Broad 2008True confession: it must've been '05 when I last enjoyed a Broad. That Broad was stacked: ringleader, Deborah Conway; Clare Bowditch; Ruby Hunter; Katie Noonan; Sara Storer. On a scale of musical leading ladies, bloody hard to top. But Deborah Conway is nothing if not tenacious. So, this year, Broad brings another string of pearlers: Laura Jean; Elana Stone; Dianna Corcoran; Liz Stringer. And Conway, of course. The venue? The Concert Hall of the SOH, if you please. Not quite packed to the gun'al's, but not far off. Quite an ask for a gaggle of girls many wouldn't really know. A case of 'build it, and they will come', it seems. And so they did. Moreover, I'm sure, on the whole, they were glad they came.

There are as many strings to this year's Broad bow as previously and, thus, it's hard to know where to begin, and end. From a cynical standpoint, Conway is canny in finding a way to keep herself contemporary, in surrounding herself with younger, aspiring women. From an altruistic one, though by no means a dirty job, it's one many haven't, don't and wouldn't do: lending imprimatur and popular cred to sisters on the way up; giving them a helping hand, if not long jump to greater fame & fortune. Onya, Debster, for giving oxygen to genuine talents and having the perspicacity, taste and experience to know a rosebud when you see it! These qualities, of course, have been vindicated, in the outrageous, pursuant success enjoyed by numerous Broads.

Broad 08 began acoustically, with the steadfast RockWiz band providing sturdy backing later on.

Our Swan Song is a funny name for a debut album, but its content was more than enough to draw unrestrained praise from an eminent, influential critic, or two, on its release, in 2006. Word spread quickly, 'round the country, and, 'round the countries, as, within a year, Jean was supporting the UK's Snow Patrol, on two successive & successful tours. While far from a household name, that's quite headspinning, for a quiet girl from Gosford.

I first lucked into LJ & The Eden Land (after her new album) Band, not very long ago, at Wollongong's Music Farmers, as part of a recent tour statewide tour, so I've a sense of what mother-hen mentor, Conway, is talking about, when she strives and struggles to describe Laura's songs: chamber folk is reasonably apt. It's also not hard to hear the medieval influence or, indeed, early allegiance to The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, in the cadences and vocal arrangements. These give her output a timeless quality, as it fails (in the sense of transcendence) to follow fad, fashion or other commercial imperatives; inasmuch, it's pure and haunting. Not least in a song like Yellow Moon, from the latest opus. Transcendent, too, is her thought to look skywards, to admire lunar fixedness, in a time characterised by fickleness and movement, largely for its own, futile sake: 'yellow moon, I see your face, in the light' and lighting our way, through dark nights, of the soul. Fragile, spine-tinglingly beautiful; played & sung to delicate perfection by Broad. There's an inner calm in this funny, long-legged, gangly girl, exuding her songs and seeping into the listener; an infectious stillness which you know is doing you good. Her songs are like a long, hot soak, in a cleansing, fragrant bath; the one we never make the time to take. In LJ's book, the stars are a portal to another world; so is her work. Love your work, Laura! The tragedy is, it's almost too good, too sublime and, thereby, I fear and regret, likely to be crushed by an apparently unstoppable avalanche of crassness. I hope I'm wrong.

It's hard to believe (other than to look at her) Deb Conway was once a model; more in the incorrigible Naomi Campbell mould, one suspects, since she's always struck me as a prickly one, albeit in the very best 'I taketh no crap' way. She was also in a series of bands, including once called The Benders, but it wasn't till the '80s and Do Re Mi that she hit the big time, with the lusty 'Man Overboard'. Her success was quickly consolidated, following one or three interesting, if ill-advised sidelights (did you know DC worked on, of all things, Peter Greenaways' Prospero's Books?!), by her debut solo album, which was giant-slaying, winning her a well-earned ARIA: It's Only The Beginning, Release Me & Under My Skin are substantive enough, on their own, to claim a career on. The raw and raunchy Bitch Epic, the one with the appetising cover; live EP, Epic Theatre; left-field Ultrasound; My Third Husband; Exquisite Stereo &, now, Summertown, followed; all distinctive records, each a courageous departure from the last. Noone can ever accuse Ms Conway of complacency or ossification. The clincher is, she's still writing songs as good as, or better than, ever. And singing them in similar measure: Deborah's vocal instrument is in a roof-raising category & class of its own. But while she brings the strength of her own character, songs and voice to Broad, she brings generosity too, leaning towards embellishing the efforts of those with whom she shares the stage, by way of complementary songs from her very consequential catalogue. I'll wager she'd be at the centre of any lively dinner party, to boot, if her probing, live onstage snippets of interview verite are anything to go by: 'fame, fortune, or talent' was but one of her truth or dare-style taunts, designed to forensically ferret out what makes four other extraordinary women tick; secrets somewhat reluctantly revealed, if at all.

I've written of traitorous, jazz-trained Elana Stone elsewhere. I should qualify the accusation of crime to which I allude: she has moved a considerable distance from that oeuvre, to embrace an unorthodox but, for her, easy musical catholicism. Her voice is powerful, versatile; veering from Joplinesque bluesy-rock stylings to the sweetest, smoothest mellifluousness you ever did clap ears upon. The title Everybody's Doing It might sound prosaic, but it's ultra-sophisticated pop, a la George. No wonder she's mates with Thirsty Merc's Ray Thislethwaite: they share a pedigree and a penchant for producing power pop with an emphasis on melody hardly heard in that genre since the fab four.

Diana Corcoran is your readymade, prefab country queen, from Parkes. As she herself says, dad's a mechanic; mum's an Avon lady. That kind of hokey backstory makes her 'stralia's answer to Loretta or Dolly. She's already picked up a Golden Guitar and she has a voice as golden as her long, blonde hair; and one that can really hit the high notes. In short, she's a sweet songbird, with a stamp of authenticity on her songs. What a difference that makes; especially in a country singer. That's not what one feels from Garth Brooks or, dare I add insult, to injury (Keith Urban)? If You Hear Angels, which sounds like a familiar neighbourhood one mightn't want to move into, in Corcoran's hands becomes an honest, heartfelt plea, written spontaneously at a bedside vigil, for her apoplectic dad to keep his feet and soul right where they are. And he did.

Last, but by no means least, Liz Stringer's voice is like the melted chocolate Deborah Conway wore so well on the cover of Bitch Epic: warm, rich, deep & delicious. Without downplaying the others' instrumental talents for a moment (Stone, for example, shines brightly on electric piano & accordion), she's a deft hand on acoustic and electric guitars, banjo and mandolin, not to mention an absolute stickler for a good tuning. All-round, she sounds like a perfectionist, with her impeccable vocal production and fine, skilled playing. Lady Luck is a country shuffle with a harrowing story to tell. Alone, an exquisite, husky acapella homage to that melancholy place we all know so very well. Stringer's a real find.

Notwithstanding reservations about the acoustics of the venue and its lack of intimacy, I'm reminded of a favourite cartoon, from my distant youth: 'Ah, Magoo, you've done it again!' Again, onya Debster. I can barely wait for next year's fab five.


Sydney Opera House Presents
BROAD 2008

Venue: Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
Date/Time: Saturday 23 August, 8.00pm   
Tickets: $45 / $55
Bookings: 02 9250 7777 or online at sydneyoperahouse.com

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