Emiliana Torrini at the Forum on the 2nd of January, 2009

7 out of 10: Endearing Italian-Icelandic folkish lolling

Emiliana Torrini has established a strong following in these antipodean shores: the sweet singer with the Italian name and Icelandic voice managed to fill the Forum on a Saturday night set aside for soothing an aching New Year’s head. Only fourteen months separate her last appearance here at the same venue, and Melbourne’s couples are out in force tonight to hear her perform her adorable songs arm in arm.

Torrini sings liberally from each of her three albums released worldwide, showing no particular preference for any one. The crowd too is just as pleased with songs from eleven years ago as they are two, and they enthusiastically support Torrini’s performance the whole night through.

Much of the electronica from Torrini’s first and third albums are arranged for instrumental accompaniment. Live, the approach pays handsome dividends as songs such as Me and Armini and Unemployed in Summertime are rendered evermore affecting. The sparse, disarming songs of her second album, Fisherman’s Woman, only gain in warmth in the Forum’s ornate, starry surroundings, and perhaps the song she’s most known for in these parts, Sunny Road, is a delight to hear in such a setting.

Torrini does venture off into less salubrious territory, though. On Jungle Drum, the upbeat rhythm and her parum-pa-pum-pumming are completely out of place (although her dancing — a cross between Bjork and Peter Garret — is exceptionally endearing), as is the turn to noisier musical accompaniment more generally the further the night progresses. Torrini is best when everything is stripped back and her voice, so charmingly accented, is left to lilt softly.

This is just as true when there is no music. Torrini’s chats with the audience between songs are a joy. Her manner speaks of a happy-go-lucky soul, winsome, effortlessly prepossessing and surprisingly comical. Upon a crowd member’s wishing her a happy new year, she responded self-mockingly with “so let’s celebrate with another song nobody can dance to” before wishing for a dance beat and proceeding to beat box one herself. Woods, birds, cocktails and breezes are repeated themes in her chats with the audience about her songs and whatever else might pop into her head, all of which is duly lapped up by an appreciative audience.

Torrini is a wonderful performer, a natural singer and a disarming character. For those who made their way to the Forum, the second of January may not have been as raucous as the events of last year’s last day, yet its restrained splendour was a soothing contrast that is much more likely to be remembered.

Salmonella Dub at the HiFi Bar

4 out of 10: They need a frontman

The HiFi is half-filled with dub fiends, half of whom confuse sex with six. The crowd is sparse, but so is the music: Salmonella Dub are launching their new album, Freak Controller, the second since their long-time frontman Tiki Taane left the band to launch a solo career.

Much like Australia’s Cruel Sea, New Zealand’s Salmonella Dub have enjoyed a long career as an instrumental band at heart for whom vocals are an added extra. Not surprisingly, then, the loss of Taane has not greatly shaken the band; live, though, there are problems.

Salmonella Dub’s drummer, David Deakins, takes on the vocal duties in the absence of the more accomplished singers who appear on their recorded work. Thankfully, Salmonella Dub’s instrumental focus means we don’t hear Deakins sing too much; nevertheless, the lack of some kind of leader, driver and all-round spruiker renders void the band’s presence on stage.

Even more problematic is the percussion. On certain tracks, shambolic percussion that sounds as ordinary as the drumming of patchouli-scented hippies that befoul the serenity of summer nights is added to proceedings. One would hope that the messy beats are a one-off problem caused by technical issues rather than a more permanent deficiency in their performance.

Despite the shortcomings, the crowd is rapturous and engaged. And on the dub tracks, there’s good reason for such exuberance: when they turn the reverb up to eleven, Salmonella Dub do indeed evoke the feeling of a spliff – as all good dub should. The reverb on the live brass instruments sound especially good, as does the bounce of the bass. For perhaps the first time, I regret the prohibition of smoking indoors; the smoke from lit weed is conspicuous in its absence.

The continued quality of the reggae numbers confirms the impression: any time Salmonella Dub draw inspiration from anywhere outside Jamaica, the music suffers. It’s as if any musical voyages beyond Jamaica land them in the distorting straits of the Bermuda triangle. Be that as it may, Salmonella Dub do leave their audience in high spirits, and any departure from the three major chords of Melbourne’s countless rock bands is a welcome addition to the city’s musical offerings. Salmonella Dub have behind them a history of brilliant shows; tonight’s performance is not one of them. Nevertheless, Salmonella Dub have enough credits in the bank and such a solid dub style that a ticket to their next show will still be worth pursuing.

Justin Townes Earle at the Thornbury Theatre on the 2nd of October

8.5 out of 10: Melancholy twang done authentically

Tonight belongs to the charismatic and bespectacled; tonight is a night of loving homage tinctured by tongue in cheek.

Henry from Wagons and Justin Townes Earle are gregarious performers with charmingly nerdy exteriors. Their magnetic stage presences fill the capacious Thornbury Theatre despite the tables and chairs set out for diners that makes the sold-out show seem sparsely populated. Resplendent in their coiffs, Nashville shirts and rockabilly tattoos, the crowd is appreciative of Wagons and Earle, both of whom revel in the melodrama, melancholy and mirth of the musical heritage they draw from.

Wagons warm up the chilly night admirably. As always, Henry Wagons’s sultry baritone and the band’s jauntiness are a sheer delight heard live, while the almost vaudevillian nature of their show — Henry’s comedic songs and between-song banter are that good — is happily entertaining.

Wagons’s departure brings Earle sauntering almost goofily onto the stage, spectacles thickly rimmed and large, hair neatly arranged, his build as thin as the stick figures drawn playing Pictionary. He looks like a physicist from the 1950s, yet he’s the son of the legendarily hard-livin’ Steve Earle and was named after the more subdued musical drug abuser in Townes Van Zandt.

There’s no need to second guess Earle‘s Nashvile roots. His guitar and voice effortlessly evoke the Southern way of life with his impeccable renditions of the Southern way of cataloguing its ups and downs. Earle sings mostly from his latest two albums. Midnight at the Movies is a maudlin highlight, as is the achingly good Mama’s Eyes. The honky-tonk of What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome sets people a-toe-tappin’, and a cover of Buck Owens’s Close Up the Honky-Tonks in the encore is hilariously good.

Although he plays solo, Earle manages to create a full sound from his guitar that oftentimes sound like two, so well does his dexterous finger-picking capture a rhythm and a lead. His heavy stomps of the stage add an occasional earthy accent to proceedings, while the quality of his honeyed voice, naturally Southern as it is, rings resonantly true.

Earle, however, is short-changed by a muddy vocal mix that makes his lyrics difficult to comprehend at times. And without the diverting tale-telling for amusement, the lack of musical variety in Earle‘s solo performance allows one’s attention to drift.

Be that as it may, Earle wins the night, affably, gracefully, naturally, all the while demonstrating the richness of country music’s traditions.

Louis King and the Liar’s Klub at the Northcote Social Club on the 20th of August, 2009

6.5 out of 10: Low-key rockabilly blues professionally done.

The cult of the individual and the cult of the new go hand in hand – I am a unique snowflake, I have my own special gifts, the world awaits my revolutionising stamp. Unfulfilled dreams, the getting of wisdom and perhaps a certain sense of nostalgia all put paid to such desire for constant renewal, and one is free to admire excellence in craft and form.

Louis King is no whippersnapper with grandiose dreams of artistic fulfilment; Louis King is no rebel despite paying homage to a musical form that was once rebellious: Louis King is a rockabilly bluesman with a whiskey voice who knows how to please.

Louis King hits the stage at the Northcote Social Club sporting a fine suit replete with a collar larger than the state of Mississippi and a finer, well-oiled quiff the height of hilltops. He’s launching his new album with the Liars Klub, That… and a Quarter, to a reasonably-well populated audience of his peers who have resisted the siren song of leather on willow on the big screen in the public bar so as to boogie down to some blues. The rollicking instrumental Fangin’ kicks off the show, but as soon as Louis King sings in the next, The Devil Made Me Do It, there’s no doubt that the best instrument on stage is that voice.

Louis King’s voice is a resonant Holden Premier: nothing too flash, but powerful, familiar, reassuring, a classic. Louis King is steeped in his genre, and it’s his voice that makes the music more than just a museum piece.

The night shines most brightly, though, when Jake Mason’s keys and Ian Collard’s harmonica are a focus. Mason’s solos are a highlight for their ability to evoke the swamps of Louisiana, and Collard, of Collard Greens and Gravy fame, adds a rougher, more authentic edge to such songs as Elvis, Jesus and the Devil with his scorching runs on the mouth harp.

Louis King and the Liars Klub get people dancing, but it’s not in the freeform style of the latest hipshaking sounds. In the spaces on the floor, couples are repeating the steps they learnt in their swing and rock and roll classes. There are no new moves on display, no inspired invention, yet there’s an undoubted delight in watching well-worn forms executed with aplomb. Louis King and the Liars Klub ain’t post-rock nor electro-pop nor grindcore  — god bless ’em for that and the delicious night of rockabilly blues that they serve up.

Fred Wesley at the Hi-Fi Bar on the 8th of August, 2009

7 out of 10: Professional, stylish, jazzy; but not old school funky

All forms of music have their golden ages. Undisputably, funk’s was in the 70s when James Brown honed in on the hips and cast melody aside while his on-the-one groove was laid out as the foundation for George Clinton’s extended space jams.

Blowing his trombone alongside the godfather of funk and his other-worldly offspring was Fred Wesley. In the countless samples that pepper the tracks of today’s musical luminaries, you can still hear Wesley and his trombone from those halcyon days preserved, albeit reshaped and repackaged to suit the times.

Melbourne has seen a revival of interest in the funky sound of the 70s, so it came as no surprise that Fred Wesley and his band hit the stage to the rapturous applause of a well-informed audience. The crowd knew what they were there for – but it wasn’t for the muzak in the guise of Chick Corea’s Spain that first greeted them. Matters improved markedly, though, when the unmistakable bassline of Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon was heard next, and the choice of song proved indicative of a show that was more jazz fusion than pure funk.

Wesley wasn’t reliving the 70s. Unlike the offerings of funk recreationists – the Dap-Kings, for instance –, that warm hum of analog equipment which so shapes the musical form and makes funksters the most zealous of vinyl hunters was absent. Instead, the clean, precise and polished sound of modern equipment filled the Hi-Fi Bar, and the material Wesley and his band played for the first part of the set was devoted to jazz and fusion, which better suits such production values.

The second half of show saw the band playing more funk from the days of yore, and the crowd lapped up hits such as Pass the Peas and Same Beat. The contrived onstage banter and his less distinguished solo work suggested that Wesley was well-served by his more famous frontmen of the past, yet the band’s tight professionalism won over the crowd despite a certain lack of funky grit.

Gary Winter on trumpet and Melbourne’s own Barney McAll, who stunningly channelled Bernie Worrell on the keys, were especially good. And Wesley, as was to be expected, again demonstrated that the trombone need not be considered a daggy or inferior wind instrument. Musicianship of the highest order was certainly in the house, yet the dirty funk that a sizeable portion of the audience were hoping for had long since hit it and quit.