QPAC Concert Hall (Maiden Australia Productions)


Devised by Deborah Conway


For just one night the Concert Hall came alive to the sounds of five broads singing mostly their own songs and playing a bewildering array of instruments (did I see a theremin in there at one stage? And was that a melodica?), and later backed up by the testosterone element in the form of Max on bass, Jonathan on percussion and James Black on everything else. It was an exhilaratingly big sound. I must confess to a lingering dislike of the term “broads”. Too many overtones of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, I fear. But with Deborah Conway as den mother, with her frequent allusions to the mighty oestrogen level on stage, the performance soon did away with any patronising hangovers in the term. So broads it is, and broad they are in their range and talents. And this is number three Broad, travelling on mainly one-night stands to Canberra, Sydney, Darwin, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth after Brisbane.

The stage is dark, with five white/gold silhouettes on banners which move lazily in the air currents. The instruments are the sole light-coloured and shining objects until the performers walk on and five spots illuminate them. It’s a dramatic moment, and the big sound that follows continues the drama. Later the lights begin to illuminate the intricate pipes of the Concert Hall organ, and the space resembles a modern cathedral where the worship is all about women’s music.

Unlike Women in Voice, Broad does not do cabaret. All five — Anne McCue, Sally Seltmann, Jade MacRae, Abbe May, and the formidable Deborah Conway remain on stage the whole time, each singing usually one of their own songs in which the others join in along the way, all exploring and tasting the blend of different vocal styles and themes. It’s all pleasantly sororial, and Conway even pays homage to a previous broad, Clare Bowditch, who was one of the Broad sisters in 2005 and whose marriage prompted Conway to write the lovely ballad about love in the Middle Ages, with the less than ancient line “I might have cold feet, but, baby, my heart is warm.” In between songs, Conway encourages the others to introduce themselves and to make what are sometimes hesitant comments on their career and their desires. This is not always very successful. We learn that McCue sees herself as an outsider, Seltmann as a loner, MacRae, amongst other things, has a strong social conscience, and May had a bad time at school. But these women are all singer-songwriters, and what you find out in these rather stumbling, almost embarrassed bits of autobiography is as nothing compared to the raw, driving, passionate effect of their own songs. We learn everything we need to know, for instance, in McCue’s first number, “From Bakersfield to Saigon” with her accompanying brilliant acoustic guitar. Now living in Nashville (probably temporarily, given the theme of the song), she has also taken the long road “from Campbelltown to Beirut.” Yes, she’s a little Aussie sheila, whose home is wherever she lands and where the music is. It’s a wonderful song and deserves to be a hit in the great tradition of the travelling song.

Sally Seltmann records as New Buffalo and will tour as support to Paul Kelly immediately the Broad tour finishes. She plays a delicate keyboard, and you can hear her classical background lurking in the deceptively sweet melodies and rhythms. Her lyrics are strangely intimate, private, plaintive, often repetitive, which creates both a spoken and musical rhythm. She doesn’t have a strong voice, and yet her musicianship is unmistakable in songs like “Cheering me up and I’m thanking you” and “It’s True.” At one stage in the between-songs chat, she tries to explain how reluctant she felt at first at the prospect of being part of a touring chick band (as Conway calls the group), and her segments are noticeably more individualistic. However, what is so marvellous about this show is how these different styles do blend and rock the hall.

The New Zealander Jade MacRae has been frequently likened to Beyoncé and to the greatest R&B singers, and she certainly packs a punch, both with her voice and her stage presence. A wonderful talent, and still only mid-twenties, and she can also play the violin. And there’s Abbe May, this year’s winner of Western Australia’s Best Female Artist and front woman of The Fuzz, almost a Suzie Quatro sound-and-lookalike, and with a wonderfully melodious whistle with which she opens the second half, alone on stage singing the ukulele song (which is really called “Storm”), until the others join her down the aisle, all whistling and playing ukuleles as well. Is she twenty yet? McCue’s “little ditty” about the Ku Klux Klan sort of set the tone for the second half after that, with its amazingly atmospheric screeching cadences of the victims’ screams. Deborah Conway came into her own as well much more in the second half as she quoted Jule Styne, the Tin Pan Alley great, “Without the rendition there is no song.” The evening ended with the Tom Petty “No, I won’t back down”, led by Conway and followed by a wonderful encore, the Bob Dylan anthem “You gonna have to serve somebody” with finally a short, haunting a cappella piece which showed off the blend of voices perfectly.

Playing Brisbane 17 Aug; Canberra 18 Aug; Sydney 19 Aug; Darwin 20, 21 Aug; Melbourne 23, 24 Aug; Adelaide 25 Aug; Perth 26 Aug.

Duration: 2hrs (including 20-min interval).

— Barbara Garlick
(Performance seen: Thu 16th August 2007)