Anthems anew

Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

June 25 – July 9

Industry pioneer and provocateur Robyn Archer AO is a singer, performer, writer, artistic director and public advocate of the Arts, so to have her wealth of musical knowledge distilled into a fearless celebration of the way song has shaped Australian identity, is a real coup. Lee Lewis’s inspired commission of this political and personal celebration of the way song has shaped Australian identity is to be commended as the result is a captivating curation of our ‘other’ songs, “Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook”.

As Archer notes from her initial words, “I am not, nor will I ever be Crocodile Dundee”. The first line of her 1988 song, written in response to the bicentennial-prompted clichés of Australian identify is an appropriate introduction to a show that is not as you may expect. From here things progress through what is clearly a cleverly crafted work, intelligent and considered in its weave together of a tapestry of songs infused with personal stories.

Supported by musicians/vocalists George Butrumlis (accordion), Cameron Goodall (guitars and banjo) and Enio Pozzebon (keyboards), who are all given moments to shine, the Adelaide-born artist begins with acknowledgement of the legacies of migrant musicians and first nations peoples’ storytelling. This includes a moving rendition of Dr Lou Bennett’s song ‘Jaara Nyilamum’, a lullaby lament about the birthing trees at the centre of the Jaara family’s close relationship with nature.

“Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook” is a show for lovers of stories and music alike. Its eclectic range of musical genes includes country, blues, folk, love songs, musical theatre, (almost) rock and even yodelling, so its appeal is wide-ranging, especially to those old enough to know of the Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot affair at the centre of one of the night’s high points, a hilarious duet between Pozzebon and Goodall (as Kernot) from “Keating! The Musical”. Goodall’s musicianship is one of the evening’s highlights, especially in his infectious guitar energy in Yothu Yindi’s ‘Macassan Crew’ and his vocal performance on Goanna’s ‘Solid Rock’, which transitions things from first nations songs to a traditional Celtic convict tune.

Mood shifts are seamless throughout. Geoff Squires’ sublime lighting cools us from a focus of sport, into the budget blues of politics, before warming us towards the show’s encore 12-minute musical road trip around the country. While a feminist theme runs throughout as part of the work’s social and political satire, this is without overt agenda. Archer’s take on Julia Gillard’s internationally-famous parliamentary misogyny speech (by Brisbane based composer Rob Davidson) is powerful and her decades-later revisit of Judy Small’s ‘Backyard Abortion Waltz’ comes with an obvious, sad contemporary resonance given recent U.S. events.

This brand new work is one of significance that illustrates how little, as much as how far, we have come. Indeed, its craftsmanship is evident not only in the resonance and relevance of Archer’s songs selections, but in the thoughtful segues between musical numbers and spoken word connections. This is not a concert of mainstream, obvious Aussie anthems; as Archer notes in the work’s program “it was never going to be a predictable list of greatest hits, but rather an alternative list, mainly of songs that audiences might never had been aware of or had forgotten”. The choices are not only considered, but respected through contextual explanation and, with snippets alongside full songs, justice seems to be done to the scope of her momentous brief.

“Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook” is a nuanced celebration including of its deviser and performer’s virtuosity. Archer is a consummate performer whose versatile voice eases its way across the show’s wide range of musical styles and her clear vocal annunciation means that nothing in lost in its messaging. Music accompaniment also never overpowers her vocals as can so often can be the case, which ensures that every number contributes to what is an unforgettable night of song and appreciation of its ability to preserve the past.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

Super(trooper) celebration

The Ultimate ABBA Experience (Lynch & Paterson)

Twelfth Night Theatre

May 5 – 15

‘70s Swedish pop phenomenon ABBA never performed inBrisbane (the band’s 1977 tour took them only to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth), but the city is clearly full of dancing queens. With an audience featuring some fans in disco jumpsuits (but alas not cat dresses), the group’s enduring popularity is immediately clear at Lynch & Paterson’s “The Ultimate ABBA Experience”. This sparkliest of celebrations of the enduring pop sensation rightfully takes place under a giant mirror ball, beginning with burst forth of the quintessential, ‘Mamma Mia’. And waving arms, tapping feet and smiling faces are evident throughout the audience from this very first number.

Also clear from the outset is the excellent musicianship of the accompanying orchestra, Cadenza Chamber Players, under conductor, musical director and arranger Lucas D Lynch. Their sharp sounds construct the advance harmonic song scaffolding upon which the performances are built, ensuring that every number is musically textured according to its place on the emotional gamut of ABBA tunes. The orchestra’s strings guide us into the Nordic melancholy of ‘SOS’, beginning a tribute to the band’s greatest hits compilation album, complete with gold aesthetic and huge ABBA lettering (designer and emcee David Lawrence). And a symphonic lead-in to Lawrence’s late-show ‘I Had a Dream’ shows the tremendous talents of the orchestra. A commonality through much of ABBA’s music, whether it be as a ballad or rock anthem, is the piano and repeatedly Lynch also expertly fabrics each song’s unique percussive sound around us.

Energy is infectious and under Maureen Bowra’s direction (and also choreography) the show’s almost two hours duration flies by with audience sing and clap alongs and rise to dance to dynamic numbers like the synthy ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)’ that roars things into interval. Bowar’a choreography is full of vitality, using the full space and all levels of the stage, resulting in some standout moments, such as a moving tableau of the ensemble across the stage in ‘Money, Money, Money’ poses.

The show includes a number of surprises, including lyrical dance as accompaniment to a wistfully nostalgic ‘Fernando’ and a vibrant dancer burst of colour to brighten the steady instrumental build and lavish vocal layering of ‘Chiquitita’. Costumes work well with Tom Dodds’ lighting design and Ben Murray’s sound design to dazzle within each aesthetic palette, reflecting the multiple moods of the night’s set-list.

Talented singers Simon Chamberlain, Michael Nunn Jess Purdy, Nate Stevenson, Ellen Tuffley and music arranger Samantha Paterson show impressive control of the numbers’ intricate vocal harmonies, performing with power and passion. Nunn, in particular, helps to make highlights of an early, swaggersome ‘Rock Me’ and a pounding, flirtatious ‘Does Your Mother Know’. It is, however, Paterson’s uplifting ‘The Winner Takes It All’ that serves as the biggest vocal highlight, with appropriate mid-song applause and huge concluding ovation. The number, which represents the epitome of the band’s personal lyrics, requires a delicate balance given its pop balladry but despairing lyrics, and Paterson not only brings to it a vocal strength, but respect enough not to over-embellish its essential emotions.  

Jennifer B Ashley, Chloe Kiloh, Daniel Terribile and assistant choreographer Luke Woodrow (assistant choreographer) are not only skilled, but have appealing stage presence. Ashley and Terribile, in particular, convey a clear enthusiasm for every moment in their every facial expression. Each number is received with the joy it is shared, even in the case of lesser known songs like ‘So Long’, ‘Head Over Heels’ ‘Summer Night City’ and ‘As Good As You’, which segues seamlessly into the unapologetically disco-esque pace of an alliterative ‘Voulez-Vous’ full of infectious ‘ah haha’s’, and the irresistible glam-pop pinnacle of ‘Waterloo’.

Lynch & Paterson’s “The Ultimate ABBA Experience” is pure gold entertainment… a brilliant production, with lively choreography, super trooper costumes, immaculate musicianship and on-point vocal performances, and it is appropriate that the highly entertaining concert encores to thunderous applause, such is the ABBA-solute feelings of joy it conveys in time-of-your-life celebration of the iconic band’s essential pop classics.

Photos c/o –  PiF Productions

Axe queens acknowledged

Girl & Guitar

Brisbane Powerhouse

March 24

It is an all too rare thing to see a girl and guitar taking centre stage, but when she does, you’re going to listen. And listen we do as Queensland Cabaret Festival’s “Girl & Guitar” blazes its way through a tribute to axe queens of the ages. Joined onstage by a mighty band, Kristy Apps, Pandora Karavan, Sarah Stockholm, Jackie Marshall, Georgie Nielsen and Megan Sarmardin spend 90 minutes taking their turn to pay homage to the female guitarists and vocalists who’ve blazed the trail and inspired new generations of artists, and the result is simply sensational, in its catalogue of songs, but also in and of itself.

The Powerhouse theatre is bathed in lush lighting appropriate to the varied sentiments of songs that range from the angsty to the sometimes surprisingly poignant. After a rebellious blast of ‘Cherry Bomb’ and electric Suzie Q sounds from Sarmardin, an early highlight comes in ‘rhinestone cowperson’ Karavan’s raw and real, acoustic but still impressively dramatic take on Amy Winehouse’s iconic ‘Back to Black’. Her conveyance of the number’s tough but soulful sounds and heartbreakingly-honest lyrics, sees its conclusion erupt the audience into acclaim. Indeed, her brassy voice is simply wonderful in transform of the song’s statements into powerful sentiments and her charismatic presence immediately warms her to the audience.

Kristy Apps’ set similarly features some powerful numbers, like a robust performance of Melissa Etheridge’s ‘Bring Me Some Water’, full of turbulence and ache. With a huge voice and driving guitar, she slays through classics like this and Patty Smyth’s ‘Because the Night’, with co-collaborators (and producer/director Allison St Ledger) in vocal accompaniment, such as it so often the case throughout the night.

Nielsen’s versatility takes audiences from the ripping guitar and screaming vocals of a high energy ‘Celebrity Skin’ to a slow and steady ‘Gimme All Your Love’ by Alabama Shakes. Later Marshall sooths us through a bare-bones, but incredibly passionate take on legendary folk singer Tracy Chapman’s anthemic ‘Talkin’ About A Revolution’ highlight as to the importance of speaking up against injustice. And how wonderful it is to hear forgotten classics such as in Sarmardin’s smooth take on Joan Armatrading’s energetic ‘Drop the Pilot’ and Stockholm’s capture of Suzanne Vega’s quiet, urgent storytelling genius in a pop-infused, but very much still guitar-based, ‘Solitude Standing’.

“Girl & Guitar” provides its eager audience a night of no-nonsense driving guitar and soul-stirring lyrics. Punchy vocals and punchier riffs result in a passionate evening that highlights the performers’ talents, but also reminds of the electrifying efforts of renegade axe queens through the ages. Girls and guitars form a formidable combination that deserves to be acknowledged over and over again in shows such as this. With its infectious celebration of the unadulterated joy that music can bring, whether it be from Tammy Wynette or Falling Joys, this is a show no music lover should miss.

Restrung release

Killing Music (Topology)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre 

October 15

Brisbane’s Restrung Festival offer of three days of exhilarating music performances, visual art, workshops and conversations offers a valuable opportunity to showcase the city’s celebrated and emerging talents in bespoke events, unique collaborations and bold new works. It only seems fit, therefore, that its program includes a show from Topology, one of the country’s finest contemporary ensembles whose original, innovative theatrical performances have been showcasing their work since 1997.

“Killing Music” serves dual purpose; it both offers a collective post-2020 release and prompts a renewed, optimistic energy, and this is reflected in its setlist. After a moving Welcome to Country by Aunty Delmae Barton and William Barton, things kick off with the excitement of the show’s electronica-esque title track. In what then follows, the group’s distinct sounds feature in an evocative mix of piano, strings and sax, made all the more appealing by the intimacy of its New Benner Theatre staging, which allows us to experience that talents of  Principal Artists John Babbage (composer/saxophone), Robert Davidson (composer/bass) Christa Powell (violin), Bernard Hoey (composer/viola) and also Liam Viney on keyboard, up close.

Iconic previous works from the indie classical quintet’s extensive repertoire also features throughout, however, it is an eclectic mix of numbers and surprising combinations of genres that ensures a nice balance between considerations for the heart and mind as we are in-turn challenged, uplifted, entertained and reassured by its landscapes. In the necessary interests of light and shade there’s a strings-heavy version of the Saints’ punk anthem of alienation, ‘(I’m) Stranded’ and also laid-back instrumental and easily-recognisable sounds of a ‘tortured remix’ tribute to Cold Chisel’s ‘Cheap Wine’, entitled ‘Whinging Tweet’, double definition style. Meanwhile, the glorious angry energy of Julia Gillard’s impassioned misogyny speech set to classical music, as featured in “Unrepresentative Swill”, is nicely balanced by the essential wistful sadness of John Babbage’s ‘Lost at Sea’, bedded on a slew of slow meditative piano and string sounds. And it is always lovely to revisit previous Topology experiences such as ‘Static’ from the group’s 2014 ‘70s instrumental opera ‘Share House’.

The specially-curated collection of Topology tunes that is “Killing Music” is likely to be the group’s final show in Brisbane this year, and, as always, it certainly leaves audience members awaiting what the innovative collective will turn their creative attention to next. In the meantime, however, Killing Music is now available for streaming or as physical CD through the group’s website.

Celebrating Creedence

Creedence Clearwater Inspired Featuring Proud Mary

QPAC, Concert Hall

June 18

Friday was a night of contrasts at QPAC; while Lyric Theatre audiences were being drawn into the graceful fairy-tale world of Queensland Ballet’s “The Sleeping Beauty”, next door in The Concert Hall, attendees were rocking back to a time when Creedence Clearwater Revival was the soundtrack of a generation. For two hours, “Creedence Clearwater Inspired Featuring Proud Mary” pays tribute to the prolific American band and its six platinum album contribution to the cannon of popular music in a manner that is infectious in its appeal from its very first number.

Beginning with the gravelly ode to the New Orleans area, ‘Born on the Bayou’, CCR’s 1969 Woodstock set opener, audience expectations are immediate met, both musically and thematically. Things blast along from here, though the quartet’s cover of ‘Suzie Q’ from the band’s self-assured self-titled debut album and hits such as the playful ‘Lookin’ Our My Back Door’, the jaunty ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and the funky ‘Down On The Corner’, crescendoing in energy and volume in a charging ‘Molina’, erupting the balcony audience in particular into full party mode.

The show, which features a line-up of extraordinary Australian rock musicians, is high-energy in its faithful recreation of the sound and feel of CCR at the height of their fame. Indeed, they not only effectively rework some of CCR’s longer arrangements into versions that work in a live show, but they maintain the integrity of the swampy sounds of John Fogerty, Tom Fogerty, Stu Cook and Doug Clifford, throughout. Depth is also added to the grass-roots anthems though the Concert Hall’s lush lighting accompaniment, which bathes the venue appropriately for ‘Green River’, while the tempo changes and dramatic instrumentation of ‘Ramble Tamble’ are signposted by in-sync lighting throughout the stalls, making for an even more dynamic experience.

“Creedence Clearwater Inspired Featuring Proud Mary” may have a running time of 2 hours 20 minutes (including interval), but it appears to be over in what seems like the shortest of times, so engaging is its appreciation of the magnificence that is the entire Creedence Clearwater Revival catalogue. Highlights include an intense ‘Fortunate Son’ late in Act Two and quintessential and signature CCR song, the melodic ‘Proud Mary’, as part of a rousing encore, drawing audience members appropriately to their feet.

W.A. based Creedence Clearwater Revival Tribute band Proud Mary features the internationally renowned founding members of five-time ARIA Award winning ‘90s rock icons Baby Animals (bass guitarist Eddie Parise and drummer Frank Celeza), along with frontman Ryan Rafferty and lead guitarist Paul Cushing. And rather than focussing on costuming and choreography in recreation, Proud Mary is all about the music, making it impressive to both true fans and casual listeners alike. Their musicianship is superb throughout. In particular, Rafferty’s gritty voice layers numbers with emotive power while Cushing is formidable in fierce guitar solos such as in lick of ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’.

“Creedence Clearwater Inspired Featuring Proud Mary” is the first full-scale concert in Australia dedicated to celebrating the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival and appropriately, the celebration of the hugely influential band is an unforgettable live music experience. It’s authentic re-creation and first-rate musicianship in and of itself, make the brand new concert a huge and hugely-entertaining night out, that you don’t have to be a fan or of baby-boomer vintage to feel. Indeed, Fogerty’s song lyric commentaries about Woodstock, Vietnam and youthful rebellion may have captured the era’s mood, but they are simple and direct enough to resonate across the ages. And the inclusion of his more whimsical ‘Rock and Roll Girls’ along with Status Quo’s poppy ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’ (written by Fogerty) along with CCR’s iconic numbers only add additional interest and reasons to do yourself a favour and get a ticket.

Photos c/o – Justine Walpole

Sunshine state sounds

Sunshine Sounds

Brisbane Powerhouse

November 29

After the year that has been, everyone is in need of some sunshine and succour to their soul so the return to the magic of live music with Brisbane Powerhouse’s “Sunshine Sounds” is a particularly welcome Sunday afternoon session. The show, which features renowned artists Katie Noonan, Louise King and Andrea Kirwin in concert, represents the last in the performers’ mini tour and a wonderful opportunity for Brisbane audiences to share in their stories of music and friendship.

Every singer songwriter has a coronavirus song, Fijian Australian soul songsmith Andrea Kirwin safely assumes before sharing her own ‘We Shall Overcome’, assurance that the sun will come shining through. Topical as its content may be, its realisation appears typical of the independent artist’s heartfelt folk and blues-style musical stories. Indeed, the prolific festival performer has an earthy sound that sees her soulful sounds soothing us into the afternoon with the show’s over-all-too-soon opener ‘Young Wild and Free’.

Kirwin has a warm stage presence and a compelling calm that charms the audience through between-song festival stories and reflections about her artform. When she shares her take of Tracey Chapman’ ‘Give Me One Reason’, however, the distinctive guitar melody is base to both initially gentle verse and a growing daring and defiant energy. Her versatility is further evident when she is joined on stage by internationally renowned cellist Louise King for an inspiring ‘Bloom’, the title track of Kirwin’s new album and emotionally-captivating ‘Love Will Save the Day’ tribute to Brisbane Pride and the belief that love can find a way.

Continuing the coronavirus theme, five-times ARIA Award winning and seven-times platinum selling singer/songwriter Katie Noonan talks about the disempowerment of hotel quarantine in introduction to her new number ‘Golden Light’ and its reflection of the gift of gratitude that this year has provided. And its repeated ‘let me adore you again’ tribute to her husband is spine-tingling in the exquisiteness of her vocal range and intonation.

Amongst original numbers, Noonan takes us back to the early 90s courtesy of an independent feminist Brisbane folk band Isis number and also applies her opera-like vocals to another suitable COVID-19 tune, Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, albeit paired back to be presented as an emotional piano ballad of heartbreaking longing to break free from loneliness and isolation, in call-back to her recent Brisbane Festival show, “The Sweetest Taboo”.

King has also used COVID-19 time to work on her craft, the contemporary classical musician tells us, before bringing the beauty and diversity of music written for cello to our ears. The biggest surprise is not the instrument’s beauty, however, but King’s illustration of its remarkable vitality and versatility through soothing laments, blue grass sentiment and First Nations’ sounds alike.

Though the Queensland women all have their own distinct sets, time is also included to celebrate the very up-and-coming talent of 11-year-old Layla Barnett who wows the audience with a beautifully serene delivery of Noonan’s former band George’s debut single, ‘Special Ones’. It really is an afternoon of celebration appropriately surmised in a final collaborative ‘I Am Woman’ affirmation and tribute to Helen Reddy. So, thanks to funding as part of the Queensland Government’s Arts and Cultural Recovery Package, the production not only allows three acclaimed performers to share their talent, but introduces us to that of an outstanding young newcomer.