Harry Manx at the Thornbury Theatre

Harry Manx is one chilled dude. He exudes calm and cool. His music combines the smooth, mystical sounds of various open tuned acoustic instruments with a little bit of blues grit and groove. This is hardly surprising given his background. Manx is known for forging links between Indian raga music and American blues. He was a sound man at Toronto’s famous El Macombo club where he observed many blues legends at close hand; he also spent five years in India studying with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, the inventor of the 20 stringed Mohan Veena, which Bhatt introduced to western audiences through his stunning collaboration with Ry Cooder, A Meeting by the River. If you don’t know this recording, you really need to get acquainted with it as soon as possible — it’s simply sublime.

Manx played two superb sets at the Thornbury Theatre last night, aided and abetted by special guests Yeshe and Kerryn Tolhurst. There is something both compelling and admirable about the way Manx goes about his business. He has a warm, inviting presence, and a droll sense of humour, but it’s his music that draws the listener close. There’s something special about the tonal quality of a metal bar sliding across steel strings in the hands of a master that I can’t quite express. Perhaps it has something to do with the way notes don’t stop at designated stations, but just float through the barriers between them. In other words, frets don’t act as tonal gatekeepers, so the music just slips and slides around notes creating a mesmerizing effect.

Manx supplemented his own songs with a few choice covers from the likes of J.J. Cale, Muddy Waters, and Jimi Hendrix (his take on Voodoo Chile was a highlight), and the small, appreciative audience lapped it up, giving Manx a rousing ‘sitting ovation’ at the conclusion of proceedings — it was a cold, inhospitable night, after all. The night may have been bitterly cold, but Manx warmed the soul in the small, intimate surrounds of the Thornbury Theatre’s recently refurbished ground floor room. The sound engineering was outstanding, and I’m sure this had something to do with both the venue’s new PA system and the dizzying array of pedals and gizmo’s at Manx’s feet.

I’d never heard of Manx until a few weeks ago, but I’m so glad I made the effort to head north last night. Shit, I most definitely like.

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Bob Dylan and his Band: Live and in Person!

No doubt, Bob Dylan has heard it all: the chorus of boos that greeted his first public foray into electric rock music at the 1965 Newport folk festival, the infamous ‘Judas’ taunt in 1966, and the derisive jeers that mocked his notorious gospel concerts in the late 1970s and early 1980s are only the most obvious expressions of disappointment aimed at a man burdened with a ludicrous degree of adulation, admiration and expectation. When you carry such a load, you’re bound to piss people off from time to time. Perhaps more than any single figure in recent history, Dylan functions as a kind of canvass upon which his fans draw idealized images of what they consider him to be: a poet, a prophet, outlaw, fake, or even a star of electricity, as Todd Haynes put it in his extraordinary cinematic rendering of the Dylan myth.

Fans get mightily agitated when the man confounds their expectations, and heads in unforeseeable directions as an artist and man. After all, we have a lot invested in the Dylan’s music, and we want him to make us proud. Actually, we often just want him to confirm our own take on life, our own narrow political beliefs and prejudices. I remember my own sense of horror when Bob released Slow Train Coming in 1979. I’d recently discovered Dylan and Karl Marx, and become intoxicated by the heady dose of self-righteousness and indignation that both writers inspired in my adolescent mind. I desperately wanted to change the world that had gone so badly wrong by entrenching poverty and misery as a norm for so many.

I was outraged by Dylan’s turn to Christianity because I held religion responsible for many of the world’s ills. Shit, surely the guy who sung ‘With God On Our Side’ couldn’t be speaking in tongues and hastening the end of days, could he? Besides, how could the ‘voice of a generation,’ the rebel beatnik who wrote ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ and so many other great songs that rallied against injustice and inequality fall for such hokum as born-again Christianity? For me, as a right-on teenager, things were black and white. I knew which side I was on, and fuck anyone who took a different path.

Needless to say, I’ve mellowed with age, and I’m now willing to tolerate all kinds of dissent and dispute. Hell, I’ll even give Fox news a pass (from time to time — I’m not that tolerant of outright vapidity as an everyday occurrence). Anyway, Slow Train Coming is now one of my favourite Dylan albums. See how liberal I’ve become now that the scales of dogma have fallen from my eyes. And, in a way, I, too, have been born again. I’ve morphed into a respectable, middle-class professional (with a decent disposable income). This in itself is nothing extraordinary. However, it’s this current born-again persona that’s largely responsible for my current beef with the great man. Yes, folks, Dylan has pissed me off again, and the preceding paragraphs are nothing more than a preamble to explaining why I’m so incensed.

So here’s the deal, and I’ll let you be the judge of whether it’s a big one. I paid $175 to see Dylan’s concert at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia on Thursday 21 April 2011, a date that will go down in infamy. That’s one hundred and seventy five dollars multiplied by two, by the way (I took my teenage son, who, incidentally has never had a problem with Slow Train Coming, since I trained him to be tolerant of all creeds by whacking him around the ear every time he said something bigoted).

Anyway, as a loyal customer of the Ticketek Corporation, I was granted the privilege of securing pre-sale tickets. I fired up my computer at the anointed hour, typed the prized pre-sale code into the appropriate box on the screen, and lucked out by getting fourth row seats, front and center. I usually get nosebleed seats at arena concerts, so I was stoked — and it’s an understatement to say I was eagerly anticipating the event. After all, I’d be in close proximity to a living legend. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve got to come clean, and admit that I’d seen Dylan on many other occasions, and even had good seats once (back in 2001 at the same venue when he delivered an absolutely stunning set that I’ve never forgotten, perhaps because most Dylan performances I’d witnessed were so mediocre). So, I wasn’t a Dylan virgin. I knew what to expect, or so I’d imagined.

I expected to see Australia’s own Dylan, Paul Kelly — he seems to get all the prestigious support slots, especially if someone literate like Dylan or Cohen is touring Australia. I’m not a big fan of Mr. Kelly, but I’ve seen enough of him at these arena gigs to appreciate his artistry. I expected Dylan, to play very little guitar, and turn his back to good proportion of the audience when he played his keyboard. I expected the coarse, sandpaper bark that passes for his voice these days. I expected the throng, of greying, middle-aged hippies with expanding waistlines to sing along with those songs that still retained their original melodies. I expected the band to keep their eyes peeled for any unexpected curve balls that Dylan might throw in mid-song. I expected loose arrangements, the occasional ramshackle ending, and, perhaps, a few moments of transcendental bliss when Dylan conjures the spirit of one of those ghosts from the Invisible Republic.

I also expected to buy a few pieces of tour merchandise at outrageously inflated prices, and maybe eat some of the junk food that’s always on offer at such events. I expected to see a few surreptitious scalpers and bootleggers, and I expected to moan about the poor sound quality that always seems to plague the Rod Laver Arena.

I didn’t expect to get into fight.

Ok, a heated exchange that almost ended in physical violence, then. I’m not really the fighting type (I’d have a hard time beating Woody Allen in his dotage), but, I can make like Larry David when provoked, and this unfortunate tendency has got me into more than a little trouble over the years. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to not call a crock a crock, and suck up patent abuses of power and prestige.

Things began as expected. Mr. Kelly, accompanied by his nephew, Dan, played an engaging set. I even snapped a couple of photographs. Man, I was so close. I couldn’t wait for the main event. Kelly departed the stage, fully deserving the warm applause of the audience. Then, there was a brief intermission while the stage was prepared for Dylan and band. I could feel the excitement building. How cool was this. I had amazing seats, and I was anticipating a stellar performance — I had a feeling that this one was going to be special. The lights slowly dimmed to black. The band took their positions, and then the crowd roared as the first strains of ‘Gonna Change My Way of Thinking’ — from Slow Train Coming, no less —washed over the auditorium. The crowd stood as one, row by row everyone stood to get a better glimpse of the man. I took my camera out of my pocket and started taking photographs. After a few minutes, I became aware of the people behind me yelling for me to sit down — they couldn’t see because the first three rows were still on their feet. I dutifully complied, out of politeness, and because I fully expected that everyone in front of me would also comply in the name of community spirit and fairness. After three or four songs it became obvious that the people who’d bought the best seats were going to remain on their feet for the duration, their backsides were not going to touch the plastic monstrosities that passed for chairs until the proverbial fat lady exhaled her last bellow, and Dylan left the stage.

I looked around me. The people immediately behind me kept yelling, the young man to my left, stood his ground, he’d obviously resolved to remain upright, and endure the slings and arrows of verbal abuse; the couple in front of me sang and danced without a shred of self-consciousness, irritating the crap out of me. I felt my blood pressure rising to dangerously high levels for a man of my vintage. I bit my tongue, hoping that those selfish fuckers would have the good grace to sit down after being on their feet for 30 minutes. No such luck. My inner Larry came to fore. I tapped the young man in front of me on the shoulder, and explained my predicament.

He looked slightly aghast, and dismissed my request by pointing out that he had to stand because those in front of him were also standing. Impeccable logic. How do you argue with that? I resumed my seat, fuming until my inner Larry could take no more. I made my request again, this time more insistently. Again, I was rebuked. Not content to sit it out passively, I stood for a third time, and shouted a full-throttled string of expletives at the young man just as Dylan finished ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. The crowd’s applause had died to an ambient hush, so my words rang out around the arena:

‘Sit down you selfish cunt, or I’ll fucking deck you!’

I swear I saw Dylan raise an eyebrow. I’m sure the great man heard me. What was he going to say?

‘You’re a liar, I don’t believe you?’

Obviously, I was no Keith Butler, and my boorish explosion of frustrated machismo was not going to constitute a turning point in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The moment seemed to last an eternity before the band kicked into the next song. I sat down, defeated, humiliated, and shocked at my outburst. My sense of disgrace was exacerbated when an usher came to see what all the fuss was about. She was an absolute darling — sympathetic to my plight, and even willing to reason and then admonish the offending couple that blocked my view of the spectacle. After making a futile appeal to my adversaries, she patiently explained that Dylan’s camp had issued specific instructions to allow people to remain on their feet, so there was nothing she could do, sorry. WTF? Dylan himself was responsible for this shitty situation. What a night, and what a disappointment. The venal couple made a hasty retreat at the end of proceedings, possibly believing that I’d make good on my idle threat. They needn’t have worried, I wasn’t going to do Jack.

So, Dylan pissed me off, again, but he’d also given me pause for thought, again. Wasn’t it the music that mattered? Why was I so hung up on having an unobstructed view of the icon? Why privilege sight at a musical event? Isn’t rock and roll supposed to move people to shuffle their feet to the beat, shake, rattle and roll?

But I’d paid to see Dylan, damn it! I wanted my money’s worth! I wanted to sit comfortably in my chair after a hard day’s slog, and passively luxuriate in the mystical aura of celebrity.

So, there you have it, folks — the root cause of my anger. I hadn’t got what I expected, but ain’t that just the way life rolls? It’s taken me more than a year to summon the courage to reflect on this incident and interrogate my own response to the event described above. I’m still pissed, but more at myself than Dylan, or the self-regarding hordes who occupied the first three rows on that contentious April night, and, I have no doubt, I’ll be there when Dylan comes to town next time. He seems to have a knack for making me think (twice).

Studio Bootlegs

Before the Internet made almost everything available on-line, bootleg recordings were expensive and very hard to find, especially in Australia. I must have trawled through countless dodgy stores all over the world to find rare gems like the Beatles’ White Album demos (New York), or Springsteen’s first Columbia sessions (Singapore) — big Asian cities were always a safe bet back in the day, and I must of spent a fucking fortune on records, CDs and tapes that I hardly listen to anymore. For the most part, the recordings themselves were of poor quality — excessive tape hiss always detracted from the pleasure of hearing something unique, and slightly illicit, which is why my extensive collection of boots is bound for the junkyard. Yet the allure of the bootleg remains — it’s a kind of Holy Grail, a badge of honor testifying to the serious fan’s devotion to the pantheon of musical gods (or possibly just testifying to neurotic obsessive-compulsive tendencies).

Today, the best shit is just a click or two away. Not only is this stuff free, but the sound quality is usually good, and, if you can suspend the nagging feeling that you’re a low down thief, depriving multimillionaire rock gods of their filthy lucre, there’s a lot of fun to be had. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite recent discoveries. There are no live recordings on this page. This is because I generally find the aborted album, or studio demos more listening, and far more interesting (The Velvet Underground’s Live at Max’s Kansas City excepted, but that’s no longer a bootleg). Anyway, you’ll need to do a bit of digging around to find these gems, but the effort will be worth it. Trust me, folks.

Prince, The Undertaker (1994)

Prince is prolific. He’s recorded far more stuff than he can actually release without producing a glut. No doubt, his output is of variable quality, and let’s face it, the man hasn’t had a genuine hit in a very long time, so his reputation rests on his impressive back catalogue. Anyway, The little purple master recorded The Undertaker for a guitar magazine in 1994, and the word is that his record company prevented its distribution because they couldn’t tolerate the prospect of giving the fans something for nothing.

The Undertaker sees Prince shine as a guitar god, fronting a potent power trio. He’s no Hendrix, but he’s the master of tone, and he really let’s rip on 7 gut busting tracks, which include a suitably sexy take on the Stones’ Honky Tonk Woman. The entire album was recorded live in one long take, which is no mean feat given the quality of the material on offer. It’s refreshing to hear Prince rock out with minimal backing. The sound quality is superb, by the way. The man can really wail, and he wields his axe with the attitude of a sexy muthafucker. Outstanding shit! I’m astounded that he left this in the can.

Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks (1974) — the complete New York Sessions

 

Dylan almost single-handedly created the bootleg record industry. His Little White Wonder collection is legendary, and deservedly occupies the place it holds in rock and roll mythology. I have a ton of Dylan boots, but the only one I play with any degree of regularity is the New York version of Blood on the Tracks, which, in its legitimately released form, is possibly the finest album in Dylan’s illustrious career. Let me make this clear, the official release is a masterpiece, and I think Dylan, for once, made a very astute call when he decided to re-record half the record in his home town, with a bunch of local musicians (who scandalously weren’t given credit for their outstanding contribution to the album). Andy Gill has written a compelling book about the sessions, which you can find here.

Dylan was unhappy with half the songs he recorded in New York, but none of these tunes remained in the vault for too long. They began circulating amongst hard-core fans almost immediately, and Columbia have released some of the rejected numbers as part of Dylan’s bootleg series. However, the entire New York version of the album has never appeared as an official collection, although this might change in the not too distant future.

While the New York rejects lack the passion and sparkle of their Minnesota counterparts, they do possess a unique charm. They all sound like they’re in the same tuning, if not the same key, and Dylan’s guitar drones like an Indian tamboura, which lends a certain melancholy tone to proceedings. He sounds, depressed, and resigned to the enduring pain of heartbreak and despair. The arrangements are sparse, and the mostly acoustic instrumentation creates an intimate atmosphere, which permeates the entire album. If you listen to the entire New York album in sequence, it sounds like it comes from a parallel universe. Once again, the sound quality is astonishingly good.

Keith Richards, Toronto, 1977

 

Down and out in Toronto, Canada, after his infamous drug bust for heroin possession, Richards took solace in music, baring his soul through a collection of country classics, and early rock and roll hits. He croaks and croons his way through songs like ‘All I Have to Do is Dream’ and George Jones’ ‘Say It’s Not You’ with the candor of a man who is about to make one last desperate plea for freedom before a hanging judge. He conjures some of Gram Parsons’ soulfulness in this assortment of semi-nostalgic odds and ends. Mostly accompanied by his own piano, which he plays with a kind of clunky grace, Keith’s unique voice takes center stage. Clearly, his piano chops are primitive, and his vocals depend exclusively on feel and emotion, yet he pulls the listener into his hazy, crazy universe, and displays a poignant vulnerability that is mostly absent from his cocky, swaggering pirate act that defined his image all those years ago. I doubt this shit will ever see an official release, so seek, and ye shall be rewarded, friends.

The Sex Pistols, Spunk, 1977

The surviving members of the Sex Pistols agree that Sid Viscous wasn’t much of a bass player. Guitarist Steve Jones played most of the bass parts on the Pistol’s iconic album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The album was preceded by a semi-underground bootleg that has Glen Matlock on bass, and while his presence doesn’t really improve on Jones’ simple root note approach to the instrument, it does demonstrate how the band originally sounded. You can find a more expansive account of this recording here. Nuff said!

Prince

Prince, Rod Laver Arena, 14 May 2012

Prince is a genius. There’s no questioning the man’s track record. After all, he’s responsible for composing some of the best pop music of the 1980s — Purple Rain, Little Red Corvette, 1999, Cream, Kiss, Peach, Raspberry Beret, Diamonds and Pearls are all gems, funky radio hits from an era renowned for bad hair, and musical atrocities such as Duran Duran and Flock of Seagulls. I’ll confess I don’t have a deep knowledge of the man’s back catalogue, but I always enjoy hearing his most popular stuff, and, man, the little purple master sure churned out a remarkable number of hits during his heyday. He effortlessly combined insistent melodies, funky beats, and soulful singing with washes of synths, and badass rock guitar to create one of the most impressive and formidable canons in popular music.

So, it was with a keen sense of anticipation that I joined the throngs of Prince devotees who gathered at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne last night to pay homage to a living legend, and witness the long overdue return of a genuine superstar. If judged by the wildly enthusiastic response of the crowd, Prince is still at the top of his game. The faithful hooted, and hollered, sang along with all the hits, and partied like it was 1999, or 1984. They endured a few long, funk jams with patience, and even endured what must surely be the longest wait for an encore in the history of live music. Clearly, the man could do no wrong.

He performed in the round, on a truly spectacular stage, which was shaped like the symbol that briefly functioned as his proper name when he was calling himself the artist formerly known as Prince. The light show was suitably dazzling, the band super tight, and the backing singers and dancers were sassy, sexy and on song. Prince looked like a million bucks, trim, petite, perched on impossible high heels, and he had his mojo working as he strutted through the concert, singing and dancing his little ass off. He also let rip on various instruments, including his legendary Hohner Telecaster guitar, which he wielded with wild dexterity.

Even from my vantage point up in the nosebleed area of the arena, I could feel the energy of the spectacle, and see the looks of adoration, and glee on the faces of those around me. No doubt, Prince rocked the house, yet I couldn’t help feeling dissatisfied.

I just don’t dig the sound at  stadium concerts. Cavernous spaces like the Rod Laver Arena really suck in terms of sound quality. The bottom end of the sound spectrum is generally boomy, and flaccid. And you can forget about crystal clear high frequencies, which sound muted and squashed. Concert Vocals can distort, and female voices frequently become shrill. No doubt, some people enjoy the rough and ready sound of a live rock concert, but I wish there was some way of approximating recital quality sound. Classical music almost always sounds stellar in terms of high fidelity sound reproduction (maybe this has something to do with the fact they prefer modest decibel counts). Anyway, I want to luxuriate in superior sound, move my feet to the tight beat of a bass drum that doesn’t boom, and hear a creamy guitar tone that doesn’t sound like it’s coming out of a maxed out boom box.

I’d kill to hear Prince at one of his almost legendary after concert jams, which usually take place in small clubs for those privileged people of good fortune. Club sound, in my experience, is smooth, especially when the venue has invested in a good PA system. Ok, maybe I’m missing something about the thrill of the spectacular concert experience, but when I lay my hard earned money down, the least I expect is sonic bliss. Is that too much to ask, folks?

The Histrionic (Der Theatremacher)

The Histrionic (Der Theatermacher) by Thomas Bernhard.

Directed by Daniel Schlusser, Malthouse Theatre, May 4, 2012

I don’t want to be too negative about shit I don’t like, but, man, I found the Malthouse production of Thomas Bernhard’s play, The Histrionic, a chore — this interminable, pretentious piece of crap failed on almost every level (I know, a whole heap of learned pundits think it’s the real deal, but I’ve got to be honest, dear readers). Basically, the piece is little more than an excruciatingly long monologue delivered by an authoritarian thespian — one Bruscon who torments and tortures those around him with outrageous demands and snide remarks. Bruscon is a bully. He commands the stage to such an extent that the supporting cast are little more than decorative foils for his childish tantrums, and sadistic wit. No doubt, the theatre is full of little Hitler’s — Bruscon certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to a few of the theatre bods I’ve had the displeasure to know over the years. You know the type, the theatre industry is full of them — whiney, pompous fools convinced of their own genius, and full of contempt for those lesser mortals incapable of helping realise their artistic vision. And, of course, the resemblance between the tyrannical thespian, and the failed art student with the signature tash is no coincidence — Austria, nay, the world, is full of little Hitlers, get it?

Here’s the basic premise: Bruscon wanders into a provincial town with his dysfunctional family in tow. He’s apparently agreed to work in a somewhat rustic theatre in order to stage his magnum opus — a piece of work that requires a total blackout for its finale to be effective. Almost immediately, he insults the ‘landlord’ and then insists on getting permission to turn off the theatre’s exit signs during his proposed performance, a request that has been denied in the past, presumably in more extravagant and well-resourced surrounds. According to the program notes, Thomas Bernhard once made a similar request, and when it was denied, no doubt on occupational health and safety grounds, he through a massive hissy fit, and cancelled the show. The character of Bruscon, then, is perhaps an exaggerated version of the acclaimed German playwright. So, The Histrionic is an exercise if self-deprecating myth busting, maybe.

The problem with the play is that the satire just doesn’t hit the mark. Once Bernhard establishes that Bruscon represents the pretentiousness, and hubris of the over inflated artistic ego it’s pretty much game over. The play is incredibly repetitive, and fails to make any insightful connections between its insular, self-reflexive observations about the theatre and its double. After 15 minutes, even the dimmest globe in the lighting rig knows where this work is going, and that’s downhill. What’s worse, this exceedingly long ride is made even more tedious because Bruscon is played as an oaf with almost no degree of awareness of his monstrous personality, so it’s very difficult to feel any sort of empathy for him or his predicament. Not this this would have made the work any better, for I suspect that the real difficulty I had with the play was that it was just not outrageous enough. Maybe the text was badly translated, or maybe I just don’t get German/Austrian humour! All cheap racial stereotypes aside, I know German language Playwrights can be funny — anyone remember Peter Handke?

The staging doesn’t help matters. On entering the performance space, the audience is confronted by actors milling about a large, ugly set filled with an assortment of what I guess are art objects — sculptures of human figures, large birds, grotesque paintings, oversized props. The play begins while the house lights are still up, which accentuates the fluid boundary between stage and spectators. The lighting plot becomes more conventionally theatrical as the play progresses. This, no doubt, is a deliberate ploy designed to solidify the theatrical frame, and give this rambling piece of dross a semblance of structure. I generally like meta-theatre. That is, theatre that reflects on its own status as an artificial mode of representation. Whereas, Beckett, Pirandello and Handke, to name the most obvious exponents of the technique, manage to make shrewd observations about the world as stage, Bernhard, or at least this production of Bernhard’s play, just comes across as a self-indulgent mess. What’s more, I’m staggered by the general praise this heap of crap has garnered from the literati. Ok, I’m going to stick my neck out and not only call this crock a crock, but put the proposition that we, as a community, have got to stop pissing in the pockets of the small coterie of histrionics who appear to have carved up Australia’s main stage empire amongst themselves. Please, keepers of the Malthouse theatre, put on some shit that matters!

I’m just trying to provide a bit of balance here, folks. I was enticed to see this play on the strength of the hyperbolic reviews it received. If this production represents state of the art theatre, I might have to spend more of my hard earned in the cinema (where I find shit I like on a more regular basis). Did I miss something? Please, do tell.

Wanda Sykes

Wanda Sykes, Melbourne International Comedy Festival, April 5, 2012

I know Wanda Sykes as Larry David’s foil in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Wanda, an African America Lesbian, for those who don’t know, has the uncanny knack of popping up whenever Larry’s penchant for politically incorrect behaviour is racially charged. During the course of the show, now in its 9th season, she bears witness to the curmudgeonly Mr David mistaking a professional black man for a valet, suspects him of training a racist dog that attacks only black, and admonishes him for firing a black cable guy. These are just a few of the misdemeanours that Wanda takes issue with, and the sparks fly whenever Wanda and Larry are in the same frame. They have an on-screen chemistry that is pure comedy gold. Wanda’s straight-up, take no bullshit brand of ball busting is also evident in her stand-up persona, although she comes across as a much more genial and endearing presence on stage.

Wanda’s hour-long monologue was one of the hits at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival — she was so popular that she her performance had to be moved to a bigger venue to accommodate the demand for tickets (I saw her at the old Capitol Theatre — a former cinema with a sublime ceiling designed by Walter Burly Griffin). Her popularity is well deserved. Wanda’s wry observations about aging, American politics, and sex kept me chuckling for the duration of her performance, which was beautifully paced, and always engaging. She’s one funny woman.

She began with a few comments about Australia. Just when I thought she was going to launch into a shit eating, ingratiating speech about how she loves this country, she shifted gears to comment on the bad attitude of Australian waiters — “y’all kinda nice in a phoney kinda way,” she says recalling how her request for a mimosa (an orange and champagne cocktail) was met with a response that managed to simultaneously convey compliance and contempt. Yep, that’s Aussie bad attitude for you, which is not to say there aren’t any bad attitude waiters in the States; it’s just that they are not as prevalent as they are in the land of OZ. Speaking of alcohol, Wanda raved about Australian wine, and noted that we drink a shitload of the stuff. She can tell because we don’t let that stuff sit on the shelf for too long – ‘just look at the dates on the bottle,’ she observes.

Once she got past these obligatory local references, she really hit her stride, especially when she turns her caustic wit to American politics. Needless to say, she’s an Obama fan, and takes exception to those who literally denigrate the president’s good name for being un-American. Just look at the names of Republican presidential candidates she suggests: Ron Paul (he has two first names) Newt Gingrich (sounds like some kinda toad) and Mitt Romney (who sounds like a cocktail Don Draper might drink). The trouble with these guys she opines is that nobody wants to fuck them. Speaking of fucking, she tells a few hilarious tales about her sex life. Sex, for someone of Wanda’s vintage, is no simple matter. Gone are the days of being able to bonk spontaneously — for folks in their late 40’s, sex requires significant preparation: Wanda has a bagful of pills and potions that help her get it on. She also has a pre-sex workout routine that helps keeps the cramps at bay. Wanda, you see, is married to a younger woman — that’s a younger French woman with whom she’s had two white children, mind you. Ooh, la, la! Her tales of family life, and the trials of living in a mixed-race household sound like Curb Your Enthusiasm scenarios — the anecdote about her son calling her Mammy was very Larry David.

There’s nothing especially polished about Wanda’s Shtick: she causally wanders from topic to topic without trying too hard to find clever segues between different stories. But what her show lacks in structure is made up by her cool, relaxed, manner and effortless charm. She can bust my balls any day!

Music by Steve Reich

Music by Steve Reich: A Conversation + Concert, Melbourne Recital Centre, April 30, 2012

Minimalism.

Two performers.

The sound of four hands clapping.

One performer maintains a fixed pattern. At first, the other claps in unison, and then slowly changes the rhythm until he is obviously out of synch with the first.  As the piece progresses the second performer keeps changing the beat until he eventually returns to the original pattern, and all four hands are back in unison.

Sounds boring, huh? Actually, I found the performance, Clapping Music, which was composed by Steve Reich in 1972, surprisingly compelling— in fact, it was powerfully mesmerizing, captivating, and I loved the way the amplified sound of human flesh reverberated around the recital hall, which became the third participant in the performance.  Clapping Music provided the perfect introduction to the man whose name, for better or for worse, is synonymous with minimalism, a much-maligned genre of contemporary classical music — You can’t get more minimal than using the human body as an instrument.

Reich, along with his contemporaries Philip Glass and Terry Reilly, has managed to attract a large following of fans by expanding the world of sound, and drawing inspiration from the rhythms, and melodies of the everyday world. He’s also renowned for using recording technology as an instrument, and compositional tool, as evidenced in the recital’s second item, Vermont Counterpoint, which is a duet between a live flautist, and a series of pre-recorded flute parts. A series of short musical phrases are played through the PA system, and the ‘live’ musician interacts with these fragments of melody, sometimes by playing in unison, but most often by staging a conversation with the recorded sounds. The effect is quite stunning, and the virtuosity of the flautist, Tim Munro, unbelievable.

The following work, Drumming Part 1, involves four percussionists, all clad in basic black, assembled around an array of tuned bongo drums. They employ the same technique used in the first composition — one player establishes a basic rhythmic pattern while the others swirl around the beat, twisting and snaking around each other, beating, retreating, and, sometimes, just bleating. Eventually, the ensemble returns to playing in unison. The theatrical illumination, which frames the musicians in a pool of white light, heightens the atmospheric quality of the performance, which transmits a palpable energetic force to the audience.

The final piece, the main course, if you will, is Different Trains, a rare work of high intellectual ambition that magically touches the soul. This is where Reich pulls out all the stops.  Inspired by his Jewish ancestry and his train journeys across the USA as a child, this work for string quartet and tape incorporates snatches of recorded speech, and ‘sampled’ train sounds, which become the basis for the work’s melodies and rhythms that are doubled by the live quartet, who coax a wide variety of wild scapes and screeches that mimic the cacophony of sounds associated with different kinds of train travel.

The composition has three distinct sections. The first, America — before the war, was inspired by the composer’s childhood. Reich’s parents separated not long after his birth. His father lived in New York, while his mother resided in Los Angeles. The young Reich regularly travelled between these two cities, and the first part of his composition evokes his experience of riding the coast-to-coast train. This almost buoyant second contrasts markedly with the second section, which is titled, Europe — During the war. Had Reich lived in Europe he may well have found himself on a very different kind of train journey, and this sobering thought accounts for the almost brutal tone of this part of the work, which incorporates the speech of holocaust survivors. The final section, After the War, is, if anything, even harsher in tone, yet it provides a satisfying coda to what is essentially a kind of narrative tone poem. Once again, the musicianship from the string quartet was stunning, and the audience gave them an appropriately enthusiastic response.

After a twenty-minute intermission, Reich appeared on stage with a group of musicians, including the highly articulate Australian flautist Tim Munro for the conversational component of the event. Reich was lucid, sharp, and displayed a keen sense of humour, especially when Munro compared his work to The Simpsons! Reich looked mystified until Munro explained that people can appreciate Reich’s work on a number of levels: Children, he clarified, love The Simpsons as funny cartoon characters without necessarily understanding the complex layers of irony and satire present in the show; similarly, it’s possible to enjoy Reich’s music as pure sound without any knowledge of the theory behind his compositions.

For the most part, the conversation flowed freely, although it got pretty technical and difficult for non-musicians to follow at times. Lisa Kaplan did manage to provide a remarkably lucid explanation of ‘phasing’ by putting her hands together in order to represent musicians playing in unison, and then slightly rotating one hand away from the other to break the symmetry of image, thus visually demonstrating how Reich’s music often moves out of phase.

Reich spoke about some of his more recent work, and a forthcoming project with Radiohead’s guitar player, Johnny Greenwood, a contemporary classical composer in his own right. Reich does a fine line in self-deprecating humour, and came across as a humble, yet forceful personality who keeps his ears wide open without regard for the boundaries that separate different genres of music. The world of musical sound is always bigger than we think it is, and Reich’s work helps us become attuned to the musicality of life.