Vanguard 6: Making Up Shit As We Go Along
(For the show itself, scroll down to the asterisks. The first part is about How To Begin Your New Year With Russell.)
I said in an earlier report that I have to agree with Russell's assessment of 2005: Definitely "a prick of a year." All I can say for sure so far about 2006 is that it has certainly started with a consistent "thematic," to borrow another one of Russell's favourite words (no greater flattery from me than word-borrowing). Russell was making his presence known long before I walked into the Vanguard for the sixth show of the residency. It all started on the flight to Australia; actually, it started pretty much as the clock struck midnight and the New Year began.
When you take the less-expensive flights, you wind up flying at odd times and sometimes with strange connections. My flight out of Seattle to San Francisco was first thing in the morning, but then I had a ten-hour layover before the flight out to Sydney. Not so bad - if you can't find a few interesting conversations in the international terminal of a major airport over the course of ten hours, then you just aren't paying attention - but since my Sydney flight left after 10 pm, I figured that would mean no dinner on the flight, and by the time evening came around I was starving, so I picked up a sandwich - egg and bacon, quite tasty - right before departure time, ate half of it, and put the other half in my carry-on bag to eat later on during the flight. Once I got on the plane, they announced that they would indeed be serving dinner, and when I heard those words, I promptly forgot all about that half-sandwich for the next sixteen or so hours.
I sleep on planes; when I first get on, I ask the attendants to please wake me when the food or drink is served, and then I'm usually out cold before takeoff. Same pattern here, except I also asked them to be sure I was awake before midnight. I had a resolution that needed to be made, and I am superstitious enough to want to make it at the stroke of midnight, even if making it at 37,000 feet was a new way to go about it. Necessary details taken care of, I settled into my seat, which was a few rows back from the front of one of the plane's sections, just a few feet from that huge movie screen that is at the front of every section. Short as I am, I knew that meant I would only be able to see the top third or so of the screen that showed over the head of the fellow in front of me, but since I was going to sleep anyway, no worries there. In about 5 minutes, while we were still sitting at the gate waiting for the luggage to be loaded, I was sound asleep.
I woke up a while later, well-trained to respond to the sound of the beverage cart being wheeled down the aisle toward me. I opened my eyes groggily and found myself staring directly into the biggest frigging pair of soulful Russell Crowe eyes one could possibly imagine, only his eyes, since the rest of his face was hidden by the seats and heads in front of me. If my seat hadn't been bolted to the floor, it would have probably gone over backwards, that sight startled me so much. I heard someone make an inarticulate squawking noise, and belatedly realised that squawking someone was me. Half-awake as I was, those giant eyes startled the holy shit out of me. It was like Russell had been cast as God in a Cecil B. DeMille film and I'd somehow managed to stumble in as an extra, only to find myself belted into a seat while God peered intently at me over the edge of the seats in front of me. I got a few looks from the people sitting nearby, I'm sure most of them wondering why it was I was so unnerved by the sight of a closeup of Russell in Cinderella Man.
Right about then, one of the attendants announced it was midnight, that the old year had ended and the new year was beginning. Jimmy Braddock was winning his first comeback fight, the one that would be his initial step along the path of that second chance he was lucky enough to get and determined enough to make the most of. Not at all a bad way to start a new year, and I made my resolution with a smile. I stuck with the thematic and spent much of the flight giving those TOFOG CDs and the Texas DVD I'd bought at the last Vanguard show a thorough listen/viewing, along with another listen to the MHMH CD. When a good conversation started up with the fellow across the aisle about why Australia should become a republic and how Newfoundland was its own country before becoming a Canadian province, I stuffed all the CDs and the DVD back in my carry-on bag. Right next to the leftover half-sandwich, it would turn out, but that didn't get noticed for about another seven hours or so.
Even the longest flight eventually reaches its destination, and it was while waiting in the Customs line that I had my encounter with the Sniffer-Beagle. Imagine the cutest little beagle pup, him with a blue scarf tied jauntily around his neck, cheerfully wagging his skinny little tail, trotting obediently along with his master down one side of the Customs lineup. Now imagine that cute little dog all of a sudden coming to an abrupt halt and spread-eagling himself across my carry-on bag, burying his twitching nose up against one compartment. Imagine everyone nearby edging away from me a bit, one of those "I'm sure as hell not with her" mass movements. The Sniffer-Beagle's master holds out his hand peremptorily. "Your entry card," he demands. I hand him the card, still watching with fascination as the Sniffer-Beagle continues to try to snort my carry-on bag. The master scrawls a series of numbers across my card in red, hands the card back without further comment, tugs his reluctant beagle-buddy away from my bag, and off they go.
I look at the red numbers on my entry card and know this is not going well, still trying to figure out what the hell it is that has so entranced that hypersensitive doggie nose. I know I have chocolate candy bars and bakeapple tea in my checked bag, but I don't have that bag back yet. Slowly, in the dim recesses of memory, I recall a tasty sandwich being eaten a considerable number of hours ago. Shit. Eggs and meat, both prohibited. Simple enough to explain, though. At least, simple enough to explain when you don't have "unusual" travel patterns. In these troubled times, being unusual in any way is to invite suspicion and distrust.
I pick up my checked bag from the luggage carousel and head to the next line, and when I hand over my scarlet-lettered entry card, suddenly I have a personal escort to a completely new area. A young Customs officer comes up, I explain about the sandwich, he gives me a "You look harmless enough" appraising glance, and asks for my passport and travel documents. I know where this is heading. I try to keep looking harmless. He looks through my passport, and notices I have just spent three weeks in Australia, returned to the United States for ten days, and now here I am again, back in Australia for another three weeks. He gets a serious look on his face and starts to page through my passport, which has enough entry stamps in and out of Canada to set off more than a few "unusual" bells and whistles. HIs expression is even more serious by now. I see him linger over one page and I know what it is; that railroad-entry stamp for the Czech Republic. That one piques interest every time. "Are you here on holiday? Twice? All by yourself?" he asks. "Yes, yes, and yes."
He looks back up at me, I smile at him, and I can see the indecision on his face. I still don't look like a smuggler to him and he clearly does not want to have to get into a luggage search, but my travel patterns are patently of a suspect nature. I can see him searching for a category to put me into - a category that explains me - and I can see him not being able to find that category. "Are you carrying any drugs?" he finally asks. "No," I answer, wondering who it is who ever answers "Yes" to that question. He sighs and unzips my carry-on bag, opening it wide. And there it all is, in plain sight for all the world to see: One half of a bacon-and-egg sandwich, getting a bit ripe by now, and a pile of Russell Crowe CDs/DVD.
"Ahhh," he exclaims, his relieved tone making it abundantly clear that he has at last found that sought-after category. "You're here because of Rusty." He may not have said "You're one of those" outright, but it was easy enough to hear it in his tone and read it on his face. I'm no fool. Not a peep out of me about Newfoundland or long-haired guitar-pounding songwriting collaborators. I duck my head a bit and put on the properly slightly-embarrassed expression that was expected of me, and say, quite meekly, "Yes, I was here to see some of his shows in December, and now I'm back for more." He laughs at that, pointing to the CDs so his buddy can see and laugh too, and I keep right on smiling abashedly as he zips up my bag and tells me I can be on my way. I could hear them both still chuckling as I walked away, but I don't know if they could hear me doing the same.
If beginnings are a reliable indication, this should be an interesting
I'll start off my version of Vanguard 6 with a confession, that seeming an appropriate enough action to be taking place around and about the premises of the Church of the Holy Vanguard of the Lost Souls of Men: Given how they had played the show on the 20th, the first show that Alan wasn't at, with a little less emphasis on precision and a little more on charisma, I was wondering what things might be like at this third no-Canadian-content show. I've no clue how the show on the 27th went - other than an odd-sounding story about some long-haired bearded fellow with a walking stick getting up on stage, and I'm not sure yet how much creative licence and/or imaginative embellishment might be going into that tale - but for this show, the band was back to playing it with polish, clean and tight, looking and sounding as if they've been playing together for years instead of months.
Russell's own performance came close to defying description (though I am sure as hell going to try anyway, but I am definitely not using the word "frisky" in doing so, though I am sorely tempted to resort to "impish"). During most of the songs, Russell was the epitome of smooth and confident control, all the sweet notes hit and all the right moves made. In-between the songs, he at times teetered on the edge of self-inflicted chaos and at other times showed a sure and occasionally masterful control of his crowd; he was touching, outrageous, hilarious, insightful, raunchy, foolish, and wise - sometimes each by turn and other times all at the same time. There were so many contrary impulses rubbing up against one another in his performance that I kept expecting the friction to cause him to self-combust, and that may do for now as an acceptable definition of an "incendiary" performance.
After debating about it for too long and giving myself a corker of a headache, I've decided to keep the raunch (most of it, at least) in the report, because to cut it out would be to castrate the performance. The way the raunch interacted with the exhortations - flesh and spirit, foolishness and wisdom, silliness and seriousness, laughter and thought - is at the heart of what made his performance so powerful. I happen to be rather fond of balls, and I hate to be the one removing them whenever that particular procedure can possibly be avoided.
So, intact and "untainted," Vanguard 6:
The first thing I noticed when I was seated at my table was that "stained glass" backdrop at the rear of the Vanguard stage (a much-larger version of that tour poster that is in the Vanguard window, the one CGee took the photo of). I'm oblivious enough that it might have been there at the show on the 20th, but I don't think so. Either way, it looked good, setting the proper mood for what was to come.
The opener was Darren Percival again, the fellow who is a master of delay and looping functions and who manages to create the sound of a full band, harmonies and instruments, all on his own. He did exactly what the opener should do - he got the crowd warmed up, clapping along and singing together, accomplishing that with such engaging tactics as creating a multi-beep chorus for a cover of James Taylor's Traffic Jam and getting an unsuspecting woman in the audience to say her name into a mic, thus creating a recurring self-referential chorus for what would become Julie's Song. How easily all that singing and clapping came about was a sign that this crowd (a sold-out house again this night - when Budsbabe joined me at my table and that opened up her table, I walked up to the owner to tell him he had an open table to sell just as he was telling a couple the place was sold out, very good timing on their part) was going to be a good one, on this night being a crowd largely made up of couples of all ages.
During the break between sets, the table behind me finally filled up, and one of the fellows sitting there in prime viewing position had a "serious-business" camera with him, a camera with one of those zoom lenses powerful enough to give you a picture of skin pores. He was a pro and he obviously had permission to shoot (he also did an excellent job reacting quickly to the most dramatic show moments, though he did miss both of Russell's rock-star leaps), but I never found out where he was from. The back of his shirt had what looked like a business slogan on it - "The people who entertain and inform Australia" - which of course rings no bells with me but might sound familiar to someone else. Also to be seen during the break was the very diligent guitar tech fellow (sorry, but I don't know crew names, to me his name really is Diligent Guitar Tech Fellow) working hard to get all the last minute set-up details covered - and I did notice that "Alan's Gap" was still there, that open space where Alan would be if he were here, where he will be when he makes his way back here - including getting all the set lists properly positioned. He does this very efficiently every show, which is why I wondered why it was that after the usual round of Weather With You and the entry of all the other band members, Russell came out carrying what looked like his own set list. Variations in patterns are always interesting.
Also interesting each night is how the crowd reacts when Russell comes out on stage. At every show, there has been that sudden intake of breath - this night, a woman behind me let out a little cry of "Oh my God, there he is!" - and the greater the number of people there who have never seen him live, the sharper and deeper that collective intake of breath is. I could hear it well enough on this night to be able to be fairly sure that nearly everyone there was seeing and hearing something brand new, which has been the case with most of these shows so far, at least with many of the people I've been talking to. Especially as the shows have gotten more mainstream press, many of the people attending have been saying they didn't even know Russell was a musician, though everyone here (and I think it really is everyone who isn't living in a cave) knows about his acting; others are saying that they knew he had a band but never knew before that he was "serious" about his music. So far, in terms of getting the music heard by new ears, the Vanguard shows - and the tour overall - seem to be a roaring success.
After a bit of requested mental nudging from the Vicar to recall the full Church of the Holy Vanguard name, Russell went straight into describing how they had been asked to do Darby's Castle for the upcoming Kris Kristofferson tribute CD, saying "We were asked, we sent it off, we got a message back that said...'Thanks'" Succinctness describing succinctness, an enviable brevity, with the song following directly after. I think Russell's voice sounds very good down at the lower end of his range, which is where this song is sung, with a very pleasant portion of what some call a whiskey-warmth and others call "texture".
I was asked on one of the Crowe message boards recently what I think of how Russell is doing singing the songs, and part of why I'd been listening to those TOFOG CDs that helped get me past Customs was to get a better notion of how Russell has sung in the past compared to how he sings now (with the continuing caveat that I never really heard him live with TOFOG1, though Texas does give at least some clue how he sounded), to try to get some kind of standard of measure. I have a standard of comparison for Alan's voice, but did not have that at all for Russell's voice, which makes it hard to see things in context. I've read so many comments made by others about his voice, some of them quite critical, and I've wanted to understand where those comments were coming from, because in some places the criticism seemed quite harsh for what I myself was hearing from Russell on the MHMH CD. This was all before hearing him live, and I'll admit I had only casually and infrequently listened to the TOFOG1 CDs. It wasn't until MHMH that I paid close attention to his vocal strength or style, and not until Le Thor that I ever heard him sing live.
All voices change over time, some for the better, some otherwise, including Russell's, and Alan's as well. It's mostly a matter of how hard the singer works to improve his voice, or, in some cases, how much he cares for or neglects to care for his voice, as well as how much consistent use that voice is getting doing actual singing. Alan's voice has changed quite a lot just in the time I've been listening to him sing - the past four years or so - growing considerably stronger and he has developed far more control and discipline over it. There used to be a joke going around GBS circles years ago that "Alan sings in the key of A" to describe his tendency to wander off-key at times, but that joke hasn't been heard in a very long time for the simple reason that now it's so far removed from the reality of the skill with which he uses his voice. From what I've heard, I think Russell's voice now is both stronger and more sure than it's been in the past as well.
I'm by no means any kind of expert when it comes to singers or vocal styles, but I personally think Russell has a good voice, untrained and a little unsure on occasion, but a voice that is capable of being - for lack of more "technical" terms - impressively expressive of whatever emotional intensity it is about which he is singing. There are certainly those whose voices have more power and wider range, but some of those same could take lessons from Russell when it comes to that expressiveness. Russell has a very appealing voice, maybe most so when, on such songs as Worst In The World and One Good Year, he sounds distinctly similar to one of my favourite singer/songwriters, Elvis Costello, another fellow whose voice might be technically outclassed by some, but whose way of bringing his songs to life with genuine emotion and unflinching honesty sets a standard worth emulating. Russell does well with matters of phrasing and inflection and breath control, and all of that makes sense in that he must use those same skills when speaking dialogue in his acting roles, and he handles a tricky melody line - such as the one in Breathless - better than do many "day job" singers I've heard. My own opinion is that any issues with being on-key are more a factor of confidence than of ability; I have seen how his voice gains strength and assurance as a show continues to go well, and I've also seen him come a long way vocally from show to show even over the small number of shows on this tout; I think he's getting better with each show.
This tour really is a small number of shows objectively - especially when I compare it to GBS's more-usual 100 or so shows in a year - but when you add up how many total shows TOFOG (in any of its incarnations) has played, this small number on the current tour becomes a sizeable percentage of overall live TOFOG-By-Any-Other-Number performances. Russell hasn't had anywhere near the opportunity for growth as a live-music performer that someone like Alan, who does this as his "day job," has had, and now that Russell is getting a respectable number of live shows under his belt, he looks to be progressing by leaps and bounds in just about every live-performance aspect, vocals definitely included.
Listening to the older CDs and watching the DVD (and still knowing it's not the same as having been there), one impression I get in terms of vocals is that there could have been more care paid to range, that there are times that changing the key of a song might have resulted in a stronger vocal performance; that's an issue that appears to have been largely resolved with how the songs are being arranged/performed now. And there is simply no comparison when it comes to how harmonies are used to enhance vocal power in this incarnation of TOFOG. These differences are there to be heard on the MHMH CD, but not as much as they're there to be heard live. This time around, with this music, the voices (all of them who sing, not only Russell) are being used in the arrangements the same way the other instruments are used - in whatever combination creates the strongest effect and works best to bring each song to its fullest potential, and working within the strengths (and the weaknesses) of each voice/instrument. Russell still has lots of growing room for his own solo voice, and with as much as he's already developed and strengthened it so far, it seems likely he'll continue on in that process, if it turns out he gets the chance to keep playing live and recording, and doesn't wind up going months after this tour ends without singing regularly.
Yes, this really was what I was thinking while listening to Russell sing Darby's Castle, that and enjoying the wide-open view of Bones that was being afforded by virtue of Alan's Gap. Russell kept his eyes closed tight for this whole song, but after it ended, he got more into the mood to do some audience-interaction, starting off by asking the crowd if anyone had New Year's "stories of drunken rampage to share." There were a few shamefaced expressions to be seen, and Russell ran with that. "Are any of you just now surfacing, just now breathing air for the first time? Do you want to tell the tale of how many times it was that you spewed, how many species you killed?"
He was, he said (and he would say this of himself multiple times this night), feeling "frisky," and he predicted that there was much still to take place on this evening of Russell-friskiness, that he would be telling some stories, that he would be talking in "this accent" (cue The Preacher), and later on, when we had all become closer and gotten to know one another better, he intended to fully explore the "thematic for the evening: The Restorative Power Of Oral Sex." Now, given that this was The Preacher making this promise of what was to come, and homonyms being what homonyms are, it could be argued that what he really said was "The Restorative Power Of Oral Sects." To each the interpretation of his or her own choosing, at least for the time being.
Before starting the next song, Russell eyes wandered across the crowd, and he first thanked those who had been there at earlier shows, then he asked how many of those there this night had been at those previous Vanguard shows. A few hands went up, and he counted off four - nodding and noting that BB had come from overseas, adding with a wry smile, "But even more important, is anyone here from the western suburbs?" which got quite a chuckle, apparently for local reasons I didn't quite get, but the others certainly did - and then he smiled again and added, "Good, because if everyone here tonight had been here before, this would be fucking pointless, wouldn't it?" For all the debate that continues on about familiar faces at shows, it does seem reasonable to think that this night made for a good combination; some there who were familiar enough with the songs to know when to clap and what words to sing along, but also a plentiful number of brand-new ears there to hear music that deserves every ear it catches.
More of the same mood - still not using "frisky" or even "impish"...how about saying instead that Russell was at times the charming rogue on this evening? - to be heard in his comments before Weight Of A Man, which he said was a song to his wife, to all wives, to all young ladies contemplating becoming wives. "A song that is as much a tribute, as it is a warning," he added, his smile making it more likely to be a tribute embraced and a warning that remains unheeded. This song is where I realised that the band had truly come to play for this show; they were sharp, their timing was impeccable, and they were playing with all of their best enthusiasm and smiles, all while Russell sang with enough soulful intensity to get the professional photographer next to me busily shooting away. The same polish could be heard during How Did We Get, with good switching off on harmony parts between Stewart and Bones when Stewart was on the horn; Alan's part was still missed, but they were doing an excellent job of adapting and adjusting. Best of all is how upfront the drums were,during this song and for most of the rest of the night, though it did make me wish the bass could be made equally upfront. There is no such thing as bass being too loud.
On to the song that is "basically, essentially, completely about...Mario," back to that description of sitting at a table at Bill and Tony's ("How many here have been to Bill and Tony's on Stanley Street? It's good shit there...you can stick your foie gras up your ass.") and that platter of Turkish bread with thinly sliced tomatoes and Vegemite, listening to Mario tell the story of his second chance at a new life, sitting on a street filled with "all of those old blokes, most in their '80s, sipping their espresso...most of them were canecutters and there they are now, still seeking out each others' company, talking about all the people who are dead now." This description of Stanley Street, with its keen observation of how the tangible and intangible blend together to create a picture of something that is both specific and universal, was one of those moments when the point was driven home yet again that Russell Crowe has a genuine writer's eye, or maybe it is more an artist's eye, since it is how a painter or a poet or a photographer or an actor, not just a songwriter/storyteller, needs to see in order to create in their chosen field; listening to his songs and his stories, it is clear that he is that perceptive observer, and while possessing and exercising that trait might not ensure excellence in artistic output, I think it's the first step along the path to that goal. The song itself sounded beautiful. The intro keyboards by Stuart inspired one fellow behind me to call out, "Play it, Elton" in an admiring tone, and Russell's vocals were silky smooth. That bass run that Bones does right after the line "She took up with a Rockhampton man" creates a spine-tingle every time I hear it, more so when I can actually see him playing it.
Russell paused between songs to pour a drink from the bottle, then turned around and held the bottle up (and of course, the photographer didn't miss that shot), explaining that Galway Pipe (bit of a guess on the name, since I am not at all expert when it comes to imbibables; it sounded like "Galway Pipe" to me) was the drink of the evening, and he was showing the bottle so if anyone was feeling motivated to go get some more, they would be sure to get the right bottle. "You could bring one and we could share, or you could bring one for each of us. It's alright to share, but it's better to have one for each of us...sort of like oral sex." More foreshadowing of the thematic to come, but by now Russell had moved on into his comments about Mickey, and when he mentioned that Mickey was from New York, a somewhat shrill voice called out "Woo!" Russell paused again, a thoughtful look on his face as he peered out into the crowd. "Does that mean you're from New York, or are you an American and you figure that's close enough for a 'Woo!'?"
But when Russell's "Woo!" came out considerably deeper than had the original one, he handed the Woo-ing duties to Stewart, apparently confident that the proper pitch would be within his reach. Sure enough, Stewart came out with an impressively high-pitched "Woo!" which seemed to amuse Russell to no end, and may have played a role in leading to comments later about Stewart's former position in the church. After a promise that if the crowd got bored, he would play a game of Name That Tune with Stewart (which did not happen, since boredom was never a possibility at this show), Russell returned to the subject at hand, telling of his admiration for Mickey's way of taking each day on its own merits, of still being able to be surprised by life, even though he had gone through some terrible times, including being sexually abused as a child. "Boss," Russell said, in Mickey's Staten Island accent, "What I don't understand is how someone could disrespect me so much to do something that would fuck up the whole rest of my life."
Russell had the attentive crowd in the palm of his hand; I could see it on the faces around me, and apparently so could Russell. So he scooped up those he held in the palm of his hand and gave them a teasing juggle: "Before you all go 'Poor Mickey,' there is balance, as there is always balance in people. This is the same man who once told me, 'Juliet Prowse has the nicest smelling pussy I've ever come across.'" Startled laughter from many, as the crowd adjusted to that notion of balance, and Russell went on to explain how Mickey had worked for a time in a studio wardrobe department. one of his tasks being to determine which clothes needed to be laundered, that determination often being made by the tried-and-true "sniff test" method, which is how Mickey became acquainted with that pleasing characteristic of Juliet Prowse. "You know, Boss," Russell-as-Mickey said, with the perfect portion of naive wonder served up in his character's voice, "I always wanted to ask her what she used." More laughter, as Mickey took on a substantial shape in that balance, both victim and survivour, the same unflinching acceptance of the balance of pleasure and pain, failure and success, that can be heard in the song written about him.
Segues are always interesting - what makes a person move from point A to point B, even when the connection does not seem logical on the surface; even stream-of-consciousness follows a logical progression if you can understand the thought-process pattern, which can be a little like becoming a codebreaker. What Russell had just said about Mickey was making me think how well-written that song is, which led to the thought of how good the writing on the MHMH CD is overall. There is no way to know what Russell's own thought-process was at the same moment; all I know is that before starting into Mickey, Russell chose that moment to tell the crowd that the CD was for sale at the back of the room, though he did what Alan calls "shameless flogging" in his own inimitable way: "There is a CD for sale at the back. Now you can download the tunes off the internet, or you can wait until hell freezes over to buy the CD in a record store. Or you can buy it here. A word of caution: There's a 10-track and a 12-track CD. If by mistake you buy the 10-track one and walk away and then come back for the other one, the girl working there has been instructed to tell you to fuck off." As the laughter started, self-inflicted chaos threatened to rise again. "But you could just go back and swap it out for the 12-track, you know," the charming rogue suggested with a sly smile. "You could fucking stand up for yourself." Then another mercurial change, and now he was more the errant schoolboy, standing there grinning at his own potential for misbehaviour. "I'm feeling frisky tonight" he announced, the impudent grin equal parts promise and threat. "It must be the sunshine."
He had the crowd perfectly positioned for the Walk On A Wild Side opening that segued smoothly into Mickey, and he played the song perfectly with so much eye contact I could see people actually leaning forward toward him as he sang and smiled and caught each person's gaze in turn. I also saw that little smile on his face after the song ended, all of that smug satisfaction well-earned and completely deserved.
It might have been that satisfaction that set the stage for more flirting with anarchy, more in that search for a balance of sorts. First Russell called for a towel, having a "sweat problem" with his left eyeball. While waiting for his towel, he looked out into the crowd, all of us sitting there patiently and deferentially, waiting on him. He got the kind of look on his face more commonly seen on a 12-year-old boy who has just decided that it is so much more fun to be bad than it is to be good. He giggled, that giggle that has such power to disarm and endear and which must be a chief weapon in his arsenal of charm. "It's not that you aren't showing respect," he explained, giggling again. "You show me too much fucking respect...I'll issue a disclaimer...I'm just making it all up as I go." Perfect timing: As he said these words, the diligent guitar tech fellow handed him a towel. A gigantic white bath towel. Russell stood there holding the huge towel, it dragging the ground and him looking ready to burst into a fit of laughing that might last for an hour or a day or more. He composed his face into a very serious expression and looked over at the diligent guitar tech fellow. "Could you get me a big one, please?" And then with delicate care, he took one corner of the giant towel and very gently wiped the sweat from his left eyeball.
In what was clearly becoming the pattern for the night, this moment of surreal silliness was followed immediately by the cleanest and tightest version of Memorial Day I've heard them do so far. This one has been a real challenge to play cleanly and to balance correctly in terms of the sound mix, but this night, all of the pieces came together - especially the balance between Bones' bass and Dean's lead guitar - and what has on occasion sounded a bit chaotic was suddenly very clear.
Since the song had been done with such precision and power, it seemed time for some more silliness. Balance, yet again. Not long to wait. Following in the "Start Things Off With Holiday Wishes" tradition they had begun at the pre-Christmas show, Swept Away was preceded by a few rousing Happy New Year choruses before heading into the main body of the song. Stewart's high harmonies rose to the occasion on these choruses, prompting Russell to introduce Stewart to the crowd as "the former altarboy, and exactly how much he's been altered we'll soon find out." Not that Stewart let any of this faze him; he opened wide and kept singing for all he was worth. They've done more adjusting with Swept Away Bayou on the vocal parts, I think. I can still hear the empty spot where Alan's harmony should go - much like that empty spot on the stage keeps reminding me of who has not yet found his way back to the sanctuary - but what they were doing sounded complete and full. The crowd that had been originally gotten in good clapping form by opener Darren Percival was holding its own quite well with the Swept Away clap, and it was fun to see how many of the men there were taking part as much as were the ladies. Men can sometimes be slugs at shows, but that wasn't the case with this batch of them.
There was a particularly interesting moment at the beginning of Russell's comments about Raewyn. He started to tell the story of how Lachlan Drew's young life came to such a tragic end, and when he got to the comment about no one knowing how fast he had been driving when he hit that tree, some people, still apparently caught up in the silliness that had preceded Swept Away and the fun of the song itself, began to titter. When Russell heard the laughter he paused, a puzzled look on his face as he gazed out into the crowd. "They think it's a joke," Stewart said, quietly. The look on Russell's face was now sad, but also quite patient. "It's not a joke," he said, in that same quiet tone.
An immediate hush fell over the Church of the Holy Vanguard of the Lost Souls of Men, and in that hush, Russell continued on with "Lachie's" story, telling how he came to Russell after having applied without success for 110 other jobs, how he was a man who loved trees but whose only chance for work was in a sawmill, and how after Russell hired him, he set about to correct all of the tree-planting mistakes his well-intentioned new employer had made. Finally there was the description of that late-night accident and the devastation of Lachie's sisters, and how that devastation led Russell to a belated understanding of similar tragic circumstances shared by his own parents in their mutual loss of siblings - to "suddenly see how this terrible, horrific common ground could bring them together." By now, even the professional photographer next to me was caught in the story, his camera idle and momentarily forgotten.
It was a busier Raewyn than it has been at prior shows, more going on instrumentally and vocally, and it had a charm and a power of its own, distinct from how it has been played before. It will be interesting to see how they play it when Alan comes back next week.
Russell mentioned a few shows back that when he decided to record Miss My Mind, he emailed Paul Hyde to make sure this was acceptable to him, and that they then began an email correspondence in which Paul informed Russell that the song was not about what Russell had thought it to be about; instead of being about facing a daunting situation and coming out on the other side, as Russell had interpreted it, Paul told him the song was instead written to be about the inevitable decline and losses that come with aging, things such as fading memory, blurring eyesight, and squandered opportunities. Russell told that story again on this night, and that hushed you-give-me-too-much-respect crowd was hanging on every word. "It's not about coming out on the other side - it's about his dotage, and the other side of that is a fucking wood box," Russell said, shaking his head, a pensive look on his face. When Russell wrote back to Paul and told him he had heard the song as being about having the dogged determination and unrelenting hope you need to reach that other side, he said Paul had responded to that with a succinctness identical to that of Kris Kristofferson's response to their version of Darby's Castle: "Thanks."
There was one moment of silence after he said that, and then they started the song, what had been said before making it all the more poignant. and Russell used that poignancy masterfully, slipping his mic off the stand, moving into the open space so generously provided by another's absence and coming to the edge of the stage to sing each one of those now almost-painfully-moving words directly to audience members. That photographer had snapped out of the bewitchment and was doing his job well - he was snapping incessantly away as Russell sang.
Russell gave us a nice visual in his description of his first meeting with Richard Harris: "I was dressed in the finery of a Roman general, Richard was dressed in the finery of a Roman emperor, and we were surrounded by the busts of other Roman emperors." So, quite naturally given that setting, they talked rugby. Russell also shared a few of the "folkloric tales" about the days before Richard quit drinking, stories of oranges injected with vodka and Richard accidentally wandering into the wrong hotel room and clambering into bed with some poor couple trying to celebrate their seventh wedding anniversary "'What's the bloody idea?'" the man asked indignantly. 'If I had a bloody idea,' Richard countered, 'I wouldn't be going to sleep now.'" When Russell tells his tales of Richard, I watch his eyes; most nights I wind up hoping Russell had a chance to let his friend see that expression in his eyes before losing that friend.
After finishing the tale of how Richard refused to shuffle off this mortal coil until after he saw to it that his beloved Irish potato-men became the improbable victors over the Australians, Russell turned his word-portrait skills to a bit of self-rendering: "So I went to the pub, as you do in Dublin, and I wrote a song on the back of a beer coaster, as you do if you're a romantic soul writing a choral requiem for a dead friend." They sang Mr. Harris big, with a drumbeat that pounded like a telltale heart and harmonies that threatened to overflow that small venue. When they hit the last note and there was that last roll of the drums, they were cheered almost as much as I thought they deserved to be cheered, which is a considerable amount.
Things Have Got To Change was also Stewart's Nightly Endurance Test. Everything was progressing along perfectly, and Stewart had just started his horn part. Russell gave him a sidelong glance as he played and his expression was once again the 12-year-old boy who knows beyond a doubt how good bad can be. He turned and faced Stewart, now standing in profile to the crowd, lifted his cigarette, and took a leisurely drag. He then held the cigarette up and went through the deliberate (and attention-capturing) process of blowing off any loose ashes, all proper preparation for this evening's chosen instrument of Stewart-torment. A few strolling steps and now Russell is next to Stewart, who is still playing, still keeping his horn next to the mic, but already beginning to try to maneuver his body away from Russell. To no avail. Russell holds up the cigarette, and with a dramatic flourish, he inserts the filter end of it into Stewart's left ear. Now Stewart is going through a series of undulating contortionist moves to try to get out of Russell's grasp, but Russell stays the course and makes sure that what was inserted remains inserted, no cigarettus interruptus on his watch. Through it all, Stewart continues to blow his instrument with determination (more foreshadowing of the upcoming thematic for the evening).
It was now time, Russell announced, for "the dancing portion of the show," though there would be other things happening later in the show. Later he would be talking in "this accent" (return of The Preacher), and in that accent, he would be saying things that would shock us to the very core of our souls. "Now if I don't do that, be sure to remind me, because if I don't do that, it will mean I've forgotten." Then a long pause, and now the look was pure deviltry, straight to hell in a handbasket time, the smile an open invitation to anarchy. The Preacher had a few words to add at this juncture of the proceedings. "People tell me, 'It sounds like you're preaching up there'." A mock indignant look at these words. "And I say to them, 'Why that's like saying...a fish swims. That's like saying sperm coagulates.'" This was followed by something along the lines of it being good Mom wasn't there this night, but I was laughing too hard to hear it correctly, laughing not only at what had just been said, but also at the looks on some of the faces around me. One fellow sat there with a "Did he just say that? Is he allowed to say that?" expression on his face, but even better was the look on the face of his dinner companion. There are times you know exactly what a person is thinking by their expression, and I'd bet my bottom dollar that the puzzled look on her face meant she was thinking, "Sperm coagulates?" I'm not sure there could have possibly been a more fitting intro to Worst In The World, which he sang with a sense of cheerfully wicked glee, sounding like Elvis C. but using every means at his disposal - hip shimmy, twinkling eyes, brash smile - to play it Russell C.'s way.
Still no dancers, despite a repeat of the call to come on down. "You can dance if you want to; just push right past the people sitting at the tables," which seems almost as much character test as it does invitation. But an absence of dancing feet didn't slow any of them down on What You Want, one highlight of which was when Russell stood Gretsch to Gretsch with Dean, and the other highlight being when, at the momentary pause in the middle of the song, the crowd broke out into spontaneous cheers and applause. They segued immediately into One Good Year, and I like the come-to-Jesus organ part intro (and playing the organ also seemed consistent with the evening's thematic that was still waiting to come).
Yet another call for dancers, this one using example instead of words. Time for a bit of impromptu song and dance, as Russell broke out into the Tom Paxton classic, adding some dips and shakes and shimmies while he sang:
Could have been the whiskey, might have been the gin.
"I'm showing my style of dance moves as inspiration," he
Another Girl was another song he had been told
meant something other than what he'd thought it meant, along the
lines of Miss My Mind. "I'm
told it's about overdosing on heroin, but I thought it was about romance.
It came out in 1976, my first year in high school, and I was gorgeous...untainted...I
had just experienced my first oral sex." As ever, given the oral
medium of transmission, "oral sects" seems an acceptable
enough rendering too, if that's preferred, though time is running short
for such alternatives. Another Girl was played fast and furious and
they looked to be having even more fun with it than the crowd was,
with Bones. Stewart and Stuart facing toward each other and laughing
as they played and Russell coming over to Dean and using his mic to "shoot
up" in Dean's arm while Dean played.
After a few moments, Stuart came out and took his place at the piano,
and Russell soon followed after. Stuart began to play the MHMH intro
part, but Russell was in the mood for a bit of chat with the Vicar.
"Did you have something to drink, Vicar?"
"Did you drink a lot, Vicar?"
Russell added a charming bit to his story of how his wife was less than convinced that MHMH really is a song about the evils of drink when she first heard him sing it. "I won't violate the integrity of this building by repeating what she said to me...but the second word was 'off'," he sighed. "She didn't use to talk to me that way before we were married. She does now." He pauses for effect, one rakish eyebrow on the upward ascent, a multi-carat twinkle in his eyes. "I've asked around...I'm not the only one." This time there was more male laughter to be heard than female laughter. I still don't hear the apology either, but the more I hear the song, the more I've come to like it, and all of the stories that are now inextricably linked to the song have played their part in bringing that to pass.
It was time for The Preacher to take the stage and issue his Eat For Jesus invite for putting more crosses on the hill of Calgary (he said it again, and I think it was at least partly from missing that fellow who needs to come back and fill up that empty spot) mural painted by Mrs. Elizabeth Morgan's second-grade class. It was time to be talked to in "that accent"; it was time to be shocked to the very core of our souls. It was time for the in-depth exploration of the evening's thematic: The Restorative Powers of Oral Sex. And this is where it gets hard. Pun intended.
First, recounting what happened: Russell began
to look for something on stage, and when he asked where his song
list had gotten off to, I remembered that set list he carried in
at the start of the show. "I
need to find that song list," Russell said. "My notes for
the evening are written on it." But it had apparently disappeared,
so The Preacher was going to have to do fly this one by the seat of
his pants. He was going to have to make up shit as he went along. Not
that this would pose much of a problem for one as loquacious as The
"Now what I want to do is debunk a myth, debunk a myth I know has the young ladies worried, a question I know they've been asking themselves since primer: Can men do it to themselves?" The Preacher strikes a pose and holds the dramatic pause, the tittering getting louder as more people realise he really did just say what they thought they heard him say. A look of beatific delight spreads across his face as he notes the combination of shock and hilarity he is bringing to pass, divine chaos in the making. "I will answer that question for you, ladies, yes, I will answer that question. Only the very, very blessed have the flexibility to do that unto themselves, and I will offer you proof, incontrovertible proof, of the truth of my words." Another pause, another sweeping glance, and now a wickedly charming smile lights up the room. "If men could do it to themselves, ladies, you would be here by yourselves looking at an empty stage."
While the shouts of laughter were still reverberating, The Preacher was off again, the look on his face now one of challenge more than concupiscence, as he told a story that I have a feeling might have been contained in those missing notes for the evening, a tale of three men, all of whom came to their different religion by various paths, and how one of those men eventually reached the inevitable conclusion that, "Not everybody can be right; I think we're the ones who are right." And when he said those words, The Preacher shook his head sadly at such limitation of truth.
But The Preacher did not shake his head at the concept of faith itself. "This God thing: I'm betting that it's real; I'm enough of a gambling man to think that I don't know everything, that there's something going on that I don't know about. If all there is at the end is blackness, then what's the point of living?" By the time he'd gotten to that final phrase - "then what's the point of living?" - the laughter was a memory and it was silent again, the once-upon-a-time-dancers standing there at the edge of the stage, their heads tilted up toward him. There was an air of dizzied fascination in the room as people tried to adjust to the rapid-fire changes in topic and tone. He paused again for the space of a few heartbeats, allowing time for the dizziness to reach its peak and the fascination to strengthen its hold, and then it was time for one more twist in The Preacher's tale: "I did say earlier that if it sounds deep, it isn't...I'm just saying shit." This was said with a consummately inscrutable grin, and followed immediately by that "prayer of a song," Breathless.
Folsom was played with all the dancers up front once again shaking their asses with abandon, and quite a few others both upstairs and downstairs following suit. Everyone in the house looked to be having wonderful fun - all of it culminating in that rock-star leap at the end. I should have told the photographer to be ready for that leap. - someone ought to get a picture of that - but I was distracted, distracted by The Preacher, and I'd continue to be distracted through Easy and Free and Molly Malone, though Russell csaught my attention once again with his comment that he was going to ask the crowd to do something during Easy and Free, something that if more people would do, it might have the power to solve many of the problems in the Western World, including in Australia. To the questioning looks on the faces around him, Russell explained that he was talking about communal singing. And because they were not sure what else to do, most tittered again. This time the raised eyebrow was on the sardonic setting, and he shot back, "Go ahead and laugh - you think I'm pulling your tits? Why do you think it is you sing in church?"
I'm not sure how many people wanted to do much thinking by this point, but they were still more than willing to sing together on Easy and Free (I've noticed that Russell doesn't do the dog verse on this song when Alan is absent - perhaps it's only fun if he can make Alan laugh by doing those sound effects). They sang well on Easy and Free and on Molly Malone, but it was background music to me because I was still thinking hard about The Preacher, thinking about notes for the evening and about making up shit as you go along, thinking about the juxtaposition of self-administered oral sex with the refusal to accept blackness as the final scene of the play. I was thinking about the character of the Wise Fool, the only one who can get away with speaking truth because of how he hides that truth in the midst of nonsense, lowering the defenses of his listeners with laughter and then coming out with sharp-edged pieces of truth that could cut to the bone if they were not safely set within that protective shield of foolery. It could be equally dangerous to try to pull quotes out from the midst of the torrent of words, to separate out the "wisdom" from the "wit" when each needs the other for context, and to maintain that notion of balance.
So is The Preacher "just talking shit, making it up as he goes along'? Yes, at least to my own interpretation. "Making it up as you go along" sums up the human condition well enough for me; it's more or less what we all do. Is it a joke, or is it serious? Again, yes, to my own interpretation. "Serious Joke" seems to me to be another apt description of the human condition. My way of describing what comes from The Preacher is Revelatory Bullshit. That's what works for me. Of course, I'm just making up shit as I go along too.
But no matter how distracted a person might be, it is very hard to
ignore a crowd of people singing together, especially when they are
singing the best-ever pop song/pub song (I am still not sure which
it is Russell says, but since it could be argued that many of the greatest
pop songs are also among the greatest pub songs, perhaps it does not
matter overmuch). As I stood there and listened to the congregation
of the Church of the Holy Vanguard of the Lost Souls of Men lift up
their voices as one on the first Tuesday of what just might be an improvement
over that preceding prick of a year, it was almost possible to think
that what was ahead might even be that one good year, so long as we
keep making shit up as we go along and not making a habit of misplacing
our notes for the evening. Not neglecting those restorative powers
might be a good idea too