Thursday, November 18, 2010

Honey Steel's Gold

I wrote this the day after the show and it has been sitting on a hard drive ever since. Some of the wordier bits have been snipped, which gives an idea of how wordy it was in the first place.

Don't Look Back (Honey Steel's Gold)
Enmore Theatre, Sydney – Friday February 8, 2008

It was with a blend of suspicion and anticipation that I approached this inaugural Australian Don't Look Back event. Suspicion, because the inherent conservatism and predictability of the format seems to represent the antithesis of interesting art - hard to trust any initiative that would make marketing departments feel so comfortable.

On the positive, Ed Kuepper was in a strong position to survive this backward look with credibility intact. If revisiting a seventeen-year-old album verbatim is a potentially unedifying business, the fact that a resurgent Kuepper has just delivered his best solo set in years (2007's “Jean Lee and the Yellow Dog”) helped to quell reservations. The consistent quality of Kuepper’s recent live outings added to the expectation that we might be in for something more challenging and substantial than a palsied grab at the glories of yesteryear.

I was particularly interested in seeing how Kuepper's current live aesthetic – overflowing with electric energy, intensely rhythmic yet exhilaratingly loose – would intersect with the mannered, stately arrangements of the Honey Steel's Gold LP.

Opener “King of Vice” is fantastic – the choice of classy jazz pianist Alister Spence to substitute for original contributor Chris Abrahams is an inspired call, and as the elegiac keyboard motif begins to drift out over the Enmore crowd it is met with a cheer of recognition. Kuepper allows himself a wry smile as he begins to send out sheets of ringing, complex chording over the steady rolling rhythm patterns produced by legendary drummer Jeffrey Wegener and nearly-as-legendary bassist Peter Oxley.

There is an exciting tension created by the band's intense concentration; they are trying hard to stay on top of unfamiliar material and for the most part succeed with honours. The songs are delivered with an edgy electric charge which in many cases elevates them above their recorded counterparts – this is not a plodding, note-perfect recreation. It is louder, less controlled, straining powerfully against the template of the original work, a full-blooded reinvention.

Some of the hypnotically repetitive, semi-improvised quality of Kuepper's best live work is brought in to play for “Friday's Blue Cheer / Libertines of Oxley”, another long and intricately-constructed track which gives Wegener in particular a chance to shine. His ability to play rhythmically sophisticated material with violently unpredictable feel and fire is an extraordinary gift, and he deserves to be more widely regarded as one of our very greatest musical treasures.

Sort-of-hits “Everything I've Got Belongs To You” and “The Way I Made You Feel” elicit the most enthusiastic crowd response – the former's classical pop construction renders it impervious to even the slightly perfunctory rendition it receives tonight, while the latter's likable groove is augmented by some fine keyboard colouring from Spence.

Fittingly, the set peaks with the album's title track – largely comprised of a pulsing meditation on a single chord (lyrical content: 14 impenetrable words), it's a compelling example of Kuepper at his best. Here he is operating in a realm of his own devising, poised somewhere uniquely interesting between the worlds of primal rock and roll, traditional songcraft and adventurous sonic exploration. His band navigate the landscape with assurance, carefully negotiating the subtle dynamic shifts of this deceptively simple piece. It is quite stunning.

If the set flags a little towards the end, then this is a fault shared by the original record – perhaps it might have been worth rearranging the sequence for this event? Nonetheless, the meditative instrumental “Summerfield” is a beautiful way to finish, Spence providing an exquisite, minimal piano motif which Kuepper overlays with plangent guitar figures. The mood slowly alternates between tension and resolve, with Wegener and Oxley providing gently shaded support. Eventually they drift to a halt, replicating the album's final fade – after a near-perfect display of vital and intelligent ensemble playing, this thoroughly successful recital ends with a whisper. Sublime.

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