Review: The Pierce Brothers Blind Boys Run EP Launch, The Evelyn Hotel

The Pierce Brothers with Al Parkinson, Elliot Friend and Lillis
Evelyn Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
21st March, 2013

A forceful combination of wind and rain threatened to hinder any social outings last Thursday night. Nevertheless, a large crowd still filed in to the cosy recluse of Fitzroy’s Evelyn Hotel. Adorned with red velvet curtains, Moroccan rugs and electric chandeliers; it’s home away from home on a cold night. The stage is awash with chains of fairy lights as eager Melbournians pile around the bar for a beer and cider; some making commitments to soft couches for the evening’s showcase of local talent.

Al Parkinson is the first face in the spotlight, wielding her trusty ukulele. The room suddenly takes on the atmosphere of an underground jazz club. Her voice is captivating and smooth, clearly inspired by 50s crooners like Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. It’s very hard to pull off a whole set with such an understated instrument as the ol’ uke. To be honest, her studio recordings boast a much fuller sound and I’d be keen to see her play with the backing band in toe.

Giving credit where credit is due, her performance of “Story Song” gains an immediate reaction from the chattering onlookers. The stage lights dim and many fingers begin to click in time. I keep pretending we’re in a jazz club. Parkinson sings, “The salt is dripping from my eyes,” a capella with heavy reverb on her breathy vocals. She captures the audience.

In contrast, her banter was wildly distracting for me. Imagine driving along a coastal road, feasting your eyes on the magnificence of nature, but then hitting something cute every hour. She had two different personas for speaking and singing. The chirpy soloist picks up the ukulele again for a final beach-inspired ditty proclaiming, “All I need is you.”

The room is 10% dreadlocks as local four-piece, Elliot Friend, gather onto the stage. “Hello, large crowd,” one of them cries as the first song opens with guitar and kick drum. The male and female vocalists share beautiful harmonies and I can’t help digging the PJ Harvey tone coming from the frontwoman. That’s a great voice right there. Unfortunately, the instrumentation kind of takes a back seat. The guitar is more out of tune than purposefully dissonant, which is a shame because they’ve written some good songs. I’d really love to see these guys after a few months’ rehearsals because their brand of folk meets Portishead pop rock is the type of music I really love.

After a quick trip across the road to eat the biggest donut I’ve ever seen, the venue is reaching capacity. It’s pretty much a sauna. Folk outfit, Lillis, perform a varied set that makes punters excited for the main act. Starting off with ukulele, percussion and guitar, these guys show off their brand of John Butler-inspired tunes. There’s some impressive guitar skill on show and the Irish frontman dedicates a song to birthday girl and local singer-songwriter, Tanya Batt, describing her as, “kind of like a little butterfly.”

After some accomplished didgeridoo and cajon box drumming, the band launches into a traditional folk song. The sweaty performers start chanting, “She is handsome, she is pretty,” while the audience claps along. I begin wishing their whole show had been like this. I desperately want to dance in a circle holding hands with a longhaired maiden while throwing flowers around a maypole and shit. We should all lock dreads and skip in time.

As the throng of spectators pushes to the front, I’m not the only one feeling claustrophobic. There’s dudes with dark armpit patches sharing stories about ex-lovers, a few oldies leaning on the far wall with a modest beer, groups of excited girls wielding handbags and a clear backwards cap to energy drink ratio. I get the impression that most of these people know each other. A crew of friends and family whistles and barks as The Pierce Brothers enter with a traditional, “G’day!”

They sling guitars over their shoulders and bust out a big Aussie folk song. Sibling bands are undeniably heart-warming because you can’t help imagine their parents beaming proudly from the back of the venue with Uncle John and the cousins. Years of busking on the streets of Melbourne have made these guys pretty tight performance-wise and they generate as much raucous energy as a full band. Unfortunately, they kill the mood with song number two, a slow composition that offers too much contrast with the dance-folk opener.

As the show continues, they perpetuate an obvious folk muso stereotype. The Pierce Brothers are family barbeques, backyard parties, Byron Bay, old sheep dogs and sweaty road trips. In a love song entitled “Thought of You,” they ask, “Do you remember that time we watched kings and then got high?” The sound of a stomp box pounds on everyone’s chests as they unleash a pre-empted harmonica solo.

Just when I think the set needs some variation, the brothers invite Tanya Batt to the stage for a cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”. The birthday girl brandishes a trusty glass of whiskey as my boyfriend whispers, “Don’t fuck up this song. I love this song.” The combination of female/male vocals gets a big cheer from the crowd and the song turns into a karaoke night with audience members singing along.

Next up is a song entitled “White Whale”, a folk jam with nautical imagery of captains, waves and sailing. Lyrically strong, this tune sends the audience into an alcohol-infused trance. The pair attempts another cover – “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel – and some songs that are a bit Mumford and Sons-y for my liking but encourage uninhibited dancing nonetheless. They perform a self-confessed ‘hoe-down song’ that is quite refreshing. It features not only the title of the tour, “Blind boys run”, but also a dramatic pause before crashing back into the second verse.

They play Triple J Unearthed’s roots chart-topper, “The Anchor”, fulfilling a desire for electric guitar solos. Although some of the vocal harmonies are flat, the crowd sings along to the lyrics with unbridled delight. I prick up my ears at the closing number, which has a Spanish flamenco vibe.

We’re all in a Ricky Martin video by the time the chorus hits. As the brothers feign an exit from the stage, a handful of people demand an encore. In response, one brother remarks, “Encores are fun because you can go backstage and have a shot of whiskey,” before ending the evening with an Irish song responding to John Butler’s “Ocean”.

This event showcased some of the local emerging talent Melbourne’s folk scene has to offer. Although I thought the $15 entry price was a bit steep for people you’d usually catch busking for free, there’s definitely some potential here. I’m interested to see what these bands’ futures hold.

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