Walking out of Brisbane’s QPAC Concert Hall on Friday night, I overheard a man suggesting he may demand a refund for the night’s performance. His lady partner agreed. ‘I know, that wasn’t worth it at all,’ she responded. They laughed. Needless to say, sarcasm was in the air. It was the kind of reaction that goes above and beyond a mere compliment - a verbal response in a moment where speechlessness just wouldn’t cut it and sincere words couldn’t do justice. The show was absolutely brilliant and this came as a pleasant surprise on an evening I’d expected to be little more than a laid-back rock concert - a take-it-in-turns showcase of obscure female singer-songwriters I’d barely heard of, much less considered for my CD collection.
As the third of Deborah Conway’s annual series, in which she performs with four specially selected women from the Australian music scene, this year’s Broad debuted in Brisbane with Anne McCue, Sally Seltmann, Jade MacRae and Abbe May. True to the show’s title, the women come from a variety of backgrounds and musical ideologies. However, the fit between Nashville-based guitarist McCue, fragile New Buffalo front woman Seltmann, bluesy May from The Fuzz and - of course - Conway seemed natural at first glance. The one and only certified ‘pop star’ of the group, it was MacRae who perhaps had the most to prove among a cluster of ‘rock chicks’.
On the back of a blossoming career on Australia’s urban scene with hits like ‘So Hot Right Now’ and an appearance on Channel 7’s It Takes Two, Jade MacRae has been touted as Australia’s answer to Beyoncé. As the five women appeared onstage, taking their positions for the evening, I was curious to see what MacRae would offer. Was she going to dance for us? Shake her R’n’B booty like 90% of the pop stars on today’s MTV? I couldn’t be more pleasantly surprised when she pulled out her violin and joined the group as a fully-fledged musician for the night’s opening performance - a group vocal. Upon her first solo effort, Jade MacRae took a place at the keyboard and stunned the audience with soaring vocals and heartfelt lyrics. Shows what I know. It turns out she’s more Alicia Keys than Beyoncé and her presence melded beautifully with the other women.
Curiously, it was Sally Seltmann who seemed most out of place, though this had more to do with a wonderful individuality than any inadequacy on her part. Like Frenté’s Angie Hart or an Australian Lily Allen, Seltmann provides such a quirky and somewhat shy or naïve vocal styling that her participation in group pieces had a jarring effect that often gained a laugh from the audience. Rather than withdraw awkwardly, Seltmann appeared to revel in the reaction. Simply smiling and continuing to play, it was nothing if not entirely sweet. However, her moments to shine were clearly the solo performances, for which May would swap her guitar for a buzzing, alien-sounding theremin and Conway would break out a comical-looking wind piano.
Sidelined for the much of the show’s first half, Abbe May continued the trend of obscure instruments as she took to the stage after intermission, alone with a ukulele and what was arguably the most beautiful of the five women’s voices. Seemingly shy and introverted—and often awkward against Conway’s brazen confidence - May was a revelation with her ‘scotch-soaked vocals’ that showcased unexpectedly powerful emotions. A similar juxtaposition of tongue-tied awkwardness during the down time and potent force in song came from Anne McCue, who provided one of the highlights of the night with a funky, pedal steel guitar-fuelled track about the Ku Klux Klan.
Sadly, the least interesting performer of the show was the ringleader herself, Deborah Conway. Taking on the role of holding it all together, her presence was definitely felt. However, this was more as a mediator or interviewer of sorts, asking questions of the women in a fashion that came across as intimidating - to the extent that audible ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ could be heard among the audience when sufficient responses (particularly from May) were not forthcoming and Conway would move on coldly. Of course, her aloof nature only proved to make her all the more amusing at times when a dry sense of humour would appear. Despite her less impressive musical role, the ex-Do Ré Mi front woman did milk the audience of its loudest reaction when the distinct sounds of 1985 hit ‘Man Overboard’ appeared on the set list.
In spite of Broad’s lack of household names and well-known tunes, I’m happy to say the show is perfectly performed as a quality showcase rather than a rock concert. The awe-inspiring voices, intriguing personalities and sheer variety of musical styles is what makes this a highly worthwhile show. That, and an uplifting group effort of the Tom Petty classic ‘I Won’t Back Down’.
A pleasant surprise is an understatement and I look forward
with to Broad 2008 with eager anticipation.
Deborah Conway | Jade MacRae | Anne McCue | Abbe May (The Fuzz) | Sally Seltmann (New Buffalo)
Brisbane: QPAC, 17 August
Canberra: Canberra Theatre, 18 August
Sydney: Sydney Opera House, 19 August
Darwin Festival: The Star Shell, Darwin Botanic Gardens, 20 & 21 August
Melbourne: Athenaeum Theatre, 23 August & 24 August
Adelaide: His Majesty’s Theatre, 25 August
Perth: Concert Hall, 26 August