Blessed by the free gig fairy

If I had such a thing as a budget, it would have been blown to smithereens at last weekend’s Golden Plains Festival. Luckily, the Freebie Fairy waved her magic wand in my direction this week and said ‘You may go to three gigs in three nights’. I said ‘Why thank you, Ms Fairy. I do believe I will.’

Night #1

Natalie Natiembe

Honestly, it’s not that my vocabulary needs extending, it’s my native tongue that’s to blame. There are certain concepts for which there are no words in English, I’m sure.  In Spanish or German or Russian, there must be a word for ‘when you should be nice to someone because they’ve been really nice to you –but you just can’t because you don’t like them very much’. Or a word for ‘Dylan Moran’s peculiar sex appeal’. Or the word for ‘when something is scary and embarrassing at the same time’. (A friend I won’t even identify by initial drew the scary/embarrassing concept to my attention when describing how she once barked at a rabid dog in the street.  It was being aggressive and she wanted to show who was top dog.)

What has all this got to do with Natalie Natiembe? When I was watching her band, I thought there should be a specific word for the pleasure of having no expectations of an event and then being completely blown away. And another word for the kind of energy that exists between band members when they are listening to each other and have become a whole. Either my vocabulary doesn’t contain that word or English has failed me but Natalie Natiembe’s band had that special chemistry. They were riveting to watch.

Natalie Natiembe is a musician from Reunion Island (east of Madagascar), who did a show at The Toff as a sideshow from her appearance at WOMADelaide. A woman in her 50s, she reportedly only took up singing 13 years ago, having previously been a waitress and an accountant. She came on stage solo and sang a song in French, acapella apart from a hand drum she was playing. It was the gentle, folky type of thing I was anticipating, until her band joined her on stage – playing keys, bass and drums. With a muscular rhythm section driving each beat into the room, Natalie, who until this point had seemed like a middle-aged, slightly shy ‘world music’ artist, morphed into a punk goddess.

Natalie plays a style of music called maloya, apparently a form of blues brought by African slaves to the French colony. I don’t know what this sounds like when it’s at home but at The Toff it was a mixture of beat-heavy rock, reggae and dance music sung by a woman who appeared to be channelling a mixture of Nina Simone, Patti Smith and Piaf.

The sound from this video taken at WOMADelaide is terrible but gives you an idea of Natalie’s amazing performance.

PS: Tune in to PBS-FM 106.7 on Sunday 27 March from 5-7pm for a live set from Natalie Natiembe or listen online at

Night #2

Justin Townes Earle

A friend told me she’d had a one-night dalliance with a hipster. ‘I keep thinking I see him everywhere,’ she said at Golden Plains festival, as another bearded man wearing Ray-Bans, a trucker cap, a buttoned up checked shirt and skinny black jeans walked by. It became one of those festival running jokes. ‘I saw your guy on the ferris wheel, at the taco place, buying ice, playing drums in the band and giving someone first aid,’ I’d report back on return to base camp.

At the Justin Townes Earle concert at The Forum, the one-night-stand guy was out in force. There were hundreds of him in the audience; he was mixing the sound and was also on stage playing violin and doing backing vocals. Tell me, how did this beard thing start? Was it Iron & Wine? If you ask me (and I know you didn’t) beards are only good for one thing and that’s covering up a weak chin. Don’t get me started on The Abe Lincoln.

Justin Townes Earle plays guitar and sings very well.  He’s a good songwriter. He also seems down to earth, in that ‘I was born in Nashville to a famous musician and I live in Manhatten now’ kind of way. He’s got this whole retro designer folky thing going on whereby he’s photographed for his album cover slumped over a bottomless cup of coffee at a truckstop diner while wearing suspenders by Marc Jacobs. When he finished his concert with a couple of great covers, (including Bruce Springsteen’s Racing in the Street). He said he was tired of singing his own songs – and I believed him – as he is of the generation that can share with their fans how bored they are playing the same tunes over and over when touring a new album. I bet my friend’s hipster one-night-stand can’t get enough of him. Seriously though, it was a good concert.  No, I’m not being ironic. I’m so not cool enough for that.

Night #3

Chris Isaak

This is why Facebook isn’t necessarily a waste of time…An ex-colleague announced in her status update that she’d received free tickets to see Chris Isaak. Having passed by a poster for his concert the day before and thought ‘I wish I was going to see him,’ I commented: ‘I’m a pretty shade of green right now.’ She wrote straight back: ‘Why don’t you come with me?’ Why not, indeed.

That’s how I found myself standing on the side of a racecourse in Mornington, 40 kilometres out of Melbourne, the luminosity of the supermoon failing to compete with Chris Isaak’s mirrored suit (his second outfit – the first was an aqua suit with cowboy embroidery and just a hint of sequin action). When his band played the opening bars to ‘Wicked Game’ the audience collectively sighed and I smiled remembering my old friend V. swooning to that song when it first came out in the early 90s. Chris Isaak must either love that song or be a complete trooper because he must have had to include ‘Wicked Game’ in his set for every concert he’s performed in 20-odd years. And after 20 years, he’s still hitting that high note, sweet and pure.

Check out the video of the gorgeous young Chris in white singlet serenading Helena Christensen. Poor Helena spends much of her time in this clip looking sad because she’s lost the top of her bathers. You won’t be surprised to hear that when I watch this, I have a screaming level of envy for Helena. It’s not really about Chris kissing Helena’s neck, or her being serenaded by one of the greatest singers alive today. It’s because I can imagine how much Helena would have laughed while making this video.

“I had the pleasure of meeting the late great James Brown,’ Chris said, during the concert, in his deadpan Californian drawl. ‘And he said one thing to me…what he said was ‘Aarrhh!!’ (Chris makes the sharp, guttural sound of a cat coughing up a furball). ‘Well some folks would have just let that go. But I’ve been living my life by that ever since.  Lord knows it hasn’t been easy…’.  Oh Chris Isaak, I so want to play table tennis with you.

Among women over 30 of alternative bent, Chris is not so much a sex symbol as a demi-god known as ‘Chrisaak’.  He is the fifty-something man who can sing Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison covers in a mirrored outfit that would put Liberace to shame, yet can also be seen in a John Waters film, a satire on suburbia, the plot of which is summarized thus: ‘An uptight, middle-aged, repressed woman turns into a sex addict after getting hit on the head, and  then falls into an underground subculture of sex addicts in suburban Baltimore.’ He was also a boxer and a member of the SWAT team in ‘Silence of the Lambs’. Is there anything this man can’t do?

Apparently Chris has had the same band for 25 years. In concert, he takes the piss out of  them.  He told the audience the pianist was doing real well getting over his alcohol and sex addictions. Having invited some women on stage, he pretended to be one of the girls explaining to her Mama that she didn’t do anything bad while out at the Chris Isaak concert. ‘Sure, I danced with one of them. But I swear he wasn’t a musician, Mama. He was a bass player.’

What a wicked game he plays. And that’s why we all want to play with Chrisaak.


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