Concrete Blonde storm Melbourne’s Palace

bloodletting by concrete blonde

The penultimate gig of their Australian tour, at Melbourne’s Palace theatre last night, found Concrete Blonde in fine form indeed as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of their breakout album, Bloodletting.

Lead singer Johnette Napolitano is clearly relishing performing: she was relaxed and smiling, utterly gleeful as she called support band Melbourne-based Graveyard Train up to provide backing vocals on the whimsical Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man and the grin never left her face.

For the Brisbane gig, four nights before, I’d hugged the barrier to catch every expression from this big-hearted singer, but this time I hung back on the rail of the balcony to take in the scene and let the music do its stuff.

The lighting was simply effective, the stage bathed in lancing red spots for the opening Bloodletting (again segueing from a tape of the ominous bassline of Bauhaus’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead) flicking to greens and blues for the chorus, and thereafter continuing to reflect the mood and highlighting solos.

With Jim Mankey on guitar — occasionally smiling, a big display from a man who tends to not give much of himself away on stage preferring to let the guitar do his talking — and Gabriel Ramirez on drums, Johnette laid down some thundering basslines as the band rocked out.

But Johnette’s voice was the key instrument, showing nuance and power as she cajoled, mourned and raged. When I was Fool exploded, Your Haunted Head became a jam, Run Run Run was as hard and heavy as you please. The crowd sang along, the chorus especially noticeable on Happy Birthday and the closer, Tomorrow Wendy (about a woman with AIDS who commits suicide), during which Johnette issued a plea to support gay teenagers and reduce the instance of suicide. She changed the finale of the song, saying she’d think everything would be all right, yes she did.

It was a shame there were a few in the packed house who didn’t respect the band’s request to forgo taking photographs — honestly, dickheads, do you really think flash from a distance is going to achieve anything but annoyance for the artists and those around you? (sigh: that’s a rant for another day)

There was a lovely dig at BP on Everybody Knows (she plugged the upcoming Leonard Cohen tour after this cover) — the Gulf has not been forgotten — and she added what sounded like a Native American chant to the cover of Midnight Oil’s Beds are Burning.

Humble and self-effacing, yet passionate and possessed of one the most striking voices, Johnette — in her 50s — appears to occupy a happy place indeed in her musical career.

How fortunate we are that she continues to share the love.

  • The set list was, as far as I could tell, the same as in Brisbane, though they played Someday last night and I didn’t note it on Tuesday; possibly I missed it in my recollection, though last night’s gig did last the best part of two hours, a little longer than Brissie.
  • Concrete Blonde rock Brisbane

    bloodletting by concrete blonde

    Any doubts that Concrete Blonde might have mellowed as a rock band were put to rest in Brisbane’s Hi-Fi Bar on Tuesday night. So too any doubts not already dispelled by the Scarred solo album that frontwoman Johnette Napolitano has not grown into a consummate performer who is content, if not happy, in her skin.

    Melbourne’s Graveyard Train — horror movie lyrics to a country-blues beat rounded out by banjo, double bass and a well-hammered length of chain — ably softened up the sizeable crowd who comfortably filled the tiered, industrial-themed room (bare bricks, exposed ducts, concrete and — just so you know you’re in a rock venue — a sticky timber floor).

    Our posse lined the barrier directly in front of Johnette’s mic, prepared to sacrifice sound quality for a close-up of one of the few singers I would call an idol: talented, emotive, uncompromising.

    We were not disappointed.

    Johnette’s bass — unadorned gloss black with simple, sweeping lines — combined with the drums of Gabriel Ramirez (who stepped up to the sticks for the Group Therapy tour when drummer Harry Rushakoff fell off the radar, and has stuck around) to lay down a thumping beat, at times reaching into the chest to alter the heart beat, at others tickling the throat or making a mild tremor under the feet. The velvet curtain hanging at the front of the stage billowed in time like a lung.

    And Jim Mankey, Johnette’s foil and anchor, stood unflappable and so very casual, whether filling in the background with his trademark guitar wail and chug or cutting loose on a solo for Hendrix’s Little Wing.

    The stage was simply lit, emphasised with an occasional billow of fog, and was adorned only with black muslin around the drum kit and a scatter of huge red roses — this tour marks the 20th anniversary of Bloodletting, a breakout album with vampire themed tunes leading the way.

    The stage belonged to Johnette Napolitano.

    Wearing a Spanish-influenced black dress, her movements were laced with Flamenco in bare feet and deliberate movements of the hands and arms; at other times, she would twirl the bass as she rocked out, at others pluck the strings as if each was a thorn to be pulled. A tattoo of a cross, filled with Celtic knotwork and surrounded by simple stars, adorned her chest, and her long, black hair at times fell as a curtain across her so very expressive kohl-darkened eyes, lending a hint of Japanese horror movie, a sense of mystique.

    Watching her descend into the emotional space for When I Was A Fool, led by Jim’s guitar, was an exquisite pleasure, and then to be carried aloft as the song built to its explosive crescendo …

    There were many such moments — Heal It Up, Your Haunted Head and more — in a set that ran almost to two hours and offered at least 21 songs drawn from the band’s studio catalogue (with Bloodletting most highly represented, naturally), skipping only the Mojave album (and the band’s debut, the eponymous Dream 6 before they took on their current moniker).

    A rock aesthetic ran through much of the set, kicking off with opener Bloodletting and putting fire into typically slow-burning tunes such as I Don’t Need a Hero. The pace eased when Jim took up the acoustic and Johnette rested the bass for a ballad set — Mexican Moon with Flamenco dance included — and was brought to a close with the poignant Tomorrow, Wendy, which saw Johnette slowly fold to hands and knees as the lament for lost life and innocence wound down, to arise on knees with a single red rose held aloft into a perfectly aimed spotlight.

    Unexpected delights such as Run, Run, Run, Your Haunted Head and Days and Days raised the roof — Johnette crossed herself before laying down a massive, manic bassline to intro one — and her voice soared, with Janis Joplin-like verve at times, on tunes such as Heal It Up. The encore consisted of the Midnight Oil hit Beds Are Burning and the raucous Still in Hollywood.

    It was one hell of a way to open their Australian tour, and signalled there’s plenty of life left in the trio yet.

    Songs, not in order: Bloodletting, Joey, Scene of a Perfect Crime, Someday, When I Was A Fool, Run Run Run, Happy Birthday, God Is A Bullet, Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man, Haunted Head, True, Little Wing, Everybody Knows, Mexican Moon, Heal It Up, Caroline, Days and Days, Tomorrow Wendy, I Don’t Need a Hero, Lullabye, Beds are Burning, Still in Hollywood.

  • A remastered anniversary edition of Bloodletting is available, with six extra songs.
  • Concrete Blonde touring Australia in October

    It’s official: Concrete Blonde are to tour Australia in October playing Brisbane (19th), Sydney (21st), Melbourne (22nd) and Perth (23rd). I am ecstatic.

    The band, who broke through with the single Joey and just couldn’t sustain the chart impact, are touring to mark the 20th anniversary of their brilliant album, Bloodletting, which has recently been released in a remastered edition with extra tracks.

    Yarra Valley wine tasting

    yering station restaurant

    There is much to like about the Yarra Valley. It is only an hour from Melbourne City, for starters, and offers spectacular rural scenery once you break out of the urban sprawl at Lilydale: a gorgeous blue-mountain horizon, lush paddocks of sheep and cattle, and vineyards. The vineyards are the main attraction, offering a huge selection all within close driving distance.

    My first venture into the region took in six vineyards in one day of easy driving.

    The first stop was Yering Station, a delightful property where we pulled up chairs by the wood fire in the lounge and enjoyed pastries and coffee over the morning paper. The staff were a joy. By comparison, the wine tasting in the timber-beamed barn seemed a tad tame. The cellar door was complemented by a range of foodstuffs and branded merch and the balcony bar looked tempting but not that early in the day. By afternoon our splendid winter’s morning had clouded over to cold’n’crappy so the bar remains untested. The complex has a superb restaurant that not only is architecturally interesting thanks to raw stone and water features, but offers a sensational view of the fields and mountains.

    Coldstream Hills, small but shiny with a hillside outlook, had a definite professional flourish to its tastings, with an emphasis on quality and a $5 per glass fee on the reserves (waived with every bottle purchase).

    We drove into Healesville to hit Giant Steps-Innocent Bystander, where the crowded restaurant offered a fine view of the winery on the other side of a glass wall, and was also offering tastings from the next-door brewery as well as their own wine. Very friendly staff made this visit a delight, with a cheeky pink moscato proving tempting. We had a chat with winemaker Steve (a fellow Joy Division fan!) who recommended two other vineyards, and very fine recommendations they were, too.

    Oakridge and Maddens Rise are veritable neighboures on the Maroondah Highway. Oakridge boasted an intimate cafe and friendly staff and a very tasty 854 shiraz (sadly, at $60, it wasn’t THAT tasty). Maddens Rise was a comparatively new kid on the block, with the cellar door in a superbly fitted out but small shed with only a couple of varieties on offer. The cab sauv was my pick of the day, and staffer Emma was an absolute gem. I was particularly taken by the shed’s panoramic windows: a clever way to enhance the view.

    We broke our tastings with a filling lunch at Rochford Wines, a vineyard known for its concert events. One of its standout features was an iron, circular stairway to a first-floor art gallery and second-floor viewing platform. Another was its fudge bar!

    Before heading back to the big smoke, we popped into Yarra Valley Dairy for coffee and picked up some of their cheese after a tasting session — a spreadable herb and chilli called Hot Cow and an ashed creamy blue called Black Savourine, both of which were decimated over a Coldstream Hills shiraz that night. I was taken with the shop’s unlined corrugate iron roof and the view from the loo — a very contented dairy cow up to its belly in green grass. Now that’s local produce!

    The thing I like about the Yarra vineyards is that the ones I’ve seen all offer a point of distinction, and there seems an effort is being made to put their own stamp on their product. Except for poor old Giant Steps, stuck in an urban surround, they all have a pleasant outlook, too, which certainly adds to the experience.

    With more than 50 cellar doors on offer, the exploration has only just begun…
    More pictures here.

    Dr John in Australia

    dr john, new orleans blues musician

    Renowned New Orleans piano man Dr John brought some hoodoo to Melbourne last night.

    Playing a packed house at the Corner Hotel, the 69-year-old, backed by the superb Lower 911 on bass (David Barard), drums (Herman “Roscoe” Earnest III) and guitar (Reynard Poche), cast a spell in this sideshow gig ahead of Byron Bay’s East Coast Blues and Roots Festival at the weekend.

    John looked resplendent in purple suit and hat. There were skulls on his piano and organ, a little bit of bone-shaking during a voodoo tune, a necklace of what looked like alligator teeth. (Barard, who played a solo support slot, had a Mardi Gras throw hanging from his mic stand.) But the magic was in the music, a parade of swampy R&B/blues/funk/gospel that had many in the crowd moving in time in defiance of a couple of sound glitches.

    John looked a little slow on his feet, but the voice was as strong and distinctive as ever, joined in places by the throaty growl of Barard. He has a particularly fetching way of saying “all right”, that Southern accent carrying the charm of New Orleans in two simple words. He didn’t have a lot to say, but when he did, he revealed a dry sense of humour that appealed to the audience, if the shouts, claps and chuckles were an indication.


    He played for 90 minutes, with Right Place, Right Time in the mix, and a couple of covers I didn’t recognise but apparently one has been around since “eleventeen years after dog shit”.

    The encore saw John return for a version of Let the Good Times Roll, taking up the guitar — he started his career as a guitarist before an injury to his hand saw him turn to the piano — to rock out his farewell.

    I still haven’t worked out what the object hanging from his right ear is, or how he manages to keep his glasses attached to the top of his ears. But there’s no doubting the good doctor still has his mojo.

    As an aside, I’m not sure the Corner was the ideal venue for this gig. The general admission sweat pen might suit the young’uns who don’t mind pushing up the front once the gig has started, but I felt sorry for the older people in the crowd — and there were plenty of them as you’d expect for a performer of this style and vintage — forced to stand for at least two hours in the hot crush. Being shouldered and having line-of-sight disrupted by latecomers and drink-bearers is, unfortunately, par for the course when you’re surrounded by rock pigs, but you have to wonder how the grandparents enjoyed their not-cheap concert from the floor as the humidity and body odour rose.

    The Cult to tour Australia!

    It’s official – 1980s super rockers The Cult are hitting Australia for the first time in 15 years. Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy are in the swing. I’ve been miffed about missing them in New Orleans by a few days a couple of years back when they were touring their latest album, Born Into This. A highlight of my time at The Courier-Mail was getting to do a phone interview with Astbury, so seeing the band – one of my favourites – is going to be a hoot. Tickets are on sale on March 19!

    Here’s a clip of classic single She Sells Sanctuary to get you in the mood for the May tour!

    Aurealis Awards, judges’ reports now online

    Further to my musings about the nature of horror, as a literary genre, as evidenced at the recently announced and fabulously conducted Aurealis Awards in Brisbane, the judges’ reports are now up at the awards site. I’m still grappling with the horror content of the winning novel, I confess. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the bush, but I don’t share the sense of menace supposedly posed by the landscape in Red Queen at all. And I wasn’t aware of the characters reacting that way. Why would country boys respond like that? The only thing they were frightened of in the Australian bush was other people — in this case, plague carriers. I think it’s very cool that a book like this can nudge ahead of a field with comparatively quite strong horror tropes; it certainly broadens the horizon. Anyway, food for thought, and I’ll continue to digest. (I certainly concur with other comments in this report, though not all.) (My musings shouldn’t detract in any way from the decision, by the way, nor the fact that Red Queen is a solid debut novel with plenty to recommend it; that’s not the purpose of this blog. I write ‘horror’ stories, call them what you will. I’m always interested to know what other people think of as horror.)

    Daybreakers, an Australian vampire movie with bite

    I’ve been excited about the forthcoming vampire flick Daybreakers for quite some time, for a couple of reasons, but primarily because it’s made in Australia, including my old hometown of Brisbane, by the Brissie boys who made Undead (an extremely effective small-budget zombie movie, with SF elements). The plot about a world overtaken by vampires sounds engaging, and it stars, alongside Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe, some great local talent in Claudia Karvan, Sam Neill and Undead‘s Mungo McKay.

    About.com’s Mark Harris has given Daybreakers four stars. His review is here, in which he says, “Daybreakers is a fresh and original take on vampire lore, using its genre trappings to convey an uncommonly conscious, allegorical reflection on society that touches upon class and racial conflict, the ethics of big business, politics, poverty, homelessness and the ravaging of natural resources.”

    Got those bases covered, then. He also assures us there’s chompin’ and stakin’ aplenty.

    According to IMDB, the movie’s due for release in Australia on January 21. Huzzah!

    Alice Cooper to tour Australia

    Shock rock pioneer Alice Cooper is heading Down Under with a new show, Theatre of Death. I’ve caught the Coop a couple of times in concert and he has never failed to entertain, even without his trademark stage show featuring a guillotine, and a Britney doll just plump for the skewering. I was impressed when he played a Gold Coast stadium one Easter the night following a Kiss concert: there was hardly anyone there, more’s the pity, but it didn’t faze him. He played his heart out.

    The latest album, 2008’s Along Came A Spider, was superb, mixing vintage rock and metal in characteristic Alice style as he unveils the life of a serial killer.

    Here are the tour dates, with tickets on sale on May 4!
    Tuesday 18th August – Win Entertainment Centre, Wollongong (Theatre Mode)
    Wednesday 19th August – Gold Coast Convention Centre (Theatre Mode)
    Friday 21st August – Newcastle Entertainment Centre (Theatre Mode)
    Saturday 22nd August – Brisbane Convention Centre (Theatre Mode)
    Monday 24th August – Sydney Entertainment Centre (Theatre Mode)
    Wednesday 26th August – Royal Theatre, Canberra
    Friday 28th August – Palais Theatre, Melbourne
    Saturday 29th August – Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide
    Tuesday 1st September – Challenge Stadium, Perth (Theatre Mode)

    Here’s more about Along Came A Spider and a 2005 pre-tour interview with Alice. And a triple-play from Spider:

    Gary Numan blasts Brisbane

    Unfortunately, Gary Numan’s triumphant return to Australia, playing Brisbane’s Tivoli on March 2, coincided with my losing net access, hence the late post.

    Suffice to say, Numan was superb. Brilliant light show; deep, timber-rattling bass that didn’t make the ears ring; hot young dudes on guitar, bass, keys and synths; and Gary, ah Gary, turning 51 next week, so clearly enjoying his renaissance since making such a profound impact with his Tubeway Army back in the late 70s (when he last toured Oz).

    The two-hour gig concentrated on his most recent album, Jagged, recently released as a two-CD remix called Jagged Edge. But the crowd — and it was a pleasingly but not uncomfortably large crowd — also thrilled to the early hits including Cars and Are Friends Electric?. A blue-washed rendition of Down in the Park went over a treat.

    The gig really did showcase how far electronic music has come, and Numan’s role in it.

    The set unfolded almost continuously, and there wasn’t much chitchat from the man. Which was a pity. But Numan was a charismatic presence, stalking, sometimes a little meandering, and flashing a grin during those older tracks as the crowd responded.

    It was a sign of a great gig that I had his Haunted running through my head the next day.

    Flashback: my interview with Numan is here.