Last Friday night the Audreys played to a packed-out home-town Adelaide crowd in the late-Victorian wedding cake that is Her Majesty's Theatre. Your 'umble was very glad she was there to see it, in spite of the raised-by-hyenas couple behind us who chatted at normal volume all the way through the support act.
Said support was one J. Walker (jaywalker, geddit?) from Machine Translations who was in fact pretty good, especially since it was just him and his acoustic guitar (apart from the electric one he borrowed for the last few songs that kept going out of tune) and he played one song, the full and much longer original version of the main theme for East of Everything, 'A Most Peculiar Place', the TV version of which the band sings here and which as an acoustic solo was pretty damn close to awesome.
But it was the Audreys that people had come to see, and the Audreys were fabulous. They won their 2006 ARIA with their first album Between Last Night and Us in the category 'Best Blues & Roots Album' but that's an inadequate way of describing their style, which also has elements of jazz, alt country, pop and even, at a few electrifying (and electrified) moments, rock.
They seemed relaxed and happy to be at home in Adelaide and the band's lead singer and only woman Taasha Coates said hi to her mum in the audience and introduced drummer Toby Lang by way of reminiscence: 'Toby and I went to primary school together. That's how Adelaide we are.'
They played most of the tracks on their debut album (though not, to my disappointment, the seriously country 'Pale Dress') and all of the songs on the new album they are touring to promote, When the Flood Comes. As the title indicates and as almost every reviewer has noted, this second album is noticeably 'darker' in mood and tone: blighted urban landscapes, spoiled love, lots of drinking, lots of sex, and the apocalyptic scenarios both literal and figurative that are suggested by the album's title.
Shellshocked into writer's block by the magnitude of the success they earned with the first album, Coates and Goodall took the clever step of booking into New York's legendary Chelsea Hotel to get some songwriting done, and they clearly took inspiration from its atmosphere, its history and its ghosts.
The gorgeous, gifted Coates sang every song of the evening and didn't put a note, a breath or a black patent-leather high-heeled Mary-Jane-clad foot wrong all night. While her voice is mostly sweet and smoky, she can rustle up some effortless belter's volume and richness when required; when the band is up the country end of its repertoire she can shape a fine country-style timbre without descending to the nasal, but her voice morphs smoothly across to jazz-singer and down to soulful blues. She has a large vocal range and makes a feature of the register change up to head voice, that sort of golden-syrup-sounding blip you hear in early Joni Mitchell; Coates often does that on the one note, which is bloody difficult and sounds lovely.
To say that Coates sings, Goodall plays lead guitar, Lang plays drums, Michael Green plays violin and Lyndon Gray plays bass would be at once true and profoundly misleading. Everyone does a little bit of this and that and a little bit extra; a large part of the band's originality lies in its flexibility, willingness and fearlessness about coaxing a wide variety of sounds and noises out of a range of sometimes unorthodox instruments played in sometimes unorthodox ways, including getting distortion and feedback out of the sound equipment.
Coates, in the course of the evening, not only sang on every song but played keyboard, ukulele, harmonica, tambourine and this thing, which I'd never seen before. Goodall is a fiend on banjo as well as on his several different guitars, clearly a brilliant musician and an anchoring presence onstage, often a kind of conduit from Coates to the rest of the band. Green, every now and then, shifted from fiddle to lap steel, tipped his violin sideways and strummed or plucked it like a ukulele, or strolled over to the mic for some effortless, beautiful harmonies with Coates. At one point, everybody sang.
One of the songs on the first album, 'Banjo and Violin', is a sort of meta-commentary on their own musical style and they played a tighter and more alluring version of it even than this:
And in a number of songs, notably the amazing 'Songbird' which was probably the highlight of the night, they demonstrated further versatility by shifting around and playing several different things in the course of a single song. Coates introduced this song as 'My tribute to Nick Cave', eliciting a few polite interrogative noises from the audience, but the minute she walked across to the keyboard and accompanied herself on the opening bars, everyone began to get what she meant:
songbird with your bones of dust
your wiry notes, your cage of rust
sing your sweet sad song for us
sing for us
This musically complex song shows, again, how willing the band is to take risks: it goes through shifts of tempo, volume and even mode, so what begins as a quietly dramatic ballad morphs at one stage into a pulsing, rock-y instrumental break.
While the rich originality of their sound at maximum-complexity level is one of the reasons why it's hard to take your eyes off them, Coates' voice is in no actual need of any instrumental support or embroidery. One of the highlights of the evening was the first encore, when Coates and Goodall came back onstage alone: to the accompaniment of sharp, spare, percussive electric guitar, Coats sang a tragic version of Sonny Bono's 'Bang Bang' that had the whole theatre holding its breath. The only other cover of the evening was the band's beautiful slowed-down balladed-up version of INXS's 'Don't Change', which features on Between Last Night and Us.
Taasha Coates is a woman of many frocks:
On Friday night she wore a semi-fitted sleeveless sheath dress that came to just above the knee, a soft green about halfway between sage and emerald, the fabric something light and soft over a more opaque foundation. The general effect was part young 1920s vamp, part slinky mature-woman 1950s cheongsam or Mandarin dress, with rays of sparkly embroidery on the bodice that gave an effect of half late-1960s little hippie mirrors and half timeless Nashville rhinestones. Coates brings to her outfits the same wide-net eclecticism, off-centre originality and weird grace that the band brings to its extensive range of instrumentation.
As befits the only woman in a band whose name is a tribute to Audrey Hepburn, she is slender and graceful and a little bit fey, profoundly girly (and I mean that in a good way, for once) and a subtle performer of femininity, with short black hair that cuts across any suggestion of confection, stereotype or even mild parody of girliness. She has an extraordinary stage presence that is partly about her stylised poses and half-dance half-swoon gestures; her onstage movement sometimes suggests the reason why people refer to a certain kind of adolescent grace as 'coltish' but she uses her hands as skilfully as a Balinese dancer, to hypnotic effect. She looks young, vulnerable and sweet, so it's quite electrifying when the band takes off into songs like this:
don’t want to borrow your car
don’t want to meet your ma
don’t want to hold your hand
or have you come see my band
just lay me down
Can't help wondering what her mum thought.
(NB: The tour isn't over yet; if you live in WA or Tasmania there's still a chance to see them. Their official website is here and they're also on MySpace, where you can see the remaining tour dates and the video of 'Paradise City'.)