Review: David Rovics Live and Virtual House Concert

Watching a livestream broadcast of a concert is an interesting proposition for me, since I prefer my concerts actually live. David Rovics is undoubtedly at his best at a concert, so I joined the broadcast of his house concert expecting that (as I have found with his youtube broadsides and radio broadcasts) the abstract nature of the audience would detract from the show. I was pleased to discover that I was wrong.

Two aspects of the broadcast contributed to its success. The location, and the inclusion of a local audience.

There was an audience was in David’s living room, giving the concert an intimate atmosphere that went a long way to overcoming the sense of distance created by watching a live show via a camera. The camera was set up so we virtual participants “joined” the audience, and David could address both simultaneously. There was a message board that David (and all of us online) could see and respond to, so we were included in that unique rapport with the audience that he always builds with a live show.

There were also some special moments experienced just by the virtual audience. David has written songs about the grandparents of a friend of his in Hamburg, and he played both of them. That granddaughter was watching the show from Denmark, and responded with appreciative comments on the message board. It was interactions like this which took the virtual concert from “nearly as good as live” to having a unique value of its own, one impossible to attain with an actual live audience.

The interaction between global and local are a unique feature of today’s technology, and artists are often to be found there, experimenting with the tech and the show. This particular fusion of live and virtual worked very well, and I look forward to joining more concerts like this one, either (and this is a change!) virtually- or really.

Hamell on Trial

Hamell on Trial is my latest musical enthusiasm. Recently, Ed Hamell offered 8 of his albums for free download: “First they’re free, then you have to pay a small fee, now they’re free again. WHAT A Yo-Yo!!! Rich? Send me a million!! Poor, pay what you can!! BUT: Spread the word to the uninitiated!!! That’s only fair!!!”

I believe it is, and it’s certainly not a hardship for me to go on about music. So here goes.

The main problem I had writing this was deciding how to describe his style. My temptation is to say, “just listen”, but you know, I’m supposed to a writer here. There should be a way to write halfway decent words, even about an artist who has a mad genius with them. “I like words. I’m a big word guy.” he told a BBC presenter last year. I laughed when I heard the podcast, of course, but after listening to several albums, my reaction to this statement is “well, duh.” The albums I have downloaded – for free, I admit- have given me an enormous amount of entertainment, and so the least I can do is wax lyrical in the appropriate place, as requested.

So I pondered that for a while, with some (excellently worded) input from Cosmo (a songwriter currently living in Wales, and an enthusiastic fan). Like the Australian comedian Tim Minchin, Hamell on Trial (that’s his name for his solo act) merges music and shaggy dog stories, narrating from a perspective of personal experience and compassionate intolerance. Really. It’s hilarious and tender all at once, with no sentimentality.

From the east coast of the United States (Syracuse, in fact), Ed Hamell has a style of performance that is very popular here in Australia (insofar as we have enough people for something to be “popular” of course). I think of it as “standup comedy with musical backing”. Hamell on Trial pushes this style into a sort of acoustic punk. Fast-paced, clean guitar riffs accentuate a frenetic and poetic torrent of words. My favourite is this one: “Ed’s Not Dead, Hamell Comes Alive“.

It’s a collection of live songs – chosen by Ed’s roadie- recorded on the tour where he opened for Ani DiFranco: “infinitely bigger crowds than I was used to, cutting my teeth in larger arenas“. It worked. You can tell how he went down with the crowd. Listen to it. Laugh. Then go find the rest. and you know, pay for some of them, or tell someone about them. Cosmo told me he has a “small but perfectly formed” audience when he is not borrowing Ani’s. I like that, but “large and perfectly formed” would be better.

Vincent Cross, Live at the Retreat Hotel, Brunswick

The Retreat Hotel is a classic Melbourne pub with a dedication to live music, a type of venue that has almost disappeared under the weight of wine bars and yuppie-induced noise restrictions. Brown carpet, bar stools and wooden furniture, music posters everywhere. Arriving to the sounds of Vincent Cross sporting a newly acquired Akubra and making beautiful blues on his 1955 Malon acoustic guitar (I can hear all the musicians drooling), invoked memories of a mis-spent youth amongst the inner-city pubs that housed a vibrant local live music scene.
It was an auspicious beginning to a gig that was musically impressive, with stories both funny and moving, that left us with a warm appreciation for the type of music he loves to share.
Vincent Cross has a talent for drawing the attention of his audience. Over the course of the two-hour show the background chatter faded away, the audience enticed into listening closely by the virtuoso guitar picking, the grandeur and originality of the ideas he explored, and the intimate rapport that he projected.
Vincent Cross plays again at the Retreat Hotel tonight, and a house concert on Tuesday, which I will unfortunately miss, because he has a style ideally designed for such a venue. He made the audience feel as if the front bar of the Retreat was in fact his lounge room, and we were all hanging out with a friend.
Passionately enthusiastic about his craft and genre, the show doubled as a personal tour through the history and craft of an old, grassroots musical tradition. In between songs, Vincent displayed a talent for storytelling that combined very personal descriptions of the origins and meanings of his songs with a self-deprecating and slightly geeky sense of humour, and an obvious enthusiasm for thinking about music and its history and meaning.
Vincent’s lyrics are more poetry than anything else, a legacy of a childhood and adolescence spent in Ireland. “Living in Ireland taught me what words are really for”, he told me later on, and there is certainly an Irish feel to the way he constructs imagery that is vivid and sophisticated yet beautifully relatable. He works just as hard on his songcraft as his music. The rendition of “Sometimes”, a song about “what success and failure means to an artist”, on his latest CD, “A Town Called Normal”, had a particular appeal. Several members of the audience purchased CDs on the strength of their response to it, and made a point of saying so.
Born in Dublin, Vincent Cross lived in Sydney until the age of 10. This is Vincent’s first visit to Australia since his parents returned to their country to start a pub when he was ten, and the tour has been a moving and profound experience for him. It has confirmed for him that Australia is “spiritual home”. I was very pleased to be able to welcome this accomplished, intelligent and charming performer to our shores, and you will be too.