First an interesting backdrop. Local Hobartian David Walsh made an enormous fortune in the world of gambling due to some proficiency in mathematical chance – I don’t know the details and he may well still be involved in such capers. What I do know is that rather than keeping the fruits of his fortunes to himself, in an incredible act of philanthropy he built the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in the outer lying suburbs of Hobart where he grew up – creating what is a now a world renowned monument to left-field creativity that has transformed one of the most southern cities in the world. Architecturally stunning, built in a cliff by the Derwent River by a vineyard, it is the most amazing and magical place.
But MONA is not just a simply repository for created art: under its patronage it has fostered festivals that promote art in all its myriad of forms. For a number of years I have covered the incredible Dark Mofo festival for Backseat Mafia: a paean to paganism and gothicism that marks the bleak winter solstice with a spectacular array of events that has seen Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten receive a permanent invitation as well as bands such as Mogwai, FKA Twigs and, of course, Einstürzende Neubauten perform.
The ying to Dark Mofo’s yang is MONA FOMA: MONA’s summer festival that celebrates light instead of shade. And on a late Sunday afternoon, MONA FOMA shone a particularly incandescent ray of sunshine on a little courtyard in the Salamanca Arts Centre where it presented the spectacular Christopher Coleman & The Great Escape.
The intimate setting was perfect: behind the stage a sheer and brutal cliff face towering above, the courtyard formed by the cliffs and the rear of the sandstone-hewn former warehouses that used to front the docks of the heritage Salamanca area, framed by an old tree in the corner. This evening, the ceiling was the bright blue sky (an unusual occurrence in itself) and lighting progressively darkening as the light faded late as it does in this region.
Opening act was a solo perfomance from Mangus: he cut a steampunk dapper appearance while his fingers burnt an electrifying path over the fretboard of his guitar and dobro as he played a set of bluesy, swampy originals. His vocals sounded as if they had been dragged over concrete and pebbles and soaked in whiskey, a voice that made Tom Waits sound like a children’s choir. It was a mesmerising performance.
The second act was indigenous performer Denni backed by rapper Greeley and a chap on decks. Now I confess I am partial to the live instrument and such a set up always causes a frisson of concern, but Denni put on a transfixing performance: fierce, powerful vocals and melodies. The interplay between Denni, Keeley and the crowd was warm and inviting, the topics covered were serious and empowering but above all the melodies and delivery sparkled.
My belated introduction to Christopher Coleman & The Great Escape, another talented local, was through two recent singles I reviewed, ‘Paloona‘ and ‘Amelia‘, taken off the forthcoming album ‘The Great Tasmanian Escape’. The band’s set this evening contained a few tracks off this concept album – tracks named for towns in Tasmanian as well as names – and as well as earlier material.
The band’s performance was incandescent. A first set saw the main band perform on stage: a euphoric opening blast of ‘Dandelion Flower’ with Coleman’s trademark soaring vocals and twin guitar layers with an organ bedrock.
After three tracks, Coleman performed a solo number ‘Stages Of Love’: cutting a mesmerising figure with his velvet vocals and vibrant storytelling. He was then rejoined by the band and a horn section, adding an indelible luster to the sound, covering a Mike Noga song ‘Open Fire’ with an anthemic blast.
An encore saw Coleman alone deliver the recent tongue-in-cheek track ‘Soft Knees’ in his wry self-deprecatory manner.
The two singles were magnificent, but they were comfortably placed in a bed of similarly shining jewels.
Christopher Coleman’s songwriting is immense: he has the story telling earthy vibes of Bruce Springsteen – there is a dollop of americana detectable in the delivery – but he also has that fine antipodean veracity that reminds me of bands like later period The Saints, The Triffids and The Apartments. Songs that have a detailed and exquisitely beautiful observational thread delivered through an intelligent pop mechanism that enthralls and entertains.
The live performance was an absolute delight: the band clearly enjoying themselves (I love it when unmiked performers can be seen to be bellowing the words) and creating a harmonious and infectious atmosphere. It felt a true privilege to be in such an intimate COVID-restricted venue to see a performance by a band that should be a lot bigger than they are.
As the main songwriter, Coleman’s skill and talents are highlighted by the incredible talent he gathers in his band: luminaries of the Australian indie music scene. The late Mike Noga from indie institutions The Drones played drum on the recording but his shoes were brilliantly filled by Sorin Vanzino from local band The Tinderboxers, while EWAH and the Vision of Paradise bass player Stu Hollingsworth held the bottom end with musical prodigy, award winning Kelly Ottaway on keys. Normally Glenn Richards from Augie March plays guitar (he produced the album and did the arrangements for the horns) but his replacement Jethro Pickett (an award winning folk/country/americana artist in his own right) – was excellent, adding a filigree and texture to the sound.
This was a command performance and a privilege to witness. It is hoped that Christopher Coleman & The Great Escape come out from the shadows and blossom on a wider stage. After the gig, he mentioned he hoped to be able to tour around Tasmania after the album launch in February. With music and performance this good, he should – and deserves to – set his eyes for on a wider national and international stage.
Dandelion Flower Beaumaris Zoo Paloona Stages of Love (solo) Open Fire Queenstown Launceston Amelie Fingal Tiers New Norfolk Jesse Go Home Soft Knees (solo encore)
‘The Great Tasmanian Escape’ is out on Friday, 25 February through Oscar Teahouse Records and can be (and indeed, should be) pre-ordered through the link following the gallery below.
Feature Photograph/Gallery: Andrew Fuller/fullonrockphotography