HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF
The Factory, March 26
If we’re going to start a revolution, or at least an insurrection, it should be as entertaining as this. “Power to the people,” said songwriter/singer/activist Alynda Lee Segarra frequently, a message a surprising number of people chose to interpret as power to the people to dance like no one is watching.
There were some issues with this show that cramped, or crimped, complete satisfaction - of which more soon - but what was not lacking from Segarra’s troupe were reasons to enjoy.
To one side of me was a Ward Pally Austin lookalike (ask your grandparents kids) in stompin’-at-Maroubra evening casual circa 1960, and his companion in Diana Dors circa 1958 attire. They jived, swung, jitterbugged, frugged and cleared a space around them as wide as their grins.
Next to them was a woman whose slow but deliberate movements and focus on the floor in front of her suggested either an intensity of feeling or a serious intake of alcohol (or both). She knew the words too. Or at least the shape of them. And on the other side of me a late middle-aged couple with a loose connection to the beat but a strong connection to the feel, spent much of the show shaking their groove thangs.
If the audience mix of inner city, young, not so young and somewhat suburban was unusual – not just for their combination, but where do they all hear about Hurray For The Riff Raff in a city/country where good music is rarely given air in mainstream sources?? – a partial explanation could be found in the way Segarra’s songs seem to link the late ‘50s and the late 20teens via a southern American bridge.
That bridge being partly New Orleans’ universal roots but mostly a kind of borderlands combination of desert warmth, Mexican airs and evening torpor held back by rhythm - the kind of thing that Calexico do so well. This was particularly evident in the early highlight, The Navigator, which cruised an imaginary long road.
So something akin to doo wop might rock up into early rock’n’roll, sweet pop could segue into a proto-garage rock song, the slinky feel of Nothing’s Going To Change That Girl could be replaced with light psychedelia, traces of her Puerto Rican background would surface in different ways, and, when Segarra put aside the guitar and moved about the stage, a real soul stirrer feel could take over.
It was anything but po-faced (though only keyboardist Caitlin Gray regularly looked as happy as we were feeling) even with the political resistance message, and the move away from the rootsy sound of earlier HFTRR albums seems complete, and also comfortable.
While the backdrop told us “we’re all in this together”, and Segarra did offer some rousing fight-the-power moments between songs, the messages in those songs were not always presented clear enough through a somewhat murky mix. Where I was standing near the front the sound was reasonable for this room but I gather from others the same couldn’t be said elsewhere. And if you’ve got something to say surely you’d want it heard.
Which brings us to something instructive in the week we had it confirmed that the Basement is closing and talk has been about the “magic” or otherwise of certain venues.
There are several reasons why The Factory – a small/mid-size room in a town without enough of them - has never really kicked on as a favoured venue for fans, bands or promoters, even though all of us really hope it stays open as long as possible.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it, and a number of good things, like a reasonable chance of parking, fewer issues with noise complaints, and a way to actually see an act without distance or poles or an excess of tall folks.
However, there a number of minor quibbles which nag away each time. There’s the practical: sound is regularly a problem, both from the stage (there’s often lack of depth, and lack of balance seems common) and the bar up the back (you just know a quiet moment or a quiet performer will be joined by a crash of ice or jangle of glass).
And then there’s the more nebulous: it seems almost impossible to create atmosphere or energy here, the sense that you may be in a soulless RSL room hard to shake, especially if it’s a seated performance.
Even though the room wasn’t filled for HFTRR, it should have generated more “feel” and helped lift good material into a fully committed show. Was the band? The stage? The room? Us? All of it?
I wonder if there’s a solution that will enhance the experience on both sides of the stage. I hope so because, to quote Hurray For The Riff Raff, we’re all in this together.
Hurray For the Riff Raff play Byron Bay Bluesfest on March 29 and March 30.