Tuesday, April 9, 2019


Zac Hurren and Katie Noonan - "Gratitude and Grief" 

The arrival of the Spiegeltent in Canberra heralds a veritable performing arts festival. In addition to the main stage show, this year it’s “Life-The Show”, which runs nightly, the Spiegeltent presents a series of early evening, one-show only, pop-up performances by some of the country’s most recognisable and acclaimed performing artists.

This past week alone, has seen performances by Archie Roach, Katie Noonan, Carlotta, Mick Harvey, Mojo Juju and Emma Pask of which this intrepid reviewer managed to catch the following.  

Katie Noonan was first cab off the rank with a performance with her jazz trio, Elixir. She performed songs from her acclaimed song cycle, “Gratitude and Grief” which is based on a series of Michael Leunig poems. Noonan is known for the purity of her sound and her haunting songs exploit her crystalline upper register. Some of the songs she introduced by reading the Leunig poem which inspired it. For others she let the lyrics speak for themselves, allowing space for sublime improvisations by saxophonist, Zac Hurren and guitarist, Stephen Magnusson.

Her selections included the catchy, “La-La Land”, the whimsical “Magpie”, and haunting “Little Tendrils/Love is born”, winding up the set with a magical version of “The Rainbow Connection”.

Superb sound, atmospheric lighting and the old-world romantic atmosphere of the Spiegeltent itself, enhanced the sublime music. It was a pity, therefore, that the performers had given so little attention to presentation. A concert situation such as provided by the Spiegeltent, directs the whole audience attention to the stage and the performers. Noonan’s presentation offered little visual satisfaction. Her rambling introductions were more irritating than informative, and her unfortunate habit of crouching down at the side of the stage, water bottle in hand, during the instrumental improvisations, distracted from her colleagues performances. A more polished performance was expected.

Mick Harvey - "Intoxicated Man - The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg"
Having been entranced some years ago by Jane Birkin’s interpretations of Serge Gainsbourg's songs, Mick Harvey’s performance of “Intoxicated Man – The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg” was highly anticipated. However, once again, a similar lack of attention to presentation marred the performance.  Harvey has produced two albums of Gainsbourg’s songs and had gathered together a superb group of musicians including J.P.Shilo, Dan Luscombe, Glenn Lewis, Hugo Cran, Xanthe Waite, two backing singers and a locally sourced four-piece string section for this show.  

However in his attempt to recapture the sound of the albums, Harvey seems to have forgotten that the arrangements are meant to enhance the songs rather than smother them, and too little attention had been paid to getting the sound balance right for this concert. As a result it was mostly impossible to discern the lyrics.  

Also Harvey’s off-handed introductions provided little context or explanation for the songs, nor did his vocal interpretations, sung from behind two small drums, capture the essential beat mood of Gainsbourg’s songs. Indeed the most successful realisation came late in the program with “Scenic Railway”, accompanied by just the quartet.

Carlotta - Queen of the Cross 
A genuine living legend, Carlotta drew a large crowd of devotees to her performance. Entitled “Queen of the Cross”, a reference to her years as the star attraction of Les Girls in Kings Cross, and her years of touring the club circuit following the demise of “Les Girls”. Carlotta has maintained her star status through regular appearances on morning television shows, as well as the cabaret circuit.

Proudly admitting to being 75 years old, she’s still a striking presence as she takes the stage to the strains of “No Business Like Show Business”, swathed in a voluminous black gown encrusted with glittering Swarovski crystals.  The potty-mouthed mistress of the back-handed compliment, she harangues her adoring audience with her displeasure at having to appear in a tent, (albeit a beautiful tent) after having appeared in the Sydney Opera House, complains that, because of the fog, she had to spend 16 hours travelling to Canberra from the Gold Coast for this performance, criticises the clothing choices of a few unfortunates, and hawks special- edition tea-towels to augment her pension.  Her audience love it and happily vie for the opportunity to be insulted by her.

She also sings show songs, accompanied on keyboards by Michael Griffiths, himself a Helpmann Award winner. Indeed she proves such a fine interpreter, that one wishes she would take advantage of her excellent musical director to rework her act to include more songs and less repartee.

There are still many intriguing acts scheduled in this series over the forthcoming weeks, including Canberra’s own Paul McDermott with Steven Gates, indigenous dance sensations, Djuki Mala, comedians Osher Gunsberg and Peter Helliar, indigenous cabaret artist, Jordan Raskopaulos and Helpmann Award nominee, Michaela Burger with her Edith Piaf cabaret, “Exposing Edith.
Reviewed by Bill Stephens
        This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 7th April 2019.