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Whitely the Opera – Iconic Sydney

A chilly winter night in July in Sydney did not dampen the spirits of this avid theatre goer as I made my way to the Sydney Opera House for a performance of Opera Australia’s Whitely, the new opera by Elena Kats-Chernin and Justin Fleming, in its opening week.

I love visiting our icon of the “Harbour City”. A performance in January, the height of summer is pure magic. A balmy night – the lights of Luna Park, the ferries, a cruise ship, those dark depths of the harbour, and the Bridge. And glistening like pearls in the moonlight, those imposing, beautiful, awe inspiring shells of the Sydney Opera House. But even in winter the experience is magical; the air is clear and crisp and the cityscape more sharply defined.

I am aware of having been part of something quite special when attending the performance this week. Brett Whitely is one of this country’s greatest artists. How to encapsulate his life and his art and his legacy into a work that, because of the vagaries of live theatre, will never remain constant, will always be evolving?

But that is the metaphor. Whitely’s child like insouciance and his will-o’-the-wisp life spark can be conveyed best by performers and musicians, and indeed theatre technicians, producing a highly complex performance night after night, each performance with different nuances, and the audience each night adding its own unique reaction to the work.

I loved the experience. The story unfolds simultaneously through sung narrative, music and visual imagery. All seamlessly flow, propelling the audience through the journey of a life, flamboyant, brilliant, and by no means virtuous. David Freeman as director has created something that will have a life outside of, and long after, this Sydney Opera House season.

While I am not a musician, Kats-Chernin’s score is arresting. This is not an opera to “hum along to”, this is a poignant, beautiful soundtrack to a life. As Kats-Chernin says, in order to capture an unconventional life in music, she had to find something unexpected. “It’s a bit like cooking – you can pair unpredictable things. Salty and sweet together.”

The narrative constructed by playwright Justin Fleming is crystal clear and charts the major periods of Whitely’s life, as well as the relationship with Wendy Whitely, the addiction and the art.

While the majority of the narrative feels very real, in an almost documentary style, the denouement of the opera is less satisfying. Whiteley’s death happens so quickly, before you can take in its significance. The ending, where Wendy creates the Secret Garden at Lavender Bay, is “nice”. But for me and for my opera companion, it seemed somehow to lack the fire and the passion that characterised Whitely’s life and work. 

Visual imagery is lush and gob smacking in its ability to be the partner to the other performance elements. Huge digital screens not only provide the set, they become part of the narrative, the screens moving in and around the space, as images constantly move, grow and dissolve as projections. The towering Whitely works are digitally enlarged on the screens and lose nothing by that enhancement. The exterior and interior location vistas are painterly, and remind us that this is a work about visual art. 

But this is a performance, and it is the performers who really bring this opera to life. The ensemble cast is superb, with so many characters moving in and out of the narrative for a few brief moments each. Julie Lea Goodwin is lithe and athletic, elegant and sexual, reproducing the artistic and eccentric Wendy Whitely, and with accomplished singing.

It was Leigh Melrose’s Whitely that mesmerised me. His highly active performance left me wondering how he could sing from so many tricky physical positions! I could understand every word he sang, and at times I was moved by the sweetness and the poignancy of his voice. He absolutely encapsulated for me the life force that was Brett Whitely.

Whitely at the Opera House on Sydney Harbour. Essential and iconic Sydney.

Whitely : Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Thursday 18 July 2019


Paul Simon and Sting in the Hunter Valley: The Odd Couple


A warm February night in the Hunter Valley. It was Valentine’s Day and a waning moon. Is that significant? Is love on the decline in our increasingly  commercial culture?

A group of old friends, school and uni, were gathered for the Paul Simon and Sting gig at Hope Estate. It seemed like yesterday I was at the same venue under balmy skies to watch the consummate act of the Rolling Stones (review here) go through their geriatric paces.

Geriatric is not a word you would use to describe the 64 year-old Sting, whose rippling muscles defined his slender torso. Sporting a hipster beard, he’s still got it. I was a Sting tragic in the 80s, and still have a fascination for his musical breadth and diverse interests. I was richly rewarded on Saturday night. He featured a lot of his wonderful jazz influenced 80s repertoire. When The World Is Running Down and Driven To Tears were probably less accessible for the audience than Roxanne, but they made my night as I had last seen them performed live in the 80s with Sting’s epic jazz line-up of Branford Marsalis, Darryl Jones, Kenny Kirkland and Omar Hakim.

Paul Simon is a little worn. But not bad for 74, his performing style is not the main attraction. A consummate song writer, with the commonality with Sting of an interest in world rhythms, hearing him perform his music which had its genesis 50 years ago was a pleasure. I listened rather than watched.

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover and Still Crazy after all These Years were lyrical and moody, while Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes was wonderfully delivered and had the audience dancing in the aisles.

The Odd Couple did a couple of things that surprised me. When they sang each other’s songs they were really impressive. Simon’s rendition of Sting’s Fragile was poignant: highlighting the song’s political message. Sting’s back-story of America as the sound track to his first tour of the US gave a lovely new narrative twist to Simon’s lyrics.

I was least impressed with their duo singing. Their vocal styles are so different and don’t quite match. Not such a problem on Sting’s stuff, it really grated on Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel numbers. Sting is no Art Garfunkel, and I missed the pure, choir boy harmonies of the early Garfunkel. The Boxer, my favourite song of the original duo, in Saturday’s performance became formulaic and lacking in narrative strength. And the encore of Bridge Over Troubled Water, mostly delivered by Sting, was mundane and without real emotion. You just have to listen to Garfunkel’s singing of Simon’s lyrics to appreciate the beauty of the song.

It was a great night. I love to see musical legends of the 20th century perform live. These two, while not being a match made in heaven, were able to deliver a fairly representative selection of their musical history. And they clearly respect each other as musicians and people. There was a lot of hugging on stage, between the short one and the tall one, which was rather sweet.

And returning to Valentine’s Day – love off stage was there too. My old school friend and her husband, long time partners, danced bare foot in the aisles, absorbed in the moment and in each other, reviving even this old cynic’s view of life and love.

Paul Simon and Sting: Hope Estate Hunter Valley, 14 February 2015



Old Rockers Rock the Hunter: The Rolling Stones at Hope Estate 2014


The prospect of another gig in the Hunter Valley sends a frisson of excitement through this aging (at least physically) and (slightly) arthritic frame: a weekend of fine wine, fine food, good company and of course music! And on this weekend in November I got all of the above, with maybe a few tiny reservations about the latter…

The Rolling Stones in Australia: it’s a gas! We were fully pumped for the occasion: a fine dinner at the inimitable Shakey Tables, the subject of other rapturous blog posts, here and also here on the previous night; rather a lot of good wine consumed; and in order to soak  up the atmosphere, we were able to arrive nice and early on the day. As one would expect, the average age of the audience was …well… old.

At previous gigs I do a lot of crowd watching to find out what the predominant vibe is. This weekend the beer gut was compulsory for males over the age of 35. I grabbed a few shots  – but it was kind of hard to take snaps in case I got my phone ripped from me or I got beaten up – there were some seriously mean beer guts out there, mostly sporting large Stones tee shirts emblazoned with the Famous Lips. I definitely didn’t want to get shirt fronted by one of those dudes!

IMG_5172 IMG_5178

The concert was worthy of the hype. We got the Rolling Stones in fine form. There had been a worry that they might have cancelled, as they did their Victorian gig at Hanging Rock the week before. But Mick was clearly dealing with his throat infection, aided no doubt by handing over the vocals to Keith Richards for a few numbers mid set.

You can’t get away from the fact that these guys live and breathe rock and roll and do it with huge style, skill and even after 50 years, an obvious enjoyment for being on stage making music.  Mick, Keith and Ronnie bounced, gyrated and strutted the stage like aging peacocks, while Charlie, my personal fave, applied himself to some pretty amazing drumming with his trademark hauteur.

Thanks to Sharyn for Charlie’s photo!





The audience loved it. We rose as one to our feet when rock royalty arrived, and just as we had done for Springsteen earlier this year, we stayed standing for the whole set. Numbers like Satisfaction became more an a capella audience experience, as we sang or shouted the lyrics; people bopped, tapped and danced in their seats.

I loved it all. Paint it Black, for nostalgia, Honky Tonk Women for Mick’s sass and sex appeal, and Sympathy for the Devil, for its rather pompous but broodingly dark lyrics, were standouts for me, the latter accompanied by a vast red firescape that engulfed the stage.

The staging was, to use that overworked epithet, simply awesome! A huge lighting rig, audience blinders, enormous banks of speakers, three – yes three! giant video screens with pristine resolution, and fireworks, all made for a spectacular audio-visual event.

My little gripe was that the audience patter formula, trotted out by every major rock act on tour, coming this time from Mick, was a bit too off the cuff and insincere.

” ‘Ow you doing? Awright?” with that slight Cockney twang. Did he really want to know? I don’t think so.

But hey – he’s Mick – he’s 71 and he wears tight jeans, size 28 inch waist, and he’s got knees I’d kill for! Sexy as, for every gender, it was a treat to see him perform. And the final line-up of the band at the end of the gig seemed to show that they still get genuine enjoyment from performing – we all left happy.


Set List Saturday 15 November 2014 Hope Estate

Jumpin’ Jack Flash

Let’s Spend The Night Together

It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll

Tumbling Dice

Dead Flowers

Rocks Off

Paint It Black

Honky Tonk Women

You Got The Silver (Keith Richards vocal)

Before They Make Me Run (Keith)

Just Can’t Be Seen (Keith)

Midnight Rambler (with Mick Taylor)

Miss You

Gimme Shelter

Start Me Up

Sympathy For The Devil

Brown Sugar


You Can’t Always Get What You Want (with Sydney Philharmonia)

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (with Mick Taylor)




Bruce Springsteen – A Day on the Green


A late summer evening in the beautiful Hunter Valley. A year after the Neil Young concert, we were back On the Green for the Boss.


Hype, gossip and a little hysteria had heralded the concert. His other Australian gigs had been sell outs, so we were really looking forward to this!

Rain had threatened earlier in the day, but as always for Hunter concerts, the night was balmy and warm. The biggest audience the Hunter had ever seen made for a noisy, buzzy crowd, but they were good natured and friendly, some albeit a little under the weather as the night wore on…

We’re great people watchers, so we were fascinated by the crowd  – everyone from lavender rinse grannies, to dads and daughters, groupie mums, as well the usual concert suspects, with tats and T shirts and an amazing ability to consume copious amounts of alcohol.


So, the concert.

Bruce walks on stage and with one unison movement 22,000 people got up from the grass or their seats and stayed up!  Three  hours later we were still standing and could have stayed on. Bruce seemed to get more energy as the night progressed, and we got the feeling that he could have stayed too.

A fabulous concert!  As much showman as musician, he worked the crowd and gave them whatever they wanted, although reading afterwards about the gig online and getting feedback from other concert goers, I had the feeling that the concert repartee and audience participation were maybe carefully engineered…

Nevertheless, the concert was three hours of great rock and roll, tinged with a little folk and some interesting covers.

My standouts were American Skin (41 Shots), High Hopes, and the Ghost of Tom Joad.


Beyond Ambient


Quiet Space on Radio National is the highlight of my listening week. Mentioned before on this blog, I look forward to the hour between 12 midnight and 1.00am on Sundays and Mondays, when the inimitable Paul Gough presents a radio program of contemporary music that encompasses ambient, electronic, field recordings, distressed instrumentals and ethereal drones.

The Quiet Space Top 50 2013 has been revealed over the last few weeks in January 2014. Some fabulous music from a year of fabulous music!

Check out the website for the Top 50.

Here is my pick of the wonderful music I’ve been listening to in 2013. Beyond ambient, the creators of these performances, from many countries across the globe, make music that transcends boundaries, eludes definition and is highly atmospheric and evocative.

Some of these albums have been featured on Quiet Space or I have found them through links to albums thus featured.

Documenting the Decay and Book of the Folded Forest have been played, and played again, by me; haunting music that engenders reflection and contemplation on the natural and man made worlds, on entropy and decay.

a2132894020_9Documenting the Decay – Charles Vaughan

a0348918827_9Book of the Folded Forest – Orla Wren

a1611162738_9Visiting Tides – Simon Bainton

a3634851268_9A Sense of Uncertainty  – Good Weather for an Airstrike

a3888832538_9Epilogue – Endless Melancholy

a2227694531_9naimina-longeur – Chris Herbert

a3315961257_9Weathered – epic45

Frankie’s Pizza By the Slice


A little piece of the 70s in mid town Sydney…

50 Hunter Street Sydney, and a couple of security guys minding the poster plastered double doors under a dodgy neon sign reminiscent of the Cross.

Frankie’s Pizza looks like it has been there forever, dim, a little down at heel, and redolent with the charm of an Italian pizza joint plus American bar. That’s in the main space – but through the side doors and you enter a low ceilinged room which as a band venue is pure Aussie pub style. However Frankie’s is a recent addition to the burgeoning Sydney bar scene.

For me the most eye catching element of the decor is the collection of band posters mostly from the UK of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Some well known and more obscure artists.

Pizza is it for the food, plus wine, plus LOTS AND LOTS of different beers. The pizza was good – we had the Vegetarian and the Cappricciosa – both on thin bases with tasty, not too heavy fillings. The wine list was small but quite OK.


But we had come here on a Monday night for the music – the house band that plays every Monday with a different lead singer. Yeah – a rocky, groovy, solid and basic lineup of guitar, bass and drums, straight out of the 70s although none of the lineup looked like they were even born in the 70s… like the gen X, gen Y audience, listening to music from Steppenwolf to Hendrix more suited to the ears of their parents, who were conspicuous by their absence. Quirky and her companions were by far the oldest in the room…


The idea is a good one, bringing back the best of late 20th century popular culture in food and music, and a fun night out.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the Hunter Valley March 2013

Another glorious starlit night. The cirrus clouds swept in, but the rain did not.

The audience gathered on the Green on a balmy March evening was anticipating the arrival of the Legend with a distinct frisson of elderly excitement…

The usual Woollahra meets Wahroonga middle class set were less in evidence last night than at previous Clapton,Taylor, King or Santana gigs. Instead, pony tails, dreadlocks and tats were de rigueur for much of this audience of die hard old rockers.

But if they were expecting Heart of Gold and Harvest and a warm and fuzzy acoustic set from a gracefully aged rocker they were in for a rude shock.

In-yer-face grungy, gutsy heavy metal cum neo-punk is this writer’s description of the assault on the minds and ears of the audience. I loved it! It took a couple of numbers for me to get its measure, but by then I was swept into the tidal wave of the music in a some what trance like state.

The set list was pretty much dominated by the 2012 album Psychedelic Pill. But no amount of my previous playing of the album – at whatever volume – prepared me for the business of the night. Some of Quirky’s companions were less impressed and resorted to covering their ears once or twice for fear that the hearing aids already ordered for their twilight years might be needed sooner rather than later…

Some charmingly annoying English guys in the row behind us gave a running commentary on the gig, kind of epitomising the vibe with their vociferous debate about how long was too long for a guitar solo, and continually punctuating the escalating drunken discussion with “it’s Neil Young!” Yes we know! Their good humour and Python-esque banter made for a really great atmosphere and an entertaining evening.

Crazy Horse is a tight lineup. Despite my worries that an ambulance should be on standby in case of heart attack, stroke or burst blood vessels, their energy was phenomenal and the playing consummate – Billy Talbot on bass and vocals, Ralph Molina on drums and vocals and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar and vocals. The camaraderie between Neil and the band was so obvious  – a regular love-in – as shown in the photo below from the gig.


Yes we did get Heart of Gold, and although I am absolutely converted to in-yer-face rock I’m nostalgic and I just loved the rendition.

Walk like a Giant and Ontario were fantastic, but for me Ramada Inn was the standout. I was only sorry they didn’t do Driftin’ Back, my current listening fave from Psychedelic Pill.


The gig over, the thousands strong crowd made their way to the fleets of buses, with good natured banter, as we patiently waited for the buses to make their slow progress to the exits. Much discussion on the bus home about how loud is too loud, Neil’s faded Aboriginal flag t-shirt and the mysterious bra that appeared on his guitar at the end of the gig….

For me, contented, it was home to bed, the Quiet Space on RN, and the dulcet voice of Paul Gough.

A Day on the Green… rock concerts in the Hunter Valley

One of the nicest ways to enjoy live music – particularly rock acts – is an outdoor concert at one of the wineries in the Hunter Valley NSW. Part concert, part festival, part picnic, a Day on the Green is seriously cool, and very retro.

I have been to quite a few over the last few years, and it’s now the only way I want to enjoy rock music. I’m tired of large internal arena spaces where you’re seated so far away that binoculars are the best way to enjoy the act you’ve paid mega dollars to see.

On the Green the buzz of several thousand people, with a variety of ages from those not yet born when the bands were in their heyday, to the seriously geriatric, all gathered to listen, watch, drink, eat and mingle, is exhilarating.

The night is always clear, moonlit and starlit. I don’t know how the promoters manage it. A good upstairs connection I suppose! There’s something about being in the country, with that vast expanse of land and sky that is awe-inspiring, and makes you realise just how constrained our city lives are…

Santana, Eric Clapton, James Taylor, Carole King were all memorable winery concerts. But as a Steely Dan tragic, the two concerts I’ve been to in the Hunter are my standouts.  However I can’t tell you much about the 2007 gig. It was Steely Dan’s first time in Australia. I was so overcome with actually seeing them in the flesh that I sat completely transfixed, unable to do anything except feast my ears and eyes on the band that I was finally seeing live. I couldn’t even bring myself to take photos.

In 2011, I am relieved to say I was less awe struck and up to viewing them a little more critically and actually documenting my memories with photos.

I should mention the other act of the night was Steve Winwood. If you’re a fan of the man or of Traffic, you would have had a blast. He looked and sounded great! No apparent aging unlike some other rock legends who look exhumed or exsanguinated rather than animated…

The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys from the album of the same name was a standout. (album)

As this is not a concert review I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan 2011 tour line-up were fabulous.

The Miles High Big Band
featuring The Embassy Brats  
Jim Beard Keyboards
Keith Carlock Drums
Jon Herington Guitar
Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery  Vocals
Michael Leonhart Trumpet, Keys
Cindy Mizelle Vocals
Jim Pugh Trombone
Roger Rosenberg Baritone Saxophone
Catherine Russell Vocals
Freddie Washington Bass
Walt Weiskopf Saxophone

Just listening to the opening riff of Josie gave me goose bumps. The reference to Muswellbrook in Black Friday from the 1975 album Katy Lied, at a concert in the heart of the Hunter was funny and sweet and somewhat disconcerting from our American friends. Every number was consummately performed, at least in the somewhat biased view of this writer.

Here are some photos from the 2011 gig plus Carlos Santana from 2008 in the Hunter. From top to bottom:

2011 Walter Becker, Walter Becker with Donald Fagen, Steve Winwood, the stage

2008 Carlos Santana

2011 The Green




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Old music, still contemporary sound

As a fan of progressive rock, of the British variety in particular, here’s a brief overview of the music of the Canterbury sound, with some recommendations and links for those who are interested.

The Canterbury sound refers to a group of musicians in the 60s and 70s based around Canterbury in the UK.

The term progressive rock loosely describes the music: jazz, folk and rock were melded in varying degrees in the bands of the time.

‘The Canterbury scene is largely defined by a set of musicians and bands with intertwined memberships. These are not tied by very strong musical similarities, but a certain whimsicality, touches of psychedelia, rather abstruse lyrics, and a use of improvisation derived from jazz are common elements in their work.“The real essence of ‘Canterbury Sound’ is the tension between complicated harmonies, extended improvisations, and the sincere desire to write catchy pop songs.” “In the very best Canterbury music…the musically silly and the musically serious are juxtaposed in an amusing and endearing way.”’

The band names are singular: Caravan, Soft Machine, Gong, and my favourite in name as well as sound, Hatfield and the North, the latter taking their name from a motorway sign coming out of London.

Favourite albums I recommend:

For Girls who Grow Plump in the Night (1973)


Soft Machine
The Soft Machine (1968)


Flying Teapot (1973)


Hatfield and the North
The Rotters’ Club (1975)


Each of these bands’ discography is well worth delving into. And of course there are other bands and bands related to the genre that are really interesting.

Incidentally, some well known musical names have been associated with the Canterbury sound.

Robert Wyatt, Mike Oldfield and the drumming legend Bill Bruford are notable.

The Quiet Space Top 50 2012

Check out the Quiet Space Top 50 2012. Some amazing music.
Number 5 in the Top 50 is Charles Vaughan Documenting the Decay.
“The music here…. is a collection of tape distressed instrumentals, mainly played on ancient synths, piano, old broken vinyl and the odd detuned zither.”

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