Eastern Lounge

February DreamLeft – February Dream. Cover – Faye Blais

Dave Keogh
is the musical equivalent of an habitual blood donor. And he's not doing it for the free tea and biscuits. It's for love. How often can you say that, these days? As the impresario behind one of Sydney's most unlikely music festivals (staged monthly at, of all places, the Roseville Memorial Club, on Sydney's upper north shore, not otherwise known to support life as there's something lacking in the atmosphere), he works feverishly, looking under rocks and in crevices for undiscovered and undersung, as well as better-established talent, of all ages and genres.

The first Eastern Lounge (as it's called, but that's another story) for 2013 was entirely emblematic of all the above. First off, folkies February Dream. Two sheilas, Gemma Trewella and Christa Prowse, who met and played together in a clarinet quartet. (Occasionally, at least one of 'em is even prone to producing the instrument.) There's nothing particularly unfamiliar or groundbreaking about what they do, or even how they do it. They just do what they do very, very, very well. With harmonies so honeyed you could drizzle them on your toast are the result of two quite distinctive voices melting together. They're the vocal embodiment of yin and yang, ideally complementing each other to make something whole. The go and flow together, like two rivers meeting before they hit the ocean; their union, however, is a confluence of spirit. Who knew co-dependency could be a good thing?

Tall, outspoken, assertive Gemma has something of the unvarnished, unaffected singing style to match. It's honest. Straight-up. Bourbon. No ice. Christa, diminutive, retiring and relaxed, beaming a smile, brings the vocal sweetness. And a lustrous acoustic guitar sound. If they were male and of an earlier time, they might be Simon & Garfunkel. A modestly puzzling mystery is why the 'two de force' have called themselves February Dream. OK, it's February. And they really do write, sing and play like a dream. But naturally, there's a story. It was a sunny February day (not this February, perhaps.) They had occasion to hear some live acoustic songs that not only moved, but inspired them to team up, to compose and perform. OK, so it's not much of a story. (Mind you, they've gathered one or two colourful, tall-sounding-but-true tales on the road.) But that's not important right now. What's important is they are together, writing and performing. Lucky us.

This night was a vehicle for launching their debut EP, Dare, produced by ex-Thirsty Merc guitarist, Sean Carey. The girls opened their set with Rolling, testimony to their determination to go their own way: 'it's our blank canvas and each brushstroke is ours'. Even Christa's strumming sounds insistent. What's more, the opening verse sums up their style: 'something simple, yet so powerful; our words, our wisdom; our freedom to choose; do it for you and nobody else; don’t let them take part of you'. It's the fundamental, indignant spirit of indie, blessed by the bonus of those heaven-sent harmonies. One could invoke comparisons with all manner of classic vocal ensembles, from The Byrds, to The Mamas & The Papas, to Indigo Girls, to name but a few, but I think, while by no means odious, there's something quintessentially, albeit indefinably Aussie about their sound, so, for mine, I think of Tiddas and Stiff Gins; despite the fact FD pretends no indigenous affiliation, there's a witting or unwitting musical one.     

Stumble and Fall is laid-back, rhythmic (Christa punctuates with attacking strums, sounding for all the world like a snappy snare-drum) and, lyrically, perhaps a little bitter or, at least, deeply disappointed and despondent: 'it's so twisted, this life; and I’m waiting, I’m waiting; for the apparent strike; it’s been another long year; but I’m trying, I’m trying, to keep it clear'. There's a sense of yearning; for better times, more love and support. The harmonies weave in and out of each other.  

None For One holds something for all of us who find ourselves increasingly time-poor, despite the promise of the age. We're so busy charging 'round, most of us have probably forgotten why, or if we really need to be. Is anything we're doing really that important, or urgent? No. Really. Anyway, G & C say it better. 'Another nameless face walks by; have you ever stopped to wonder why you’re in such a hurry? You don’t have the time to worry'. It's a pretty sad indictment of our growing level of disconnection in a hyper-connected world.  

The fact that Believe was a highlight for me in no way disparages the foregoing songs. It's spacious and dynamic, recalling, for me, The Doobies. It was the first-ever live outing of In My Hands, which features Gemma on clarinet. This was the second in a bracket of songs I particularly favoured. Bordering Insanity, all about drowning one's sorrows in music, rather than booze, was the third. What begins with plaintive guitar builds to reveal a sense of desperation. The kind that can only really arise from a love-gone-wrong encounter: 'one little lie got me here'. And when love's the problem, music's the solution: 'when it all gets too much and you can’t take anymore, turn the music up and just sing from the core'.  

Christa wrote The Dreamer when only eighteen. On that basis, you might half-expect something naive and overwrought, but no. It's dark in mood, but sophisticated. Led Zeppelin, meet Bettysoo. Or something like that. Speaking of The Underground recounts how falling in with the wrong crowd (to borrow a parental phrase) can cast long shadows.  

February Sky is the first single to be lifted (as they say in the trade, or used to) from the new EP and soars. FD has hit upon an irresistibly pretty, anthemic, uplifting melodic hook: you have to sing along; you have to dance. Resistance is useless. As if following in (The Funk Brothers') Jack Ashford's footsteps, Gemma reminds us just how consequential an instrumental contribution a well-played tambourine can be. And the vocal arrangement is enough to give you goosebumps. Feeling low? This one will pluck you right out of the doldrums and take you on a magic carpet ride. Like the song says, you'll be 'lost, in a canvas of blue'. Sky, that is. It was a beautiful note on which to end, but, back by popular demand, FD had one more trick up their sleeves, in Indigo Girls' Fugitive, with it's dream of consciousness, paranoid, Dylanesque lyric: 'I'm harboring a fugitive, a defector of a kind; she lives in my soul, drinks of my wine'.

It strikes me February Dream (I can't pretend I'm enamoured with the name) has something in common with Indigo Girls, inasmuch as (to quote Chris Woodstra, writing about the latter) 'Their two-women-with-guitars formula may not have seemed very revolutionary on paper, but the combination of two distinct personalities and songwriting styles provided tension and an interesting balance'.    

Faye Blais has at least one foot firmly in the folk spectrum, too. The other one may be deemed to be planted in blues, but there's a sophistication that references jazz and soul, as well. Hailing from Canada, this young woman has the x factor. Presence. And how. There is something in her which commands one's fullest attention.

She's a truly global phenomenon, crossing borders and cultures with the greatest of ease. From her hometown of Sudbury, northern Ontario, she sallied forth to, of all places, Taiwan, where she attracted a legion of devoted fans as prodigious as those recruited in the US, NZ and here. This particular night, she came with a no-added-cost bonus, in local chick, Genevieve Chadwick, Australia's answer to Melissa Etheridge, with whom she's currently touring. (More on her later.)

Momsong was written, I believe, at the point where she'd been residing in Taiwan for quite some time, when a call came from her mother, indicating it was time to come home. A touching tribute.

When She Was is a gritty country blues that shows off Blais' guitar skills as much as her singing and songwriting. Her voice is hers and hers alone but, stylistically, there's more than a hint of Norah Jones' narcotic delivery, in this song about inevitable, irrevocable change and the nostalgic sense of loss that accompanies any benefits that might come. 'When we crossed the border, everything changed; the signs, the people and the way we'd been' might sound insular, but, as a world traveller, methinks FB's just being disarmingly honest about homesickness, which can come, unbidden, even while revelling in new experiences. But, on a more literal level, I seem to recall her explaining she wrote it about her very long-lived grandmother. It has the aesthetic of faded photos, fond memories, sweet sorrow and tender tears. It's a memorable, exquisitely executed ballad.  

The Pursuit seems to indicate compassion for someone equally near and dear. 'His eyes go almond thin, when he's ragin', raging'; he's got luggage, his bags are busting at the seams; don't drink the poison. don't drink the poison, set yourself free instead'. Just as it can be a fine line between pleasure and pain, it can be a razor's edge 'tween love and loathing, especially of oneself. The Pursuit is in constant, shuffling, syncopated motion, just like life itself.
Sleepy Hollow is from FB's last and third album (that latest and fourth, On The Bright Side, was recorded in the parental home), Here In The Shade, recorded at Sing Sing, in Melbourne. This one seems to be a secretive, impassioned, fiercely-strummed tribute. (Imagine a powered-up equivalent of Fox-Gimbel's Killing Me Softly, sung so reverentially and dreamily by Roberta Flack.) 'Oh, she sings the notes as if she's written them'.   

Far Away forced me to ponder (aloud, to my partner), 'how come there are so many iconic singer-songwriters from Canada?' Leonard, KD, the McGarrigles, Wainwrights, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis, Anka, Sexsmith, Young, Buffy, Joni. And now, very much on the radar, Blais.

Michelle was commissioned by Michelle Derosier for her 2011 doco, Return To Manomin. On the new album, it's short, sharp, succinct, raunchy, pointed and urgent.

The Ways I Love You has a sense of the epic and puts me in mind of our own, undersung Loene Carmen, whose emotional intensity can't be matched. 'We walk, together, down the street', for openers, says so much, particularly when paired with an aching melody. It speaks of intimacy, potential; but, also, looming tragedy. For the is life and love. Walking together, down the street. Is there really anything more to love than this?
David Gray's Babylon proved a powerful showcase for FB and Genevieve Chadwick, who's anything but a shrinking violet. It was fitting, too, that the pair followed it with Ragovoy-Berns Piece of My Heart, originally recorded, soulfully, by Erma Franklin (Aretha's sister), in '67, but brought to inimitable prominence the following year, by Big Brother & The Holding Company, by Janis Joplin's unbridled rendition. Fitting? Yes, because if you get off on Janis' explosive vocal technique, you're sure to get a charge from Ms Chadwick.  

To say Lionel Cole hails from a musical family is to be guilty of nigh-on criminal understatement. Talk about a family business. Nat King Cole was his uncle. Natalie is his cousin. Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist, Freddy, is his father. You'd think such company would put Lionel in the shade. Uh-uh. Firstly, he starts from what one can only presume is a similar premise to his celebrated relos: that music can and does (to paraphrase Keogh) 'change hearts and open minds'. And, just quietly, he’s something of a just-under-the-radar celebrity in our midst himself. Certainly well-known and highly-regarded by those in the biz.

He’s worked side-by-side with Mariah Carey, not only backing her on keyboards and vocals for a world tour (as he has with Rickie Lee Jones), but playing on her number one single, Never Too Far/Hero. But it doesn't end there. He's co-written three songs with the superstar; among them Through the Rain, from the multi-platinum album, Charmbracelet. He also arranged The Star Spangled Banner for Mariah and the Boston Pops, at the 2002 Superbowl. He’s also written hits with long-time writing partner Randy Jackson and was a featured vocalist in John Powell's score for The Bourne Identity. He played in Robert Downey Junior’s band on Oprah, The Tonight Show, Ellen and Good Morning America.

Yes, quite a resume. Not that you'd know it, 'cause there's nothing 'I'm a star!' about him. But he is. It shows in his writing, singing and playing. The writing makes his capacity for conceiving and crafting urbane songs patent. He plays keyboard parts as if he wasn't just born to do so, but born doing so. And he has a voice that puts me in mind of the likes of Peabo Bryson, insofar as its silky-smooth power to move; it's a similarly velvety, rich baritone. Pretty daunting company, you'd think, for other members of the band. But these players, clearly, have been carefully handpicked, for their virtuosity and slick professionalism is on a par with Lionel's: Luke Koteras, on acoustic guitar and vocals; Eric Fortaleza, bass; Pat Madden, drums.

Cole and co featured originals which, like the opening ballad, Glimmer, tend to be about what he probably knows about, only too well: urban black disaffection.  

Who I Am preceded Beautiful (by Koteras and another ballad with the strongest commercial potential). Lost A Heart is very Barry White (save for the Stylistics-style falsetto) and wittily so; sultry and soulful. Anything Is (Possible), written for his kids, prefigured a launch into venerable classics of the repertoire, such as Stevie Wonder's Signed Sealed Delivered and 1999, by Prince. The arrangements of the latter are free and innovative, while the band's own songs are delivered with such panache and precision it almost sounds like they're recording; it's that tight.

In between, we were treated to the gospel-tinged Glory Road. The lyrics don't paint the prettiest of pictures of contemporary life. Where's the truth and justice, in the American way? 

There's a girl on the corner, don't remember her name; 
Natural-born bathin' beauty; bought and sold, the American way.
There's a man on the corner; sell his soul for a beer.
He asks for change, but doesn't mean it;
Getting' high's the only way out o' here.

But while the images conjured in this verse may not shine the kind of light on the street one might prefer to see, the chorus seeks and finds inspiration.

Oh, now, the glory road,
The sky is purple, but the streets are gold.
Oh, now, the glory road,
Sure looks good from here.

Place it in this funky, hand-clappin' context and you'll have Dawkins declaiming 'hallelujah!' It's as close as you'll get to, say, the reverie of a southern Baptist church, or heaven, as you viably can on the upper north shore of Sydney. To make it even more triumphant, the Lionel Cole Quintet (there were four of 'em, so go figure) interpolated Livin' For The City and Shout! 

After a soulful Beatles tribute, in the form of Yesterday, we heard Small Town, for his mum; at first reminiscent of John Mellencamp's song of the same name, but building into something quite different, in the form of an epic power ballad, as against the rockier song of not entirely dissimilar sentiment. It was capped, I believe, by Believe, which challenges us to heal the world, in Cole's trademark, infectious, gospel-chorused, anthemic, get-on-board manner, preceded by Ain't Too Proud To Beg

A robust encore of Robert Johnson's Sweet Home Chicago would see any sun-drenched California-dweller heading home to the windy city.

It's no mystery that Lionel Cole is so famous. The mystery is he isn't much moreso.

Eastern Lounge

Venue: The Roseville Club | 64 Pacific Highway, Roseville, NSW
Date: 8 February, 2013
Tickets: $17 pre-paid | $20 at the door
Bookings: http://www.easternlounge.com.au

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