Viva Voices: The Idea of North & Katie Noonan QuartetLeft - The Idea of North. Cover - Katie Noonan

Viva Voices was one of the featured events of this year's spring festival, Viva La Gong, in Wollongong.

Wollongong mightn't be able to attract a high calibre of councillors or developers, but it fares rather better when it comes to the arts.

Prima facie evidence came in the form of the urbane, witty, entertaining and highly-polished acapella of The Idea Of North, comprising four fine voices: arranger and alto, Naomi Crelin; strong, soaring soprano, Sally Cameron; bassist and percussionist ('all with the same mouth') and local yokel, Andrew Piper; pleasing tenor, gentle humorist and frontman, Nick Begbie.

The beauty of a capella, aside from the strange solace afforded as the collective sound, so much greater than the sum of its parts, strikes a chord somewhere deep down, is, traditionally, it allows a group to transgress boundaries of genre and style with cavalier impunity. This, alone, lends a great deal of promise for an engaging evening; realised in TION's performance, via bookends such as a hilariously meticulous, ridiculous 'German folk song' and a singalong, three-part harmony take on Stevie Wonder's sweetly affecting Isn't She Lovely. This would seem to be something of a specialty of the house.

They seem to have affinity, too, with Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now. Indeed, songs such as these last two, especially, denote the measure of the fab four's serious & wholehearted commitment to songs which, clearly, float their boat. Wherever one finds that, I contend, one's bound to find an audience that's right there, with the performers, every step of the way. There seems to be little or nothing outside Idea's scope, or range: jazz (including standards, such as The Nearness of You & nouveau stylings, as in Sting's breathtaking Fragile, with very special guest, Katie Noonan), pop, funk, folk, gospel and beyond.

Andrew Piper is compelling to watch: for much of the concert, I was doing my damnedest to discern by what alchemy, or devious magic, he manages to tirelessly output rhythmic and bottom-end sounds, with matchless fluidity.

Crelin seems like the serious one of the group, her constant smile more stagecraft than sincere, spontaneous joie de vivre, it seemed to me; which isn't intended to take anything away, for her arranging is clever, distinctive and carefully-tuned to individual and collective capacities.

Cameron has a pure tone, which sails out of her, to the ceiling.

Apart from Begbie's universally lovable, tender tenor, there's his equally engaging personality, idiosyncratic anecdotes (apropos of nothing, but rapport-building) and romantic serenades with deliberately, or randomly, selected audience-members.

It's all broadly crowd-pleasing, with each treatment of a piece given enough originality that, if you've heard it before, it can never really be stale and, if not, it will make the discovery enriching and enjoyable, if not downright thrilling. Even 'classics' rendered sacred and inviolable by personal favouritism, such as Wonder's aforementioned wonder of lyrical, mellifluous wonders, are given the respect and attention they demand and deserve. On the occasion, what's more, this surfeit of talent was bolstered, ambiently, by well-mixed sound (hallelujah!) and conducive lighting, under the surprisingly intimate Circus Monoxide Big Top.

So, whether it means heading somewhat south to see them, or in an entirely different direction, ensure your musical compass is set to The magnetic Idea of North.

A solid gold hour of The Idea Of North, a completely 'nude' vocal quartet (in the sense the music emanates entirely form their lips), might be hard to follow, but the beauteous, surpassing and almost inestimable Katie Noonan, naturally, pulled it off, for a fortunate group of Wollongongsters, Illawarriors and others (one woman, apparently, had come from France). Lucky, lucky, lucky, 'cause, as far as I know, this set pre-emps a December tour of 'Blackbird'.

Following some super sessions in NYC, under the more-than-capable stewardship of pianist and arranger, Sam Keevers, Noonan has returned with so-named a new album, stocked with ingenious reworkings of many of Lennon & McCartney's finest. It would be delicious, indeed, to know what the two surviving Beatles, especially the more prolific composer, in Paul, might think, let alone the two gentle giants, regrettably, no longer with us, other than through a seminal legacy.

For this presentation, Noonan & Keevers have recruited the kind of bold, fearless, instrumental innovators who, surely, must be the equal of any, anywhere. Which is what it takes, I might add, to justify the company of Noonan's exquisite, heaven-sent vocals, which might be compared to the name of the album: she is the songbird's songbird. If you've heard her not, you've escaped goosebumps and nape-of-the-neck firssons, well-worth of her platinum, award-scooping, iconic status and big, shiny, new contract, with Sony-BMG.

A pin-up girl for voluptuous women and lovers of them, the effortless manner in which perfectly-pitched notes took wondrous flight, as she winged her way through an anthem for humanity, like Across The Universe, was inspirational, uplifting and a sublime homage to its author. It was also eerily prescient, inasmuch as mimicking the theme of the 2008 Viva La Gong: The Spirit of Flight.

The spirit in the songs and songstress made it nigh-on impossible to play favourites. On a superlative par were Yesterday & Eleanor Rigby, both given the kiss of new life, thanks to the fingerprints of Noonan, Keevers & their recruitment of hot, young jazz players who can't & couldn't help but lick their indelible, very welcome stamps.

Compelling sidelights (actually, this is too dismissive, since the guys behind her were very much part of the fundament which made the evening so musically memorable) were the just-so, supportive playing & generous band-leading of Keevers, in concert with the conscientious and characterful Brett Hirst on bass & cartoon-faced, energised, uninhibited, downright primal, 'Afriquey' percussion of Simon Barker. Now there's a rhythm section that nails everything solidly to the floor. Overlay sensitive saxes (sincere apologies, I neither recognised, not caught the name) and the almost aphrodisiacal, always surprising guitar of Stephen Michaelson (I think; if you know, please fill me in), who's almost singlehandedly reinvented jazz-rock, if not come up with something completely different. His art (like that, arguably, of many transcendent artists), in part, is in recognising and utilising the value of negative spaces, as much as their opposites.

So, the fact that (what was billed as) The Katie Noonan Quartet had five members was the least remarkable thing about it.

And, if all this is enough to make you feel you really missed out, you haven't. Not completely, anyway. This lineup might be a one-off, but Katie will probably, as I've alluded, be coming to a town near you, come the silly season. You must've all been very good boys and girls to warrant some of the best of the bursting-at-the-seams Beatles' canon, played by the untouchable likes of all-stars Joe Lovano, saxes; John Scofield, guitar; Ron Carter, bass & Lewis Nash, drums.

If tingles, shivers and quivers are your thing, be there, to receive the manifold gifts that await you; not least, the sublime siren that is Ms Noonan.


Viva Voices: The Idea of North & Katie Noonan Quartet

Venue: Late Night Festival Hub – MacCabe Park
Date: Fri 10 Oct
Time: 8 – 10pm
8pm The Idea of North
9pm Katie Noonan Quartet

Tickets: $35 & $25 Concessions
Bookings: www.vivalagongfestival.org

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