out its future line-ups when seasons are announced.

Connections across musical worlds

Stories Untold (Menaka Thomas)

Fringe Brisbane Hub

October 15

This year’s Women in Voice performance was regarded by many as one of the franchise’s best. Part of this elevation came from the debut involvement of Menaka Thomas in showcase of the intersection of traditional and contemporary music. Thomas’ classical Southern Indian Carnatic musical origins are similarly drawn upon in “Stories Untold”. The hour-long Fringe Brisbane show sees the songstress humbly sharing her stories and experiences of life in an intimate and raw musical portrait shaped around her tales of growing up as an Australian-Indian in Brisbane in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, the confronting realities of visits to India, transitioning to motherhood and a chronic disease that nearly claimed her vision.

Starting with a soothing meditative number of gentle percussion accompaniment, the show’s original soul-stirring music is tapestried into the narrative. The unique melodic sounds and rhythmic foundations of South Indian classical music form the base of the setlist, including through inclusion of the soothing drum-like rhythm and bell-ish melody sounds of the handpan, played by accompanist Tsoof Baras. The talented Baras, aka the percussion octopus, is of particular note and difficult to take eyes off as his each hand and leg operate separately from each other with different instruments. He also has a key role in the glorious highlight number, ‘Salaam’, featuring lyrics in Hebrew. The joyous proclamation that peace will come upon us features increasing percussive crescendos into an amazing whole audience sing and clap-along celebration. In contrast, ‘Hold You In My Arms’ is a serene almost-lullaby of love from mother to child, which showcases both Thomas’ smooth vocals and the versatility of pianist Meg Burstow, who seamlessly switches styles and musical patterns throughout the show.

Whether you let the music wash over you, engage in the call and response numbers or clap along to the soul-stirring ‘My Eyes Can See’ prayer to be led forward out of the darkness, there is much to appreciate about Thomas’ “Stories Untold”. The Brisbane-based Indian fusion singer and songwriter has a unique vocal style, that blends sweetly with those of her fellow performers. Indeed, the musical fabric is fascinating in its diversity of its vocal harmonies and multi-layered instrumentations a. In the intimate location of the Fringe Brisbane hub, the world premiere performance of “Stories Untold” is particularly special. As a classically trained Indian devotional singer, Thomas is clearly talented, however, she is also a genuine and generous performer, and her show serves as a lovely, thought-provoking reminder of how we are all the same in our humanity and how music can connect us.

Elucidation engagement

Elucidation (Belinda Griffith)

South Brisbane Sailing Club

October 23

Wet weekend weather may have necessitated that the campfire be moved from Orleigh Park inside of the nearby South Brisbane Sailing Club, but the sentiment still stands clear from the outset of Belinda Griffin’s original Fringe Brisbane show, “Elucidation”. When we hear stories, we can see ourselves written with them and consider our possibilities, Griffin reminds us early on. The one-woman show, written and performed by Griffin, a lover of music and seeker of life’s deeper meanings, has a clear throughline with numbers curated around the idea of the desire for happiness as part of the human condition. As part of its exploration of this, content covers evolution from creation myths of survival through ancient legends of Greek and Roman origins, and the hero’s journey. It is from here that the show’s obscure title originates, as tribute to the prequel ancient text that shares why the holy grail of King Arthur’s tale was needed to restore the Wasteland, left barren after the departure of its abused Well Maidens.

From here, we are linked into a range of lyric-driven numbers, including, ‘Prism’ which serves as a gentle reassurance that light will shine after darker times. ‘Choose Again’, similarly starts with a quieter melody before cresendoing towards its resounding reminder of the need to seek and offer forgiveness to move forward towards inner peace because ‘you only live one; you only get one life’.

Griffin has a clear sense of musical style. Her smooth vocals suit the often folksy sounds, but also flexibly blend in some country-esque interest to some of the score’s numbers. Due to this, the ‘Dark Water’ tribute to the dreamers and thinkers et al who came before us serves as an early highlight, while the memorable ‘No Mud, No Lotus’ attests to the need for the bad to appreciate the good of life. It’s consideration of the concept of namaste sees the audience (who are gathered in circle around the faux campfire), joining in singalong of its ‘om mani padme’ Sankrit hum mantra.

Over the 60 minutes of its duration, “Elucidation” covers a lot in terms of content as, in her narration, Griffin draws together the guiding threads of the familiar storytelling device of the hero’s journey. Explanation of the songs that inspired the show is detailed, perhaps excessively so. For a music show, there is a lot of commentary. And interesting as it is, it could be more effectively managed to account for assumed audience knowledge, meaning that definitions and multiple examples may not be needed for every point, for example discussion of the scientific studies of energy by Einstein and even Tesla in relation to the laws of attraction and affirming power of words, or lone “The Wizard of Oz” mentions amongst what is a throughline based around the rich-enough story of Arthur origins. This could allow for enhanced authentic audience engagement rather than energy being focussed on trying to remember every little detail to be included in between-song discussion.

Still, there is something quite beautiful in this intimate little show and its uplifting ideas, which are wonderfully captured in its final ‘Shine’ song and its testament to bringing the light. Griffin is a passionate performer and in “Elucidation” she gives us an accessible tale of profound resonance for modern times.

Combined craft connection


Brisbane Powerhouse, Underground Theatre

September 23

Brisbane Festival’s “Heartland” sold out well ahead of its performance. Given the stature of its headliner, composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist William Barton, this is of little surprise. Barton is widely recognised as one of Australia’s leading didgeridoo players and composers. (The morning after the performance he is jumping on a plane for Melbourne to appear as part of the AFL grand final’s half-time entertainment.) It is not just Barton performing, but also powerhouse versatile violinist Véronique Serret. Together they combine crafts to share connected stories as traditional songlines and modern storytelling blend in a distinctive evocation of our uniquely Australian landscape.

Brisbane Powerhouse’s intimate Underground Theatre is the perfect location for the expansive but also at-once personal meditation that “Heartland” represents, with moments of poetry written by Barton’s mother Aunty Delmae Barton interspersed throughout the hour-long collaboration. At times, the recitations are almost like slam poetry thanks to Serret’s punchy, powerful delivery, which adds to their soaring emotion. Numbers are fluidly anthologised together and, as with songs of worship, there is not opportunity of need for punctuating applause. Rather the captivated audience is held silent in attention of the stillness of the show’s moments, which are enhanced by lighting normally only seen in the Powerhouse Theatre, which lushes us from the earthy tones of dusk’s glory to fresher emerald greens, for example.

The journey through Dreamtime stories and spirits of the ancient land of their mother country (their heart land) is not just a message of peace, but a showcase of talent. Barton’s virtuosic didgeridoo playing showcases his agility as its drone-ing sounds are interjected with percussive tapping. And when a late show number about the passing of cultures from generation to generation sees the addition of guitar and Barton’s traditional vocals, the unique melding of western music with the ancient sounds of the land uplifts the show’s ending.

Throughout the performance, numbers make use of an expansive sound pallet to vividly elevate their evocation of the resulting unique, meditative world, inspired by the Australian landscape and the power of connection to place. Barton’s didgeridoo mimicry vocalisation is evocative of animal sounds, while the sweet strains of Serret’s upper violin registers layer the musical stories to share a range of sounds and pure emotions. Indeed, there are a number of beautiful moments where earthy didgeridoo sounds are canopied by the sometimes soft touch of the more ethereal violin, along with Serrett’s gentle feathery vocals which rise away to sweet whispering lingers.

Serrett is a dexterous instrumentalist. The concertmaster of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra is far from traditional in her playing, using all parts of the instrument. Short and separated staccato sounds add a dryness to the aesthetic, while playing the back of the violin creates vibrations that resonate in the air.

As audience members, we might not always know the specifics of the story being told, but were certainly recognise the sentiment that comes from the heart and soul at the core of this genre-defying share of connection to county. While the voice of the didgeridoo is a core part of storytelling and teaching, the violin is often said to be the instrument closest to the human voice, so it makes sense that they would pair so well together. United, they serve to elevate the sounds of the language of cultural identity, ensuring that it remains a legacy for generations to come