— CNP

Queenscliff Music Festival

Music festivals in small coastal communities have become something of a cliche. From Port Fairy to Byron, kombis crowded with cashed-up kids from the capitals crowd campsites and cause unmitigated chaos. Rarer is the festival that retains a sense of the host community, but Queenscliff belongs in that fold. By focussing on local talent and imports that are a step to the left of the zeitgeist, the event has a meandering and uncrowded feel. You won’t need to camp out for a good spot and you won’t lose your friends–they can’t have gone far, you could throw a stone from one end of the site to the other. That’s not to suggest it’s all milk and honey: the “family-friendly” licensing situation is a killer and the gaggles of 14-year-olds from the nearby centres are more annoying than I could’ve imagined. But the most important element is the music and what Queenscliff lacks in major headliners it makes up for in the breadth of musical styles and markets it accommodates. The trouble with this is thsideat it clearly doesn’t draw in a young Melbourne audience (most of the crowd are locals, kids or coastal-weekenders) but that’s also what’s keeping it small and pleasant. Moreover, the wonderful thing about programming esoteric acts is that some might just reveal themselves as anything but esoteric and, then, musician and audience both win.

Holly Throsby

Friday night began with Melbourne outfit The Spoils whose dirty-sweaty-circus sound suits smaller city venues better than day-lit grass and their usual knack for getting a place jumping failed them. More apt was Holly Throsby (above) : bashful charm, ingenue looks and wistful songs had the audience quietly rapt and many the eager boy shuffling off to the merchandise tent for a signing.

Then there was the local headliner of the night, Lior, with bouncy black curls, a dorky band and the kind of music that makes me reach for a bucket. His lyrics are trite and adolescent, his melodies cloying and his choices predictable. He said he came back to Queenscliff after last year because of the “good vibes” and there’s no doubt that he had an easy audience this year. After all, I’m clearly not the target demographic and the swarms of high-schoolers were crazy for his sentimental anthems to uncomplicated love that have undoubtedly been playing at all the cool parties from Apollo Bay to Ocean Grove. Indeed, the power of familiarity is key here–Lior’s new, unreleased material failed to woo anyone. I could have forgiven him his music if I hadn’t also been given the distinct impression that this was an ego-rub for him. The arrogance of his onstage manner, the distant going-through-the-motions nature of his performance and the sheer boredom of his band left me feeling cheated. What does one do after such an unedifying experience, when your trust in musicians has been so sorely tested?

Well, if you’re anywhere near Yann Tiersen (below), give him a guitar (or violin or piano accordion or toy piano) and ask him to play. Though his name is most popularly attached to soundtracks like those for Amelie and Goodbye Lenin , Tiersen is not all tinkly waltzes and nostalgic piano pieces. Not to belittle tinkly waltzes or nostalgic piano pieces (I mean, I love them all) but they were in short supply on Friday night when Tiersen took to the stage in front of a slightly befuddled few hundred people. Gauging the audience before the show I estimated that maybe two dozen people had heard of him and that there were about ten people who really knew who he was, everyone else was muttering bits of the program notes with a mysterious hum. Here we have a headlining act with only a cult Australian following at best and that he ended up at Queenscliff suggests the musical programmer deserves some major credit for foresight because Tiersen produced the best 90 minutes of music the festival got to hear and won a swag of fans for his efforts.

Yann Tiersen

The majority of the set used two guitars, bass, cello and drums to provide intense, rolling, swathes of sound that had the particular aesthetic of Tiersen’s French rock (minimalist, evocative) but, with their soaring guitars and forte-piano passages, suggest also the post-rock of Mogwai’s ilk. However, the turning point in the set came with an impassioned and silencing solo violin rendition of Sur Le Fil. The audience had been prepped by three full-band pieces and the mood was good but something really shifted under the massive Silvers big top when Tiersen crunched horsehair against catgut for a few sublime minutes. The crowd, which had been full of murmurs through all the previous acts that night, fell completely silent, mesmerised by the precision and passion of the playing and, with the last note completed, hundreds of lungs gulped in a collective breath to give a split second of perfect silence before erupting into cheers. Everyone was sitting in the palm of his hand and Tiersen rewarded this attention with a set and several encore pieces that kept them enraptured. The band, universally talented, were just as involved in the performance as Tiersen and the sense of a shared realisation and embodiment of the music amongst all of them reflected the utterly unified playing that we heard. The exuberant finale–complete with guitar mashing antics, barrels of noise, rave-style rhythm climaxes, head-banging and miniature pianos–rounded off some scorchingly good music. Lior-loving teenagers too young to have been at a comparable gig, cardigan-toting grey-hairs and Francophile twenty-somethings alike all whooped and applauded out of excitement, pleasure, surprise and revelation. As the poor announcer who had to follow said, “That’s why we have music festivals”. Yann will be back soon methinks.

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Saturday, and I’m back for more. Zulya and the Children of the Underground play musically rich songs with Russian and Tartar lyrics. I first heard them at a WOMAD festival a few years back and the playful, liquid sounds of Zulya’s singing melted the audience then, but there wasn’t quite the same chemistry this time. Certainly, her sound was perfectly suited to the global music shtick of WOMAD and perhaps not so suited to the slightly more parochial audience at Queenscliff but there was also something less engaging about Zulya and band. Perhaps it was the missing tuba, which had added that comic touch that lets audiences in so readily, or perhaps Zulya herself was more distant–the sharp blond looks that had always been softened by her voice today seemed cold and glazed over. In any case, their music is still brimming with good things but the performance itself lacked the life it should have had.

Lacking in life is not a criticism you can lay at the feet of the eternally youthful Betty Harris. One of the original soul sisters, Harris has the kind of presence that bespeaks her many years on the stage. She finds her spotlight (usually) and she dazzles with more bling on her watch than a Detroit rapper has on his teeth. Unfortunately, she was being supported by a “best of” band of Melbourne session musicians who came on stage looking like Mormon financial planners when they were probably hoping for Reservoir Dogs. Teething problems between Harris and the band marred what could otherwise have been a great example of old-fashioned soul. But where was the soul? Harris’ ubiquitous intersong patter at times came across as exactly that, patter, but you could feel her warming to the crowd as some of the jokes creaked through. She never warmed to the band or backup singers though and standing only one row back from the centre one could see the tension and frustration mounting in the taut lines of her face. The climactic chorus of the set, “try a little tenderness”, never really got to climax, the backup singers cut Harris off in the last verse and that was apparently the final straw, Harris pulled off the last few notes and walked unceremoniously off without so much as a nod. Now, maybe this is all part of the show, a sideways nod to James Brown’s old habit of fainting but the effects are markedly different–the one suggests such soulful investment that unconsciousness is the only possibility, the other suggests a touring artist fed up with the tour.

Next on the menu were The Detonators, a Melbourne four-piece that gives rockabilly quiffs, Buddy Holly glasses and cowboy shirts a really good name. With endless bravado and energy they pump out original lyrics about hot rods and trucks amidst wailing mouth organ solos and punchy guitar lines. The thoroughly danceable results had the baby boomer audience gyrating and grooving away like it was 1955–one lady in front of me pulled out the old truck-driver-steering-then-down-shifting-into-third dance move that is rarely attempted these days … pity.

From the ridiculous to the sublime now, with the Sophie Brous (pronounced “Bruce”) Ensemble playing in a 19 th century ballroom. Hailing from Melbourne and an occasional VCA student, singer-songwriter Brous has gathered around her a seriously talented group of jazz musos. Carl Dewhurst on bass, Simon Barker on drums and Eugene Ball on trumpet. Filling out the instrumental quartet is piano-honcho Paul Grabowsky, who adds some old-school cachet to proceedings. Barker also plays with Grabowsky when accompanying Sydney saxophonist Bernie McGann and there is no doubt that this is a very tight group who read each other well. And read each other they must because this was not a walk through the standards. Brous gleans her repertoire largely from her own compositions and arrangements of avant-pop songs and the reward is music that pours out the delights of youthful invention and intoxicating risks. An example of this was the ensemble’s interpretation of Bright Eyes’ “Don’t Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come” which channelled all the apocalyptic vitality of the original with a climax that built up an imposing wall of sound topped by a careering trumpet solo (also found in the original but fleshed out to magnificent proportions). There were times when conservative sections of the audience winced at the perceived indulgence of noise-making in some of the improv sections but everyone lapped up Grabowsky’s extravagant karate-chop keyboard work on Brous’ “Daisy” which, instrumentally at least, was one of the most electrifying pieces of the set. I last saw Brous at Bennett’s Lane over a year ago and it’s reassuring to see she has lost none of her endearing idiosyncrasies in the meantime: she still nervously hitches her dress up slightly as though crossing a creek and mellifluously downplays herself while effusing about all around her. Her phrasing is unpredictable without feeling contrived, her voice is full and tender with an upper register which is spine-tinglingly crystalline and her pleasure is evident both in her singing and her attention to her ensemble. It’s becoming a cliche to denote Brous as “ascendant” but for a very good reason–she’s bloody brilliant.

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Sunday afternoon comes out wearing blue skies and the sunlight seems to have attracted yet more hippie-accoutrements stalls selling soy candles and those pointed brown wizard hats that no one is ever seen buying. On with the music.

Teddy Thompsonhas the weight of double-sided folk music lineage to deal with but brushes it off with alacrity. His songs occasionally have the slightly strained vocal style and earnest strumming of many a man-with-guitar songwriter but he generally sets himself apart with gorgeous melodies and engaging lyrics. In between songs, he plays a kind of tongue-in-cheek sociopath with a deadpan black humour and a dark-eyed, strawberry-blond look to match. The overall effect is disarming and enigmatic but ephemeral. His tendency towards distance, unlike the tenderly present Holly Throsby, puts Thompson at one remove from the crowd and, as he left the stage after a relatively short set, there was a sense that we got the smallest of glimpses into his work–some wanting more, some feeling nonplussed.

TNT

Tim Rogers and Tex Perkins don’t need to prove themselves to anyone anymore and it shows, in a good way. The lads have teamed up as TNT and are having an unadulterated ball playing their guitars and singing their own songs without too much hubris spoiling the whole thing. They seem to have taken some pages out of Tenacious D’s recipe book: Rogers plainly and gleefully quotes some of Jack Black’s mock-rock-god bluster, Perkins sometimes sings in the rocking-so-hard manner of Black and the interplay between the two Ts is as irreverent and lude as that of the D. Clearly, all this isn’t really pushing new boundaries in any major way–rehashed material, borrowed antics–but the sheer quality of the song writing, the strength of their musicianship and the engaging camaraderie more than makes up for the easy manner of it all.