Johnette Napolitano at the Spiegeltent: night 1

johnette napolitano at the melbourne spiegeltent

Night 3 performance. Pic: Kirstyn McDermott

Please, memory gods, don’t let this one fade: Johnette Napolitano, bathed in blue lights, bare arms showing muscle and tattoos, sleeveless red-and-black gothic dress over black trousers, black hair curling freely around her face, funky top hat with shiny pins; there’s rain on the canvas roof of the Spiegeltent and the leadlight windows are aglow from without; she’s singing to the accompaniment of only her guitar, strumming a low stalking beat, her voice infused with a blues note — ‘going all Louis Armstrong on your arse’, as she says in a breathy undertone with a hint of chuckle — and the song is ‘Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)’, and it encapsulates everything, absolutely everything I’ve come here for.

Oh yes, I’m a fan, and last night — the first of a three-gig run — was a demonstration of why. That face, lined and shadowed with a life at the lower end of the rock biz, an uncompromising life, that voice that carries so much emotion; and then that cheeky peek from under the hat’s brim, the eyes alight and round with amusement and wonder, and she could be 20, or 12.

I love her shyness, her humility, her quirkiness, her freedom to make mistakes and to interrupt her songs to interject a comment or a laugh. I love the way she plays her way into a song and then — oh — she’s in it, and it’s real, rasping low notes that make you shiver, those highs that make you tremble. She looks, sounds and acts real — ‘I like … my stories true,’ she says at one stage, quoting a passage from her Rough Mix chap book, a smattering of autobiography and lyrics and behind-the-scenes that’s only crime is being too short.


Last night’s gig opened with the recent Concrete Blonde release ‘Rosalie’, thrilled with ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, then sent a frisson with a spectacular version of ‘Mexican Moon’ — some flamenco notes, some Spanish, all heartfelt.

She sang a song about a frog on a log that she wrote when she was 12 — pretty good little ditty, that — and the wedding song from the Aussie movie Candy, the first time she’d performed it, she said (‘I was shitting myself up here; I’m still shitting myself’).

It was a freestyle playlist, snippets of tunes here and there including a grab of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ , anecdotes, requests, stretching back across her bands (primarily Concrete Blonde, her most successful venture) and solo work.

The Pretty & Twisted tune ‘Don’t Take Me Down’ was stunning on the piano. There was a strong showing from the Bloodletting album, in addition to the titular song: ‘Joey’, Concrete Blonde’s big hit, and ‘Tomorrow, Wendy’, the Marc Moreland song that Johnette virtually owns due to her stirring renditions over the years, and a strident ‘I Don’t Need A Hero’. Her wonderful solo album Scarred was represented by ‘Just Like Time’. The gig ended with an a cappella rendition of ‘Mercedes Benz’, completing an earlier impression of a Joplin-like presence.

Lord knows what I’ve missed. An hour was too short but deliciously long. She has two other gigs at the elegant, intimate Spiegeltent, an ideal venue for an acoustic performance from a genuine, and genuinely talented, performer.


  • Night 2 review
  • Night 3 review
  • Note: I’ve replaced an old PR shot of Johnette used in the original post with one taken on the third night after the audience was given permission to take photos for a period.

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    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.
  • Graveyard Train to support Concrete Blonde

    Huzzah! The support for Concrete Blonde’s 20th anniversary tour of Bloodletting has been announced: Melbourne’s Graveyard Train. Get your rockin’ darkly tinted blues n country gumbo here (apparently). Net snippets suggest they’ll be a superb match. Only a week before the curtain goes up!

    That would be Tuesday, rather than, um, Someday:

    SPEAKING of Melbourne bands, it was sad to read that The Vagrants played their last gig in September. I’d only just stumbled across their bluesy Aussie rock — innocuous but mighty fetching, and I had a hankering to catch them live to see if they’d go all firecracker like they sound as if they might on their album Be True. A shame. Here’s a taste of what we new chums missed out on:

    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.

    Three new things and a touch of regret

    First, the good new stuff:

    1. Prahran Markets secrets have been revealed thanks to a cool guided tour, and I now know about avocado that doesn’t go brown on exposure to air — not before the salad’s eaten, anyway — and the enticing woodfire smell of smoked garlic and the dizzying array of spuds, including purple ones. I don’t know when, if ever, I was so excited about fresh produce. Product of choice, however, was a blue cheese from Victoria’s Apostle Whey.

    2. Ego Likeness have a new album due out any minute now, called Breedless. (Here’s a nice live clip of an older tune, Severine)

    3. Spotted in the wild: Brissie writer Will Elliott’s Pilgrims. You might remember Will for his Aurealis-winning debut The Pilot Family Circus and its dastardly clown action.

    And now for the regret, though it’s still good news, oh yes! Concrete Blonde, or at least original members Johnette Napolitano and Jim Mankey, are hitting the road to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their album Bloodletting. This was the album that made me fall in love with this group, and it spawned their first gold in the form of Joey — in Australia, mind! Of course, the regret attached to this news is that the band don’t have dates for an Aussie leg on their tour. To celebrate, here’s the title track to Bloodletting: delicious!