Sweet ’80s sounds

The Sweetest Taboo (Katie Noonan)

The Tivoli

September 19 – 20

Like our first kiss or heartbreak, we all remember the first albums we bought with our own money. Maybe they were something reflectively cringy or perhaps, like Katie Noonan, they were purchased from somewhere cool like Rocking Horse Records in Adelaide Street. Returning to her beloved genre of jazz, Noonan presents this as the organising centre of her show “The Sweetest Taboo”, in which reinterpretations of classic ‘80s songs that shaped her life are presented with her band (Zac Hurren on saxophone, Aaron Jansz on drums and brothers OJ and Steve Newcome on double bass and piano respectively) in a manner that carefully curates the show’s numbers to new life.

From A-ha clip astonishment to hairbrush Queen Cyndi Lauper singalongs, there is much with which audiences of a certain vintage can identify as Noonan anecdotes about the music that has accompanied her journey from opera to jazz, even if it sometimes takes a few moments for gasps of recognition to ripple through the appreciative crowd. And even though some of her early musical heroes are a little unexpected with a set list that includes numbers from, for example, Crowded House, Vince Jones and U2, they somehow all smooth together in the sweetest of ways.

For those unfamiliar, the show takes the audience through the track listing of a new album of old songs, Noonan’s 20th studio album of the same name, which offers interpretation of pop favourites from the Aria Award winning performers formative years. Stripped back readings allow her astonishing voice the centre stage it demands. From the opening strands of a serene and sensitive ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, the extraordinary beauty of her vocal instrument is undeniable and the time she takes to allow every note to linger, leaves us in no question as to the rarity of her talent. And while numbers like Terrence Trent D’Arby’s soulful gem ‘Sign Your Name’ are stirring in their sultriness, upbeat ones like Icehouse’s ‘Electric Blue’, reimagined with a laid-back Latin flavour and the infectious melodic fun of Eurythmics’ ‘When Tomorrow Comes’ add much to the show’s texture. ‘

Noonan is a generous performer and audience experience is enhanced by her share of the stage with the other musicians. Every artist is given their moment to shine. Most notably, Steve Newcomb makes Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ an especially relevant emotional piano ballad of heartbreaking longing to break free from loneliness and isolation, while Zac Hurren’s saxophone beautifully completes Billy Joel’s ‘Just the Way You Are’, because what is an ‘80s show without a good slap of wailing saxophone solo?

What Katie Noonan has created in “The Sweetest Taboo” is a wonderful place where loving daggy ‘80s love songs and Man of Colours Iva Davies double leather no longer have to be a guilty secret. Stunning vocals and musical rearrangements make for moving reconnection with songs of an era whose music deserves celebration, appropriately now in a grown-up jazz way. More so though, the stripped back ‘80s pop hits have an emotional honesty to their lyrics that might otherwise be missed, so experience allows not only reconnection to our past selves but reconsideration of our own musical tapestries.

Mama Earth mashups

Hot Mess Mama (Emma Dean/Katherine Lyall-Watson)

The Tivoli

September 17 – 18

Mama Earth was once a legend, worshipped by groups like the Aztecs and Druids, back in precented time when people could gather together. Now she’s playing in a converted old bakery in Brisbane as part of the Tivoli’s Brisbane Festival line-up. The world premiere of the cabaret show of the same name from Emma Dean and Katherine Lyall-Watson sees Mama Earth (multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter Emma Dean) showing us what a hot mess diva she has become, dishevelled in the pollution of a trashy plastic bag ball gown.

With consideration of where our rubbish goes cued, we are guided into ‘Girl on Fire’ inset with ‘Rolling in the Deep’ and then ‘Firework’, because musically, “Hot Mess Mama” is very clever its balanced combination of an original score with songs that have been mashed up with well-known pop hits courtesy of lyrical linkage. And the stylistic combinations are quite marvellous, embracing their possibilities to full extent, especially when Dean transitions into Alanis Morissette’s jagged, angsty anthem ‘You Oughta Know’, vocally and on guitar. It’s no wonder Mama Earth drinks like a party girl. And there is certainly a revelry to the show’s early segments, as before she hits reset, she determines to party like it’s 1999 (alas without any Prince song salute), with humanity as a backing band (Mark Angel on guitar, Lucas Clarke on violin and mandolin, Tony Dean on drums, Terry Dixon on bass guitar and Tnee Dyer on keys).

While the show conveys a clearly defined view, articulated from the intersection of music and theatre, it feels underdone by a couple of songs and there are clear spaces into which it can be filled with further improvement. Still, it is carefully curated to examine the serious issue of climate change in a fun way that also leaves us feeling hopeful that the world can recover and strengthen and that we can do it if we work together, like in the show’s call and response number. Like so many of Emma Dean’s recordings, the human spirit remains at the thematic centre of everything, which is the show’s greatest joy.

Dean is a passionate performer with a powerful set of pipes. And the harmonies heard in some of the show’s numbers are simply exquisite. It’s not the serious stuff that might be expected of a show about the environment either, thanks to the quirk of its original concept, energy of its leading lady and the little touch of one-liner humourous interjections from keyboardist extraordinaire Tnee Dyer.

Dean is clearly also a very versatile performer. Her pre-interval set as herself before Mama Earth graces us with her presence (accompanied by Lucas Clarke and Tony Dean), allows Dean to showcase this as she takes the audience from the glitter kittenesque ‘I Am A F*%king Unicorn’ and euphoria of Florence and the Machine’s ‘You’ve Got The Love’ to the beauty of the melodic contemplation ‘Healed by You’ and touching ballad ‘Orange Red’, complete with stirring string accompaniment. Regardless of its base genre, however, every song showcases her astonishing vocals, which mean that audience members are in for a treat.

Very much a festival show, “Hot Mess Mama” is a dynamic, left-of-centre cabaret reminder of the possibility of change. Its unique fusion of styles and sensibilities finds the theatre in music and makes it an infectious experience (#inagoodway), especially for a supportive audience of theatre-goers happy to be able to gather together again in spirit-lifting celebration of all things Brisfest.

Photos c/o – Atmosphere Photography