Adalita: singing with ghosts

adalita self-titled album

I’ve been spending a lot of time with ghosts lately. They’ve been surfacing from old photos – some, not that old – as I’ve been digitising my negatives. Loss, it’s like a sea creature, isn’t it; a kraken, rising up when you least expect it, wrapping its long, sticky tentacles of lost love and missed opportunity and abject failure, all those dark tendrils that curl around your heart, your mind, even your lungs. And squeeze. It’s hard enough to face in the privacy of your home, let alone taking it on the road and singing it to faceless masses. Masses who chat over the top of your hearteache, who pay lip service to your craft … no, I can’t imagine it.

Which is why I found Adalita’s solo show at Melbourne’s Toff of the Town so damn engaging. I’ve seen her rock out before at the helm of Magic Dirt – I think the last time, maybe the time before, her lead guitarist stabbed his guitar neck through the low ceiling insulation at Brisbane’s venerable sweat box, The Zoo. Great gig. Great emotion.

And last night at the Toff, it was all about emotion, and there’s no better way to explain it than by starting at the finish, the sole, perfunctory encore tune, anything but perfunctory here. Adalita and guitarist JP Shilo duetted while MD guitarist Raul Sanchez slowly wound up a buzzing guitar, its recurring rasp slowly drowning out the singers as they backed away from the mics, until it was only the guitar, discordant, chaotic, howling. The guitar was loss and the crowd applauded as silence fell, because they understood enough to know that when Adalita dedicated that song to Rowland S Howard and Dean Turner, it was a eulogy.

The ghosts… Howard, an Aussie music legend of Birthday Party fame who had a big hand in Shilo’s career, and MD bassist Turner both died in 2009. The latter co-produced Adalita’s self-titled solo album, which she’s touring now. As if stepping out from the shadow of a band isn’t enough pressure; isn’t enough vulnerability.

In the absence of her band, Adalita had PJ providing effects and support on guitar and violin. Sanchez stepped up for an atmospheric dual guitar instrumental, and support act Amaya Laucirica played drums for one and later a guitar duet for ‘Good Girl’.

It’s a line-up you’ll hear on Adalita’s album, which provided the set list for the evening. She has a great voice, Adalita, and it was grand to hear her playing with form, breaking up the rock song formula to turn songs into stories with changes of pace and volume. It was a short and sharp set, a little melancholy, a lot hungry, a solid chunk of Gibson-driven rockin’ with backing tracks and effects pedals filling out the sound where needed. But that encore: such a powerful ending for a gig on a tour that signifies a new start.

I should think the ghosts would be happy with that.

WE got to the Toff halfway through Spencer P Jones‘ support gig, and apparently halfway through an argument as well. The one-time Beast of Bourbon was hurling insults and guitar licks at a section of the crowd in a performance that straddled the line between performance poetry and song; there was a certain air of Johnny Cash-style maudlin in there, between the shots of tequila (was it?) and slurps of beer and fiery glances. For the record, Amaya Laucirica played first support.

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