ben lee & missy higgins

ticket

The ticket read “proceeds rain or shine”, so we were lucky it was a balmy 26 degrees when we arrived at the Music Bowl. In fact, when we arrived at 5 (the same time the gates opened), the line was already enormous. I dropped Julie off so she could get us a spot while I parked the car about 12 kilometres away. We (Julie and I, Meryl and Croz and Alex and Em) ended up in about the middle of the grassy section. Instead of being my usual pedantic self, I decided to relax, resign myself to our spot, and not try to get any closer. I’m glad I did.

The opening act came on at about 6ish and was the McMannamans (try saying that 10 times fast – it’s not hard as you’d expect, but it’s a whole lot of fun) were on first, a duo on guitar and violin/mandolin. Good sound, and amazing violin work, but a little too country for my liking. But they did their job well, in fact, all of the opening acts did their job well, in whetting our appetite for what was to come, as well as making the wait as pleasant as possible.

Then it was Ash Grunwald, another aussie artist who is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix. Long dreads and a weather-beaten face completes his surfie look. He drums with his feet while he plays the guitar, using a lot of reverb and sliding effects, and while his songs are all in a similar style, he was obviously “stoked” to be there, and his enjoyment was infectious. He was also one of the only performers to really interact with the audience, and they responded to that with their attention (although not many sang along).

By the time Ray LaMontagne (pronounced Lah-Mon-TAYN, read his incredible story here) came on, with the balmy evening, thousands of people sitting together on the grass, and the multiple artists, it had taken on the feeling of a 70’s music festival. Ray then completed the look with his bearded face and hippie orange shirt. In fact, we were debating for a long time how old he was – the girls thought late 40s, Alex and I thought early 20s. We still don’t know. Interestingly, he was the only non-Aussie of the night; a fact that has me encouraged for Australian music. I had heard good things, and I would say he lived up to expectations with some really strong songs. Perhaps a little too earnest for a support act, although it seemed like that was his style of folk. I suspect he would have won himself some fans, although probably more in the older end of the spectrum.

I was really impressed by all of the changeovers – quick and smooth, so you never felt like you were kept waiting, but it wasn’t all rushed and frantic either. I noticed because it’s unusual. Normally bands have this mistaken idea that if you’re kept waiting it builds the anticipation. In actual fact, you just get bored and tired of waiting.

The short review:
Ben Lee was fantastic, light and fun, but ultimately the set was too short. Missy was not quite as good, largely due to the fact that she rarely emerged from behind the piano. Amazing voice though, and incredible musician with some really impressive songs.

The long review:

This was the last night of the tour, a fact that was referenced many times, particularly given that this is Missy’s home town. It actually gave an element of comraderie for those who were there, because it was clearly a personal high point for Missy. Her entire family (grandparents, etc. included) was there, as was, she admitted, most of the people she referred to in her songs. In fact, it was a huge crowd, I mean the Music Bowl was totally and completely packed. That added hugely to the atmosphere which was one of excitement and anticipation, but in a relaxed and laid-back way given the venue and seating arrangements (most people had packed dinner and ate it picnic style on the grass).

Annotated setlists:

ben lee

Ben Lee (AITNS = Awake Is The New Sleep; HYYY = Hey You, Yes You, BT = Breathing Tornados)
Begin (AITNS): A moody but medium paced song that worked well as an opener.
Into The Dark (AITNS): This one’s a lot of fun, with its highpitched chord progression (capo 7th fret), bouncy feel and optimistic lyrics.
Gamble Everything for Love (AITNS): I’m loving this song at the moment so it was great to hear it live. Ben followed it up by holding his phone up to the microphone while it played the song as his ringtone. He said that it took John Farnham mentioning his name in the paper and one of his songs becoming a ringtone for his grandma to admit it was ok he didn’t go to university.
Run With Scissors (HYYY): At this point, it was pretty clear it was going to be a mostly greatest-hits + new album set. It’s a fun song though, and while it may not last as a classic, it’s good solid pop.
No Right Angles (AITNS): Introduced this by saying something about avoiding the straight and narrow. He’s certainly qualified to talk about that, given his life.
Something Borrowed, Something Blue (HYYY): This was a surprise highlight for me – I didn’t really like this when it came out on the radio, but I really enjoyed it live for some reason.
Cigarettes Will Kill You (BT): Ah yes, I was hoping this would come up. Breathing Tornados is one of those albums that sat on my shelf forgotten until recently, but I’ve rediscovered its brilliance. Left the bridge of Cigarettes entirely to the audience, although I think I was the only one singing it. Still one of the all-time classic aussie songs I reckon. Just try not to be moved by the outro: I dare you. I still can’t believe this was the only one he did from Breathing Tornados though.
Close I’ve Come (AITNS): Again, a good fun song live.
Catch My Disease (AITNS): This is the one the crowd was mostly waiting for, so he timed it well as the second last one. Song of the Year at this year’s ARIAs, and a catchy, fun tune. Everyone was up on their feet as a result, which was great. I was a little surprised he ended it so soon, especially since everyone was well into it, but I guess he was pressed for time.
All In This Together (AITNS): I suppose you could call this the theme song of the tour – he’s on this “pop music can save the world” bent at the moment, and I think this sums up his outlook on life. Again, the crowd joined in well.

So overall, too short a set, but a great one nonetheless. It was really fun and entertaining, without getting all deeply brooding or emotional, which I guess it what pop music is about. He certainly left most of us wanting more, which is a better thing than leaving us begging him to stop, but still a little less than satisfying. But then we knew we still had Missy to go.

missy higgins

Missy Higgins (TSOW = The Sound of White)

Katie (TSOW): A strangely subdued way to start a performance.
Unbroken (B-side to The Sound of White single): Nice to see an unfamiliar one in there, particularly early on. That’s the kind of musical risk that I would’ve liked to see taken on some other aspects of the show.
The River (TSOW)
The Banner (new): Good to see her trying out new material despite this being the last night of the tour.
This Is How It Goes (TSOW): One of her more underrated songs, I reckon, but she was still stuck behind the piano. Had she
gotten out like she did in Casualty later on, it would have had more energy.
All For Believing (TSOW): She dedicated this song to the memory of her dog, who died 3 weeks ago, and who apparently heard this song more than any other. It’s a very pretty song, and the one that JJJ unearthed her with.
Any Day Now (TSOW)
Stuff and Nonsense (Split Enz cover): Missy and her guitarist had recently recorded this for a Neil and Tim Finn tribute album
Don’t Ever (TSOW)
The Special Two (TSOW): A beautiful song, but heartbreaking.
Peachy: Hadn’t heard this one before either, but I couldn’t find it on her discography so I assume it’s a new one.
The Cactus That Found The Beat (High School performance piece, also on Scar EP): Missy came out from behind the piano for this one, finally! She talked about how much she admired her brother, who basically gave her her start (at 16 she was lying about her age to get into clubs to play in his jazz band) and who is an accomplished musician himself. He played piano for this and Casualty which followed, and it was wonderful to see her out the front on a song.
Casualty (TSOW): Finally saw her cut loose! She ditched even the guitar, and just enjoyed the song. A definite highlight for me.
Scar (TSOW): Such a fun, catchy song, and a good one to end on, although it might have been better to end the whole performance on it.

Encore:
Funny How Time Slips Away (Willie Nelson cover, Vince Jones arrangement): Missy introduced this by saying that her brother would “weep with happiness” if she played it. She started completely a capella, which was a great showcase of the calibre of her voice, and a great rendition of the song, which I’d never heard before. Although there were no tears involved, the most touching part of the night was when her brother joined in on the piano in the second verse, and then as they finished, they both stood up and embraced each other in a show of genuine affection. It was obviously like a homecoming for both of them, like they were acknowledging how the relationship had seen them both come to this point.
Laid (James cover, duet with Ben Lee): It was inevitable that it would come to a collaboration at some point, but the song choice wasn’t! Everyone just had fun with it, crowd included.
The Sound of White (TSOW): Again, a strangely subdued way to finish. Sure it’s been a big hit, but it left things a bit less than enthusiastic. I think I just expected a bigger finish. I was surprised and delighted though when Ryan Adams’ “My Sweet Carolina” came out of the speakers immediately after. Now THAT is a show-stopper.

One of the things that never ceased to amaze me during the whole performance was the number of people who knew the words to every song. I mean, I know this album has sold half a million copies, but people have clearly not just listened or enjoyed it, but have memorized it. And I’m not just talking about the songs from the radio, I mean from the very first song, Katie, to the very last song, people were singing along. I was staggered. They’ve obviously struck a very deep chord (no pun intended) with a lot of people.

It was hands down a professional, entertaining performance. She has an incredible voice that did not put a note wrong all night. You realise when you see true artists like Ben and Missy that quality of performance and sound cannot be bought with an Australian-Idol-style rocket ride to fame – it comes from years and years of putting in the hard yards in pubs and clubs, playing the gigs that no-one else wants to. Echoing the crowd, the stage lit up when she came on, with blue fairy lights making a pretty backdrop to the spartan stage. With her piano facing the audience, she belted out most of her ARIA award winning Album of the Year as well as a few extras. She ended up doing fairly well considering there’s not much of a back catalogue of songs to choose from. That would explain why she had to choose so many downbeat songs too, which unfortunately subdued the performance somewhat.

In fact, her style made it more sit-back-and-listen than get-up-and-get-into-it, which was an interesting contrast with Ben Lee, especially given that she was essentially headlining. I think her behind-the-piano performance style would’ve been better suited to a small club than a large venue, because most people couldn’t see the stage very well, so to only be able to see a stationary head and shoulders above the black piano wasn’t visually engaging. At one stage, after having ditched both the piano and the guitar for just the microphone during Casualty, she actually apologized for letting her enthusiasm ruin the “musicality” of the song. Personally it had been one of the highlights of the night for me, because she actually got into it, felt it, grunted it out. Live shows are meant to be raw – if I wanted musicality to be the priority, I’d be at home listening to the cd. Which was the same thing I thought about the performances of almost every one of the songs – they didn’t differ at all from the recordings, even in the modulations of her voice. Some would say that’s the mark of a skilful musician; I just think I’d rather experience it differently live. There are songs whose recordings I’ve hated that I’ve fallen in love with in hearing them live. But we really weren’t given a different side to these songs, which struck me as a shame, because people clearly knew the songs well, so that can’t have been the priority.

It also made me proud to be a Counting Crows fan, because those guys live are, well, brilliant. It’s not so much their “musicality”, although you’d have to say sometimes they are nothing short of mindblowing in that respect (see recent performances of Sullivan St as a case in point), it’s the overall performance. They mix the songs up, they play covers in the middle of their own songs, they play their own songs in the middle of their own songs. There are plays of light and shadow that are just simply beautiful, or moving, or exciting. They move around the stage, they act out the songs, they bring the audience in and hold them in the palms of their hands. Now admittedly these guys are towards the latter end of their career as compared to Ben and Missy, and therefore have a lot more learning experiences under their belt, but Ben and Missy would do well to learn from such showmanship.

Having said that, I was pretty much able to let all that go and enjoy being under the stars, on a warm night, listening to some pretty easy-on-the-ears music, in the company of good friends. Seriously, what could be better?

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