Tortured treats

Tortured Remixes (Topology)

Vulcana Women’s Circus

May 11 – 12

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Contemporary classical act Topology is cool and clever; in fact, it was clever from before it cool to be so. The quintet has been on the Brisbane scene for 20 years now (with only one member change) and they are celebrating the journey towards the anniversary with their 14th full-length album, Tortured Remixes, launched through this year’s Anywhere Theatre Festival. 

The ‘mixtape’ album is not one of traditional cover songs but ‘tortured’ takes from the creative minds of Topology’s composers, John Babbage, Robert Davidson and Bernard Hoey, who bend, stretch and scramble popular melodies into adventurous songs anew. And the result is as enigmatic as ever thanks to its mostly anagrammed song titles.

Some arrangements such as ‘Mama Mia’ and ‘We Will Rock You’ are instantly familiar, while others take longer to appreciate, such as in the spirited, stylistic ‘Satisfaction’ mashup ‘Fantastic Note Coatings’, which comes complete with the same sense of frustration as its The Rolling Stones original inspiration. From The Beatles to Beyoncé, “Tortured Remixes” offers audiences a trip across continents and decades. Certainly with such a range, there is something for everyone, whether they be fan of Dizzy Gillespie’s modern jazz be-bop or the pioneering Australian punk rock sound of The Saint’s 1976 iconic single, ‘I’m Stranded’ (which serves as a particular show highlight).

Slowed down as many of the arrangements are, also allows for unique appreciation of the nuances of melody, such as in numbers like ‘Whinging Tweet’ which serves as tribute to Cold Chisel’s ‘Cheap Wine’ tell of sitting of the beach drinkin’ rocket fuels. Similarly, the ‘Black to Grey’ two song mashup of Deep Purple’s hard rock number ‘Black Night’ with Visage’s decade-later, new-wave, electronic hit ‘Fade to Grey’, allows for some lovely stripped-back string sounds in evocation of chorus memories. Every piece comes with a clear passion in its delivery. Indeed, right from the opening number’s take of Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’ (‘Two-Punk Fight’), there is an infectious energy to proceedings that permeates the light and shade of individual numbers and Robert Davidson is particularly blistering on the double bass.

Anyone who has ever seen a Topology show knows to expect a treat because everything the group does is good and “Tortured Remixes” is no exception to this expectation. As they continue to go from strength to strength, touring nationally and internationally, Brisbane should not only be proud of them as a home-grown success story, but embrace any opportunity they can to see their sometimes-warped but always wonderful work.

Parisian playfulness

Paris Combo

QPAC, Concert Hall

March 20

With pixie haircut and wearing pretty polka-dot dress, Paris Combo’s Belle du Berry is the epitome of French style and it is of little surprise that in her QPAC welcome, she explains that the show’s songs will be in French so if we don’t understand, that’s fair enough. Luckily Australian-born trumpeter and pianist David Lewis is on hand to translate, which leads to many moments of incidental humour that only add to the show’s eclectic appeal.

This is far from a typical French cabaret. Rather, the charismatic chanteuse frontwoman and her four-piece band transforms tradition by giving it a distinctly cosmopolitan twist. The program presents a variety of blended sounds from vibrant gypsy jazz, French pop, Latin syncopation and Northern African rhythms in reflection of its band members’ varied musical roots, as accompaniment to Belle’s beautiful and versatile voice.

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This diversity also allows all band members a chance to shine, from Benoît Dunoyer de Segonzac’s elegant double bass playing to Potzi’s haunting guitar introduction to ‘Anémiques Maracas’ in contrast to the song’s cheeky and catchy later sounds and Lewis’ jazzy trumpeting in ‘Fibre De Verre’ and frequent simultaneous double play of piano and trumpet. And when, as she says, in the great tradition of French songstresses, Belle  leaves ‘for a glass of red’, and fellow French national François Jeannin sings, in English, Etta Jones’ ‘I Saw Stars’,  it marks just one of many memorable moments.

Although full of easy-on-the-ear sophistication, the show is also characterised by a playful attitude in both its music and between-song banter as Belle tells us about how each song is about love, introducing them with companion tales, such as, with ‘Señor’ why being single too long is ill-advised and in the title track from their latest album, “Tako Tsubo” (named after a rare medical condition colloquially called ‘broken-heart syndrome’)  about the effect of big emotional shocks. Indeed, the mix of songs from across their many albums, makes for a unique and engaging experience, especially when, in ‘If My Love’ the audience becomes the wind in the songstresses soul. The whimsicality crescendos in ‘Je Suis Partie’, complete with clap-along chorus and a ‘very dancy’ encore, during which audience members finally respond to Belle’s ‘get up and dance’ urging in embodiment of the pure entertainment that this show represents.

Paris Combo has been around for years and after experience of the quirky quintet’s unique contemporary musical stylings, it’s easy to appreciate why their Queensland debut has brought out such a crowd. Their sound is as delightful as it is difficult to define and deserving of every accolade they receive.

Reader’s Robbie

The Songs of Robert Burns (Eddi Reader)

QPAC, Concert Hall

March 16

Seeing Eddi Reader’s “The Songs of Robert Burns” is like experiencing an extended Scottish hug of storytelling and songs. The acclaimed singer and songwriter, first brought into the limelight as front woman for Fairground Attraction, is immediately very Scottish in both accent and vernacular. And her homeland inspires much of her music, particularly through her presentation of the songs of Scotland’s best-known and best-loved poet (and Johnny Depp of his age), Robert Burns, a man who at 27 years old wrote that song that makes us hold each other every New Year’s eve.

‘Auld Lang Syne” makes an appearance of course, albeit with a more traditional, bittersweet melody that is exquisitely realised by Reader’s unaccompanied a capella introduction to awed-audience silence. However, beyond this standard, who really knows what each show will bring, as she bounces around the setlist with down-to-earth authenticity that sees her admit to wearing her glasses due to misplaced contacts and tell the audience of the story behind her boho dress (part Scotland, part cabaret).

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Reader’s genuine character continues as she invites the audience into the world of Robert Burns and her own life, through share of anecdotes about meeting the Queen and knowing when she had made it, from her father’s perspective. Indeed, family features throughout the show from an early-set share of the poignant ‘Dragonflies’ in dedication to her Aunt Molly, and later thoroughly-entertaining impressions of all range of family members.

The show, is, however, all about the music as it sees Reader and her four-piece band joined by a quintet of players from Brisbane’s own Camerata. Their plaintive rendition of the familiar classic, ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red, Rose’ is stunning in its formal orchestral arrangement and, like the later ‘John Anderson’ allows opportunity for violinist Brendan Joyce and cellist Robert Manley in particular, to shine in share of haunting, delicate string sounds that allow full focus on the eloquence of Burns’ words.

While Burns’ songs, including ones from Reader’s 2003 album of the same name, dominate, the program is peppered by other equally entertaining offerings, including the lovely linger of the timeless ‘Moon River’ and snippet of Fairground Attraction’s number one single, ‘Perfect’. There really is something for everyone as Reader assimilates a range of different musical styles into a whimsical pop/folk fusion that is quite her own. The setlist also serves to showcase Reader’s astonishing voice, from the serenity of the delightfully-operatic ‘Jamie Come Try Me’ to the bawdy boldness of the cheeky ‘Charlie is My Darling’ crescendoing into a communal clap and sing-along chorus.

From the beautiful balladry and tender vocals of many of the show’s early numbers, things jig along with many a sing-along towards the infectious joy of ‘Willie Stewart’, complete with joyous accordion accompaniment and foot-stomping akin to the atmosphere of a Celtic ceidah. This is the enchantment and charm of “The Songs of Robert Burns”; it is a show that combines so many wonderful things in creation of a memorable experience to serve as soundtrack as you plan trip to bonnie Scotland. In short, Reader’s Robbie is not be missed.

Photo – c/o Ferne Millen

Hedwigging out

Hedwig 15 (Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Queer Film Festival and Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

January 28

Sometimes it takes seeing a movie on big screen to truly appreciate its greatness. And “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a great movie, iconic in its incredible tell of an ‘internationally ignored’ rocker from communist East Berlin who sings about his manhood being cut off in a messy operation, hence the title of both the film and the  band of Eastern-bloc musicians with whom Hansel, now Hedwig, tours the pit stops of America. Its screening and concert performance, “Hedwig 15” (in gala celebration of its 15th anniversary) as part of Brisbane Powerhouse’s Melt Festival celebration of queer arts and culture is reminder not only of its hilarity, but its soundtrack of explosive glam/punk sensibility.

Regardless of the still-light-outside starting time, sisters, brothers, misfits and all the others unite in celebration of the immortal white trash style icon with some even dressing in homage to the genderqueer singer. Certainly this is a unique event, complete with packets of gummy bears (in nod to American sugar-daddy soldier Luther’s enticement) placed about the stalls, a bar within the theatre and encouragement for audience members to move about during the show.

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And then, before the film’s credits have even finished rolling, the concert section of the show belts into being with Bertie Page’s take on ‘Tear Me Down’, which opens the soundtrack and sets the scene for Hedwig’s journey, starting as a slip of a girlyboy behind the Berlin Wall. Sando Colarelli too, brings a brazen rock energy to the liberating anthem ‘Angry Inch’, recreating the song’s vocals and later capturing the film’s essence of rock excess in a soon-to-be-torn-off chrysalis-like costume of plastic sheeting.

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The soundtrack alternates rock ballads and reminiscences as Hedwig searches for completion and a fully realised sense of self on road to becoming an ‘internationally ignored song stylist’ and things slow down to the more melodic during ‘Wig in a Box’, arguably the film’s musical pinnacle, during which Josh Daveta sings of Hedwig’s comfort in the transforming power of wigs, make-up and rock music with masterful vocals. Lucinda Shaw, too, brings impressive vocal energy and emotional resonance to the fiercely determined ‘The Origin of Love’ and its deeply tender explanation of the desperate desire to become whole and connected with other humans. And her share of the soundtrack’s anthemic reconciliatory final song, ‘Midnight Radio’, is simply sublime in its toast to world’s enigmatic souls and the power of being our authentic selves.

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The show’s killer soundtrack is skilfully supported by an all-star band led by James Lees with Shiv Zimmermann, John Meyer, Kevin Haigh and Parmis Rose, which allows each performer to bring their own artistry and embodiment of Hedwig’s characteristics to their selections. James Halloran, for example, is emotionally vulnerable in ‘The Long Grift’, a song that didn’t make the movie cut in its entirety but is a worthy inclusion for its highlight of how, during Hedwig’s vendetta against former partner Tommy, she becomes blinded to the feelings of the loved ones around her.

In the hands of Electric Moon, it is easy to see why this soundtrack has gained such a cult-status since its humble beginnings as a stage musical before movie. With only a ten song setlist, the ‘In Concert’ section of the show is over way too soon, much like Electric Moon’s last, “Ziggy Stardust”, outing. Still, its essential, sincere themes linger past its punk sensibilities with message about the hope of turning misfortune into personal power and celebration of the unique.

“Hedwig 15” like its namesake inspiration is rich in imagination and daring. The songs are explosive in their exploration of the ideas of ideology, love and destiny and they are delivered with the raw power and emotion required to have audience members on their feet Hedwigging-out in dance and sway with abandon at just 8pm, in mutual celebration of fact that we all either are or can be Hedwig.

Mutual MJ sounds

Smooth Criminals – The Songs of Michael Jackson (Luke Kennedy and Joel Turner)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

December 4

In life, as in the culinary world, there are some combinations that obviously go together, many that need to be kept apart and those that when combined become an unexpected rhapsody of delight. In its pairing of Brisbane boys Luke Kennedy and Joel Turner, “Smooth Criminals” is certainly example of the latter. In share of their mutual love of Michael Jackson, the odd couple of former Ten Tenors member and The Voice Season Two runner-up Kennedy and Aria winning artist, world beatbox champion and Australian Idol alumnus Turner, deliver a live tribute that is as entertaining as it is unique.

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The duo complement each other in style and sound, particularly in delivery of lesser known songs such as Thriller’s first release, ‘The Girl is Mine’ and, from HIStory, “Stranger in Moscow’, Jackson’s lowest charting single. Indeed, what adds to the show is its song curation beyond just a ‘greatest hits’ list from the Kind of Pop’s extensive catalogue (although ‘Billy Jean’ does make appearance, sans moonwalk but with a single white glove). Early in the set, Kennedy delivers a beautiful ‘Ben’, while later, there is a moving mashup of ‘Earth Song’ and ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’, which merges into a sensitive, yet stirring ‘Man in the Mirror’ and show of how Brisbane audiences can click, if not clap along in time.

From the pre-show pump of Jackson hits to the packed Powerhouse Theatre, there is a palpable energy that ignites during the one-night-only show proper. And there is much to engage audiences, from a Springsteen style selection to bring audience member of stage, to a sing-along to the sometimes nonsensical lyrics of the funky, disco anthem, ‘Wanna Be Starting Something’.

The show is one of homage, rather than imitation with the duo making ‘Smooth Criminal’ absolutely their own, particularly through Turner’s skill in seamlessly merging into ‘Dirty Diana’, in showcase of his trademark raw power and deep bass sounds. It is a theme evident in its dialogue as much as its music choices, with Kennedy reminding that regardless of the iconography with which we associate Jackson, there was a man behind the imagery. The resulting gentle-touch of ‘Gone Too Soon’, honest in its emotion and moving in its delivery, serves as a simple reminder of this and also as a perfect illustration of Kennedy’s crisp voice, charming in its contemporary operatic sound.

In the hands of Kennedy and Turner, “Smooth Criminals” is a wonderful realisation of what happens when two conflicting musical styles meet in mutual love for a musical icon. Although it is full of subtle surprises, its faith to Jackson’s songs and what they mean is such that it will both satisfy your musical needs and re-ignite desire to revisit your own favourite tracks.

Never enough Emma

Emma Dean in Concert

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 3

Australian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Emma Dean is a consummate performer, having released many original albums/eps. And original is perhaps the best way to describe her style: quirky, intriguing and always exquisite in its realisation. Indeed, from the moment her In Concert show at Brisbane Powerhouse’s Wonderland Festival begins with Richard Grantham’s evocative violin sounds, set against the Visy Theatre’s moody blue and purple lighting, it is clear that the exploration of life, love and loss is going to be a work of art.

Emma Dean is nothing if not eclectic, with a distinctive, sometimes Kate Bush-like sound on show in all sorts of musical genres throughout the hour long concert. From the hillbilly-like ‘Water Fountain’ by The Tune-Yards, a song built before audience eyes to the upbeat, rockier ‘Fire In My Belly’ about loving from a distance and the touching country ballad sounds of ‘Orange Red’, every song is as memorable as it is unique.

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The highlight, however, comes courtesy of a stripped back take of Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’, featuring performer/choreographer Jamie Kendall in dance accompaniment. When Dean is joined in voice by a secret flash mob (members of the Cheep Trill community choir), it is an unforgettably special moment of pure beauty to the point of joyful tears.

Back on piano, Dean soon journeys audiences from the story of sabotage to some similarly dark places courtesy of the catchy ‘Little Succubus’, about a night demon who steals the brains of pious men in their sleep, performed with musical accompaniment from her brother Tony Dean. Regardless of content and themes, however, her original songs all showcase honest lyrics and addictive sounds. Her powerful voice is striking, particularly in its high vocal register, making for some sublime moments. Despite being a sold-out show, the intimate venue allows for display of plenty of personality in vocals, musicality and between song storytelling, which is charismatic and engaging in that never-enough type way.

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Emma Dean’s impressive vocals certainly suit the layered tunes, bewitching the room alone before addition of her violin, keyboard and piano musicianship as a stunning treat to the senses. Any chance to see the versatile, multi-talented musician should not be missed, especially when supported by the incredible musical talents of Tony Dean and Richard Grantham.

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Musical excellence aside, the show also brings with it an essential message of empowerment, encapsulated in a quote she shares from Marianne Williamson, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” It is a fitting reflection with which to leave audiences at this special gig as she takes some time off to write for a new project.

Photos c/o – kd photography

Wild Wonderland

Wild at Heart (Ellen Reed)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

November 30

If you don’t know of Ellen Reed, you should. “The Voice” 2016 grand finalist has big, bold red hair and an ever bigger, bolder unapologetic voice. And in her cabaret show “Wild at Heart”, its magnificent power is on display right from the opening number, the original titular song. Original numbers pepper the performance, which creates a mostly engaging ebb and flow to the evening as she takes audiences on a  journey, for example, from the poignant delivery of ‘Stars’, full of genuine,  painfully-honest lyrics, to a much grungier share of Bruno Mars’ raunchy ‘Gorilla’.

Act One flies by (#inagoodway), especially as she revisits and redefines moments from her television journey, including the soulful, sentimental ballad ‘Stone Cold’ and an emotional performance of P!nk’s pop ballad ‘Perfect’ (which sealed her spot in the Grand Finale). Things rock on as she puts her personal twist on Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ (the huge song that landed her the final spot on Team Jessie J in the show’s blind audition phase), in a number that showcases the blistering band, particularly Justin Bliss on bass and Mik Easterman on drums.

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Things bang back also in Act Two with songs including her triumphant take of Jess Glynne’s ‘Hold My Hand’, featuring the stage awash in yellow in some of the best lighting even seen in the Powerhouse Theatre. From the intimacy of Rhiannon’s ‘Diamonds’ to the feistiness of Sheryl Crow’s ‘My Favorite Mistake’, Reed’s energy never wanes in showcase of her adaptability. And her skill for self-effacing storytelling in between select numbers only adds to her appeal as a performer.

When things slow down with her take of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’, the audience knows that the show’s end is regrettably not far away. Yet there is still much to be made from the show’s final numbers. When she sings ‘Ain’t Nobody’ the crowd appropriately erupts in the euphoria of its rocking realisation, including a shared energy that sees even the ushers dancing with abandon and leaves everyone in want of more.

It is entirely appropriate that Reed should appear as part of The Brisbane Powerhouse’s Wonderland festival, given the dynamic Queensland singer/songwriter’s powerhouse voice. “Wild at Heart” certainly showcases her vocal range and versatility, alternating as she does between belting out verses and delivering others with stunning softness. With just enough edginess to move her away from bland middle of the road territory, she makes so many songs memorable and familiar, meaning that ‘ain’t nobody’ can stop her.