Rebecca Hancock and the Prison Wives
Friday, July 19, 2002
@ the Rose of Australia Hotel, Sydney

In the normal course of events, having missed Rebecca Hancock when she supported Ed Kuepper at the Annandale Hotel recently, I might never have gotten acquainted with her music. After all, apparently she fronted a band called Watusi Now in the early '80s and I never caught them once (but maybe that's just a myth, since even up close she doesn't look nearly old enough to have been doing anything at nights in the early '80s other than her school homework).

However on this occasion there was a departure from the normal course of events, in the form of an email from John Sandow, her keyboard player (or as it turned out, one of her two keyboard players), coaxing me out of my ignorance with an invitation to catch the band at the Rose of Australia.

My mate Frank tends to dismiss the Rose as just the place where all the old refugees from the Sando went when that closed, but I can remember some runs of pretty good shows there from two of my favourite solo artists (Louis Tillett and Peter Fenton) on Sunday evenings. Ah hem, yes alright, maybe Louis was a pretty constant regular at the Sando in its heyday, but I'm almost certain that the shows I'm thinking of date back to before the Sando shut down. Frank just smirks like I'm proving his assertion for him. Come to think of it, maybe I am, but as a venue it still occupies a warm and soft spot in my affections, even more so since it's been done up recently. Anyway, aren't all the people that Frank's thinking of up at the Warren View these days?

When I get to the Rose this evening I find there's a support band playing, but I'm only in time to catch the end of their last song (so what's new about that?). Pretty soon the Prison Wives are setting up and John recognizes me from those damn pictures that the Barman has put up on this site. I on the other hand don't recognize him at all, because he looks nothing like the John Sandow I went to Adelaide Boys High with back in the dim, dark past. He doesn't, because he isn't.

I have no idea whether that John Sandow even played the piano. In fact I don't remember much about him at all now, except that his parents bumped into my parents one night at a school Parents & Teachers night (and fuck, how I learned to dread those whenever they loomed on the horizon) and his mother said to my mother, "Oh you wouldn't know our son, because he's always so quiet and well behaved, but he brings home lots of interesting stories about your son". I guess it's no wonder that long before it became Pauline Hanson's catch phrase, my mother developed a regular habit of demanding, "Please explain!".

Anyway, this John Sandow didn't go to my high school and does play the piano, so I hope that's clear now. He asks me what I thought of the support band, which forces me to admit that I hardly caught any of their set. From the look on his face he clearly despairs of me ever learning from my mistakes, but that's why I'm here tonight... isn't it?

All such questions become irrelevant when the band starts playing. They open with a killer original, "(This Town Will) Eat A Man Alive", that turns into a claustrophobic hymn to urban detachment and alienation. There may be eight million stories in the naked city, but few of them are reaching happy endings these days. The evening just gets better and better from then on as Ms Hancock, by turns sullen and sultry, leads the band through a kaleidoscopic parade of social and personal observations and experiences.

Despite the disconnected emotions of the opening song, much of her repertoire is intensely personal, although with any singer-songwriter there's always a danger of confusing a novelist with a biographer (as I often like to point out, Richard Thompson didn't need to serve a couple of years in gaol for his "deviant ways" and then go on a drug fueled rampage upon release in order to justify writing the song "Feel So Good" in the first person). Or, to look at it from another angle, George Burns once said, "What people are looking for is sincerity; once you can fake that, you've got it made".

While there's no obvious faking on display this evening, Ms Hancock is both able and willing to tailor her style and persona to suit the song she's singing. Sometimes sounding like a younger Eartha Kitt, while at other times sounding closer to a Marianne Faithfull who'd made a few more sensible/less self-destructive life choices in her youth (although for a couple of the songs a tad more smokiness and dissipation in the vocals wouldn't hurt; sometimes her voice is a touch too clear and clean for the languid, disaffected sentiments she's conveying in the songs), she explores the eternal themes of love, longing and betrayal.

In this she is backed all the way up to the hilt by the Prison Wives, who provide a very full sound with the dual keyboards, plus a second guitarist backing up Ms Hancock's acoustic and a second singer backing up her vocals. With most of the (non-singing) members having a cigarette dangling from their lower lips most of the time (and it's so natural that Nick Fisher makes Bun E. Carlos look like a complete poseur), the band has a genuine "lived in" look and feel to it that also complements the more world weary and melancholic songs in the set.

Biggest surprise for the evening is not only her choice of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" as a cover, but the way she does it, sounding like she's channeling the spirit of Julie London, perhaps returned to this mortal coil to even up the score for what Joe Cocker has been doing to "Cry Me A River" for all these years.

However, don't be put off by any of these comparisons to singers in your parents' (or in some cases, grandparents') record collection, there's nothing retro about Rebecca Hancock or the Prison Wives. Her sound and her songs are as current as they are eternal. - John McPharlin

Go here for a review of her album.