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City Recital Hall, May 10

Martha Wainwright lied. Straight out lied to our faces.

She was, she said, not at her best after having lost her voice the day before and functioning now only thanks to the wonders of steroids having kicked in. We should probably come for the ride but look towards a return next year with more new songs and a twentieth anniversary celebration of her debut album. We should therefore temper our expectations.

Yeah, nah. We got if not the full Wainwright, then more than enough Wainwright to fill the space and those expectations: jokes and tender moments; stumbles and reclamations; readings from her autobiography and excerpts from her family’s musical biography; French and English; marvellous song after marvellous song; more, not less.

What we didn’t get was what you might call the rockier end, the hit that acoustic guitar hard end of her repertoire as she leaned into the way various shades of jazz have always underpinned her work, not least Year Of The Dragon which found her somewhere between Lena Horne and Billie Holiday.

But it was there in the swing beneath the brisk Hole In My Heart, the double bass a propellant, and tangible through the hypnotic rhythm inside Factory’s pastoral folk. It was heady in the Van Morrison-like swirling ecstasy of Body And Soul, and at the core of her ability to slide around a note or bend it to her will without ever losing the connection to that note.

In this she was very well served by a band that felt feather-light but full-bodied and whose best moments could almost be missed, especially the subtle shadings of meditative pianist Edwin de Goeij. Along with  de Goeij, Morgan Moore on double bass, drummer Tommy Crane, and saxophonist Nicolas Deslis on occasion, handled the highway cruising rhythm of Love Will Be Reborn as easily as the increasing darkening of Report Card, which has something of a late period Elvis ballad to it, albeit one written by Lou Reed. But they really flowered in the slow arcs of Falaise de Malaise and in the suggestions of much more in the arrangement of Bleeding All Over You.

Watching the way Dinner At Eight (one of her brother Rufus’ finest moments), became a Piaf-like burning drama, and her mother, Kate McGarrigle’s Go Leave (written, as is the family way, about the same man three decades earlier), left a trail of devastation was to be reminded of how good Wainwright is as an interpreter. She gets in, bores through, curls up and stays.

We didn’t need more proof but we got it anyway in the night’s final moment, Tom Waits’ Take It With Me. A song of beauty with a seam of sadness, rhythmic but earthy, and wholly inhabited. It was in many ways the full Wainwright, the one she said we wouldn’t get, but who believed her anyway?


Martha Wainwright plays The Gov, Adelaide, May 15; Odeon Theatre, Hobart, May 16; Melbourne Recital Centre, May 17; The Capital, Bendigo, May 18




A version of this review was originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald.


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