June 16, 2014

Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2014

Filed under: 2014,Archive,Cabaret

Freedman Does Nilsson
Tim Freedman
Dunstan Playhouse
June 12.

Waiting For My Real Life
Colin Hay
Dunstan Playhouse
June 13.

Murray Bramwell

The Harry Nilsson story is as paradoxical as it is sad. He had great success; but his biggest hits were covers of other writers’ songs. He was a brilliant vocalist, but never performed live. His first album was ignored by everyone – except John Lennon and Paul McCartney. He had an eight album contract with RCA Records and was paid $3 million not to make the last three.

Tim Freedman, the other famous Whitlam, “does” Nilsson for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival- and he honours a great musician in the doing. Dressed in the signature Schmilsson tweed cap and sporting mutton chop sideburns, Freedman channels Harry, Brooklyn accent and all. Seated at the Playhouse Steinway, he opens with Everybody’s Talkin’, written by Fred Neil and theme song of the hit film Midnight Cowboy. The first of his string of cover hits, it is still Nilsson’s most famous.

But more intriguing is 1941, autobiographical to the point of pain –“Well in 1941 a happy father had a son/ And by 1944 the father walked right out the door”; repeated in the final verse, where the dates are now 1961 and 1964 , and the father leaving is now Nilsson himself.

Freedman narrates the Nilsson story – and the legend. How he divided time between working as a computer analyst in a bank and writing and recording demos such as Cuddly Toy – a “nasty song wrapped in sugar” and a hit for the Monkees.

And his creative collaborations with musicians like Randy Newman, at that point a little-known, but much admired, composer. Nilsson recorded Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear for his 1969 album Harry and then followed in 1970 with Nilsson Sings Newman, a whole LP of Newman songs, with the same mix of wordplay, irony and satiric deadpan which characterised Nilsson’s own musical style. Freedman delivers a memorable version of Living Without You from that collection.

Perhaps it is Freedman’s account of Nilsson’s connections with The Beatles which piques our interest in particular. Dating back to 1967 and Pandemonium Shadow Show ( featuring She’s Leaving Home and a virtuoso pastiche of Beatle sounds with You Can’t Do That) Nilsson became the Fabs’ favourite interpreter. Nilsson met up with them when he went to the UK – about the time that John met Yoko. He and Lennon became close pals, later for a time he played (as coincidentally, did Colin Hay) with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band (and Ringo even paid to have his teeth fixed!)

But it was around 1974 when the Lennon / Nilsson antics became notorious in Los Angeles. Their Lost Weekend lasted for eighteen months and cost Nilsson his reputation and his health. Freedman uses Lennon’s raw Plastic Ono lament, Isolation as a litmus for that time. Nilsson’s huge success with Nilsson Schmilsson is now evaporating, his refusal to perform live, and tendency to self-sabotage conspire towards his increasingly lonely decline.

Tim Freedman’s narrative is unsparing in describing how a great career is careening downwards, but the songs ever remind us what a clever musical spark Nilsson was. From the perky metronome of Gotta Get Up to The Puppy Song, from One (is the loneliest number) to Without You, the sheer verve and yearning of his melody and the sweetness of his vocals are here splendidly interpreted by Freedman. Nilsson has been done, with a little touch of Schmeedman in the night.

With Waiting for my Real Life, Colin Hay is here to tell his story for himself. It is June and Friday 13th – an auspicious date in more ways than one. Forty seven years ago to the day, in 1967, Colin Hay aged fourteen, arrived in Melbourne with his family – emigrating from Kilwinning in Scotland.

On stage in “Mr Dunstan’s Playhouse”, dressed in a raffish red tartan jacket, his receding hair still spiked in punkish tufts, Hay is immediately engaging as, setting up a likeable riff on his acoustic guitar, he begins to bind his storytelling spell. With his tangy Scots accent he talks about his early experiences in Australia and his formative influences- first in his father’s music supplies shop in Scotland, then as he begins to build a reputation as composer and front man for Men at Work, one of this country’s most rapidly successful international acts.

Drawing from his eleven solo albums and the meteoric three recorded with Men at Work between 1981 and 1985, Hay, in grainy good voice sings the title song from Wayfaring Sons (“Don’t go out in the night”) then a slower tempo, almost ballad version of Who Can it Be Now ? and his laid-back homage to the beach life – Beautiful World.

Of course, his waggish humour and sardonic take on the world steers his commentary from tales of a friend being chased by a shark as prelude to Beautiful World to self-deprecating anecdotes of mistaken celebrity. Those “didn’t you used to be …?” encounters : In that band that recorded YMCA ? In the Flock of Seagulls ? The group that sang Turning Japanese?

There are dozens of stories and they are fun to hear – the Aussie Scots outsider at the Grammys , momentarily meeting Little Richard, then later as a soloist, getting to know Zach Braff, the creator of the TV series Scrubs – in which Hay (an occasional film and TV actor) appeared several times – and director of the movie Garden State, with its highly successful soundtrack which included Hay’s song I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You.

Needless to say Down Under is a mine of jokes and reminiscences – although the bitter “Kookaburra sings” copyright infringement case is not among them. “Wewrote this song,” is his only comment, “whatever you might have read.” He has stories about performing at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, of playing solo in Brazil, where he has a strong following, of an international tour he had to cancel and all he had left was a box of t-shirts with his name misspelled – Colin Hat.

This was the first time I had seen Colin Hay play live, although his reputation as a raconteur has long preceded him. And it’s all true. He is a troubadour and storyteller who draws in an audience and conspires with them with wit and surprising candour. Hay talks about his battle with alcohol and how fellow heavy drinkers don’t want to take it seriously, he also talks fondly and reflectively about his parents and sings There’s Water Over You as a tribute to his father.

From his 1994 album Topanga, he sings Waiting For My Real Life Begin, “Any minute now, my ship is coming in,” a meditation about expectations which he links to the strange phenomenon of rapid success and its equally rapid evaporation. It is hard-won wisdom and genially expressed. Colin Hay has found his real forte as a travelling singer holding an audience in the palm of his hand. Closing this excellent show, accompanied on his Gryphon 12 string, he sings A Simple Song – and makes a very special talent look easy.

The Barefoot Review online June 17, 2014.

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