Friday, April 30, 2010

Tin Pan Aussie by John Shortis & Moya Simpson

Tin Pan Aussie Shortis & Simpson at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, April 29 – May 1, 2010.

Reviewed April 29, by Frank McKone

I first reviewed the John Shortis and Moya Simpson team at the beginning of their Canberra Region history in 1996, in Shortis & Curlies at the erstwhile Queanbeyan School of Arts Café. There’s always been a certain gentleness in their musical humour and political satires throughout their 14 year career, and a kind of earnestness in John’s stage manner. There have been times when I thought the cutting edge of political commentary was softened too much. But Tin Pan Aussie seemed to me to get the balance right.

Shortis plays himself, but with a note of humorous self-deprecation in calling himself Professor. Yet when one considers the 44 songs dating from 1900 to 1957 which tell us the story of Australian popular music related to our social history throughout this period, his research justifies the title. Between the Federation Polka and Wild One we see and hear the development from ragtime, through jazz, hillbilly and songs from the wars which ordinary Australians wrote, played and sang. For me, a 10£ Pom who arrived in 1955, here was a new understanding of the culture that I belong to today.

But there is nothing academic about the performances of Moya Simpson, whose range and quality of voice has matured markedly in recent years, of Shortis himself on piano and singing, and especially of the band – Peter J Casey, Ian Blake, Jon Jones and Dave O’Neill – unless you would like to class their skills at reproducing 44 pieces of music in each of the original styles as an academic exercise. To me it was an involving thoroughly enjoyable entertainment.

The choice of songs, so many expressing vernacular humour, while often telling the truth about real people’s experiences in the good times and the bad, has taken this Shortis & Simpson show a step further towards the edge. There is no softening here in “My Little Wet Home in the Trench” (World War I), “Happy Valley” (from the Depression) or “Back in Circulation” (written in a Japanese World War II PoW camp), and wonderful contrasts in such songs as the pseudo-Hawaiian “Memories of a Lovely Lei”.

Instead of relying on inventing satirical commentary external to the subject matter, the selection of material creates its own comment on Australian life from within. The result is telling, showing us now to ourselves as we once were. And it shows me how Shortis & Simpson have grown in musical and political stature since their School of Arts Café days.