Shaun Tan snaffles an Oscar – go you lost thing!

There’s much Snoopy dancing around Australia at the moment, because one of the nicest guys in the spec fic community has landed an Oscar for his short film, The Lost Thing. Shaun Tan’s win is much deserved for a guy who has been working his way to international acclaim as an illustrator. It should serve to widen attention on his craft, as well as on his considerable talent. Huzzah!

Other unsung Aussies in the running are Kirk Baxter for editing The Social Network (he won!); Ben Snow for visual effects for Iron Man 2 and Joe Farrell for visual effects for Hereafter.

We’re also claiming a gong for Dave Elsey’s make-up work! All up, five Oscars went Down Under.

And here’s a picture of the fab Helena Bonham Carter on the red carpet: no little statute for her this year, but glam as ever!

Amanda Palmer, roamin’ at the Forum

Back to back Amanda Palmer aka how sore are my feet? A little tenderness in the soles is well worth the effort of standing through performances by AFP, especially when she’s backed up by such splendid talent.

It’s a real cabaret atmosphere, with Palmer the centre of attention for the cultish fans: hence the non-stop murmur of conversation and bint-twittering throughout the rest of the gig. The inane shout-outs were saved for AFP: you know you’re old when you want to get to a gig that starts on time, where the crowd doesn’t squish you, where you can listen and watch and be a part of the performance without being a party to someone else’s casual chat.

But don’t let the grumblings of an old fart put you off, nor give you a false impression: last night’s gig rocked, and Melbourne’s Forum theatre, with its peeling walls, faux Roman architecture and star-studded twilight-blue sky, was the ideal backdrop for this kind of controlled mayhem. (Can’t wait to see Gary Numan tear it up!)

In fact, this was perhaps the most orderly show I’ve seen of AFP’s, though it wasn’t a regular rock gig, oh no (never!). Guests kept coming back; having played their own couple of tunes, they’d pop back to duet a bit later on. The Tin Stars, with Mikelangelo up front, provided the bulk of the backing — very sharp — after they held the main support slot, with the dashing Kim Boekbinder, the divine Jane Austen Argument and Jason Webley all contributing wee sets. With Webley in the house, it was always on the cards that Evelyn Evelyn would make an appearance — just the one song tonight. The line-up showed much parallel with AFP’s Opera House gig on Australia Day and Webley’s Fitzroy show on Friday night, but it ran to a much tighter schedule with changeovers quite quick. The atmosphere was always relaxed and comfortable, though there were sombre moments: a collection for Christchurch quake survivors (the Australian Red Cross is taking donations) and an echo of Oz Day with a rendition of The Drover’s Boy.

AFP began the night topless in safety harness atop the theatre staging with a quiet ukulele number (Makin’ Whoopee) before doing a slow quick-change on stage — Aussie and Kiwi flags prominent — to get the show on the road. An all-in encore, complete with strip-teasing koalas, of Map of Tasmania and Leeds United — earlier, Coin Operated Boy (and a promise of a possible Dresden Dolls tour Down Under) and Oasis were among the crowd pleasers in a set drawing heavily from the Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under album — led to another, a repeat of the previous night’s drinking song. As AFP remarked, you know it’s been a good night when the stage is littered with headless koalas, women’s clothing and beer.

We could all drink to that.

Evelyn Evelyn at the Evelyn, with friends

A late start to the morning, now listening to Kim Boekbinder’s The Impossible Girl album hot off the merch stand at last night’s gig at The Evelyn Hotel in Melbourne’s Fitzroy, and again feeling really sorry for her that last night’s late start resulted in her set being reduced to two songs.

Boekbinder, who does wonderful things with loops and squeeze-squeak plastic crocodiles when she’s not simply enthralling with insightful snippets of love and life, backs up tonight and tomorrow, and is hanging in Oz for a while, apparently. Her album shows a wide range of musical styles and some quirky stuff to leaven the heartbreak and acerbic observations. Catch her if you can.

The reason for last night’s foray was Evelyn Evelyn, a concept act put together by Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley. Webley was headlining last night’s bill, which also featured the intriguing Jane Austen Argument (although it was only Tom last night, with support from guitarist-singer Gemma O’Connor whose voice was sensational).

It’s an amazing line-up of talent for a pub gig.

The conceit for the Evelyns is that they are conjoined twins: Palmer and Webely sharing a suit, the illusion given a delightful touch of the absurb by Webley’s beard (the other one should grow a beard, he reckons, to much LOLing). The Evelyns were much fun, though the theatrics did drag out the set a tad — moments of too little happening stretching an uncomfortably crowded room’s attention span, allowing the bar chatter to rise. I couldn’t see much of them when they were playing the keyboards, a hand a’piece and brilliantly clever, ripping out a cover of Lean on Me that was a highlight of the night.

They juggled an accordion, a guitar and then — with a sly wink to a third hand — Amanda’s trademark ukulele, and then did a bit of improv word-by-word Q&A with the audience.

Later, when Webley, ripping through Gypsy-ish accordion tunes (fave: Dance While the Sky Crashes Down), called Amanda back for some duets, the rapport between the two was centre stage. As was the rapport between Amanda and the audience; she strikes me as a natural cabaret star — the cellar kind, not the Vegas kind.

The gig dragged on a bit, given the crowding, the malfunction of Webley’s guitar undercutting his set, and the night stretching out past 1am, but you’d be hard-pressed to get better bang for your buck than this line-up offered.

Australian Shadows shortlist announced

The Australian Horror Writers Association has announced this year’s finalists for the Shadows award, presented in the categories of (eclectic) long fiction, short fiction and edited publication, and I can safely say I’m happy I’m not trying to judge such a strong field — leastwise because my wife has two works in the running! I’ve read all but one of the final field, and they’re all darn fine yarns. Congratulations to all for making the final cut!

The Shadows are announced in April, just ahead of the fan-based Ditmars at Swancon at Easter, and the country’s premier genre awards, the Aurealis Awards, at a gala bash in Sydney on May 21. Last year offered a bumper crop of tales spilling from Aussie pens: if you’re looking for some reading material, the shortlists make a great place to start.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland — don’t travel without it

tough guide to fantasylandI’ve just finished reading The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones, first published in 1996 and updated in 2006. It’s something of a classic, and now I see why.

Laid out like a guide book, it provides an A to Z of fantasy tropes as though the reader was a traveller about to take a tour of a generic fantasy world. From Adept to Zombies, she lists the likely events, people and places you’ll encounter,all delivered with a deliciously acerbic twist.

There’s a bit of repetition as the various entries cross-reference each other, but there’s much to take home from this guide, from cliched character tropes to the commonality of stew to the formulae of epic fantasy: bar brawls, eccentric wizards, lost heirs, vestigial empires.

For anyone interested in writing fantasy, it’s a wake-up call about just how entrenched certain tropes are, and just how blase we might’ve become about travel and culture in fantasy settings.

I’m filing it next to my copy of The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference, should the day ever come when I’m tempted to revisit my misspent youth and pick up the sword with my pen: nothing like a dose of salt with your how-to.

Life is a near death experience

On his 2008 album City That Care Forgot, Dr John sings that ‘life is a near death experience’. Ever the pragmatist, Dr John, and on this album, a rather angry one, addressing the concerns of post-Katrina New Orleans.

It’s an album that takes on wider meaning in the aftermath of Queensland’s devastating run of floods and storms — burdens shared in NSW and Victoria, Tassie too — and WA’s fires and now, most recent horror of horrors, the earthquake that has torn New Zealand’s Christchurch apart.

I can’t imagine it, that suddenness: a terrorist couldn’t have timed it better. A crowded city centre, a lunch time crowd running errands, shopping, eating … and then the moment when it all goes to hell. Buses crushed, buildings collapsed, cliffs fallen…

There’s word that a youth hostel is the site of multiple fatalities, bringing to mind the horrible arson in Childers that killed so many backpackers. That distance from home, that has to add salt to the viciously ripped wound; a long-ago far-away farewell and no homecoming, just a box, and grainy, goofy pictures from the interwebs plastered on websites under the title of ‘coverage’ as we try to make sense of it all.

It’s the arbitrariness of death that helps to make it such a fearsome force. Even when human agencies are at hand, there’s that element of chance, of randomness. That building, that car, that spot on the sidewalk… but not mine. The person next to me. But not me. Not this time.

Dr John’s album is an indictment, a plea, a rallying cry. It points the bone at callous politics and immoral big business; it urges strength in the face of indifference. It urges perseverance and pride, and finds strength in history and community.

My friends scuffling with contractors/permits and roofers/on top of tons property damage/feel like insurance companies screwed us

The song title? We Gettin’ There.

There might be a bit of Aussie irony in Dr John…

Australia and New Zealand are fortunate places; not perfect, by any means, but the ongoing crises demonstrate that the quality of compassion hasn’t been lost. Our musicians don’t have to write protest songs after a national tragedy to make the rest of the country give a damn. The two countries rally around their own, they help any way they can. Mere hours after the earthquake, Australian relief workers were winging their way across the Tasman. The message is clear, from the Government all the way down to the folks leaving messages of support on the interwebs: we share your pain; we’ve got your back. Godspeed.

Things to do in Melbourne #3 — Old Melbourne Gaol by night

ned kelly's death mask at old melbourne gaol

Ned Kelly's death mask

There’s a definite air to the Old Melbourne Gaol that’s enhanced by a night visit.

Dating back to the mid 1800s, the then imposing building was erected as a response to the lawlessness of the gold rush, our guide told us. It was built according to the latest of law enforcement principles, which did not include plumbing — one of the most notable elements of the rather confined cells is the absence of a loo. Just the thought of a game of pass the bucket in an overcrowded cell after lights out was enough to induce a vow of sticking to the true and narrow.

Our guide, affecting an Irish accent, took the character of one of the gaol’s hangmen, and led us through the three storeys of utilitarian cellblock to point out the conditions of the day, the art of a good hanging, and some of the more infamous inmates, of whom 135 ended their lives at the end of a noose.

Death masks and info boards fill in some details; those waxen countenances, eyes and mouths shut inside their glass boxes, radiate a certain mystique with their crimes outlined around them.

The gaol’s star attraction is Ned Kelly. The bushranger, who was executed here, has a strong presence, including biographical details, death mask and replica armour, as well as several artifacts including a pistol taken from his last stand at Glenrowan, complete with bullet damage to the grip.

After the candlelit tour, we were set loose, with the lights on, to take photographs and explore the various dioramas and information displays, though the building was still far from bright and retained its sense of loneliness.

While the gaol’s ‘haunted’ status is mentioned in PR material, the tour managed to avoid the topic, and there were no ghost stories nor scary theatrics (though a few customers did manage to spook each other; those little screams did travel well!). The atmosphere of the stones and bars was more than enough to conjure a sense of dread and despair.

Photographic conditions were rather dim, but there are some pix over at Flickr.

Global compilation aids Queensland flood victims

Surge & Subside fundraising album

Musicians from around the world have banded together to produce a massive compilation of music, with all proceeds going to the Queensland flood appeal. Called Surge & Subside, the album features musicians with an electronic and industrial bent, including Android Lust, Assemblage 23, Angelspit, Collide and Psyche. More than 40 tracks for the ridiculously reasonable price of $20 for the double cd (including shipping) or $10 for the download. It’s another case of a community rallying to aid their own, and more besides, in a time of strife. Great stuff.

Sunas on the Celtic Road

Two bands played at our wedding. One has had their home flushed by the Brisbane floods and been further left out to dry by red tape and fine print — Tycho Brahe soldiers on, though the road must be bloody rough.

The other, Sunas, are walking a brighter path, with their first label release, Celtic Road, now available from ABC shops and getting a nice dollop of advertising support to boot.

I had the privilege of launching their self-released debut a bunch of years back. I loved them then, I love them more now. And, naturally, the gorgeous cover of The Cure’s Lovesong will always hold a special place …

The musician’s road is not the easiest; here’s hoping it rises to meet both of these splendid outfits.

Spare some change for a flooded muso?

My mates at synth-driven band Tycho Brahe have been washed out of their Brisbane home by the recent floods — luckily, they were able to get most of their gear — and their kids! — out before the flood water inundated their two-storey house — both storeys. Most, but not all, and the clean-up is costing a mint, not to mention the dislocation of renting and having your possessions, right down to your chooks, spread across spare storage space across the city. Tycho supremo Ken shows the studio damage in this blog post and says the easiest way to lend a hand is to pick up some merch from CDBaby. These guys aren’t just great musos, they’re great people: snaffle a cd or a download if you can. Your ears, and the band, will be grateful.

Update: Ken and George of Tycho were in the Brisbane Courier-Mail talking about the flood impact; it’s a brief piece, but you get the picture.