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City Recital Hall, Sydney, March 11

TO BE THIS GOOD was the bonus. But what a bonus, and maybe a deserved reward this week. This hellish fortnight. Hell, this decade.

Who knew? After all, it was enough of a wonder that this gig happened at all. Here were two overseas artists who agreed to travel here when two weeks hotel quarantine was the requirement, and then they actually turned up. Here was a venue that was staging gigs with no flooding in nearby streets or sinking floors, a mask mandate for those of us less keen on “let it rip”, and a sound mixer who knew her stuff.

And here was an audience prepared to step out of the house for singer/songwriters whose quality may be undeniable but whose public/media profile is, let’s say, somewhat in the shadow of Foo Fighters.

Erin Rae, sang of “pretty boys courting pretty women/They’ve got flowers in their hair”, but in a song about emotional as much as physical displacement. She sang “I don’t want to have a bad mind” but in a song about smalltown thinking and resisting the temptation to conform. She appeared in a long, blue prairie dress that harked to simpler times but sang of it being time to “Round up the old perceptions/Lay them on down/They’re only tellin’ stories and they’re gettin' in the way right now”.

She was, in other words, both past and present, gentle and forceful, armed only with an acoustic guitar (and in one song a hummed “trumpet” line), and a voice that feels carried on the wind: light and sometimes buffeted, but always reaching us and, with little disturbance, ruffling our emotions.

And that was true whether in the hazy land between folk and country where Love Like Before sat, in the Laurel Canyon breeziness of California Belongs To You, or the pop meets something more formal area that Lighten Up suggests.

If Rae has a voice that is carried by the wind, Courtney Marie Andrews has one that harnesses the wind: not just with depth and grace that suggests the intersection of Janis Ian and Linda Ronstadt, but sometimes a sense that it must be being double tracked to sound so full, so suggestive.

That voice elevates already good material to something layered and complex. There was something gorgeously tender in Burlap String that was wistful but not sad, a difficult coexistence mirrored in the way Irene managed weightiness and lightness in its earned wisdom. If the absorbed country in May Your Kindness Remain seemed to take you in the direction of the field, that voice tugged you towards the church; when Would You turned on a hiccup/yodel and you flew up with it, it was suddenly obvious that Andrews had been insinuating that song stealthily through the verses.

Boundaries didn’t really make much difference here. Folk blended into gospel in Ships In The Night, gospel broke itself down into country in Guilty, and country opened out into something quite magnificent (and yet crushing) in It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault. All these things made sense because you could hear it all in the roots of these songs and feel it flower in the space of this voice.

It was good. I envy Melbourne getting multiple runs at this double bill – now that’s a proper bonus.

Courtney Marie Andrews and Erin Rae play Port Fairy Folk Festival, March 12-13; Wesley Anne, Melbourne, March 15; The Espy, Melbourne, March 16; Bridge Hotel, Castlemaine, March 18; Archie’s Creek Hotel, March 19; Westwood, Melbourne, March 20


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