Some Velvet Evening | The Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood ExperienceIf memory serves, I first knew her as Dr Sonia Kapek, in ABC-TV's GP. Spending many, if not most of my nights in theatres, I never saw her in Grass Roots. There have also been appearances in everything from Crownies to Acropolis Now, Police Rescue, The Flying Doctors, Wildside, All Saints, Packed To The Rafters and more. And that's just the small screen. Not so many years ago, she cut a swathe in STC's Influence. I know her film career stretches back as far as Death in Brunswick and beyond. I now know she paints, directs and makes jewellery. But I never knew, until very recently, that she sang in bands throughout the eighties and there was a point at which she might've gone in that direction, if not for her acting career taking off.

But her musical journey has persisted, in parallel. And now, there's Some Velvet Evening, which teeters on being theatrical, inasmuch as it's an homage to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, in which Zoe Carides, especially, takes on an imaginary persona. To what extent her Nancy is based on the actual Nancy, being no aficionado, I can't even guesstimate. But it's really not important: there's no real pretence of impersonation; The Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood Experience, (Hazlewood played by Scott Holmes) backed by The Nancy Boys (David Rowley, drums; Mark Bradridge, bass; Michael Roberts, keys; John Encarnacao, guitar) is merely impressionistic.

Hands up if you can name more than one or two Nancy Sinatra songs? You'd probably be in a minority. But there's more to Nancy than boots and walking, or something stupid. Sundown, Sundown is a rather morose song, written by Lee, that goes back to 1969 and the debut album for the duo, aptly entitled Nancy & Lee. It's one of those you mightn't know by name, but which sounds eerily familiar (at least if you're of a certain age). The recording features lots of reverb, as was fashionable at that time, something which isn't really emulated on stage, via 'The Experience'. What is captured, though, is the drawling baritone of Hazlewood: Holmes harnesses a similarly warm, rich timbre. Hazlewood's was considered a highly distinctive voice and it's no mean feat that Holmes channels it so completely. He also takes on something of the appearance of the moustachioed Barton Lee but, happily for Holmes, he's rather more handsome than the funny-looking Hazlewood.

Hazlewood mightn't be the first name one thinks of in American popular music, but there's no denying his contributions; firstly, as Duane Eddy's producer and co-writer, through the fifties. (In fact, it was Hazlewood who, to a large extent, invented Eddy's inimitable guitar sound. It might've been Eddy himself who came up with the idea of playing lead on the bass strings to get that twang, but it was Hazlewood who, in the absence of an echo chamber in the small Phoenix studio they had, bought a two-thousand gallon water storage tank.) The second phase of his success was with Nancy. During this time, he remained an innovator and is credited with a major contribution to 'cowboy psychedelia' during the sixties and seventies. It was the only time (in my living memory, at least) country met hippy. It's immediately evident in the sound of the duo and The Nancy Boys, sans overblown studio orchestration, easily manage to create a comparably expansive aural atmosphere.

'There's noone in this world for me; there's never gonna be' intones 'Lee', with unbridled self-pity, with 'Nancy' echoing, in of his dreams, calling his name. From the start, I've a strong impression Zoe sings better than Nancy (as far as the recording of this particular song goes, anyway). She certainly sings well. For a small band, it's an ambitious song to take on, as the recorded original is so produced. Yet, thanks to a virtuosic ensemble, nothing is lost in translation: we still receive it as the quintessential sound of the late sixties, an anthem for the heartbroken, but sporting the twenty-first century finesse of a group of seasoned musos.

It strikes me Sundown is an especially suitable song for Zoe, as it has a sense of devised theatricality about it, with Lee, who was a good decade older than Nancy, playing the well-worn, weathered cowboy to Nancy's ingenue. (This is a thematic conceit that pervades the entire Nancy & Lee album.) Zoe and Scott exemplify this relationship, or reimagine it, with Scott very much the straight man to Zoe's giddy dancing and patter.         

Things is probably another of those songs you didn't know you knew, written by Bobby Darin, in 1962. Even before Nancy and Lee got together, she was duetting, not least with one of her dad's ol' pals, Dean, in a '67 tv special called Movin' With Nancy. Bittersweetly nostalgic, it bounces along like chirpy birdsong. Zoe keeps on smiling her way through it, making the most of the sung repartee. It swings with an ease that recalls the carefree good life that pertained in the halcyon postwar period.
To the best of my knowledge, Lightning's Girl, another tune penned by Hazlewood, was first put down in '66. The sound prefigures 'Boots', which followed, dare I say, hot on its heels. In other words, it's sassy, with a heavy-duty drumbeat, fuzzbox and 'horny' bass. It's a song which makes you accurately aware, if you weren't before, that Nancy and Zoe's voices can sound spookily alike; slightly smoky, but otherwise with a very open, clear, candid quality. (The only thing compromising Zoe's delivery was stubborn feedback and a generally inexpert mix.) The song warns us Nancy is Lightning's girl and that, should you come any closer, Lightning will have to put you down. About six feet. Hazlewood might've been a playwright or novelist if not a songwriter, as he seems to have a way with situation and character.
Around 1970, it seems, Lee took off to Sweden (for whatever reason), where he recorded an album entitled, appropriately enough, Cowboy In Sweden. Hey Cowboy was on it, but as far as its incorporation in Zoe and Scott's set, it's a bit of a cheat, as it wasn't duetted with Nancy, but Nina Lizell. Mind you, who's going to quibble, since the sound is a mural progression from what was going down with Nancy, if a little more out there. Although, perhaps this was as much about the geographical context, as much as anything: Lee's country roots sounding strange, exotic and rootless, in fact, in the Swedish milieu. In any case, Zoe, Scott and the boys ensure it sits seamlessly with the rest of The Experience.
If you go by the nineteenth century poem, Friday's Child is loving and giving, but in Lee's song of the same name, a big, sombre, bluesy ballad worthy of Janis, also from the Movin' With Nancy soundtrack, Friday's Child has hard luck as a brother and her sister is misery. It's a test for Zoe and she passes with flying vocal colours. It also affords John Encarnacao an opportunity to showcase his guitar prowess.  

Before Nancy came on the scene, Lee had a professional and personal entanglement with Suzie Jane Hokom, with whom he first recorded Summer Wine. But it was with Nancy that it became a hit, the first of their string of pearls. (Lana Del Rey has taken to the song in recent times.) Again, by some magic other than mushrooms, The Nancy Boys recreate the prairie-like spaciousness of the original recording. Here, again, to mine ear, Nancy and Zoe sound like sisters. And both offer strawberries, cherries and an angel's kiss in spring. Suffice to say, it's sensual, haunting and a worthy inclusion in the genre of cowboy melodrama. (Where there's Lee, there's cowboys.)    
It's hardly surprising, given it was the theme song for a Bond film, that You Only Live Twice sounds so evocative of cinema. It certainly doesn't sound like a Hazlewood composition. Nor is it: it was written by John Barry (one of the all-time best soundtrack composers, exemplified admirably in another Bond title, Goldfinger) and Leslie Bricusse (particularly distinguished in musical theatre). The lyric is somewhat nonsensical, but somehow, it works. When the dream of love is the promise it's astounding just how much belief we're prepared to suspend. Again, Encarnacao has a moment in the sun and the backbone of the rhythm section really comes into its own.
The lush string orchestration might be absent from the live rendition of Some Velvet Morning, but Mike Roberts seems determined you won't miss 'em, so compensates on keys. With its almost disconcerting changes, it's not for the faint-hearted, but The Nancy Boys' muscular musicianship copes easily. It's a song very much at the psychedelic end of the spectrum, even by Hazlewood's standards: some velvet morning, when I'm straight, I'm going to open up your gate. It may be a threat. Or a promise. References to Phaedra abound; in fact, Nancy plays Phaedra, all innocence and flowers, despite her denouncement of the strong-minded, principled Hippolytus, the object of her affections, who rejected her. Of course, Aphrodite, also spurned by Hippo, made her do it (he must've been quite a catch, even by godly Greek standards). Sure, babe. That's what they all say. One idly entertains the preposterous notion that Zoe's extraction puts her in better touch with the subject. She and Scott certainly play out the tragedy, as did Lee and Nancy, with great theatricality.

Chico. This one's a cheat, too, as Lee sang this one with Ann-Margret. It has a real down on the border feel about it, spinning one of those classic country yarns. Surprisingly, written by Allen Toussaint, not Lee. The original has a rather overblown arrangement, so hearing the band, Zoe and Scott do it is a blessed relief. An improvement. What it could've and should've been.

This Town was first recorded by Frank and you can almost hear him singing it. But Nancy's version (and Zoe's) is more than creditable. In a sense, it's a dour New York, New York. This town, is a lonely town; not the only town like-a this town. This town is a make you town, or a break you town and bring you down, town. It has a more urban sound than much of the rest of the Nancy and Lee canon.
Again, Girls in Paris actually predates Nancy and was originally committed to vinyl with Suzy Jane. That orchestration sounded for all the world like Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass, sans brass. It's a bouncy homage to, well, the girls of Paris. After all, as the song says, they're special and unique; you see it in their eyes when they walk down the street. O, mon cheri! Zoe provides all the sultry la, la, las.

Something Stupid was written by Van Dyke Parks' older brother, Clarence (C.) Carson Parks, II. It's a singular achievement and the one for which he's best-known. As far as I know, it was never recorded by Nancy & Lee, but by Frank & Lee; though, originally, it was Parks and his wife, Gaile (Foote), known as Carson & Gaile, who first put it to bed. But it was certainly performed live by Nancy & Lee, which would've lent quite a different character. It's one thing to hear Frank (senior, or junior, since they both did it with Nancy) croon it, in an openly sensitive way, but to hear Scott's emotionally unyielding baritone form such words presents a tension that's really interesting: the hard man showing his soft centre. Based on the recordings I've heard, I'd venture to say Zoe's part is rendered at least as well as Nancy's. The opening line, as written, is quite flat and monotonous, which makes it ironically tricky to sing. She certainly seems to enjoy herself, as is evident throughout the set. And why wouldn't you? The tune has such a sunny, romantic, Latin lilt. Behold the lyric which (call me a soft touch) has to be one of the most touching in the entire history of the love song.

I know I stand in line until you think
You have the time to spend an evening with me.
And if we go someplace to dance
I know that there's a chance you won't be leaving with me.
And afterwards we drop into a quiet little place
And have a drink or two.
And then I go and spoil it all by saying
Something stupid like 'I love you'.

No Train to Stockholm is one of Lee's best, with an uncharacteristically spare orchestration, featuring an insistent bassline, Hammond flourishes, backgrounded, pounding percussion and pretty guitar. It's another of Lee's well-spun yarns, but, more than that, it's an incisive anti-war song. 'Received your invitation to the war; I sent it back, so please don't send no more' could hardly put his opposition more plainly. For my money, it reveals Hazlewood to be one of the best, but least celebrated, of American songwriters.  

Bang Bang was written by Sonny Bono and first recorded by Cher. Nancy was quick to latch on, recording it the very same year ('66). If you're cool, you probably know it from Kill Bill. If you're a tailed baby boomer, such as I, you might know Vanilla Fudge's version, pregnant with drama; not to mention a riff from The King & I, simulated sitar and an eery interpolation of nursery rhymes. Nancy adopts a much more understated approach, which Zoe emulates impeccably. Again, too, it's a shining moment for Encarnacao's guitar godliness. Hearts can be broken at age five or six, as we're poignantly reminded.

Barricades & Brickwalls comes on strongly, uncompromisingly country. But I'm talking the tough, bluesy kind, not the pussyfooting, plastic, twee type. You're bound to know Kasey Chambers' original. Yes, she wrote it. In export terms, it's gotta be the musical equivalent of iron ore. It's only around nine years ago our heroes had the temerity to try and live up to KC's benchmark. Happily, what emerged was possibly Nancy's best-ever vocal: she seems to sing it with real heart. Zoe has a pretty big heart for a petite person, which she shows to good effect, in tribute. There's some tasty lead from – you guessed it – Encarnacao; strapping stick work by Rowley.  

And then the moment we'd all been waiting for. Boots. Those boots. These boots. As a result of the feline clip that came with it, These Boots Were Made For Walking, in the mid-sixties, made go-go boots ubiquitous. Nothing wrong with that. They get my vote. And while the odd critic may sniff at it, probably on the strength of its unseemly success (it has nearly twenty million hits on YouTube), the fact is it's a prodigious, perfectly-formed pop song; immaculately conceived and produced. Better yet, it seems to me, it's an empowering statement for women, especially, even if it was written by a real man. Zoe apprehends both the kitten and big cat aspects of the song and gives us something of both. She also seems to intuit that this song was emblematic of what Nancy did, by stealth, for the sisterhood. She might've predated bra-burning feminism, but she seared the collective conscious with her rebel-rousing attitude. The fact is, in persona, she was as tough as, well, boots. And Lee.  

There aren't many ways to follow Boots before you make tracks, but Johnny Cash's Jackson, covered on the seminal Nancy & Lee album, is definitely one. It's a vastly different arrangement to Cash's, veering between old-time country and blustering blues. For Zoe and Scott, it was a high note (well, in Lee's case, a low one) on which to head off. The Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood Experience is just that. Instead of an unassuming bowlo in Sydney's inner west, if not for the pricey menu of all-Australian craft beers, we might as easily have been in Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, Nashville, or the Bardog Tavern, Memphis.

The Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood Experience present
Some Velvet Evening
Venue: 77 Brighton Street, Petersham NSW
Date: 4 October 2013

Most read Sydney reviews

It is a skewed symbiosis that unravels before the audience as the interaction between such...