Last time I saw RC, in official cabaret, was for the Sydney Fringe, at the much-improved King Street (formerly Newtown) Theatre. Lennox Theatre, Riverside, Parramatta, mightn't necessarily be the first place one thinks of when one calls to mind the seriously smartarsed, but the scale is right. Last time, it was but Rachel and a piano; which, trust me, is more than enough. This time, there was a big bonus in store: a five-piece band. Collis, on grand piano and vocals. Stewart Kirwan, trumpet & flugelhorn. Michael Galeazzi, basses. Michael Quigley, drums. Peta van Drempt, keyboard & backing vocals. Not just any five-piece.
Collis kicked off with Understudy, with its characteristically wry lyric: 'no fear of falling on your face, when you're an understudy; no chance someone will steal your place, when you're an understudy; no fear of missing that top scene; you can put on weight, none will see, when you're an understudy'. Equally characteristic is the almost anachronistic, soaring melody, making for a counterpointed, bittersweet song that sounds for all the world like it's come from a musical, or should be part of one. The small consolations and vague, confounding sense of frustrated relief that arise from the so-near-and yet-so-far predicament of the underchallenged understudy are acutely observed, as only someone who's been there could possibly do. This number is key to understanding her as a songwriter: she has a way of finding humour, even amidst disappointment and despair, so her tunes can be, at once, witty and wretched. When she's serious, it seems, she jokes. Apparently, it's her way of coping. Galeazzi's electric bass was supportive and understated, while Quigley's work on the toms added dynamics and drama. Van Drempt offered a dreamy harmony and clarinet, by way of keyboard. Kirwan's restrained trumpet added a final touch of gloss and glamour to a beautiful arrangement.
Column B is a song of an entirely different colour, which calls for a tinkling piano spelling out a repetitive motif that falls oddly betwixt and between classical and simplistic nursery-rhyme, plodding, oom-pah-pah, polka-like double bassline, synthesised glockenspiel, military snare and a muted trumpet that breaks into a soaring, Latin-tinged solo, echoing the vocal trajectory. It has a lopsided feeling about it, completely relative to the somewhat cryptic (much like the bewildering t-shirts mentioned therein) lyric that begins: 'she cannot really sing, but she loves Jesus; and her songs are not original, but she means them like they're hers', could be about any one of countless YouTube wannabes, but one can't help but suspect there's a disguised specificity. As such, the song is something of a tease. More broadly, though, it celebrates, perhaps, those who deviate from the Norm, or Norma, while regarding them from a comfortable distance and with some caution. It's also sound counsel as regards the paradigm of waiting for Mr or Ms Right: he or she, in any absolute sense, isn't out there. You just have to hope 'the pros outweigh the cons' and accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative. For example, he may be lacking in column A, but have plenty in column B. The moral of the story being, 'don't fall in love with a pastry chef, unless you're prepared to get fat'. The deliberately uncertain tempo and meticulously cultivated amateurism are icing on this kooky cake.
Pilot's License opens with vibes, immediately redolent of the kind of tone pattern that interrupts muzak to bring you an important message. Kirwan comes across with a high-pitched blasts of triumphal trumpet, evocative of the wild, blue yonder. Galeazzi plucks away on the upright bass, playing it much as an angel might a harp, when one reaches that last departure lounge. There's something almost Beatlesque about it all and, as pervades several of RC' songs, there's an admixture of girlish innocence and cynicism that's strangely beguiling. The metaphor in play is exceptionally elegant and there'll be many women, especially, I should imagine, that will relate to the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go dilemma encapsulated. Carpe diem; take the plunge; these are the uplifting (no pun intended) sentiments.
So Your Dream Went Boom, as I recall, boasted some mood-setting Hammond and another intriguing tale about a shop in Hornsby that burned to the ground. Whose shop? Who knows? Though I suspect Rachel does. Something she merely read about? Maybe. Something she knows a little more about? Probably. Foul play. Sounds like it. After all, it wouldn't be the first time an aspiration went up in smoke and a building followed. 'You knew you were headed for ruin; what a relief it came so soon'.
Echo presents the deeply sensitive side of RC she can't really conceal, try as she might. A spare piano-&-vocal orchestration makes for a haunting, open, lonely aural atmosphere. It's minor key imbues it, naturally, with an aching sadness and the lyric capitalises: 'I had a voice to speak, but the gods would have me weak; chaos is trapped inside, this mortal body where I hide'. Notes fall like autumn leaves, or raindrops. Or tears. While the right hand tiptoes, the left cascades an echo. It's informed by nagging self-doubt; narrates a dark night of the soul; insinuates desolation into every room in a mind and spirit where hope may've previously resided.
Pablo resets the mod entirely. It's a superb rendition: even Van Drempt's wielding of a shaker sounds virtuosic. The touching tale of unrequited love (if you spell love l, u, s, t) for a Brazilian waxer has RC waxing lyrically, paraphrasing Pablo: 'honey, just spread your legs and relax; let me smother you in hot, boiling wax'. Fuelling the fire is 'the receptionist reckons he fancies me, because he offered to do my upper lip, complementary'; but then, the spoiler, the little voice, paranoid, insistent, imploring 'how could he ever be in love with me, when he knows how I look when I'm not hairfree?' It seems, just as one should be wary of pastry chefs, one should exercise extreme caution in compromising cosmetic circumstances. Wax on. Wax off. Musically, we're talking laid-back, sultry syncopation, while RC is unbridled and unbuttoned.
Coming from a background that affords me ample cause to mention the war, none of RC' songs gives me greater relish than The Germans which, again, is pared back to piano and vocals. This could be Noel Coward or Tom Lehrer. Yes, it's that smart. It's couched as if it could be a folk song from the glory days of the Reich, jauntily sung around Adolf's fireplace at The Berghof. Except Collis' subverts that possibility fiendishly. There's even the odd pseudo-yodel to tip it completely into ridicule. She may inveigle us with the upside, ('if the Germans had won the war, our trains would run on time' and 'our beer would be nicer'), but sharply rejoins with the dastardly imperialistic consequences of rampant Teutonism, or at least the linguistic ones ('instead of shit, I'd say scheisse'). She continues in this six-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-the-other manner: 'I'd be blonder and taller, but library would be smaller'. Ouch!
Pour Me A Glass Of Wine, 'a romantic, robust red' sets up a bluesy story of love and loss. 'How I adored you when we wed' is past tense and a further clue to where the song and relationship under discussion must almost inevitably head. Van Drempt conspires with swirling Hammond that's almost solemn; there's toasty, subdued acoustic bass from Galeazzi, a sleepy rhythm from Quigley, over which Kiwan throws a blanket of trumpet. But Collis toys with us, unable to resist sarcasm, even amidst this promise of tragedy. It includes self-deprecation: 'you were my Romeo, but I was no Juliet to you; we were living out The Taming Of The Shrew'. And the narrative flips from reluctant appreciation, even admiration, to punitive hostility: 'your funeral came far too late, 'though I managed to bring a date'. (Small things, I s'pose, amuse small minds, but see if you can spot the (deliberate or inadvertent) phrase from, or reminiscent of, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.)
More genuine and emotionally homogenous is This Old House which, again, reverts to the holy duality of piano and vocals. Softly plaintive, it relates hearts to homes in similar way to Burt Bacharach & Hal David's A House Is Not A Home. 'Put this old house on the market; a young couple's dream, now covered in mildew and rust, slow returning to dust'. This is another of a handful of not good, but near great songs that could easily grace a musical or, say, a Streisand album and be enshrined as classics of the ballad repertoire.
Despite the fact this was Collis' big night, she extended a generous hand to her gifted collaborator, Peta van Drempt, who performed Closure, a song she wrote, at the grand piano, with Collis trading places and providing backing vocals (the two harmonise exquisitely). Interestingly, it draws on similar themes ('where can you go when home is no longer here; what can you say when the conversation is over?') and strikes the same emotional chords as This Old House, so it's placement was finely-judged. Like Collis, too, van Drempt has a way with word, as in the foregoing and this: 'my suitcase decides that it can't pack itself'; a life story, in a single line. The two are like soul sisters in this regard. Few writers can boast eloquence and evocation effected with such economy. Further evidence? Take Collis' Othello: 'I pulled the latch, to let the truth escape'.
Ever After has van Drempt emulating a string quartet on her keyboard, while Collis unfurls the story of a couple joined in holey matrimony on the flimsy pretext of a bun in the oven. This is very much her stock-in-trade: she doesn't insult our intelligence with idealisations to which we might aspire, but hardly relate. As she sings, 'great stories don't always begin with hap, hap, happily ever. To underscore the point, she's written an infectious, unforgettable hook, which catches and won't let go. 'He was a scrawny seventeen; she was overweight and crude, just someone to screw' is hardly the stuff of romantic fiction, because Collis wants us to confront life as it is, not as we would have it. 'In tiny country town, one cannot pick and choose; five months along before they knew (thought she had the flu)' is telling in more ways than one.
Fairy Lights and Fairy Tales opens as prettily as you might imagine, with a trilling piano line and ascending arrangement that progressively insinuates glockenspiel, strings, double bass, drums and trumpet. It has grandeur, grace and is, in every sense, impeccably constructed. 'I believed in fairy lights and fairy tales and all you believe, you believe tooth and nail' warns us of out vulnerability to romantic self-sabotage; there is woe in wishful thinking. But from woe, to go, none in this comely composition.
Song for Steve is vying to be the quirkiest love song of all time, as well as one of the most honest and heartfelt. Collis introduces it by asserting that we never forget the seminal moments in our lives and that, case in point, she vividly recalls being in an undergrad arts class, observing a man she regarded with profound suspicion, surrounded by a coterie of admiring women. Her disdain was apparently surmounted, in time, as she married him. Courageously, given the intimate and not-so-flattering disclosures of the lyric, Steve joined the band on acoustic guitar for the occasion. Not so flattering? Try this, for openers: 'you fart in bed, so loud, it makes the mattress vibrate; (but not in an erotic way)'. The melody, however, pulsates with adoration. The power of this juxtaposition can't be overestimated. You may laugh (you will), but, incredibly, it makes for profound poignancy; much moreso than would be the case if it was merely a catalogue of more conventionally affectionate declarations.
The Art of Letting Go uses waltz time to create a dizzying effect redolent of the headspinning nature of trying to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Kirwan's trumpet is, again, one of the most edifying aspects of the arrangement; like a reassuringly clarion call from the darkness. Quigley's drumming, too, is, particularly supportive and sensitive. 'I carried my burden down to the river; my knuckles were white, from clutching so tight, for so long' may have an almost biblically poetic way about it, but it still manages to zero in succinctly on the more-or-less universal experience of trying, often desperately, to keep one's head above water.
For the obligatory encore (much to the chagrin of the dedicated audience, the only one), Collis returned alone, to Make Room. 'Though your heart's a flickering no vacancy sign, though your heart's already working overtime, though your heart's a suitcase fully packed, though your heart's a disregarded artifact, love is spacious, love is kind, so make room, make room'. This is, methinks, what hides behind RC' whiplash humour and ready repartee. A big, big heart of pure gold.
The only tarnish is, both times I've seen her, RC has seemed to need to step into a persona, which really means she must ever remain in cabaret mode. Occasionally, her voice wavers slightly. She's adopted and settled into a very affected manner of speaking when the time comes for patter. It's just a little too slick and tends to negate the opportunity to get a little more up close and personal. But these are trifles. Collis has a mind like a steel trap and her satire bites like a shark. But her presentation is congenial. She has a winning smile, is as animated as The Bugs Bunny Show and just as funny. Yet, when she turns her hand to a sensitive, searching ballad, she thrusts a knife in your chest that pierces your heart. Not only does she possess a linguistic gift, but a profound talent for storytelling, structure (melody, harmony, rhythm) and orchestration. She's a one-off; an original. She's Stephen Sondheim, Groucho Marx and Blossom Dearie. She's the Tower of Pisa. The smile on the Mona Lisa. She's the top. 'Enchanteuse!'
Venue: Riverside Theatre | Parramatta, NSW
Date: 1 February 2013
Tickets: $35 - $38