Collaboration and celebration

Women in Voice On Tour

Redland Performing Arts Centre

June 20

Women in Voice’s On Tour trip down by the bay to Redland Performing Arts Centre, may represent the phenomenon’s first regional tour, but still opens with a tribute to the home of its humble beginnings with an opening satirical number in which effervescent emcee Jenny Wynter Brisbanises a musical mashup with reappropriated lyrics in ode to the region’s suburbs. It’s an engaging start to a wonderful afternoon of performances. The show’s entertainment comes not just from comedy, however, but touching moments too, such is the versatility of its line-up of performers.

Women in Voice has always committed to providing performance and production mentorships to nurture future generations of female songstresses and this dedication remains at the forefront of the 2021 show, which, in Act One, sees Roz Pappalardo welcoming her mentee and fellow North Queensland songwriter, newcomer Bellani Smith. Together the ladies’ voices blend beautifully in Abba’s bittersweet and sentimental ‘Fernando’ and their ‘Jolene’ set closer is an absolute treat. As they share important songs from their lives, with introductory explanations, we are drawn into musical appreciation at a deeper level. In particular, Smith’s original love song ‘Piece of Me’, with piano self-accompaniment is simply stunning. Indeed, her perfect vocal tone, moving lyrics and swelling melody make this an unexpected early highlight.

The theme of family legacy is evident throughout the first act of the show. Leah Cotterell always showcases interesting song choices in her sets and from The Carpenters’ ‘Yesterday Once More’ to Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is?”, she delivers them all with a warm sophistication that encapsulates the pleasure of sad songs in trigger of memory and emotion. The honesty at the heart of the stories she shares is endearing and her evocative almost a cappella ‘Grey Funnel Line’ with Women in Voice founder Annie Peterson (who started the group to give an opportunity for female singers to share the music they did not have the chance to perform anywhere else) perhaps introduces the audience to a whole new folk song of longing.

Since its initial appearance at West End’s Sitting Duck Cafe in 1993, Women in Voice has become an annual arts scene highlight with its attraction of top talent as well as new stars. The spirit of collaboration is at the core of the group’s philosophy; the artists devise their own visions and serve as each other’s’ backing singers. Cleveland performer Hannah Johnstone, we are told was discovered at a local workshop. While her between-song stage presence in still developing, her take on songs by Rick Astley and The Jackson 5 showcases her formidable vocals and her passionate rip through Powderfinger’s rolling ‘On My Mind’, with guitar self-accompaniment, is a rocking highlight, along with Roz Pappalardo’s similarly gutsy ‘Bring Me Some Water’.

While not all of the “Women in Voice On Tour” setlist features numbers by female songstresses, there is a clear theme of celebrating women, from Johnstone’s ‘Edge of Seventeen’ and Hannah Grondin’s ‘Crazy in Love’, culminating in Grodin’s electrifying rendition of Aretha Franklin’s anthemic respect, with a strong and adamant voice that commands our attention. And the ladies’ voices all blend together magnificently in encore of the heartfelt classic country song ‘Delta Dawn’.

“Women in Voice On Tour” is a wonderful development to build upon the franchise’s history of sell-out performances. Backed by a talented band, the cast of fresh and favourite performers gives its audience covers and original songs in a nice balance and blend of styles and genres, meaning there is something for everything in its strong female line-up.

Folktastic females

Women of Woodstock (Women in Voice)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

July 19 – 21

1969 was an eventful year of cultural change marked by the moon landing, New York’s Stonewall riots and of course the now-legendary Woodstock festival. The 3-day, 33-act festival at a dairy farm near Woodstock in New York, which attracted ten times its expected crowd of 40 000 festival-goers, is of course well known as being a pivotal moment in popular music history, as well as the definitive nexus for the larger counterculture generation. So its fiftieth anniversary is certainly appropriate for celebration by Brisbane’s much-loved Women in Voice.

The first song we hear in revisit and reflection on the music of the greats, Joni Mitchell’s contemplative counterculture anthem, ‘Woodstock’ captures the idealistic three days of peace and music mood akin to a spiritual journey where ‘everywhere was a song and a celebration’… until Women in Voice veteran, the always entertaining, Leah Cotterell bursts forth with an infectiously energetic and explosive ‘Somebody to Love’ and the party really gets rockin’.

Depending on their vintage, audience members may not necessarily be familiar with all of the San Francisco-esq psychedelic sound makers, however, numbers like Joe Cocker’s bluesy and emotionally passionate ‘With a Little Help from my Friends’ make up for this and, regardless, there is no denying the talent on stage, both in the live band’s (headed by Jamie Clark) musical support and the show’s vocalists.

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As part of her tribute to Dylan-era guitar singers such as Melanie Safka, Jacqueline Marshall gives a hauntingly melancholic version of the formidable transcendent ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and Adelina Martinez’s share of Joan Baez’s seemingly-simple ‘Love is Just a Four-Letter Word’ is folksy but also beautifully bird-like. Indeed, there is a tenderness and emotional sincerity to her songs that allows for concentration of their lyrical messages. Hannah Grondin’s angstsy numbers alone are worth the price of admission. In a show highlight, she delivers a gut-wrenchingly powerful, powerhouse number ‘To Love Someone’, with legendary performer Janis Joplin’s familiar fire and then there is her energetic ‘Piece of My Heart’, which has the audience at peak enjoyment.

Women in Voice’s homage to the iconic women who performed at the festival that defined a generation is not just a testament to the power of point-in-politically-tumultuous-time unity, but as it emerges, significant in its highlight of the urgency of its themes of peace and freedom that still exist now. It is also about the lasting power of music and a reminder of some of this city’s outstanding local vocal talent, acknowledged in its deserved standing ovation.

Celebrating sisters

Women in Voice 2018 (Women in Voice)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

October 18 – 20

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 In its second year in the Brisbane Powerhouse’s Powerhouse Theatre space, “Women in Voice” has clearly drawn a capacity crowd of devotees to the female eisteddfod, to use the institution’s label according to the evening’s emcee, Dutch international music therapist Jan van de Stool (Queenie van de Zandt). Feminism is not the show’s main agenda, although, in keeping with the essence of the long-standing franchise it does make appearance during the evening, which sees sets from its line-up of performances with mutual backing-vocals support. Newcomer Hannah Grondin’s Ted-talkish political contextualisation doesn’t take us towards a Helen Reddy roar, but rather an evocative ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ call for hope and determination for something better. The number not only serves as an early highlight, but it works with her beautiful ‘Songbird’ and spunky and soulful ‘Mamma Knows Best’, to showcase her passion and incredible range as a performer.

Just as we are fired up by Grondin’s fierce rip through the crazy-high vocals of the Jessie J anthem, however, it is interval. Indeed, the curation of numbers and sets could perhaps have better managed to build the show’s momentum and audience engagement. This includes emcee comic interludes; there is a fine line between funny and filler and Queenie van de Zandt doesn’t always find it in Act One, drawing an ultimately long show out further with unnecessary en-masse audience participation, even it is does provide a thematic arc to the later show elements. Indeed, things are slow to start musically too, with eclectic song choices from Leah Cotterell starting performer sets with her soulful examination of the psychology of dreams with the Beatles’ tender The White Album lullaby ‘Goodnight’ and A Perfect Circle’s heavy, metaphorically political ‘Pet’. Still, as always, her numbers are an excellent showcase of her powerful, elastic and bluesily-authoritative voice.

Clearly all the performers are talented and love what they do. Anje West’s ‘Lovely Day’ presents a voice in which to bask and rising jazz start Adelina Marinez brings both a comforting warmth and a playful energy to her numbers. Sets ebb and flow in a journey to all range of unexpected places and there is an appealing eccentricity to The Kransky Sisters‘ Christine Johnston’s appearance on stage costumed as a car seat, to show and tell us about the personalities of her family’s automobile history in between share of eclectic but cleverly appropriated numbers like Gary Numan’s ‘Car’ and Barbara Streisand’s ‘Somewhere’. And when her fellow performers join her on stage for ‘Don’t Stop Me Know’, it’s not just her quirky yodelesque vocal style that makes the number memorable.

When the ladies join together in a final ‘You to Me Are Everything’ their harmonies and quite lovely and suit the appealing celebratory atmosphere the epitomises every “Women in Voice” experience. Queenie van de Zandt is very funny in Act Two, especially in ad lib and the band members are all excellent in the show’s range of musical styles, from upbeat rock to smooth Brazilian sounds. The 2018 show not only includes the usual mix of styles and genres, with some interesting arrangements from Musical Director Jamie Clark, but a cross-generational showcase of talent, particularly that of standout star-on-the-rise Hannah Grondin. As such, it still represents a great night out, especially for long-term followers of the franchise, because there is no better time in history to be celebrating sisters than in 2018.

Silver songstresses

Women in Voice #25 (Women in Voice in Association with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

November 10 – 12

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“Women in Voice” is a much-loved feature of the Brisbane music and theatre landscape, which not only goes from strength to strength, but increases in popularity each year, as evidenced by its packed Powerhouse Theatre audience. The local phenomenon is not only well-liked, but unique in many ways, including its allowance for all performers to leave their distinct mark in curation of its program. In its silver anniversary show, this is ever the case with its versatile program ranging from ethereal ‘60s numbers from the stellar Allison St Ledger to Carita Farrer-Spencer’s faded diva delivery of self-lamenting standards and all things French, from Pepe Le Pew to Manu, featuring alongside segments also from a soulful Pearly Black and powerhouse vocalist Ellen Reed.

With such a formidable line-up of superlative songstresses, of course all performers are of excellent voice. Indeed, the immense talent of all the women is undeniable, especially when they join together for a final ‘Good Vibrations’. Ellen Reed, is, however, a standout, especially in stunning delivery of a soaring ‘When A Man Loves a Woman’ from “The Rose”. The song features as part of a unique set in which she sings ‘man’ songs whose narrative changes when sung by a woman.

Offering a different perspective is a key factor of the show’s success as the songstresses ensure audiences appreciate well-known songs and lyrics anew. Pearly Black moves from Carole King’s ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ to a raw and vulnerable ‘Jealous’ yearn by the divine Chrissy Amphlett. And Reed both strips back George Michael’s synth-y ‘90s chart-topper ‘Fast Love’ and shares an intimate rendition of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ complete with carivalesque musical accompaniment.

Under the musical direction of Stephen Russel, the Women in Voice Brand is versatile in support, but given chance to shine in numbers like Black’s share of Joni Mitchell’s sweet ‘Edith and the Kingpin’. The most memorable moments, however, come from a very funny Bridget Boyle as emcee in role as ‘fine Rockhampton artist Anna Smart’ who entertains with a tambourine/interpretive dance routine, complete with ‘Piano Man’ sing-along. She also provides a hilarious highlight with a ‘needed’ political statement through mashup of Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil and Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name Of’, which serves as contrast to the an earlier ensemble ‘Meet You in the Middle of the Air’ by Paul Kelly in fitting tribute to those of the Women in Voice cannon who have been lost, including pioneering rock chick Carol Lloyd.

Certainly, the “Women in Voice” celebration of individuality of entertainers from different musical backgrounds and generations offers something for everyone in its diversity of musical choices and arrangements. And at well over two hours duration, the immensely entertaining musical experience makes for a marvellous night out. See these ladies once and you will surely be in their audience annually as the institution continues to journey from an intimate concert in an alternative café in West End to the longest constantly running local production in Brisbane’s history.

Superlative songstresses

Women in Voice

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

November 3 – 12

Brisbane’s iconic cabaret institution “Women in Voice” is about celebrating individuality of entertainers from different musical backgrounds and generations. As such, its performers not only become backup for each other’s numbers, but are left to independently select songs. …. All except Bethan Ellsmore who has stepped in to the show as replacement for Sahara Beck at only 24 hours’ notice. Joining this year’s formidable line up of talented soloists, Alicia Cush, Leah Cotterell and Allison St Ledger, Ellsmore provides a pure-voiced set of songs beginning with a beautiful take of Split Enz’s ‘I Hope I Never’ and soon has the audience swaying along to the sounds of ‘Blue Velvet’. It is a selection that sits well against the night’s eclectic musical line-up.

The show opens with a melodic take on The Church’s signature ‘Under The Milky Way’, as Alicia Cush takes the audience through a musical study of home. Proving her immense talent, she transports listeners through operatic highs and smooth country sounds before finishing with a jazzy Bublé number, inset with her own flute solo.  The soulful Leah Cotterell then roars the audience to intermission in a set that includes a mix of original and well-known numbers… including another Oz-rock classic with The Angels’ ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again’, complete with expletive-laden audience response.

The packed opening night audience, full of ‘girls night out’ groups, loved every minute of music and more. As emcee, Judy Hainsworth entertains in jester role, complete with changing brightly coloured, motley costume, taking the audience on a tongue-in-cheer tour of the year that has been and a musical recap of the life of a performer on tour, amongst other journeys. Transporting audiences to another time or place is part of the magic of live performance and the show’s final set, from “Women in Voice” royalty Alison St Ledger, does exactly this as she takes the audience on a fabulously fun trip down retro-memory lane to Jackson Five and Bee Gee boogie, completed with disco dudette while suit.

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As always, “Women in Voice” is an immensely entertaining musical experience, thanks also to the accomplished live band (under Musical Director Stephen Russell). When the superlative songstresses come together to look towards the good things to come in a concluding Cat Stevens’ ‘Peace Train’ it is a glorious, goosebumpy moment proving that more than just another song concert, “Women in Voice” is a celebration of talent, that, like any good celebration, is best enjoyed when shared with ‘the more the merrier’ as a mantra.

Sing it sisters

Women in Voice 21st Anniversary

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

October 16 – 25

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The local phenomenon that is “Women in Voice” is turning 21 and audiences are invited to the party. And what a party it is, complete with childhood photos and a whole load of fun. ‘What were you doing in 1993?’ emcee Liz Buchanan asks the audience to ponder in the show’s opening moments; it was fitting for me to have my swampie (uni) self recollections accompanied by a snippet of The Cure’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. Although not all nostalgic, the musical selections are quite wonderful, ranging from The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby’ to Sia’s ‘Chandelier’, and even though Helen Reddy’s athematic ‘I am Woman’ makes an almost sneak appearance, this is a show far from any feminist agenda amongst the good time hilarity.

There’s always an inherent risk of audience participation when seated at cabaret tables near the stage and audience members will discover this when Carita Farrer Spencer appears as her outrageous male alter-ego asking for ‘your extra time and your kiss’. It is a lively, fun-filled, adult-themed end to an eclectic show that mere moments earlier sees the audience being soared to operatic heights by Bethan Ellsmore’s impressive vocal range.

In the secure hands of Broadway babe emcee Liz Buchanan, the show is presented as a series of sets (sweet, souful, sultry and surreal) from a diverse group of performers. Song selection suits both each performer’s distinct vocal style and the theme of each set, and the pacing is perfect, both within each segment and in contribution to the show’s holistic ‘something for everyone’ appeal.

The sets begin with a wistful performance from flower-child Alinta J’s, including of a lovely original number. Despite her relative youth, Alinta’s talent is clear and her vocals are very easy to listen to. In contrast, Lil’Fi’s following powerful, preacher-esque performance of sassy deep south blues numbers, is a toe-tapping, audience clap-along joyous celebration, complete with duelling banjo sounds and musician spoons. Indeed, members of this 21st line-up are all charismatic, dynamic performers with engaging stage presence, both when being showcased individually or when acting as backing babes. And the talent of the show’s musicians, is equally impressive.

“Women in Voice” is a glittering chandelier of a show and a guaranteed great girls night out. This is clear from the early moments when Alinta J bops out ‘Benny and the Jets’ prompting (controlled) audience desire to sing along, like in that scene from “27 Dresses”. Each audience member will have their favourite performer, but the talent of all the women is undeniable. Judging by this show, 21 years after its humble beginnings in a West End café, “Women in Voice” looks set only to continue to grow in popularity through its showcase of some of the country’s best female vocal talent.