Look. I'll be honest. To the best of my recollection, I'd never heard of Jenny Biddle. Until 'round about now. And that's a crying shame.
She was voted Melbourne's best busker three years running (2010, 11 & 12). And that's hardly surprising. (Last year, too, she won the people's choice award at Tamworth.) But as noble an art and vocation as busking is, that's just wrong, inasmuch as JB should be playing stadia, too. At least theatres. She's the living national treasure that, for many of us, is yet to be discovered. She even makes her own guitars. Last year, under the watchful, expert eye of Montsalvat luthier Chris Wynne, she gave birth to Ann Marie, who, I presume, is the cherished one she was playing, with such panache, last night. Or perhaps it was the baritone she recently constructed in Benabbio, in hills of Tuscany. Yes, there's much to dislike about Biddle ('sounds like piddle; starts with a b; that's why I'll never be a primary school teacher'). She's bursting with talent. Takes time out to learn Italian and sightsee. And she's a traitor, having moved to Melbourne, thus depriving Sydneysiders of her musical charms.
Apparently, she's been described as 'Missy Higgins meets The Waifs, with weird facial expressions thrown in'. I can definitely hear Missy, in the folksy, broadly Aussie accent which characterises her vocal delivery. The Waifs, of course, exhibit similar vocal traits and there's the bluesy bending of notes played on acoustic guitar that Jen also favours. But I didn't catch any weird facial expressions. It could be the quote comes from here, as it seems quite consistent with her self-effacing sense of humour.
Her opening number was Hide. This was the first evidence of her deeply resonant (so, perhaps this was, indeed, the Italian baritone) steel-stringed guitar, which she plays with uncommon skill and absolute self-assurance. Her deployment of a capo only but adds intimacy to what are, as impresario Dave Keogh asserts, 'deeply personal' songs, delivered direct from the heart and her experience. From the start, I could also hear echoes of the likes of Toni Childs. But, above all, I could hear her. 'All this water, falling softly from the sky', she sings, as notes gently peal from her guitar. Her words and sentiments fall softly, too; pittering and pattering, like fresh, spring rain. 'I think I'll take the time to talk with my mind' rings with sincerity: the way she writes, as exemplified in lines like that, is the pudding-proof she takes that precious time.
Freezing Time comes with a story attached. It's about fishing, on the north coast, with her old man. Well, not so much about the fishing, as the bonding. Her father 'knows everything, so you don't need to Google when he's around' and had sussed the ideal moment to head out, to catch the tailor, flathead and other fish off-guard. Regrettably, it teemed with rain. Not that puttering, pattering spring rain, either. But a full-on, ducks-only downpour. Mind you, he did catch something. A three-foot reef shark, which made a decent meal of his thumb. I don't think it's s'posed to work that way.
I relate Jen's story as it goes to her patter; a banter which is honest, direct, personal, affectionate, funny and utterly engaging. Many, many years ago, I remember seeing Don McLean play solo at the Hordern Pavilion and he, too, has that peculiar knack for making a large space like a loungeroom, in which he spoke just to you, or me. It's quite a gift.
Hide comes from her latest album, Hero In Me, released only a matter of months ago, while Freezing Time harks back four years, to the Chest of Drawers set. While Hide has a tempo consistent with clasping a mug of steaming hot coffee while gazing through a window-pane, Freezing Time has something of the motion of the ocean, with a loping beat and an exposed, expansive aural atmosphere. It's all about father and daughter 'hangin' out like mates' and the wish one could 'freeze time and treasure moments so fortunate and fine'.
Winter Sun, from last year's Little Treasures album, goes to what is possibly that most serious and intractable of all addictions: chocolate. Well, actually it's about something even more serious than chocolate. Something that touches the soul even more deeply. If that's possible. Written in or about Carnarvon, way north of Perth, it observes 'we all need something to pull us through'. She may not 'smoke to kill my lungs' (she confesses to being the least hardcore musician in the world, as her vice, apart from chocolate, like Angus Young's, is tea), but she notes the self-sabotaging, self-destructive tendency of all addictions and obsessive-compulsive behaviours, even in the more innocuous manifestations. Quite apart from the confessional candidness of the lyric and the strong, yet sensitive, style of her vocal, there's Biddle's stylised strumming and polished stagecraft to admire. Everything about her performance says this is an artist at the top of her game.
Hero In Me is, of course, the title track from her latest album and, like so many of her songs, comes with a colourful backstory. This one's video has her in a lycra superman suit which, as she tells it, kept on slipping, necessitating take after take, due to lumps appearing in all the wrong places. That Biddle would relate such an embarrassing story reminds of us of her readiness to be completely honest with us. The song itself is 'gender politics meets awkward country ballad'. She doesn't play slide, but approximates it; punctuating the melody with percussive sounds as well. While listening, I wrote down these words. Tender. Warm. Compassionate. Clever. Insightful. 'There's a hero deep inside of me'. She's the one person you can rely on when all and everyone else fails you. Who could blame you shedding a tear?
Running Out Of Lies is from the new album also and, again, has something of the feeling one gets by the sea, or sailing in it, or opening up the throttle on a long, empty stretch of road, or having the wind blows though one's hair. The lyric, which bristles with the familiar, or not so familiar, dizzy sense memory of nascent love, is just as refreshing.
You took me away,
you swept me away
You brought me to the top on the 18th floor
We were looking out, looking down
I was looking below on a world
I’ve never seen before.
From the latest album, too, there was a jealous blues with Somebody To Love, inspired by her upstairs neighbours loudly, er, 'celebrating'. It's a rollicking ode to restless sexual energy, loneliness and frustration; the kind that comes when you become all too acutely aware 'everybody around me has got somebody to love' and so can't help but ask, 'will I find myself a lover, or spend my days alone?'.
One of her finest is Hindsight, the heartbreak of which is encapsulated in the phrase, 'love is blind, in hindsight'. This is JB, the ingenious tragedian poet. Down With Your Soul, which closed an affecting and unforgettable set, is perhaps (like Hindsight) a new song, not yet committed to record. A state of affairs soon to be rectified, I trust.
What's extraordinary is that an artist who already has three albums under her belt, to say nothing of appearances on various compilations keeping company with the likes of Paul Kelly, Lucie Thorne, Ross Wilson, Luke Escombe, et al, can pass by so many easy almost unnoticed. In JB's words, 'the soul's got a whole lotta seeking to do before it goes'. Seek her out.
Deni Hines was lined-up for this Eastern Lounge, but had to pull out at the eleventh hour, for whatever reason. Her replacement was Cathrine Summers and Summers Soul. She's an erstwhile jazz singer and what I've heard of her recorded material (YouTube & Reverb Nation, as she won't have an album out till next year) is impressive. And her resume reads just as well. Reputedly, she's long harboured a soul connection with Motown and the like and, yes, there are hints of Dusty and Amy Winehouse (to whom she's been compared) in her husky, smoky vocals.
She and her band (Ben Ackland, electric guitar; Hannah James, electric bass; Ed Rodrigues, drums) launched into a comparatively languid arrangement of Ashford & Simpson's 1966-penned classic, Ain't No Mountain High Enough, but got off to an uncertain, badly-cued start which, regrettably proved emblematic of what was, clearly, a cynically under-rehearsed outfit. When you're trading in iconic material such as this, one slip is enough to ruin it for everybody, unfortunately.
Those old enough to remember will have the Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell original echoing eternally and resplendently in their ears; those a little younger, the Diana Ross cover. Either way, you've either got to at least approximate the sound, arrangement and dynamics of those hits, or hatch a new arrangement. Regrettably, this rendition failed both those tests, relegating Motown to a no go town.
This band, though instrumentally proficient individually, gave the distinct impression they'd played together little, if at all and were living proof that you can be technically proficient, yet musically clueless. The fundamental feel just wan't there and Summers sang off key, to boot. All in all, it was an insult to the memory to the prolific heyday of Motown and an aural assault on the ears of any Motown enthusiast, present company included.
To follow this travesty, a medley of Al Green numbers, in Let's Stay Together and Take Me To The River, distinguished by an utterly inappropriate drum solo, informed by technique, but not taste. Blue-eyed soul has a lot to answer for. Take me to the river and wash me down. Or just drown me.
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman downed the ante even more, proving Summers Soul to be triumph of enthusiasm over talent. Summers began in the wrong key and had to start over; more evidence, if not proof positive of under-rehearsal. While this happens, I s'pose, to even the best and most experienced performers now and again, there were too many other glitches to excuse it. It's downright unprofessional and an affront to an audience.
Summers goes on a bit, or a lot, but isn't without stagecraft or likeability. And when she hits notes, all is well. But, this evening at least, that wasn't happening often enough. It was hit 'n' miss which, again, just isn't good enough. She presented two of her own compositions, the first of which was Feels Good Dancing With You. It boasted another atrocious drum solo (all the drum breaks started to sound the same), a half-decent guitar solo and was passable in a drunken karaoke bar kind of way.
Standout English indie rock band The Zutons wrote Valerie and Amy Winehouse rekindled it, with a reggae feel. Summers Soul ruined this, too, with another uncertain start (if Rodrigues wants to make himself truly useful he ought to count the band in, or someone should). The guitar solo didn't cut it this time, but this was probably the best effort overall which, frankly, isn't saying much.
Hold Me Now was the second of the Summers originals and it's an ok song, with potential, even if that potential is yet to be fully realised.
The (thankfully) last song was a loose rendition of MJ's Rock With You, which one might've dubbed the strictly ballroom mix, given the ostentatious, if graceless older couple who burned up the floor. We were subjected to yet another completely out of place, rhythmically anachronistic drum solo that really cemented Rodrigues' reputation as a clueless showoff. Again, uncertainty reigned: Summers has invited James to solo, but she declined, so Summers, in her infinite, spontaneous wisdom, importuned Rodrigues one more time. I'm all for improvisation, but these players aren't up to it.
The crowd, unsurprisingly, went mild.
It was to great relief that the Shane Pacey Blues Trio, the real deal, took the stage, launching headlong into I'm A Ram; speaking of Al Green. The SPBT is, of course, Shane Pacey (voice of the Bondi Cigars), guitar and vocals, Trudy Mackenzie (Mrs Shane Pacey, bass and vocals) and the inimitable Davo Fester (among other hats he wears, he's a passionate advocate for Playing For Change, a movement that raises money to musically educate underprivileged kids the world over), drums. They take the ram by the horns, tilting Green's hot buttered soul towards the blues. Pacey has a powerful voice and he let it rip. His guitar soars and weeps, albeit not so gently. But here, it's riffing, with the odd outbreak, a triumphant swell of masculine proclamation. Mackenzie's bass plods along, at that particular swaggering, walking pace that you can feel way down deep. Fester lays a rock solid foundation, muddying the sound with a partially open high-hat. The right reverend Al would be into it, I'm sure.
From one Green to another. This time Peter, the British blues-rock guitarist that founded a little band called Fleetwood Mac; the first incarnation, harking back to '67, when it was a very different outfit to the one it became. Merry-Go-Round comes from that first, halcyon epoch, when it was an uncompromising blues group. BB King once said 'he has the sweetest tone I ever heard' and, for mine, Pacey emulates it, evidenced from the get-go with a blistering solo. not to mention a howling vocal. As I recall, like Pacey, Green also played a Les Paul; in his case at least, vintage 1959.
Lee Dorsey's Get Out Of My Life Woman was actually written by Allen Toussaint and remains one of the most sampled tracks in all hip-hop. It has that swinging blues sound peculiar to New Orleans. Well, New Orleans and Roseville, apparently. The Paceys' vocals are open, clear and unequivocal, even if a woman singing this lyric sounds rather incongruous. There are groovin' guitar breaks from SP that put me in mind of the likes of Little Freddie King. And it was nostalgic to hear wah-wah again. It's been a while.
Lucinda Williams' Can't Let Go was written by Randy Weeks, of The Lonesome Strangers. It's a quintessential country blues given a makeover by the SPBT, again leaning it hard up against the blues end of the equation. Mackenzie fills Williams' shoes snugly, to boot. What hers lack in spurs and her vocal lacks in twang is more than compensated in mellifluousness. 'It's over; I know it; but I can't let go.' Hands up who hasn't been there?
Drivin' Wheel is yet another Al Green tune, albeit originally recorded by Roosevelt Sykes (no relation, dammit), otherwise known as The Honey Dripper, in 1936. While Green's arrangement is more in keeping with his soul bent with its funky vibe, the SP version treads a line somewhere between this and, say, Junior Parker's, which cleaves more faithfully to the original, raw, twelve-bar blues.
Pacey reckons the three most important songwriters of last century were Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson. In honour of the last the SPBT gave us Love In Vain. 'I followed her to the station, with a suitcase in my hand.' The Faces did a reverent rendition in 1971 and, just as the song itself is 'devotional', the SPBT's version serves as homage. Pacey may not be able to emulate Johnson's trademark microtonality, but he has two mighty instruments at his beck and call nonetheless: his voice and guitar.
The River's Invitation is by Percy Mayfield. You may know him by way of a little song called Hit The Road, Jack. The original recording has a jazz-blues-country crossover smoothness typical of Mayfield's blues balladeering. Pacey, too, has an unwrinkled vocal timbre, but the band's arrangement is tougher; gut-wrenching, rather than merely heartrending.
Walking To My Baby is a dirty blues deriving from The Fabulous Thuderbirds. And let's face it, if you can't drive to your baby, 'cause you ain't got no car, you sure as hell better walk. You know, the way Sydney buses are 'n' all.
Pledging My Time is from the second godhead in Pacey's holy twentieth century trinity: Dylan; specifically, from his Blonde on Blonde album. Pacey and co play it with the self-same love and affection they do their other, careful chosen material. It has all the heart with which Zimmerman first invested it.
(The Wolf Is At Your Door) Howling For My Baby, predictably enough a Howling Wolf number, afforded Pacey ample opportunity to interpolate Chester Arthur Burnett licks, cheek-by-jowl with his own finely-honed stylings.
Spoonful made for an especially fitting encore, given that it, too, is a Howling Wolf version of a Willie Dixon song. You might know it as recorded by Cream, or Etta James. The SPBT gives as good as any; a heaped dessertspoonful of ever lovin' sweet blues. Come to think of it, that's the band's stock in trade.
Eastern Lounge August 2013
Venue: The Roseville Club | 64 Pacific Highway, Roseville NSW
Date: Friday, August 9, 2013
Tickets: $17 pre-paid | $20 at the door