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.

Bawdy bibliophilery

The Babushka Book Club (Little Match Productions)

Judith Wright Arts Centre

March 25 – 26

Babushka is back … darker, greyer and shadier than ever with a bawdy book club celebration of all the wine and worries of the suburban middle class experience. The appropriately-named Queensland Cabaret Festival show includes tips for nailing your next literary gathering, on making yourself and your book look the part, and how to provide acceptable conversation contributions. It’s all very funny as non-much-of-a-reader, earth mother Laura (Laura Coutts) and desperate-for-a-drink Alicia (Alicia Cush) mess with sophisticated book club founder Judy’s (Judy Hainsworth) meticulous planning. That is until her ‘Torn’ admission of Jamie Fraser feelings upon recall of her “Cross Stitch”, “Outlander” introduction the bibliophile life.

As with past Babushka cabaret shows the set list features iconic pop songs mashed up and used anew (music arrangements by Alicia Cush and Luke Volker) as favourite novels of chick lit, New York Times best sellers and even well-thumbed erotic thrillers are explored. Who knew, for example, that Blondie’s light and catchy ‘One Way or Another’ is so stalkery, making it the perfect expression of Coutts’ “Twilight” inspired fan fiction plans. And Hainsworth’s gritty Eminem style rap retelling of ‘The Hunger Games’ is worth the price of admission alone.

Witty dialogue and lyrics, instrumentation, costume reveals, props and accompanying reimagined Mills and Boonish book cover backdrop imagery are all very clever (designer Penny Challen), with even throwaway type lines adding much to the trio’s distinct charactersations. This is a book club at which you most definitely want to spend time, with the only disappointment being how quickly the tongue-in-cheek experience appears to be over.

With Music Director Volker in piano accompaniment, the gorgeous vocals of these talented performers harmonise in lovely blend, such as in an early, jaunty “Pride and Prejudice” inspired tribute to white-shirt men, ‘The Bad Guy’. And the ‘totally relatable’ ‘Wuthering Heights’ is the perfect vehicle for Coutts’s exquisite operatic voice, making it a clear Kate-Bush-inspired highlight.

Also of note, is the work’s clear feminist themes. Not only are the Brontë sisters doing it for the selves, but a snappy ‘That’s Not My Name’ shout out to women authors who have penned novels under male pseudonyms, captures the uplifting spirit of its sentiment.

Indeed, experience of the “The Babushka Book Club” is a joyous journey of song, laughter and even drinking along with its take through eleven chapters of deconstruction of literary classics of all genres. Under Bridget Boyle’s lively direction, the 60-minute cabaret is highly entertaining for its duration, even for those who may only have read the movies of the novels mentioned. Hopefully, it is bookmarked for a return Brisbane season soon.

Photos c/o – Mish Photography

Odd couple contemplations

String: An Odd Evening with Tyrone and Lesley

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

March 12

With cabaret tables in addition to the usual stall seating, Metro Arts’ New Benner Theatre is like a red-door, knock-twice underworld paradise speakeasy for “String”… if speakeasy entertainment was to come from an odd couple like Tyrone (David Megarrity) and Lesley (Samuel Vincent) wearing fez and bowler hats, sharing peculiar songs about bodily functions, peppercorns and the length of a piece of piece of string.

Strung together from original tunes of their past albums, as well as premiering new songs from the forthcoming album ‘String’, the show is presented in accompaniment of vintage slide images of a 1950s day trip around Brisbane (visuals assembled by Nathan Sibthorpe). The flea-market found slides, which come courtesy of a mystery photographer, give us gorgeous images of gardens, roads, the city and suburbia, and work wonderfully as a framing device. It’s like a cross between a concert and slide night. And as if the award-winning duo’s ukulele and double bass big-and-little pairing accompaniment is not interesting enough, there is also the clever irreverence of many of the song’s lyrics and rhymes … think of the “it was ciao bella; now I’m a capella” lament in ‘Unaccompanied’.

It’s all quite cheeky, however, there is also a lovely sentiment to do with moving on around life’s corners and not dwelling in matters of perhaps, which fits with the pairing’s promise of ‘light music for dark times’. Indeed, there is an appealing optimism woven into things, to subtly pull on audience heart strings in stop-and-breathe contemplation of how we spend our time between each day’s sunrise and sunset, supported by accomplished musicality and entertaining stagemanship.

Megarrity and Vincent are absolutely in sync with complementary physical movements, with an intricacy befitting a 20-year collaboration. The celebrated local musicians create some splendid sounds, such as in the instrumental number ‘Roads’. Like a song from an earlier time, ‘Old Fashioned’ starts with a whistle and includes an impressive double bass showcase solo from Vincent. And the hints of other melodies that whisper through numbers like the eponymous hit single ‘Bear With Me’, give a sense of comfort to listeners.

A craftedness of light and shade within the setlist’s curation means that sentimental moments are complemented by a healthy dose of humour. Megarrity has an easy-listening voice (Penn and Teller style we don’t hear from Vincent as Lesley). And even then, he is a man of few words as he throws out concepts to the audience with only the scantest of contextuslisation. The numbers speak for themselves however, (even when with kazoo accompaniment), and, appropriately, it is all about them.

More whimsical than eccentric, the deceptively-simple “String: An Odd Evening with Tyrone and Lesley” is charming avant-garde entertainment, which makes it an entirely fitting inclusion in the 2022 Queensland Cabaret Festival’s celebration of creativity, music and storytelling that breathes new life into the cabaret canon. The gentlemen songsters may appear as if they are from a different era, but their messaging is very aptly of the now. If only their show’s journey and its short and sharp song snippets were just a little longer.

Freak-pop parts

ÚMBRIEL

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

October 29

ÚMBRIEL is an electronic, art-pop quartet whose show occupies a niche position in the Queensland Cabaret Festival and Metro Arts’ Cabaret Long Weekend. Indeed, the nuanced artistic work may not be to more mainstream audience members liking. However, given the fan following obviously out in force, it hardly seems to matter.

The captivating ritualistic aesthetic experience begins from pre-show entry in the visually immersive space of the New Benner Theatre. From a Gothically-glad lead vocalist (James Halloran, whose musical persona is ÚMBRIEL) collapsed afront the projected image of a single wilting flower, things chant into a dreamy music experience. After a slow build comes release of beats and guttural belt of industrial rock with English alternative rock musician PJ Harvey’s ‘To Bring You My Love’. The music is like a thumping intoxication into the intimate musical backdrop upon which the vocals rest. Indeed, sweeping instrumentals only add to the drama of the orchestral theatricality.

The 2020 single ‘Desire’ is made all the more emotionally enchanting through its melodic sweeps and percussive pounds. It also allows for show of the softer side of Halloran’s versatile vocals. From fluid soar to fragmented jaggedness, they shape each song with appropriate emotions of yearning, lust or anger. However, with little at-mic punctuation of the setlist, there is no opportunity for uninitiated audience members to connect with the flamboyant performance. Similarly, while there is a certainly an appeal to lyrically descriptive phrases such as “he drinks my moans and drowns me deep”, the layer of hyperbolically metaphors upon each other makes it difficult to find light and shade moments in which to rest and reflect.

Many musical influences are evident at different times across every part of the setlist, from Nick Cave and Kate Bush to Stevie Nicks, Tori Amos and even some New Romantic sounds of pathos, such as in ‘Renegade’. And, through them, ÚMBRIEL provides audiences with a more ritualistic offering than the typical cabaret fare. The part-rock show part-ritual cabaret is an acquired freak-pop (as is its trademark) taste and while the show is perhaps mesmerising more than arresting in its melodies, the fan-base audience celebrates every piece of its sonic artistry.

Pop classics challenged

My Funny Valentine (Josh Daveta and The Sequins)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

October 29

The day that “My Funny Valentine” was due to open as part of Metro Arts’ Season of Surprises, southern Queensland went into a three-day lockdown. As devastating as its reschedule was, the show’s reappearance as part of Queensland Cabaret Festival’s Cabaret Long Weekend represents the perfect opportunity to shake off the short (for some) week that was.

Taylor Swift’s dance-pop song ‘Shake It Off’ appears as part of the setlist, however, not as the uptempo tune we might expect, such is the show’s challenge to present pop songs as jazz standards (think of it as old radio meeting Spotify). After a flash, bam, alakazam opener welcoming us into the cosy living room staging of the New Benner Theatre, Josh Daveta outlines the show’s premise and what follows is indeed a vintage experience through the lens of the pop music world of modern day Mariah Carey and Katie Perry et al magnum opuses. And thanks to Daveta’s jazz stylings and the smooth musicianship of the Kendall Layt, Jordan Garrot and Gracie Mack, we are delighted with the rhythmic surprises that ensure.

Wonderfully, band members are all given moments to shine such as pianist Gracie Mack’s magnificent introduction to ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, which segues into a buoyant Beyoncé number. And while Daveta delivers down to the “Single Ladies” hands-up oh, oh, oh choreography, the jazzy slow-down of its usually rushed lines, layers the lyrics with new meaning.

Things are paired back also in a slow and melodic ‘Oops! I Did It Again’ and Daveta’s impressive vocal range is particularly displayed in a transformed, but still rousing ‘Bad Romance’. Indeed, as the lights dim down, the number builds beautifully from tentative outset to a confident crescendo declaration that leaves no question as to the talent on display.

It may take until its encore to hear the show’s title song, however, along the way to this, there are many highlights, including a gospel-like play with tempo in Billy Eilish’s taunting electropop hit ‘bad guy’. And like so many sentimental torch song greats, heartbreak features within its themes, however, with a twist, as a swinging Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’ rolls out into a joyous audience call and response segment.

Daveta is a charming, genuine and wittily-funny performer, which makes experience of “My Funny Valentine” an absolute blast. Hopefully, we will see the show in some form again soon. In the meantime, Josh Daveta and the Sequins are back for “Christmas is here, Again?” at the Old Museum for one night only in December.

Compulsion capture

Songs of Compulsion (Lucinda Shaw)

The Outpost Bar

October 16

More than just setting the scene for the seminal story of Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie’s ‘Five Years’, is one of the best emotional crescendos in song. Those not in agreement may just not have seen Lucinda Shaw’s version, which occupies place as one of the many highlights of her Queensland Cabaret Festival Show “Songs of Compulsion”. As her vocals cry out from its sparse introduction in capture of the sorrow, regret, and frustrations of those coming to terms with mortality, audience members know they are experiencing something wonderful. It’s an epic call-back also to one of Shaw’s previous performances in Electric Moon’s 2016 Cabaret Festival show, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust” and the set is characterised by a nice balance between time-honoured favourites and original numbers.

The intimacy of The Fortitude Musical Hall’s The Outpost Bar serves as the perfect location in which to experience Shaw’s mesmeric vocal textures. The venue is everything you’d expect from a basement jazz club (if it were upstairs) seductive red and black décor and a grown-up cocktail list accompaniment to graze up against the slow, jazzy numbers on stage. Indeed, its David Lunch-esque ambiance suits the lingering lyricism and tender musical tones that appear as if they are happening in slow-motion, even as Shaw’s powerful vocals reach for the ceiling. This is especially the case as her robust voice rises up and take us down to a tender refrain in Scott Walker’s darkly brilliant ‘My Death’ toast to our inevitable demise, meaning that the audience is enraptured through to its very last note.

True to Shaw’s legacy, the setlist also includes ‘Best Boyfriend’, by local ‘90s feminist folk band Isis (of which she was a founding member) which has this year been released in a rare mix coupled with and even rarer live B-side. In curation with the evening’s other numbers, it illustrates not only her vocal versatility, but a chameleonic style that transcends even to musical accompaniment (by frequent collaborators Mark Angel – guitars, Terry Dixon – bass and James Lees – piano), which ranges from Spanish-style guitar to tambourine and even idiomatic cowbell sound to call our attention. And while the show seems to be over before we know it, as a community craving the vital human connection the comes from live performance, we are happy to be able to support and celebrate the arts again together if only for this 50 minutes.