Little Egypt Burlesque is a sly move by a phalanx of Sydney's first and foremost young jazz musos, including, on vocals, Brian Campeau, Lily Dior, Elana Stone and Katie Reeve. Quite a powerhouse. It puts Ausgrid to shame. Beside and behind them, Damien Slingsby, Lucian McGuiness (who produces and directs), and Evan Mannell. To say nothing of Miss Burlesque 2011, the Marilynesque Danica Lee and one of the tallest poppies of 'em all (at least when it comes to a way with words), Luke Escombe (I gather he swaps places, at least every now and then, with Dom Santangelo).
For this show (and it is very much a show) though, the musos just aren't themselves. They're other people entirely. Characters created for the purpose of weaving the songs into a noir narrative. Campeau becomes Sonny Guy Stiller, chief protagonist: it's around his imaginary and lovelorn life and times the tale is told, by charismatic narrator, dressed to the dandy nines, Escombe, as Don Ramases Demarco.
Think West Coast. 1950s. The scorching sounds of rhythm 'n' blues. Creative director McGuiness wants us 'to feel like they awoke in Jerry Leiber’s body in an LA club in 1952'. This, based on a series of photos of Lieber, with Big Mama Thornton, that inspired him to get the show on the road. Macca's revue is carefully scripted and choreographed; polished to a high sheen, yet underpinned by sizzling, sultry sounds, interpreted visually by a cup-runneth-over Ms Lee.
Mark my words, this is a Las Vegas-ready, full-on show. But this wasn't Las Vegas, but the increasingly desolate and dingy environs of has-been subterranean venue, The Basement, hanging in by the skin of its teeth and the oozing foam stuffing of its dilapidated dining chairs. On a Tuesday evening, mind you. There were precious few punters, more's the pity, for the dinner show. A crying shame, as the performers didn't hold back. We got the full monty.
Mc is, clearly, a Leiber & Stoller aficionado and, as such, has taken the liberty of transforming those tunes into 'two-minute minute stage plays'. Slingsby, as Freddy Arvin, is very much a part of the theatrical experience, beginning, as I recall, with an adaptation of the posthumously anointed founding father of New Orleans R & B, Professor Longhair's swingin', honky-tonk, finger-pointing, cruelly comical novelty song, Bald Head, his only real commercial success; which seemed self-deprecatingly appropriate, given Slingsby's shining smooth-patedness.
Not only does Slingsby bang a mean box, he cuts as rude a swathe as Fess or Dr. John. Nick Hoorweg's bass is as sturdy a backbone for a band as you'll find, while the constantly evolving visage of Evan Mannell, at the kit, is only matched by his open-ended inventiveness: his playing adapts to every context, to the point where he's almost unrecognisable from one to the other; he's the musical equivalent of the most versatile of character actors. Both Aaron Flower (guitar) and Matt Ottignon (sax) are as upfront and assertive as ever; fierce, edgy, fabulous. McGuinness (as Georgie Faye) blows a helluva 'bone, too. From this first moment, we had palpable evidence of the energy, cohesion and barely finite capabilities of the outfit.
Who's Been Foolin' You? kept Freddy (Damien) on deck, sticking with the Longhaired heritage, since Roy Byrd (another of his alter egos) famously covered (and practically rewrote) Arthur Big Boy Crudup's original blues, written in 1944. Not even a premium power tool could ever make these burred, roughhouse songs smooth. They really don't make 'em like this anymore, but at least Little Egypt Burlesque knows precisely how to play 'em like they used to.
Freddy relates his sartorial quest, with The Coasters '60s hit, Shoppin' For Clothes, with a little bass-baritone cool from Don Ramases Demarco (Escombe), filling the shoes of the inside leg man, with his promise of a pure herringbone suit, with camel hair collar and solid gold buttons. There are some sweet ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh-oo!'s from Florence Cardinal (Lily Dior), Little Tipsy Lee (Elana Stone) and Shirley Slam (Katie Reeve), even if the news from the gentlemen's outfitter ain't so sweet: 'you're credit didn't go through'. It creeps along like an alley cat and boasts a smokey sax solo.
Then, Flo, Tipsy and Shirl are In Paradise. One can wax lyrically, at length, about each of these three singers. Together, it really is a triple treat. The song and singers take you to paradise, as evoked in the (Wilfred) Jackie Edwards reggae-infused romantic classic, with it's irresistibly catchy bass riff. Under a tree, in the garden of peace. That's where you'll be. Died and gone to heaven. (Well, hopefully, just visiting.) Sweet as.
From the sublime to the raunchy: Sonny Guy (Campeau) fronts the atmospheric Leiber-Stoller rhythm 'n' blues exemplar, Smokey Joe's Cafe. Wake up and smell the coffee. Chilli beans. And perfume. Heady aromas. With it's strident, full-on 'way, ah!' chorus, plodding bass and bluesy guitar licks, handclaps and irrepressible sense of fun, you'll have a hard time resisting joining in. And why would you? Of course, it's got the kind of infectious hook that's likely to take up lodging in your head for all time. Again, Little Egypt does it big justice.
Freddy sings Fats: I'm Walking stayed at number one for six weeks on release, in '57, and went a long way to ensuring Domino's massive crossover appeal. Like Smokey Joe's, it has a plodding quality about it (perhaps unsurprising, given the title); albeit with a little more spring in its shuffling step. You have to admire McGuinness' programmatic sense and sensibility in determining the sequence of songs. And, of course, it affords a really sassy break from Ottignon.
Tweedly Dee is another novelty song, written by Winfield Scott for LaVern Baker. But I reckon both Win and Delores (Baker's first name) would be blown away, as I was by Ms Slam's 'wham-bam, thank you ma'm!' rendition. She has an instrument every bit as big as Baker's; if anything, more open, natural and, seemingly, effortless. Not to mention exceedingly well-married to the number, which goes, again, to Mc's talent as producer.
There seems to be a prevailing misconception Three Cool Cats was written by The Beatles, simply because they recorded it. But it's got L & S written all over it. Freddy returns to the mike to mock the soon-to-be emasculated hipsters. The original 1958 Coasters version featured an all-star lineup of studio musos (to name but one, King Curtis blasted out the sax solo), but this band loses nothing to any of 'em. They cook.
Stiller steps up for Young Blood, followed by Trick Bag. Young Blood is another L & S (and Doc Pomus) tune, with a Coasters-Beatles connection. One of the finest versions for my money is the sparsely produced, hard swinging' Maurice Williams rendering and perhaps LEB's honours that as well. Whatever, the lesson is, should you see a girl standing on the corner, especially if she's sporting a yellow ribbon in her hair, avert your eyes, or you're liable to end up a stammering, nervous wreck. You have been warned. Be alert, not alarmed. Of course, averting your eyes is not made any easier with the voluptuous Ms Lee coming across coyly.
See See Rider showcases just how excitingly Flo Cardinal (Dior) can sing. Though this song is almost so commonplace as to be inaudible, given its due, with respect paid to its long, long heritage (it's generally ascribed as traditional) as a quintessential twelve-bar blues, it can be spectacular. Florence makes it so.
We had another dose of the Flo, with The Door Is Still Open (To My Heart), a classic blues ballad. It was originally performed by The Cardinals who may or may not be related. What is related, methinks, is the style adopted: languid, lamenting, pining, pathetic. With the band providing the merest backing, there's space for Ms Cardinal to really stretch out. She more than rises to the challenge.
The game is up when Freddy is Framed by Leiber & Stoller. Spare a thought. After all, it could happen to you or, worse still, I. You're walking' down the street, mindin' your own affair when, suddenly, out of the blue, two coppers grab you by the collar. It's a jungle out there. Flower picks out some pained guitar to illustrate the point.
If You Need Me has Ms Slam standing in for Wilson Pickett, no less. Big shoes. But Shirl has big feet. Well, maybe not. But you know what I mean. You're bound to want to call, or send for her, after hearing this. Her vocal aches with yearning.
Freddy and Sonny Guy come together on Hey Sexy, yet another naughty but non-toxic novelty song. Happily, it does provide undeniably sound guidance for men as to how to engender the affections of a desirable party. First of all, comment on her apparel, as in, 'where'd you get that crazy lookin' sweater?' Having caught her off-guard, capitalise on her discombobulation with a compliment, such as 'I never saw a sweater looking' better!' Foolproof. Throw in some hot horns with this tongue-in-cheekiness and you've got another heaping' helping' of hi-jinx.
Hound Dog pits the diminutive Tipsy Lee against the prodigious presence of Big Mama Thornton, which serves to showcase the songwriting savvy of L & S, as well as the raw, unbridled, scratch-my-back attack of Tipsy's intemperate barrage. You tell 'em, Tipsy: you're the dog, dog!
Now Let's Popeye was our chance to dance. A quick lesson, as devised by Eddie Bo; (arguably the most under-appreciated of the phalanx of prodigious New Orleans talents to emerge circa the mid-fifties). You put your right hand on your forehead and your left behind your back. Sli-i-ide, a one an' a two. Now you're getting' it!
Land Of 1000 Dances. I know what you're thinking. Or who. Wilson Pickett, right? Right. Well, right and wrong. It was actually Chris Kenner who first recorded it, in '62; fair enough, as he wrote it. This evening, Freddy brought his trademark rasp to the task, as he unfurled the comprehensive inventory of popular dance fads and fashions that makes the tune so memorable.
Then, the one, I s'pose, we'd all been waiting for, or at least anticipating. Little Egypt. From the same year as the Kenner classic, but first recorded by The Coasters. Sonny Guy and co gave us the same strident 'ying-yang' refrain, Ottignon emulated the original, confidential sax murmur, Flower the country blues guitar licks, Manell the rambunctious rhythm. With its dizzy, carousel, dreamlike intro and put-you-in the picture lyric (by Leiber), it certainly fulfils Mc's notion of a two-minute stage play. This revue ensures it's every bit as theatrical and musical as the original, with that seamy, steamy ambience that makes it as guilty a pleasure as the ample Ms Lee.
There's nothin' like getting' blown away by a blast of baritone (Ottignon's this time, not Escombe's): Don't You Just Know It? This call-and response good time proto-rock song from '58 was first recorded by Huey Piano Smith & The Clowns. Sonny Guy seemed to take on his very best JO'K, a fitting vocal response to the hard-edged sound of Piano. Speaking of which, Freddy shone in his homage to Smith's boogie-based playing.
If you're my vintage, you're likely familiar with The Strolling Bones version of Walkin' The Dog, but it was Rufus Thomas, from Memphis, who first graced us with this rhythm 'n' blues bedded down with funk crossover hit, ideally matched, as it happens, to Freddy's up-front delivery. The party was in full swing.
Though Nappy Brown gave it a worthy makeover in 1957, Night Time Is The Right Time owes itself, first and foremost, to Roosevelt Sykes (no relation), who put it down in 1937. Sonny and Tipsy duet raucously, while the backing probably owes a little, or a lot, to any number of subsequent recordings, by everyone from Nappy to Ray, Aretha, Big Bill, et al. The full 'gee!'-force of the band comes across: Manell belts it out, Flower puts in a blistering performance and the keys are almost jumping off Freddy's 'piana'. A truly great song goes begging without a truly great band. In Little Egypt, it's found one.
And what better way to end than in nostalgic reverie, with The Safaris' (or, to be pedantic, The Suddens, under which name they released this particular song) hopelessly romantic, doo-wop ballad, Garden Of Love?
McGuinness is the true genius behind the success of this show. I didn't see it at the Spiegeltent, where I can well imagine it. But there are a host of other characterful venues, right across Sydney, where Little Egypt could and should play. The script is clever, amusing and mood-enhancing. The musos, singers and performers are blow your mind brilliant. The chosen songs hand together as in too few shows. This is almost a whole new genre of musical theatre. And absolutely world class.
All it needs now is the audience it deserves.
Little Egypt’s Burlesque
Venue: The Basement
Dates: 21 – 23 January