Last week there was a fair bit of talk about ageism in the Australian music industry - (including media, lest you think it’s only labels and radio who are offensive) and one of the stronger voices talking about it was the wonderful Lisa Miller.
The Melbourne singer/songwriter/interpreter is among our finest – and her 2007 album, Morning In The Bowl Of Night is a genuine Australian classic, as was discussed in this very spot four years ago. You can hear some of that album in the show discussed today incidentally.
(Ageism, by the way, is yet another issue ARIA is failing to do anything about while hiding from so many sins of its member companies. But let’s not digress.)
As a reminder of some of what Miller offers, and as a reminder of what we’re all missing with the absence of live music, Wind Back Wednesday pulls out a review of a 2004 show in the not-often-visited city to the north of Miller’s hometown. The city still exists, the venue sadly doesn’t.
Gaelic Club, August 6
It helps to have an audience fired up and giving back energy, drive, love even when you’re on stage. That two-way exchange can create a bubble, a separate space that is not so much cut off from the rest of the world outside the room as not needing it. At least not for these two hours. We’ve seen it in recent years with Mercury Rev.
Some artists never build that bridge and consequently operate remotely: they are to be admired but not necessarily to be touched or to touch. That’s not necessarily bad; it just isn’t usually transformative as the best gigs can be. The Who’s shows last month are an example.
Sometimes though the audience is there but not quite there: liking it but not able to make that leap into connecting or throwing back their own share. It can leave artists floating untethered, drifting further away throughout the night despite all their efforts.
Unless, that is, there is some internal dynamic, some inward-looking compulsion/propulsion for the performance that operates irrespective of the external. Great pain, happiness or indeed anything from the “outside” world that can’t be controlled in the normal course of events in this context can be directed and used to stoke the inner fire.
And that’s what seemed to be happening with Lisa Miller on this night. Against the warm but restrained response of the audience, she burned intensely.
There was no obvious change in appearance – she joked self-deprecatingly as usual; she teased guitarist Shane O’Mara as usual – but when she sang, everything took on a stronger hue. It was as if she was feeling all of these songs, all of these lyrics with greater force or a new eye and the result was a voice slightly thicker and a tone even richer.
The usually charming I Love You A Thousand Dollars had surprising grip at its core, a little tense hold on your attention, while No Place To Fall and Eleven were so strong in their vulnerability and brave in their openness. Likewise, a rare treat of Safe As Houses, done with only O’Mara accompanying, was like a late night fire of glowing embers that warm rather than scorch.
Though even lighter material such as the joyful New Record (which finished the night on a loose but girlishly buoyant note) felt the effects of Miller’s intensity, the greatest difference was in numbers such as the torch song, Hold On, which saw her singing with slowly expanding power that, when O’Mara’s guitar ran free, was there to match him and the band quite thrillingly.
Subtly but perceptibly, Miller’s approach pushed her band further, particularly Garett Costigan, who delivered one fiery pedal steel solo, and O’Mara who was unusually condensed but even more potent.
Maybe a hint of what lay behind this night’s intensity came in the dedication of one song to Miller’s mother “up in the sky”. But whatever the reason the result was a show that defied the circumstances and in its own way defined the performer.