28 February 2012

An open letter to a nine-month-old

Dear Neve,

Your parents have had the clever idea of asking family and friends to suggest some wise counsel to guide you in the adventure of life that awaits you.  You don’t know me from Adam, and in fact we’ve not formally been introduced.  Hi!  I’m Ethan.  I’m a friend of your Mum’s from University and from work in Wellington.  I once saw you in your pram at your parents’ café.  Well, I saw your arm poking out.  It looked like a fairly normal arm to me.  An arm with potential.

In terms of useful advice, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of general wisdom offered up: you know, brush your teeth, do your homework, listen to your mother, ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in your hair, that sort of thing.

So I thought I’d be a bit more specific, and recommend a particular book.  You’ll probably be a reader anyway, what with studious parents like yours, but there are so many books out there and everyone’s got an opinion about the good ones and the not-so-good ones.  But here’s my suggestion, for what it’s worth:

Don’t let the fact that it’s from 1925 put you off.  You’ll be surprised how a story from that long ago can be so fresh and entertaining.  And I’ll wager that by the time you’re likely to read it – I don’t know, maybe when you’re 12 or 13? – you still won’t have visited New York yet.  It’s set there, you see.  (And visiting New York is great, by the way.  Do that too, okay?)

Fiction writing goes through fads and crazes.  Last decade a stack of books about a boy wizard sold millions; this decade everything has to have vampires in it.  Both will probably be replaced by some other trend by the time you’ll be a fully-fledged reader.  But The Great Gatsby endures as one of the most popular books of all time because it captures perfectly the spirit of the age in which it was written.  And even if you’re not interested in mysterious millionaires, New York in the Roaring Twenties, humdinger parties, lost love and jealously-guarded secrets – although you’d be mad not to be – The Great Gatsby has one all-conquering trump card up its sleeve.

It’s really rather short.

So what do you say?  You’ve got nothing to lose, Neve.  And if you like Gatsby (and I think you will), it may well lead you on to other Fitzgerald stories, the writing of his wayward wife Zelda (and isn’t that a great name?), or the peerless 1920s Jeeves & Wooster comedies of P.G. Wodehouse, or even to visit Long Island and see what Fitzgerald must have seen when he went to parties just like Gatsby’s.    

Because books – really good books – can be your greatest ally in life, can intrigue, inform and entertain you in good times and bad, and will help to make you into the excellent grown-up you will one day become.

Best wishes to you as you start that journey!  And don’t forget to listen to your mother.  That’s pretty important too. 

Bret McKenzie's 'loser face' fortunately not required

Well, hi, Bret McKenzie, from The Flight of the Conchords! Congratulations on winning an Oscar!

"Aw, thanks – it's completely nuts, isn't it?

I don't know – I really liked your songs in The Muppets. Personally, I preferred Party of One to Man or Muppet, the song you won for, but, hey, who cares? You totally deserved it.

"Thank you. But for the past 24 hours I really thought I wasn't going to get it so I was practising my face."

Your loser face? Don't losers always just smile politely and clap? Or, worse, almost, make that ecstatic gasp, as Glenn Close did this year for Meryl Streep, as though Meryl had been jobbing around for decades and was finally getting the recognition she deserves. "Someone who has so many awards she probably uses most of them as teething toys for her grandchildren has beaten me! Yay!" So are you saying, Bret, other facial options are available to losers besides grace and ecstasy?

"Oh yeah, I wanted to do this" – he reels back in horror, face in hands. "Or maybe this" – he mouths exaggeratedly a word that is not suitable for a family newspaper. "I thought that would work."

That would TOTALLY work! It almost makes me regret that you won. But, you know, not really.

"Yeah. Not really."

- Hadley Freeman, Guardian, 27 February 2012

26 February 2012

The merest hint of mortality

The bi-annual international arts festival has just begun in Wellington, and all around the capital the arts community is gearing up to put on a show. The Dowse Gallery in Lower Hutt was aiming to participate by installing a work entitled So It Vanishes, by the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles. It’s a conceptual piece in which soap bubbles are projected into a large space within the gallery; the catch being that the liquid used to produce the bubbles uses trace amounts of water from a Mexican morgue that has been used to wash dead bodies. So on the one hand, we have the light-hearted whimsy of playful bubbles in an art gallery, but on the other there is also the frame of reference of mortality and the transitory nature of life – like a bubble, our lives will one day pop out of existence.   

It’s an interesting concept, and one that’s less pretentious than some of the other exhibits the Dowse typically shows. The ‘morgue water’ is supposedly only a minuscule proportion of the total liquid supply used to produce the bubbles; indeed, the curator said on TV3 News that it would be ‘four tablespoons in 160 litres’ used through the whole 12 week duration of the installation (that portion of clip not online). That's a ratio of more than 2700 parts ordinary water to 'morgue water', so the vast majority of the liquid used to produce the bubbles, 99.96 percent in fact, is plain tap water. 

This 2004 Frieze magazine report on an identical Margolles exhibition at the Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt shows the reaction the exhibition (then called En el Aire / In the Air) is meant to elicit:

In the museum’s soaring hall children play under bubbles that come from Teresa Margolles’ piece En el aire (In the Air, 2003). Running, laughing, catching, they are fascinated by the glistening, delicate forms that float down from the ceiling and break up on their skin. A common motif in art history, the bubble has long been used as a memento mori, a reminder of the transitory nature of life. The children’s parents, meanwhile, studiously read the captions. Suddenly, with a look of disgust, they come and steer their offspring away. The moment of naive pleasure turns into one of knowing repulsion: they have learned that the water comes from the Mexico City morgue, used to wash corpses before an autopsy. It’s unimportant that the water is disinfected; the stigma of death turns the beautiful into the horrific.  
The key here is the word 'disinfected', which was not mentioned in the New Zealand discussion around the Dowse exhibit. If the water was disinfected, then there is even less rational grounds for concern. And in this era of biosecurity and stringent checks on imported goods, you have to wonder if the 'morgue water' actually exists at all, and isn't just an artist's imaginary concept. She certainly seems keen on it though: it's also used in this Tate Liverpool exhibit, dripping onto a hotplate and making interesting sizzling noises.

But in any case it appears the installation will not go ahead because the local Te Atiawa iwi, who play a strong role at the Dowse, have objected to the ‘morgue water’ on cultural grounds. They argue that in Maori spirituality, water that has been used to clean dead bodies is tainted and cannot come into contact with sacred artworks. The iwi’s primary concern relates to the historic pataka (carved food storage hut) that is a centrepiece of the Dowse’s Maori art collection. They find it unacceptable that tainted water might pollute their taonga, and they also express health concerns for the safety of visitors to the museum, with iwi spokesperson Liz Mellish saying to TV3, 'We would be concerned for all people about the safety of such a thing, particularly children who could run in', and 'It's inviting death in, so culturally it's really, really unsafe'.

Respect for other traditions is an important trait, particularly in an environment like New Zealand in which one cultural tradition has run roughshod over the beliefs of a colonised minority. Society should endeavour to allow all members of society to feel comfortable sharing their views and beliefs, and the iwi are fully within their rights to express their concerns about the Margolles installation. The Dowse’s press statement indicates that there were long-running discussions about the exhibit, and it seems that the gallery was unable to reconcile its desire to show the Mexican piece with its stewardship of the iwi’s taonga.

But when a cultural tradition is out-dated and anachronistic, where is the harm in questioning that tradition – in a polite way, naturally? The exponential dilution at work in Margolles' art installation renders the ‘morgue water’ – if it exists at all – utterly harmless. These bubbles could not pose any risk to visitors  who came into contact with them. The only danger is that they might think about their lives and the role that death plays in society and culture. And kids, blithely unaware, might have a bit of harmless fun playing in bubbles. Isn’t that a laudable goal? If we start labelling Margolles' work as 'unsafe' it makes us akin to the shysters who promote hyper-diluted homeopathic remedies as genuine medicine. 

There's also the concern that superstition is derailing a 21st century art installation. The Dominion Post's reporter, Shabnam Dastgheib, clearly raised the 's-word' when he spoke to Victoria University's head of Maori Studies, Peter Adds

Adds said superstition was a "loaded" word and any objections to the exhibition would have been based on a deeply entrenched cultural belief for many Maori. "People would have inadvertently placed themselves in danger and Maori people would have treated the people as being contaminated. Those people would have been treated with a degree of caution. Maori don't muck around with issues of tapu."    
Oxford defines superstition as 'excessively credulous belief in and reverence for the supernatural' and 'a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief'. This sounds like an accurate reflection of the dynamic at work in this case. It's true that some Maori people may have treated people who came in contact with the bubbles as being 'contaminated', in a cultural rather than medical sense. But there is no proof that the exhibition could 'contaminate' people in a way that actually led to adverse medical effects, and certainly no cause to believe that they had 'inadvertently placed themselves in [actual] danger'.

There's also a slightly worrying aspect of superstition at work in the TV3 item by reporter Charlotte Shipman, which says of the Dowse's pataka, 'It's so sacred to Maori it can't be filmed'. This concept of unfilmability was mentioned in another recent case, that of the return to New Zealand of a collection of severed Maori heads (toi moko) from French museums. A TV3 European correspondent explained to viewers at the time that for cultural reasons the heads could not be filmed, which begs the question, when did such a modern concept as video imagery become part of Maori tradition, and who decided that this was culturally unacceptable? And why is it acceptable for the Dowse website to show a picture of the pataka but not for television to film it? (On reflection though, I can see a good reason for not showing images of the toi moko on the nightly news. It would probably put people off their tea).

I don't have any problem with the iwi standing up for what they believe in, even if in my view the beliefs they express are based on superstition. Good on them for putting their views in a persuasive way. Because this was a problem that the Dowse has made for itself. Gallery director Cam McCracken has issued a statement that indicates that this was really an issue of the Dowse trying to have its cake and eat it too (which has always been a silly aphorism, but you get my drift):

Because of the work’s themes of death and memory, The Dowse has been in close consultation with representatives of local iwi, Te Atiawa, in the months leading up to the opening of So it Vanishes. In particular, we have discussed Teresa’s work in relation to our most treasured taonga, Nuku Tewhatewha.The Dowse is guardian of this nationally significant pataka which was carved in the 1850s as a sign of support for Kīngitanga, or the Māori King Movement. Nuku Tewhatewha is one of only seven Pataka built around the North Island as ‘Pillars of the Kingdom’, and is the only one to survive. Its home at The Dowse carries great meaning for many communities locally and nationally and the team at The Dowse is proud of its guardianship role.Grave concerns have been shared about exhibiting So it Vanishes alongside Nuku Tewhatewha and The Dowse has therefore decided not to proceed with the exhibition. This was a difficult decision to make, but one we believe is important.

Grave concerns! Pun unintended, I presume. 

The Dominion article referred to above also quotes iwi kaumatua Sam Jackson:

Te Atiawa kaumatua Sam Jackson said he had been asked to bless the bubble installation but refused. Iwi also threatened to shut New Zealand's only sacred pataka (storehouse), Nuku Tewhatewha, housed in the museum, if the exhibition went ahead because of fears it would be contaminated. 

So here's the rub. If the Dowse wanted to run Margolles' exhibition it could have done so by either sealing off the pataka in some way - by putting it in storage, ceremonially sealing the rooms it sits in, or even arranging a loan to another museum, which would enable more New Zealanders to see it. But when faced with the decision to proceed with the bubble exhibit at the expense of the pataka exhibit, the gallery chose its pataka. Cam McCracken told TV3: 'The pataka is the heart of the building, and for it to be closed off or its essence or its lifeforce to be removed was just a bit too difficult for us to contemplate'.

Really? Its 'lifeforce'? If the iwi concerns were unable to be addressed, the Dowse could have 'protected' the pataka in some way. But it chose not to, and now all it has to show for the exercise is an empty gallery and a reputation for pusillanimity. It's certainly a pity: I for one would have made the journey to Lower Hutt to visit Margolles' exhibit and see what else the Dowse had to offer.   

25 February 2012

No pickle, no performance

[Harold Kennedy's] book [No Pickle, No Performance] is dedicated to actress Renee Taylor, who refused to come on stage during a play's opening night until she got a pickle with her sandwich, as she had during the previews. The coffee shop that had provided those sandwiches was closed, and the curtain was held while a prop man got in his car and went searching for the holy pickle. It arrived seven minutes after the advertised curtain time, and the show went on.

Unknown to Taylor, the stage crew was so enraged by her antics that they performed "a little ceremony" with the pickle before giving it to her. Gloria Swanson later said: "Poor Miss Taylor. Can't you see her shopping around to every delicatessen in New York complaining that she can never find a pickle to match the caliber of the one she had in New Jersey."

- Max Millard, interviewing Harold Kennedy in 'TV Shopper', 22 July 1978, compiled in 100 New Yorkers of the 1970s.

[Cross-post from Very Friday Blog]

24 February 2012

Leonardo: not just for nuns

Leonardo's 1489-90 portrait, 'Lady with an ermine'
Part of the problem in living on the edge of the world is that you tend to miss out on the spectacular exhibitions that visit the great galleries in the big cities. Wellington might have a decent array of galleries and Te Papa, the national museum, but it can hardly compete with the riches on offer at the great European or American institutions. Which is why it was a small treat to savour the Embassy cinema’s presentation of a British ‘cinecast’ of the National Gallery’s history-making exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.

The exhibition ran from November 2011 to early February 2012, and collected a spectacular range of Leonardo’s paintings and drawings together for what may be the greatest ever exhibition on his work. The cinecast, Leonardo Live, is a relatively new idea: an arts documentary broadcast live from the scene of the exhibition, to give viewers at home and in special cinema screenings a closer look at the artworks and fill in some of the backstory around the artist and his work.

Naturally, the Wellington screening was a recording of the November live broadcast rather than a live presentation, due to the time difference involved between the UK and New Zealand – although it’s nice to imagine a scenario in which a forward-thinking cinema like the Embassy might try out an actual live broadcast, which would have to be relatively early in the morning if it is to catch the European evening timeslot.

The exhibition is remarkable in that the nine Leonardo paintings featured might sound like an insubstantial number, they actually comprise about half of his lifetime output of paintings. Such was his multi-faceted range of talents, Leonardo seldom lingered on the art of painting, and only completed about 20 paintings in total (as far as we know). This scarcity makes the presence of the artworks in the exhibition even more exciting. For example, Leonardo is only known to have completed four female portraits in his life, and the National Gallery displayed two of them, including the exquisite and groundbreaking portrait of the 16-year-old Sforza mistress Cecilia Gallerani, known as 'Lady with an ermine' (pictured above), which was on loan from Krakow in Poland. (Unsurprisingly, the Mona Lisa, the world's most famous painting, did not make the journey from the Louvre to join its fellow portraits in London).

Another juxtaposition is in evidence in the display in the same room of both of Leonardo's versions of 'The Virgin of the Rocks', which were prepared for a chapel commission that the artist, typically, was immensely tardy in completing. The Louvre's version is the older and is bathed in the soothing golden hue of ancient works, while the National Gallery's own is perhaps 25 years younger, and has been spectacularly restored to thin out a patina of discolouring varnish that was ladled on in the late 1940s. Says the Guardian's Laura Cumming:

Consider The Virgin of the Rocks. What a horrifying spot these saints are in, the vicious rocks around them, the jutting pinnacles in the distance like teeth, that cold blue water, those dismal caverns. The National Gallery has both versions of the picture, mounted on opposing walls and irresistibly proposing comparison: is the Louvre's early version, yellow with filth, more tender-hearted, sympathetic and natural than the National Gallery's newly cleaned vision of spotlit and sharply haloed figures with shellac complexions? Both partake of the real, down to the smallest botanical detail, but both are eerily remote: lunar figures, beyond time and out of this world.

Leonardo Live worked for me because it was successful in balancing the demands of the viewer for quality photography of the beautiful artworks with the desire to explain and educate about their origin and historical context. Host Tim Marlow managed to race through his links and conduct fairly interesting live interviews without losing track of time or resorting to too many platitudes, and the indefatigable Mariella Frostrup performed well as a sofa-bound interviewer, even if her brief instalment with a slightly panicky bow-tied artist threatened to derail the tight schedule.

The Telegraph reported on the London screening:

The audience, who had paid £8 a head, appeared well pleased with the experience: a great introduction to the exhibition, was the general view in the foyer afterwards – "a great balance of expert opinions you’d never otherwise have the opportunity to hear", "better than straining to read the information panels". A trio of game Irish ladies in subdued leisure wear declared themselves particularly satisfied. "But then", said one, "we are drawn to all aspects of Christ and the spiritual." And why was that? "We’re nuns."

22 February 2012

Welcome to New Zealand, you mangy son of a dog

It's still early in the South African cricket tour of New Zealand, with the final T20 being played in Auckland tonight before the series moves on to ODIs and three tests. While there is plenty to write about, some commentators have added to the mix of stories about the tour by discussing the New Zealand team's fondness for sledging their opponents, and New Zealand crowds' fondness for abusing visiting players from the safety of the stands.

In particular a second-hand report of an Afrikaans publication back in South Africa has attracted attention in the New Zealand media, which loves to run stories that get up the noses of New Zealand sports fans and appeal to a jingoistic sense of indignation when they are criticised by overseas commentators. 'How dare they voice their opinions about our behaviour? Clearly they're just bad sports, or jealous, or both'.

According to the Herald article,

The Afrikaans-language newspaper Rapport claims several players had told the newspaper of being "unceasingly cursed and insulted" while fielding on the boundary in Wellington as New Zealand went on to a six-wicket win.

Stuff.co.nz, running a piece on the same topic, quoted the level-headed South African allrounder Johan Botha, who scotched rumours that the tourists were unhappy with their treatment in Wellington:

As for the crowd behaviour in the capital, Botha insisted that no Proteas player had complained."You just have to get on and deal with it because it's going to happen. If it affects you then you have to find a way to cope, everyone knows that. If anyone is struggling on the boundary then maybe they have to speak to AB (captain AB de Villiers) and get moved into the inner ring! But really, it's much the same all over the world. You get good crowds everywhere and you get bad sections among them," Botha said.  

I can't vouch for the behaviour of the players, but I can discuss the actions of some of the crowd at the Wellington T20, because I saw some of it at reasonably close quarters. In particular, the lanky young South African bowler who was fielding at the square leg boundary was repeatedly heckled by a drunk and obnoxious New Zealand 'fan' in the front row. The nearby security people did nothing to prevent this idiot from mouthing off and giving the cricket-loving fans of Wellington a bad name. They only sprung into action when the moron overbalanced and fell head-first out of the stand and onto the grass beside the boundary rope, which is probably a drop of two metres. That certainly quietened him up! But this should have been the cue for stadium authorities to check him for medical damage and then eject him from the ground, perhaps with a lengthy ban from attending future sporting fixtures, to teach him a lesson.

Of course that sort of sanction is always going to play second fiddle to the twin factors of alcohol and the demonisation of opponents that lingers in New Zealand sport.

Alcohol sales are an integral part of the economics of sporting fixtures, and particularly in the case of cricket, which is longer than other sports. (They call it one-day cricket for a reason). It's in the interest of the venue to sell as much alcohol as possible to increase their profits, but the intoxication that results is clearly a major factor in turning people off attending cricket matches, particularly those with families. It's hardly conducive to a good family day out to have to sit amongst boozed up creeps who swear and shout for hours on end.

And the long-standing but also worsening issue that compounds the booze problem is that some portions of New Zealand crowds revel in the most churlish reaction to visiting sporting teams, seeking to needle and insult them at every opportunity. It's almost as if these visiting top-flight sporting figures have personally insulted these buffoons: how dare these excellent foreign cricketers come to New Zealand and attempt to beat our team? They must be booed and reviled! I think this all began with the childish habit of booing at rugby matches, fathers and young sons alike, which taught a generation of young New Zealanders that such knavish behaviour was normal and acceptable. Indeed, I was at the ODI at the Stadium some years ago in which the great Australian bowler Glenn McGrath reported that he had even been spat at by one idiot in the crowd! The concept that without these visitors there would be no international matches seems to have bypassed these individuals.

How about a radical new approach to our international sporting guests? Respect their ability, make them feel welcome, applaud their talent when they succeed, and generally just act like a grown-up whether they win or lose? And if people do anything at the cricket, under the influence of alcohol or not, that would get them arrested, why not just evict them from the ground immediately? That's far more lenient than the strict rules in operation at Australian grounds, where hefty fines are imposed for foolish and dangerous behaviour.

15 February 2012

The fine art of stage direction in musical comedies

In P.G. Wodehouse's 1922 novel Jill the Reckless, the titular heroine, is a peppy lass from old England. Miss Mariner - for that is her name - finds herself washed up on the streets of Broadway sans fiancée and without a penny to her name. As is traditional in these tales, she quickly finds a spot on a chorus line in a musical production. This permits Wodehouse to put his considerable experience in musical theatre productions to good use, as can be seen in this excerpt, featuring a refined English stage actor and a no-nonsense stage director of whom it might be said that he has a firm idea of his own opinions:

"What was that that guy said? Lord Finchley's last speech. Take it again."

The gentleman who was playing the part of Lord Finchley, an English character actor who specialized in London "nuts," raised his eyebrows, annoyed. Like Mr. Pilkington, he had never before come into contact with Mr. Goble as stage-director, and, accustomed to the suaver methods of his native land, he was finding the experience trying. He had not yet recovered from the agony of having that water-melon line cut out of his part. It was the only good line, he considered, that he had. Any line that is cut out of an actor's part is always the only good line he has.

"The speech about Omar Khayyám?" he enquired with suppressed irritation.

"I thought that was the way you said it. All wrong! It's Omar of Khayyám."

"I think you will find that Omar Khayyám is the--ah--generally accepted version of the poet's name," said the portrayer of Lord Finchley adding beneath his breath. "You silly ass!"

"You say Omar of Khayyám," bellowed Mr. Goble. "Who's running this show, anyway?"

"Just as you please."

Mr. Goble turned to Wally.

"These actors...." he began, when Mr. Pilkington appeared again at his elbow.

"Mr. Goble! Mr. Goble!"

"What is it now?"

"Omar Khayyám was a Persian poet. His name was Khayyám."

"That wasn't the way I heard it," said Mr. Goble doggedly. "Did you?" he enquired of Wally. "I thought he was born at Khayyám."

"You're probably quite right," said Wally, "but, if so, everybody else has been wrong for a good many years. It's usually supposed that the gentleman's name was Omar Khayyám. Khayyám, Omar J. Born A.D. 1050, educated privately and at Bagdad University. Represented Persia in the Olympic Games of 1072, winning the sitting high-jump and the egg-and-spoon race. The Khayyáms were quite a well-known family in Bagdad, and there was a lot of talk when Omar, who was Mrs. Khayyam's pet son, took to drink and writing poetry. They had had it all fixed for him to go into his father's date business."

Mr. Goble was impressed. He had a respect for Wally's opinion, for Wally had written "Follow the Girl" and look what a knock-out that had been. He stopped the rehearsal again.

"Go back to that Khayyám speech!" he said interrupting Lord Finchley in mid-sentence.

The actor whispered a hearty English oath beneath his breath. He had been up late last night, and, in spite of the fair weather, he was feeling a trifle on edge.

"' In the words of Omar of Khayyám'...."

Mr. Goble clapped his hands.

"Cut that 'of,'" he said. "The show's too long, anyway."

And, having handled a delicate matter in masterly fashion, he leaned back in his chair and chewed the end off another cigar.
- P.G. Wodehouse, Jill the Reckless, 1922

Jill the Reckless (which was published as The Little Warrior in America) is an entertaining and almost breathlessly busy novel, with plenty of plot packed into its relatively slender pages. Readers who have only enjoyed Wodehouse's most famous creations but who are curious about his other works would do well to give it a try.

1922 marked the beginning of what one of Wodehouse's biographers called the 'golden years' for his most enduring characters, Jeeves and Wooster. The duo appeared in stories in the Strand and Cosmopolitan magazines in 1921 and 1922, which were compiled as The Inimitable Jeeves in 1923, which went on to sell at least three million copies before the Second World War. And his experience in writing hit musicals apparently served Wodehouse well:

Wodehouse knew that his writing had reached a new height, and he linked this explicitly to his Broadway years. "I've found that writing musical comedy has taught me a lot... In musical comedy you gain so tremendously in Act One if you can give your principal characters a dramatic entrance instead of just walking them on." ... In the world of the magazine story, Wodehouse was king: he had mastered the mechanics of a well-crafted plot; for the tone of such stories, he had perfect pitch; all he needed were suitable subjects on which he could display the brilliance of his light prose.
- Robert McCrum, Wodehouse: A Life, London, 2004, p.150-51. 

See also:
E-book: Jill the Reckless

02 February 2012

Kitty, Daisy & Lewis

Source: Kittydaisyandlewis.com
Bar Bodega
101 Ghuznee St, Wellington
1 February 2012

English siblings Kitty, Daisy and Lewis have been performing together since they were kids, and have now built up a dedicated following with their peppy evocation of the pre-Beatles era of rock 'n roll stompers. The Kentish Town performers have released two successful albums of artfully-selected vintage covers peppered with a handful of original compositions. Last night they performed their first Wellington gig at the end of their Australasian tour, offering a capacity crowd the opportunity to sample their retro stylings and precocious skills.

The young trio are joined onstage by their parents, with dad Graeme Durham on rhythm guitar and mum Ingrid Weiss on double bass - she used to drum for post-punk pioneers The Raincoats, whose career was revitalised by Kurt Cobain's idolisation. The sound is unashamedly analogue, in line with their old-fashioned recording techniques. The siblings frequently swap musical roles between songs, with all three taking turns behind the battered snare drum and at the main vocal microphone. Lewis' guitar playing is possibly the most accomplished musical asset, and displays a rich proficiency with the classic lead guitar break, while sisters Kitty and Daisy both exhibit an zesty enthusiasm on the drums, particularly Kitty, the youngest of the three. Daisy is also a mean harmonica player, with her trademark mouth harp solos showing her staying power and commitment. 

The strongest songs on offer in Kitty, Daisy and Lewis' setlist are generally the covers, but that is no great criticism of their self-penned numbers. The Durham siblings, and presumably their musical parents, have simply been steeped in jump blues, early R&B, rockabilly and country swing from an early age and have been performing the classics for years, so it's no surprise that they are expert performers of those exciting vintage numbers. And part of the charm of the source material is that it was born of hard times and people who have lived through hell. Few of the trials and tribulations of life growing up in 21st century North London could adequately prepare young performers to accurately simulate the exacting spirit of the original material that they idolise. While their own songs are successful and likeable, the quality of the covers consistently outshines them.

At the Wellington performance it was noticeable that the most appealing moment of the performance was the regular guest appearance of their veteran trumpet-playing friend, Eddie 'Tan Tan' Thornton, an 80-year-old Jamaican in a garish tracksuit who wowed the crowd with an easy stage charm and an effervescent personality. Apart from the propulsive brass punctuation Thornton lent to the performance, and which he also brought to the classic original horn section performance on the Beatles' Got To Get You Into My Life, it was also obvious that he absolutely savoured the spotlight and the appreciation of the cheerful Wellington crowd. The young Durhams, on the other hand, seemed somewhat withdrawn by comparison, and while their performances were technically accurate, they initially lacked a strong connection with the audience. No matter though: by the end of the encore Kitty, Daisy and Lewis had warmed up sufficiently and eventually sealed a satisfying Bodega gathering - with more than the usual quotient of quiffs and polka-dot dresses on display.   

See also:

VideoCrazy Dancing Ethan


Earlier, Christchurch solo artist Delaney Davidson also impressed with his rough-around-the-edges stage busking as the Durhams' support act. In a recent interview Davidson described his musical style as 'folk jump noir', and onstage it bears the hallmarks of a man exploring the possibilities of a single guitar, a harmonica, a loop pedal and plenty of distortion on the vocals. He also sees himself as a amalgam of the rock and folk influences that inspire his songwriting; from the same interview:

People are looking for some authentic connection to an older style of life and a folk way of thinking. Folk music is distilling life experience, there is the jilted lover, the marriage to the wrong person, there's the true love from childhood, songs about how beautiful nature can be. Stuff that people are really searching for these days. It seems like it is going that way to folk and craft, hand-made, organic, farmers' markets, small communities, everyone is starting to see the value in that again as opposed to being centralised. People are craving that, I reckon.

He may be right, I don't know. I certainly picked up healthy references to the grit of Tom Waits and the romantic lilt and wry humour of Richard Hawley. I can certainly vouch for the appeal of his live performance, and I'd like to hear more of Delaney Davidson. All it would take is one break on Later With Jools Holland and he'll be following Kitty, Daisy and Lewis onto the international stage. Check out the ace video for I Slept Late, which is even more retro than the Durhams: