MICK HARVEY
+ JP SHILO
+ LOUIS TILLETT
Wheatsheaf Hotel, Thebarton, Australia
June 22 and 23, 2013

By ROBERT BROKENMOUTH


My dad used to say that nothing was free. There's always a catch. There's a reason that nice man on the street is giving away Bibles, Robert.

He was right, of course. Those free music magazines you pick up for the what's on this weekend guide, the reviews of pub food, new beers and pricey wine, they make their living from the adverts. Stop putting in the stuff that the people with money to spend want to see and they'll stop bending at the creaky knees to pick it up. And the advertisers start to wonder why they're paying four or five hundred bucks a week. Self-evident, yeah? You don't change a money-making formula unless you can make more.

So I wonder why Rip It Up didn't get behind Mick Harvey here. Not even a little bit. The venue put their usual advert in, but I'd actually heard about this gig when I was at another gig; I only picked up RiU 'cause I'd heard they'd tinkered with the formula and was now only relevant to people under 30. Which is odd, for a music magazine, I think, since that generation has largely got a habit of expecting an awful lot - especially music - for free, so they can spend more money on their mortgage, haircuts and expensive, poorly-made clothes, shoes and haircuts. I expect they'll go under eventually and either someone else will take up their slack or our free street press will die. The reason this seems likely is not only because of 'the Internet', but simple ignorance of which formula works for most people. You bore the great unwashed at your peril.

Nothing changes, I guess, but coming to Adelaide is the guy who's co-written some of the most important and world-renowned Australian songs and ... not a peep. So Mick does well tonight; it's winter, there's virtually no advertising, no poster campaign that I could see, he didn't do any radio interviews... and people come.

So. It was cold for Adelaide. Everyone says it's freezing. Only a few degrees above zero! 

And of course, the bar wasn't packed. Saturday night! Places to go, people to see.

And I'm chuntering on again, aren't I? Damned if I know why more people weren't there. Something to do with fluffy slippers and mugs of cocoa, or an early night. Norway, people, Norway is cold. Not Adelaide. 

Wait.

I just saw Louis Tillett.

Blimey.

I mean, he just went past. In the Wheaty. Here in Adelaide.

Alright. Keep calm. Look at the ticket. No, just Mick Harvey and JP Shilo.

We get inside the performance arena, a shed the size of a four car garage with 5ts formica kitchen tables and a hodgepodge of chairs. We claim our usual spot beneath the heater (one of us has a cold). A few folk with memories of the 5ts sit down and fill the table (total strangers, I ask you) and we gas about stuff. Like, who are these people? They wanted to go out tonight, didn't want to stay at home and, rather than cruise the streets baring their bums at the police and driving off very very fast (sixty-somethings, you just can't tell them anything), decided that the city was too much of an effort and let's go around the corner to see what's on. So we tell them a little, just enough so they're curious.

I chat to a chap in a leather jacket called Tony I recall from somewhere (he bought one of my fanzines in 1990) who tells me Louis is supporting tonight. Christ. All this for $24? This is a bit like winning the lottery.

Briefly, then, what a pleasure it is to be in the company of Louis. The set is similar to one reviewed in I94bar in 2006. Starting strongly, then Louis just gets more and more powerful. Astonishing enough on the big stage (where I saw him last), but here in this little room where we can hear every sigh or grind of teeth from performers (various), he seems incredibly exposed.

Because the Wheaty is an intimate little spot, you get to see the performer up close, and ... Louis is his own man. Intent on the meaning and emotion of his songs, he plays in a style which dances from feather-light to raw and heavy, shaking the piano so it looks like it's gonna fall off the spindly trestle. Some songs are so incredibly sad and poignant they have me tearing up, all have me hanging on every word as they come out, carefully and clearly delivered, laden, riven, black, cursing, light, regretful, even savagely ironic. 

Rachel Slattery sings two songs, effectively giving Louis a break from his own intensity. And I'll single her out right now because she's got a powerful, distinctive voice and a good stage presence. The next thought bubbling above my head is 'I wonder if these two have considered doing duets?'. And then she steps down with a shy smile and we're focussing on Louis again.

But for the most part Tillett is lost in his moment, in his element, in Louisville. His eyes are shut for almost the entire time he plays, eyelids only opening a crack now and then. His familiarity with the keyboard is remarkable, like it's some sort of connecting tunnel between his outer self and his inner self. It's like he wrote the songs only a few days ago, they're that fresh and raw. 

I've not heard his version of Alligator Wine before. Screamin' Jay Hawkins' camp cabaret thing was a bit disappointing; Salamander Jim's funny-mean, sardonic thing was rather excellent, but all must bow before the master. Louis pulls out so much, finds so much guts in there. It's utterly huge. Extraordinary.

And Clock on the Wall made me cry. Louis left the stage to cheers and applause, still with a shy boyish smile.

A word or two about Mick Harvey. One of those gifted naturals who makes the playing every instrument he picks up look easy. But you get the feeling that there's a lot of determination and work behind this. He loves music, the making of it. Whether he's playing  or composing alongside PJ Harvey or writing a film score, doesn't matter. Lost in Music, you know? 

Mick Harvey and JP take the stage shortly after, explaining that if they didn't start now they'd run past curfew. And from the start we have one of those magical gigs which you just wish you'd filmed but perhaps it's just as well you didn't. Rosie isn't here tonight, she's sick, so it's just Mick and JP with Louis occasionally climbing up to man the keys with the help of some notes. There seems to be a fair amount of improvisation and reorganization going on in front of us.

October Boy starts the set, poignant, moving, and ... we start the technical problems. Once upon a time techy problems like this which would destroy a more uptight band simply make tonight's performance that much more enjoyable - and special. They both just laugh, joke between themselves and get on with it. If they're struggling it doesn't really show. You have to pinch yourself, the whole vibe is like watching a couple of guys practising, it's that relaxed. They talk to each other and, Mick, used to much bigger stages, realises everyone can hear his banter. So he tells us precisely that. It's very funny, he's on our level and we're with them, loving the closeness. Mick's a storyteller (wipe your Paul Kelly downloads now) and the vibe is very different to Louis. You're drawn to a different kind of freedom. Watching the relationship between JP and Mick is absorbing (uncle and favourite nephew maybe). 

Bear in mind that Mick is tourng to promote his new lp, Four Acts of Love, too; he doesn't even mention it. Just playing for you and me and everyone else. Songs like Glorious, God Made the Hammer, Summertime in New York and Wild Hearts, A Drop, An Ocean and Praise the Earth are all exceptional, delivered with Mick's fine, distinctive voice. There's a few from Sketches from the Book of the Dead and few from One Man's Treasure, as well: Planetarium, First Street Blues and Hank Williams Said It Best are played both nights. 

Mick introduces Photograph (from Two of Diamonds); 'This song's by Chris Bailey... for those of you who know who Chris Bailey is...' I never thought I'd have to explain who Chris Bailey is but I was asked, so I did. 

But JP has trouble with his e-string, busts it and improvises on his violin. Impromptu guitar tech, Steve, scurries over and asks if he can restring it - when did you last see a member of the audience help a performer like this? Mick notices, asks his name, cue cheers and a round of applause and Steve is the hero of the moment, then we're back into this delightful world. One of the boxes starts vibrating, and after casually going back to thwack it, Mick observes that his amp might blow up during the next song. It's all so without side, relaxed, good humoured, nonchalant, you know? This is like ... these two playing for friends they haven't seen for a while. Someone calls out for Sonny Boy, the Jeffrey Lee Pierce song he did on The Journey is Long. Mick is surprised, he didn't expect that.

The interaction between Mick and Louis onstage is lovely, relaxed. Louis smiles a lot, Mick explains he should explain about the next song but he can't so he won't, at which point Louis asks 'but which song is it?', to the amusement of everyone, including Louis and Mick. 

Standouts? Well, Louis' piano on Summertime in New York was striking, to say the least. But what really stole the show was Mick's voice, his lyrics, his demeanour, his songs. See, Mick has nothing to prove to anyone, he doesn't need to leap about and grab our attention. He's here to engage us, interest us, captivate us. And he does. And we were damn lucky to see him in such an impromptu setting, and even luckier to see him with Louis. 

I might wish someone had've filmed it, but maybe it's better to have the moments inside. 

Both Mick and Louis were happy to sign cds, vinyl and talk to lowly punters such as ourselves. The folk with memories of the 5ts came up and shook everyone's hand - they'd loved it. What a world this is. A magical night.

And then, the next day, one cold worse and another beginning, we decide to break into the piggy bank and come again.

Louis was spectacular, no other word for it. Just drags everyone's attention onto this concentrated figure in a heavy coat. The intensity was just ... huge. Rachel couldn't sing tonight so the whole set hauled us into Louisville the whole way. You couldn't move. His fingers dancing, crabbing, clawing at the keys, sweat pouring off him. It looked hard on him, and when it was over it was like dropping the cord of a gigantic pendulum which had somehow gotten attached to our chests. Amazing.

Mick and PJ clamber up shortly afterwards; 'It's dark now, time to start'. The mix is excellent  by now, they're used to the stage and the closeness and tonight, when the problems happen they use them. JP has a techy issue and Mick strums his guitar; 'I'll just keep playing these chords to keep them distracted'. 

And tonight's performance is superb. You can hear more of Mick's voice, his unique timbre, his concentration, his effort. We're mesmerised and inspired. How the local media missed this gig - this extraordinary moment in time - is beyond me. Aren't they paid to hunt down the news?

They do a long encore of several songs, Mick going to his list of songs and tries to figure out which ones they can do.

Mick says what a privilege it's been to play with Louis. He means it. We've been very lucky, but our privilege is to have been there with all three men who lose themselves in music. '...caught in a trap/ there's no turning back...'

 

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