Sneak Peek @ The Evelyn (29/05/08)

Cold winter night. Exhausted reviewer. I had really just wanted to curl up on the couch at home. Instead I am here for Sneak Peek, a showcase type of situation where promoters are –  “Helping artists who are seen to be helping themselves. An extra –  “leg-up’ to assist emerging talent.’

It’s a fairly quiet night, where I assume that the majority of the crowd directly know a performer, so it’s a beautifully warm and encouraging vibe. The exposed beams and brickwork in the bandroom support chandeliers and mirrorballs defiantly, like wood-choppers holding silver cocktails, and so the show begins. I get a beer and sink into a velour armchair with a side table. This is better than sitting in my lounge room watching telly I concede, wishing I could curl my feet up on the couch.

Red neon glows on Dan Lethbridge, a Neil Young-ish, honest story telling soul who appears to have been through a desert on a horse with no name. A beautifully clear, sometimes sublime vocal and gorgeous guitar work, accompanied by an ethereal keyboard. A looping crescendo for earnest lyrics. Lovely.

Dan makes apologies in advance for Jed’s (the pianist) scheduled departure, –  “He’s got a gig in Williamstown in ten minutes,’ for which Dan guesses Jed’ll be –  “fashionably late.’ With Jed trading keys for a slide guitar, Dan leads into the country-twinged acoustic number Day Vs Night, going onto to dedicate a track to his bed-ridden partner who, –  “plays on my mind like a xylophone.’

It occurs to me that I would love to see this guy score a film. The way he creates landscapes and soundscapes and stories and memories may not be designed to be melancholy but it makes me melt into my armchair and reflect on things. Dan takes up the harp for the last tune with Jed and designs intricate eastern harmonica and guitar loops, getting a lush layered atmosphere established before ending it. It’s intriguing and even more interesting when Jed provides simple piano melodies for a nice blues harmonica from Dan. Unique and refreshing. Oddly, early Looney Tunes cartoons are being projected onto the wall at the same time; an annoying cross between endearing and inappropriate.

Jed jumps from stage, grabs his guitar case and jacket and walks straight out the door with a wave and a grin. Dan turns to ukulele and announces wryly that his last song will be For How Long, from his album which is –  “currently rocketing up the charts’. Can he pull off anything exciting with a ukulele, since Jed is already fanging off to Williamstown? I’ve clearly forgotten about the loop pedal. It first collects a straight ukulele melody, then a bass drum incarnation, a drumming of finger tips on the little ukulele body, another guitar line, an eerie whistle, a deep breath into the shell, an ever-growing bunch of wildflowers that came together in beautiful arrangement. Fantastic.

The Fred Smith Bands sound check turns into a gorgeous Irish turn to which no one responds. He speaks like Paul Dempsey from Something For Kate but is our generation’s John Williamson in his opening number. Softening back to his own voice, gentler, nearly whispering, Fred’s guitar weeps and he brings in yearning harmonica. From here Fred goes a bit too close to country for me. Fred Smith tells stories. Long ones in songs, long ones in between songs. As everyone in the room continues to natter on oblivious to his monologues. I guess I just can’t place it – his humour, on-stage banter and style are seem awkward. Maybe I just don’t get it. While the songs are technically good and the lyrics poetic (-  “I know how you’re feeling. Sit down, I’ll make you a cup of Darjeeling,’) it was material I’d rather read than listen to.

At this point I am nearly falling asleep and so a quick caffeine dash is in order. This perks me up no end and I just make it back in time for Canadian Tracey McNeil. It becomes quickly apparent that country music was taking over, although Tracey seems the real business when it comes to country. She alludes to the fact that she has loads of stories to tell but then again, has too much music to get through so won’t muck about. This leans toward a raw mystery that Fred Smith did not accommodate.

Accompanied by a guitarist and a double bass player, Tracey plays acoustic guitar, maintaining a low velvety register when delivering her aural stories. She goes on to near hoe-down material which gives her a chance to really showcase her high register – a wonderfully expressive voice; authoritative, forceful and soft in the right places. A rousing performance, Tracey pulls the best applause of the night so far. Absolute quality; but once Tracey and her band left the stage I start hoping that a diversion from country music is coming.

Michelle Meehan provided the night’s highlight. Announcing a –  “guitar journey’ this unassuming, seemingly sweet lady proceeds to play an amazing instrumental piece, smiling like a performer who is a mere vehicle for the music and is just as amazed by what’s she’s hearing as we are. With her tricky little guitar stanzas ala Ani DiFranco and her exceptional vocals spiralling down beautifully, Meehan’s amazing range and control bring to mind Katie Noonan and Jeff Buckley.

If she were to play a duet with Lior, I’d die and go to heaven. Another song brings tribal folk darkness, a faultless voice soaring and skittering over like a Celtic spirit – almost like Delores O’Riordan without the Irish anger – settling into Native American incantations. Her self depreciating quips between songs are inherently pure and forgivable, though she unwittingly shirks these self doubts by maturing immediately into a more sultry and full bodied sound. She began her set alone, but she was soon joined on stage by Sean Sullivan and Steve Kearney (from Melbourne band Gabberflasted). With a change of tempo soon after the entire feel of the venue shifted. Sean broke into a warmly celebrated solo of his own before Michelle resumed for a tight, gorgeous finale. A truly special performance. It’s artists like Michelle that are the payoff for sitting through sometimes mixed bag showcases like this one – you may get to hear something really unique. I worry that the other band left to play won’t be able to top this.

The final band were Jungal and for a crass comparison I could say something like –  “Jane Butler Trio’. I would love to see these three ladies play their infectious roots music on stage in front of a capacity crowd – it would rock. With addictive bass lines, a galloping drum from the only non-dreadlocked chick, strong, sweet and hearty vocals and raucous acoustic guitar these Jungan girls know how to bring some serious foot stomping, festival-style. Veering between roots and blues and then all over both, it’s wicked when they all get going, a total party.

A dream bubble pops up beside my head projecting footage of road trips along the coast, going to music festivals and getting dusty and exhausted. It’s cool music. But I can’t really get into the mindset properly. I’m beyond tired and quite frankly, can’t get past Michelle Meehan’s set. I owe it to Jungal to at least stay for a few songs, so I do and they’re great but I then quietly buy Michelle’s album and sneak home to listen to it again.

All in all a lineup of accomplished musicians – in technique if not accolades – that is a hearty reminder of the untapped resources in the Melbourne music community. While not all the acts were my bag, they are most likely someone’s and were an interesting group to hear live on the same bill. Sneak Peek is a great concept and hopefully will give more artists a little push and support where they really need it.