Credit where credit's due – Ghostboy With Golden Virtues rarely opt for anything less than comprehensive in their work. Never a mere headline performance bolstered by two token supports, theirs are concerts re-imagined as eclectic, carefully curated events – designed to showcase not just their own exciting work but that of their contemporaries and peers.
Their last performance at The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts – 2010's flabbergasting Swallow & Exit – saw them supported by cabaret legend Martin Martini and performance poets Emily XYZ and Pascalle Burton. Tonight's performance, meanwhile, sees the venerable Brisbane collective presenting the work of fellow Brisbane artists Avaberee and Emma Dean.
Avaberee, opening proceedings, deliver something special – but something nevertheless still in need of refinement. A young a capella trio, Avaberee are blessed with three distinctive voices and surprisingly canny skills as arrangers. Their version of Justin Timberlake's Cry Me a River is one of the standout moments of the night (as is their brilliant take on Dizzee Rascal's Dance Wiv Me).
Where Avaberee fall short are largely in matters of experience. Their original material is somewhat rudimentary – pleasant but not especially crafted – and they've only just begun to grapple with how to perform and captivate an audience. Still, their youth counts for much. Their accomplishments to date suggest they will only improve with time.
Somewhat ironically, Emma Dean delivers a performance of almost polar opposite proportions. A splendid entertainer and gifted songwriter, Emma Dean's only blemish is her decision to tarnish an otherwise effectively evocative rendition of Roxette's Fading Like A Flower with snippets of Lady Gaga's Bad Romance. It's a competently executed idea but far too Glee to be anything but dull.
The rest of her performance, meanwhile, makes such kitsch unnecessary. Dean has spent the past handful of years finding her feet as a cabaret artist and, with tonight's performance, she seems to have well and truly come into her own. Her brashly theatrical awkwardness is both entertaining and affecting, her voice is exceptional throughout and her songs are her best yet.
Her standards – suitably manic cuts Cocaine and Could This Mean If Everyone is Alone, We're Together? – remain strong but newer tunes like Down and Venus De Milo represent an entire new level of accomplishment for the singer-songwriter. The latter, in particular, is an absolutely heartbreaking, beautifully poetic work that deserves to be heard.
Following two such performances, it's difficult to know what to expect of Ghostboy With Golden Virtues. Back in 2010, Swallow & Exit seemed very much like the culmination of their entire aesthetic – from the rampant, psychotic, Irish-dancing-stripper-featuring insanity of Swallow through to the glacial, broken, austere frailty of Exit. It's difficult to imagining the ensemble equalling it.
Wisely, they don't even attempt it. Ghostboy With Golden Virtues is a different beast in 2012. The band's instrumental line-up has been stripped-down (with the obvious exception of Avaberee joining the band as backing vocalists) and their aesthetic has been similarly streamlined. The overall transition seems to be into rawer, more personal territories.
It works wonderfully, too. No longer concerned with simply carpet-bombing their audience into submission through sheer force of charisma and instrumentation (or, for that matter, tearing their hearts out with spontaneous blasts of sentiment), Ghostboy With Golden Virtues have evolved into an entirely more subtle, vulnerable and human ensemble.
Ghostboy himself is the most obvious indicator of the group's transition into softer territories. The legendary performance poet is in fine form throughout – "If everyone could please look to the person to your left, look to the person to your right; know that, at least one of these people, has been thinking about fucking you" – but it's a different kind of performance from his usual work.
Beginning with an abstract, wilfully contradictory, and utterly hilarious spoken word piece ("My mouth," he purrs, "...is not a mouth!"), Ghostboy is funnier, flightier and more surreal. While still delighting in terrorising his audience (sexually assaulting a volunteer to the strains of Electric Six's Gay Bar, unrepentantly stealing drinks from the audience), he does so with a lighter touch.
This newfound litheness, meanwhile – paired with the Golden Virtues newfound austerity – allows Ghostboy With Golden Virtues greater flexibility. The troublesome issue with Swallow & Exit was its extremity ultimately undid some of the band's best work. Following the sexual ferocity of Swallow, Exit's stark vulnerability inevitably felt somewhat alien.
The band's new configuration, though, allows them flexibility to navigate between those two extremes and beyond. Rest assured; Ghostboy With Golden Virtues can still deliver a furious, overwhelming performance (see: now-classics Rock'n'Roll Girlfriend and Wolfish) but they can just as easily deliver simmering murder ballads, sprawling folk-epics and bruising funk rollers.
Furthermore, such songs hit on a deeper, more emotionally visceral level. Golden Virtues' leader Skye Staniford flourishes within the ensemble's new configuration. Her multifaceted sensuality has always been the ideal foil to Ghostboy's rampaging lust but, with Ghostboy reeling back ever so slightly, Staniford's work is made even more obviously remarkable.
Her distinctive delivery stretches from a dry, androgynous drawl to a soothing, motherly croon and anywhere and everywhere in between. Without ignoring contributions from the remainder of the Golden Virtues line-up (multi-instrumentalist Richard Grantham alone deserves some kind of medal), Staniford brings the yearning, fragile, sexual humanity to tonight's performance.
They may not always deliver perfection (a mid-set takeover by performance artist gremlins is dull, unprofessional and unoriginal) – but, even when the band miss their marks (Avaberee, for example, occasionally struggling with their choreography), theirs is an ambition so maddeningly vast and romantic in scope it not only forgives such mistakes but almost guarantees their eventual inclusion.
In short: Ghostboy With Golden Virtues – long having secured their place as one of Brisbane's most fantastically daring contemporary musical outfits – take it to the next level.
GHOSTBOY WITH GOLDEN VIRTUES, EMMA DEAN & AVABEREE
Venue: Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts | 420 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley QLD
Date: Friday March 2, 2012
Tickets: Full: $35 – $24
Bookings: 07 3872 9000