Friday, January 28, 2011

Leonard Cohen At Hanging Rock: A Review (Kind Of)

Initially, we were all very much excited. Leonard Cohen was returning to Melbourne. But, after seeing him the first time at Rochford Winery, I decided not to see him in a concert hall. And then came the news; music industry guru, Michael Gudinski, had secured permission to stage a concert at the evocative Hanging Rock, near Woodend. And what a line up! Dan Sultan, Clare Bowditch, Paul Kelly, and the return of Leonard Cohen.

I’m sure there were many, many people, and I suspect even Cohen himself, who thought that he would not pass this way again, in this life. About nine of us decided to go, and quickly snapped up the tickets online, as only 12000 were to go on sale. Some of our group had only seen him indoors, others in the outdoors, and some had missed him altogether. My brother in law, Joey, was happy enough to just arrive before Cohen hit the stage, but I was eager to take in the whole experience from mid afternoon into the evening, and urged everyone to get there as early as possible.

We planned to meet at Kilmore. Originally, we thought we’d meet at Mac’s Hotel, but quickly dismissed that idea, fearing we’d get stuck into a few drinks, and forget why we’d gone there for. My wife and I took the very pleasant, scenic High Street route to Kilmore, whilst the others had taken the Freeway and Highway. As they rolled around a bend into Kilmore, we pulled in behind them like clockwork. We were off to a good start.

We had agreed to meet at Hudson Park, with a view to quickly checking in and leaving en masse to Woodend. My other brother in law, Barney, knew of a way that would take us there against the heavy flow of Melbourne based traffic. But it was hot. So we had a beer. And then another. One of ladies needed to purchase some fruit or crackers, or some such thing. So we had a beer. And then another. It was a beautiful day. We talked and we laughed. And we drank. It really was a beautiful day. Somewhere in the back of our heads, a little voice was trying to remember something about something to do with getting a move on. So we had a beer. And then another. And then we decided to leave. We were still on time, though. How that was exactly, I am not quite clear. I am sure there is a branch of maths or science that deals with such things. You see, our beer brains seem to know how to manage the time that we absolutely have to leave and the real time that we absolutely have to leave. And it never fails. Forget the Big Bang, Stephen Hawking, just work that out and we’ll be happy.

We hit the road again, out along Foote St, and the Kilmore-Lancefield Road, and winding our way through back roads and byways, taking in the beauty of the lush green pastures, and the sparkle of filtered light through enormous overhanging trees. Thirty minutes later we came to a brief halt. We’d hit the convoy from Melbourne. As far as we could see into the distance was a parade of pilgrims, like us, waiting for their moment to worship and cry out Hallelujah. Fortunately for us, we’d approached from the other direction, enjoying a momentary pause, until the traffic officer held back the masses, and made way for our three vehicles. We’d arrived. So much for the prepaid parking ticket! No one asked for it, no one was checking anything or collecting payment. The ground attendants were just happy to herd everyone into the parkland. Now, I’m not saying we parked a long way away, but, I’m pretty sure I could see the back of my house not too far away.

On a bright day, loaded up with chairs, and hampers, and bags, it was a fair walk through the grass just to get to the queue, which was already strung out over a couple of kilometres. My wife suggested things might be easier if I let go of the stubby, and held something else with my right hand. I swear, I don’t know where she gets these crazy ideas from. Once in line, there was nothing else to do but stand and wait. So we freshened up and enjoyed another beer. We observed a lone figure in the middle of a vast paddock. I guess he was waiting for friends to arrive. He did strike an unusual pose, with his long cloak lightly flapping in the breeze. He seemed to take our jibes quite well: “Hey, Frodo, Gandalf said he’d meet you by the merchandise tent,” or “Harry Potter! Your cloak isn’t working. We can see you!” As I said, he took the gentle ribbing well. Either that or he was lost in thought, trying to figure out what to do with that damned Ring...

As it was the first event there, the organisers were learning as they went. They’d decided they needed more room for parking, and told half the line to squash up ‘concertina like’ in about a dozen rows. This was all very well and good until those at the back of the line, and those just arriving over the hill thought it was every man for himself and all the lines would all start again. From a distance it reminded me of the famous scene from Zulu. Some guys next to us started singing “Men Of Harlech.” Others shouted at them strange words, like: “Ti'n llawn cachu!” That group then started singing: “The Warwickshire Lad.” And the barrage of words continued. “Cau dy ffwcin ceg!” “Cachu bant ti cachu mes!” A scuffle broke out, with one man knocked to the ground. Two handsome African gentlemen near us observed the commotion. One turned to the other and said, “Lesu, mae o'n rel coc oen.” As the horde got closer, it then reminded me of Braveheart. A guy at the front of the approaching mob may have been yelling something about “Freedom” and then abruptly blaming the whole mess on the Jews. Things started to get a little tense. We’d been waiting for around half an hour already, without moving, and we weren’t going to give up any ground. Sanity prevailed, and eventually everyone fell into line, allowing the cars to fill up Frodo Potter’s paddock.

On we marched, around the bend, towards the entrance, for another half an hour. The routine precise: take a few steps, put down the hamper, and the chairs, put down the stubby. Hitch up the pants, pick up the hamper and chairs, and pick up the stubby. Sip. Continue. Along the way, we encountered some new arrivals, oblivious of the ruckus earlier, seeking to jump the queue. These were people that parked their cars in the new spaces in the paddock, and not wanting to join the end of the queue, thought it was okay to just join in at the end of their car park aisle. Luckily, in most instances, there were car park attendants to escort them back. However, not every aisle had an attendant. By the third occurrence, my wife had had enough – loudly identifying and shaming the intruders until they could take no more and departed. One poor fool confronted her, getting into her face, saying “What are you going to do? Start a fight?” To which, her brother, Joey, a short but fiery individual, replied: “Yes,” as he gently, but matter of factly, placed hand on chest and eased the guy away from his sister. It helped that Joey, was shadowed by his older, hulk of a brother, Barney. Both are gentle souls, but both very protective of their family. A ripple of applause rang through the crowd. We arrived at the gates without further incident.

Getting through the gates at an event can sometimes be an arduous experience. Not so at Hanging Rock. I’d decided to leave my camera at home, as, although it is just a standard digital, it looks more ‘pro’ than what it is and I didn’t want to go though the hassle of confiscation and argument, etc. I’d also snuck a flask of whiskey in my jeans (hence the hitching up routine) to curb the price of alcohol likely to be charged inside. Well, I could have taken a slab and a small production crew with me. “Anything in the hamper?” asked the attendant. “No,” I said. “Okay, have a good day.” This was in total contrast to seeing Leonard Cohen at Rochford a couple of years earlier, where I can still hear the snooty patron asking “How are we going to cut the cheese?” as his knife was confiscated. And the full cavity body search still leaves emotional scars to this day. They don’t call. They don’t write...

At last we were inside. We made it.

Hanging Rock. It evokes a profound sense of mystery and awe. We can't help but feel we are standing on sacred ground. Cohen also illuminates a persona of immense mysticism and spirituality. We are told that he was ecstatic about the chance to play at The Rock, being a huge fan of Peter Weir's classic movie. I could think of no better choice of words than those of Leonard Cohen to echo through eternity around Hanging Rock. We set up our chairs and blankets - seeking alignment between the stage, the bar, and the toilets, whilst ensuring a pleasant view of the surrounds.

Having set up, it was now time to check out the merchandise and the all important toilet location. I was really disappointed in the quality of the tee-shirts purchased at his last concert and could see nothing has changed since, so quickly avoided those in favour of a nifty key ring and 'Cup of Mercy' mug. Now, call me pedantic, but it would have been good to know, prior to purchasing it, that the mug has numerous poisonous chemicals applied to its surface to create the decorative emblem, and is therefore not recommended to be drunk from. Drink. Splutter. Cough. Collapse. Hey, that's no way to say goodbye...

The toilet block was neatly arranged between the bars (convenient: empty, refill, empty, refill) and split into Men, Women and Unisex. I'm assuming it meant either, not both. Although, I imagine the couple that crap together are clearly made for each other... The line for the Mens was always about 30 metres long with a wait of over 10 minutes. Yet there was never more than one or two in line outside the Unisex. All evening, I noticed guys seeing the empty Unisex cubicles but unwilling to break free from the deep rooted Aussie males' psyche that proclaims: Real Men Don't Pee In Unisex Toilets. It never failed to amuse me as passed by all of these Real Men, waiting in line, missing three or four songs. After I'd finish I'd walk past, knowing that they'd noticed me, heads down, but the look on their eyes saying, "I know! I'm a fool....But I wanna be a Real Man!" Then they'd dance a little jig so they didn't piss themselves.

Late afternoon drifted by. It was a beautiful day, with a steady wind keeping us cool. We chatted and passed the time in a very relaxed manner, as did everyone present, waiting for the Great Man to appear. The crowd swelled as the first two support acts played their sets. Interesting but not inspiring. Entertaining but not overwhelming. From what we had seen, heard, and read, we expected more, especially considering the reputation of both singers and the high regard for them in music circles. To be fair to Clare Bowditch and Dan Sultan, Paul Kelly and Leonard Cohen were front of mind for most of the crowd. The other factor was the wind. It was quite strong during the afternoon and carried the sound far off into the distance. It eased considerably by the time Paul Kelly played.

Paul Kelly deserves more space than this article can afford him, such is his brilliance. Only someone who is highly skilled, dedicated and hard working, and well versed and passionate about his craft can make it all seem so effortless on stage. His rendition of Everything's Turning To White with Clare Bowditch was superb. Kelly's set alone has more than repaid the cost of admission.

The moment has arrived. Cohen strides out to rapturous applause from the worshippers at the alter. He is our Jim Jones and we are the cordial drinkers. The Messiah in a pin-stripe. From the first note of Dance Me To The End Of Love, the religious fervour of the crowd builds, enraptured with every word, every move. Cohen's timing is impeccable. The performance rehearsed to perfection.

For over an hour, Cohen submerges us in his world of love and beauty, regret, and redemption. He drowns us in melodies and harmonies that flow around his world weary voice. When he finally takes a break, the audience comes up for air, struggling to recapture their breath. Taking some time to compose themselves and clear their minds before the final onslaught. As if timed to the second, darkness and a chill descend upon the crowd. When Cohen and his backup singers reappear they are draped in scarves. It is very cold. This may be a major concern for other concerts at this venue - no matter how glorious the day, it is uncomfortably cold at night.

The show continues. Always the great showman, Cohen knows when and how to extract the most out of his audience. He entices the crowd with a reinvigorated Hallelujah, and then possesses them totally with A Thousand Kisses Deep. Lovers embrace and kiss. Holding hands, swaying to the rhythms, hypnotised by the charlatan with an angel's smile. Is there laughter behind his eyes when recites these words?

And then he was done. Finished. For two and a half hours Cohen swooped us up and gave us a glimpse of the universe through his eyes and then gently let us down again. Calm, but spent. Speechless. Reflective. Serene. The serenity lasted until everyone tried to leave the car park at the same time. Our three cars were separated, but I could see Joey in the distance. After being cut off several times, he was starting to retaliate. First it was queue jumpers, and now it was car park road rage. I was reminded of Michael Douglas in Falling Down. And when Joe stopped to get a warmer jacket out of his boot, I could have sworn he was reaching for his bazooka. We each ended up driving home in different directions yet managed to arrive at our respective homes around the same time, as we always do. Another one for Stephen Hawking.... It was an extremely interesting and entertaining day; well worth the cost

Oh, and the review? It wasn't as good as Rochford.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ever Heard Of Steve Poltz?

“Ever heard of Steve Poltz?” Probably not. Didn’t he write that song with that woman? Yes, he wrote You Were Meant For Me with Jewel. But there is so much more to him than That Song. The spirit of troubadours and minstrels live on in Steve Poltz. He regularly travels the world, sharing stories and songs of love, death, pain, happiness and laughter.

That Song was not my first introduction to Poltz. I purchased One Left Shoe, based on the look and feel of the cover. I was not disappointed, and over a decade later those songs still make it to playlists and mixed tapes. Over the years I’ve picked up most of his albums, both solo, and in his previous life with the cult band, The Rugburns. It wasn’t until I purchased Mommy I’m Sorry that I realised my very first introduction to him was watching a cover of Sesame Street on some music show. We never got the name of the band, and never saw the clip again.

A Steve Poltz album gives you everything; excellent musicianship, melodies and words rich in texture, with a keen eye for observation. He has an actor’s feel for drama, and a comedian’s sense of timing, with a quirky sense of humour. And he genuinely enjoys sharing all this and more with a live audience.

Steve played The Northcote Social Club on January 22nd, a venue he enjoys returning to. The NSC is a very comfortable, easy place to hang out, being able to enjoy a quiet drink with friends before the show, watching the unusual, weird, and wonderful denizens amble through – none more freaky than the bar staff.

I drifted into the stage bar around 9.15 to catch the support act, Kate Walker. A very gifted guitar player, and singer, Kate was well supported by friends and fans. Two standout songs remain with me. A wry ode to a friend, I Liked You Better Before You Found God, and a breathtaking cover of Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World. Kate is as good as anyone you hear on the radio – her biggest step will be in managing self-consciousness on stage, self -confidence once in the songs end, and to develop an entertainer’s presence on stage as a performer. Having said that, it was a strong set and received rousing applause from the gathering crowd.

Steve comes on stage around 10.15 pm and from the first note his enthusiasm is infectious. For the next two and a bit hours he has the audience in the palm of his hand – laughing, singing, and sometimes in total silence as he weaves his way through his repertoire.

I saw him at this venue around the same time last year, getting the crowd in the mood with his intro vox-pop video “Ever Heard Of Steve Poltz?” before exploding into Chinese Checkers that set the scene for the evening. He blew me away with two songs that night, a cover of Dylan’s Forever Young, sung with the effervescent Bushwalla, and my personal request, Salvation Song. There was no Salvation Song this night, but there were equally impressive renditions of his standards, like Once Again, I Killed Walter Matthau, and The Great Mystery, as well as a faultless version of She Moved Through The Fair. He played songs from his most recent album, Dreamhouse (retailers, why is this cd so hard to find?), and that other well known song, You Remind Me, yes, the Jeep ad song. He didn’t play That Song, but no one noticed, such was the energy and passion that he devotes to his set lists.

Steve Poltz transfers his energy and passion to the crowd, encouraging audience participation if and when he can. From his epic Rugburns song Dick’s Automotive, with added baritone and falsetto, to the hands across the world finale of Long Haul, with hilarious commentary, he has that uncanny ability to conscript members of the audience and happily get them out of their comfort zone for a short while, to since or dance, or share a laugh. In turn, he helps them express who they really are.

Clothing is another form of self expression. Have you ever noticed that people like to wear band tee shirts to gigs? I do. I guess it’s a bit vain, it’s a bit of a status thing; look at me, this is who I am and who I like. Can it make a difference to the gig? It did for me. I’d worn one of my favourites – a Big Star tee shirt. Big Star: one of the best ‘unknown bands’ that have influenced countless numbers over the years. I was overwhelmed when Steve Poltz dedicated his cover of Thirteen to Big Star’s late, great Alex Chilton, who passed away in 2010. As always, I purchase a copy of the show on USB, and hang back to pick up an extra cd or offer thanks for a great performance. When I spoke with Steve briefly after his set, I’m not sure who was more gob-smacked: him for seeing someone with a Big Star tee shirt, or me for having one idol play one of my top ten favourite songs. The beauty of Steve is that he appreciates the awe us fans have for our rock stars. He makes a point of getting around to as many people as he can, sincerely acknowledging their support and interested in their comments or questions. And he backs that message up professionally. This show was his last public gig in Australia. But he was performing again – in someone’s lounge or backyard. You see, subject to availability, you can book him for your own private gig. Sure, he doesn’t make much from it – but it keeps him grounded, and connected to his fans. Just like the minstrels of old...

Ever heard of Steve Poltz? You have now. The rest is up to you.

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