Martin Martini and the Bone Palace Orchestra

Powerhouse Theatre (Brisbane Cabaret Festival)


Martin Martini, Xani Kolac, James Macaulay, Peter Burgess, Sam Dunscombe, Arron Light, and Nash Lee

The Bone Palace Orchestra… How about I start by saying how divine I think this band name is? What sumptuous, dark visions it conjures! The Palace of Bones on a bleak and windswept hill, with all its occupants going slightly mad within its skeleton frame. There’s Sam the insomniac climbing the walls, clarinet clenched between his teeth, fiery Xani in heels atop the staircase playing violin like a demon, while James prinks and preens in a black leatherette dress and fishnets before the mirror, his trombone in pieces at his feet. Open a cupboard and out tumbles Peter Burgess and his enormous tuba, climb to the attic to find the lone Nash Lee and his guitar, descend to the dank basement to see Arron Light drumming through the cobwebs. And, storming through the palace in his bowler hat, wild black hair streaming, there’s Martin Martini, master of the house, ranting, cursing, growling, singing, conducting, and scrawling his discontent in red across the walls…

See this bunch and you are in for a roaring show unlike anything you’ve witnessed before. Somewhat out of place at a cabaret festival (‘Every time somebody says the word “cabaret”, someone, somewhere in the world dies,’ said a sardonic Marin Martini in his opening address to his audience), Martin Martini and The Bone Palace Orchestra revel in their misfit status. This handful of musically prodigious weirdos has been treating audiences in their hometown of Melbourne since 2005. Since then they’ve been seen at venues such as the Sydney Opera House, the St Kilda Festival, and the Famous Spiegeltent, among others.

The band comes off like a carnival troupe or gypsy clan, their performance style loose and unpredictable. The brass instruments lend a circus feel, and Martin Martini—pure brawn and charisma—runs the show looking every inch the ringleader. They are theatrical, relishing the ironic, the macabre, the bizarre.

Perhaps the most obvious comparison would be with fellow Melbourne dwellers The Cat Empire, but these guys have a dark side that makes The Cat Empire look kittenish. This is largely due to Martini’s literal and figurative muscle, and to the biting social commentary and stinging poetry of his lyrics. Scathing of corporate culture and modern greed (‘It’s all just money in the hole’), Martini lashes out against political hypocrisy (‘George Bush in the back of his black Chevrolet singing zippity do da, zippity-ay’), and tramples over sacred territory (‘I caught Jesus sleeping in; he had a young boy sleeping next to him’). Some songs are wickedly irreverent, some angry, some joking, some darkly pessimistic, spilling forth as surreal and whimsical stories from Martini’s obviously hyperactive mind.

As an ensemble, the members of The Bone Palace Orchestra have fantastic chemistry onstage. In particular, violinist Xani Kolac shines. A mere 20 years old, this leggy redhead plays her instrument like a woman possessed. She is sexy as can be and the music she makes is spine-tinglingly good. Her energy and obvious love of performance galvanises the stage. Sam Dunscombe and James Macaulay are also madmen, but the show is expertly anchored by the less showy performances of Nash Lee, Peter Burgess, and Arron Light.

Martin Martini and The Bone Palace Orchestra put on a show that is exuberant and magnetic. They’re delightfully original. Although I appreciated the chance to sit and focus on the songs’ lyrics, overall the cabaret setup for this show (with the audience at round tables) didn’t really work that well. Most people didn’t get up and dance, and the table that did blocked others’ views and grated on my nerves! Next time I see them, I want it to be somewhere darker, seedier, more edgy, and more like them.

Played Friday 12 October and Saturday 13 October, 10pm

Running time: 70 mins

— Casey Hutton
(Performance seen: Thu 11th October 2007)