Friday, 20 December 2013

Gig Review - Little May

Live @ The Workers Club, Melbourne (15/12/13)
Supported by Al Parkinson
Review by Lou Endicott

After living in Melbourne for almost nine years it’s hard to believe that I had never been to
The Workers Club in Gertrude Street in Fitzroy.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon I was lucky enough to get the chance to pop my cherry (so to speak) and see some wonderful live music there. The band room at the back of the old hotel has an almost barn like feel to it with its unsealed walls and polished concrete floor. The little tea light candles perched high up on the beams around the walls attempted to create a hint of ambience with little pools of light splashing about a mostly darkened room.

I arrived in time for the support act, Al Parkinson. The crowd was so small I could count them on my hands. Perhaps due to the low number there was a hush in the room akin to walking into a library. My party of four that I arrived with quietly ordered a drink as Al took to the stage. We - like everyone else - clung to the side walls or the bar awaiting her performance.

Al Parkinson, wearing a very large straw hat, was unassuming on the stage with a simple faded spotlight on her. She opened her set by singing an acapella song. This was a brave and daring choice to start a set this way, but it paid off. People started to walk in the door. In a darkened room, with just voice and a few clicks of finger and thumb and her eyes closed throughout, Al drew us in with her intensity and silky voice.

The next song, 'At Night' firmly planted this artist into the field of country jazz. Soft strumming of guitar, heart on sleeve lyrics with a hint of heat like, “I like kissing you at home, without a stitch on” and a voice to make the cows stop and listen. I was won over by Al Parkinson. Her stage banter throughout also added to her hold over us. Before the song, she acknowledged the large hat on her head and asked us not to be offended by it. Turns out she works in a hat shop and had the hat on since 7:30am and didn’t want us to see her, “hat hair.” She even quickly gave us a preview. Not just a beautiful singer/songwriter, but a fantastic sense of humour to boot. And for the record, she could have been wearing a barrel and we all would have still been hooked on her sound and performance.

“The next song is a love song. It’s simple in its writing, but that’s what love should be,” Parkinson told us before launching into her next gem – this one told of loving a person rich in heart but poor in pocket. At this point a side note: I have long been a fan of American folk/country/blues/jazz singer, Jolie Holland. She is a little bit of an obscure artist, but her work always grabs me in the sweet spot of the heart with its sentimentality and soulfulness and a voice that feels as good as a hot cup of cocoa in cold hands. I have never heard an artist quite like Jolie Holland before. Until now. Al Parkinson’s voice and style of songwriting is one that I didn’t realise I had been aching to hear until I heard it. I would go as far to say that I almost prefer Parkinson’s voice to Holland’s. With its treacle like consistency, her lower and upper register have the same sweet tone throughout.

Around this point I started to think that the venue perhaps wasn’t suited to this performance. We needed a rug to sit on, stars to look up to and perhaps a gentle summer breeze. I was tempted to sit on the floor – but it was concrete and the room still felt quite large with its small crowd. So it didn’t feel quite appropriate. It was while I was thinking of this that Al pulled out a ukulele. As she did this I mentally added to my list of perfect setting for this artist a lake or an ocean.

We were next treated to a song called 'The One that Got Away' – a summery, sweet, lullaby-like song that harked back to days of old. It may be the ukulele and her voice, but at this point I started thinking that Al Parkinson perhaps was born in the wrong era. She would have had a huge career in the 40s with jazz and blues hitting the mainstream. But that’s ok with me as I get to hear this music live. And I hope it makes a comeback. Put this lady's music in a film and I can guarantee others will think the same. It’s romance music. It’s heart music. And it’s unlike anything else that is being created right now.

Perhaps the highlight of this set was about seven songs in when Al recognised that we were far away from her (geographically speaking) and the intimacy of this stripped back music is one to share person to person. And so she came down from the stage completely unplugged and stood right in the middle of the room and sung to us – not just as watchers but participants. She searched the room and made eye contact with everyone as she sung. No microphone or PA was needed. The room was so quiet we could almost hear her taking breaths between phrases. I think it was around here I got a little weepy. I admit it. I’m a big old softie. And in my defence of weepiness I have been a teacher of drama for years and have always encouraged artists to simply connect with an audience and the space. To see an artist of this quality break the wall of performance and deliver to us songs from her heart with such honest connection just made my eyes well up.

Al remained on the floor 'til her last song and personally thanked Little May – who were watching throughout the whole set and the other support artist (who I had missed). She also asked us to come and chat to her after as she, “loved making new friends.” Her warmth and openness meant it was easy to approach Al post gig and ask to give her a big hug. Which she most humbly and warmly gave! Her stage presence and her person-to-person presence are one and the same: real, connected and so refreshingly honest and friendly.

There will hopefully be a record out in the early new year from Al – and when it comes out you know I am going to be first in line to purchase it. This is music for the romantics. Music for the soul. And music that hides behind nothing – and nor should it. If you get a chance, do yourself a favour and see Al Parkinson live. In the meantime check out her sound via Soundcloud – or do what I did and spend an afternoon going through her videos on YouTube.

By the time Little May took to the stage the crowd had grown in size considerably. The three ladies of Little May – Hannah Field, Liz Drummond and Annie Hamilton, were joined by a drummer and a bass guitarist which promised a full sound.

Little May opened with one of my favourite songs of the year, 'Boardwalks'. I was happy to hear that the sound produced live is just as powerful as the recording – if not even a little more enjoyable with its live dynamics and organic texture of rolling drums. This song has been a bit of a theme song for me in 2013. Not so much in the content (about a lover leaving town) but just in the sound and mood created by the three female voices. And of course there is that gorgeous build toward the end of the song that hints at a hopeful future. The lead vocals by Hannah and the harmonies sung by Liz and Annie in this song played live were so sublime I got shivers.

As Little May are a relatively new outfit (having released just two singles) I was excited to hear what other songs they had on offer. The second song of the set was a song called 'Home' that featured gentle guitar picking and a fast heartbeat rhythm accompaniment. A banjo played beautifully by Annie added to the mix a full soundscape and another layer of visuals. The build that featured in 'Boardwalks' again was shown here. These girls love to play with dynamics – hooking us in with gentle almost ghostly folk tales and then flying us up to the sky with a build as big as a tsunami.

The third song 'Bones' (which we were told was a brand new song) continued with this signature build and had me thinking of Swedish folk outfit, First Aid Kit with its sound hinting at heightened emotions, dramatic rugged scenery and killer vocal layers. The lyrics, “Do you feel it in your bones like I do,” made me want to cry out, "Yes Little May! We do feel it in our bones!!." What started as a simple three chord turn around took us on a rollicking adventure.

I wasn’t sure of the next song's title but it had a bit more of a rock to it. The drummer (who's name I believe is Cat) got to showcase her quality skills with fast and complex beats that got my adrenalin pumping. This song held a bittersweet heartache of vocals and gorgeous rhythm.

After this song Hannah joked that she would dance around usually on stage but she couldn’t due to her, “skanky shoes,” which were a pair of high heeled boots. The band all had a laugh together and it was easy to see the friendship and bond that these women all share. I think this closeness can only add to the element of the tightness of sound and the blending of energies/voices/instruments these girls create. We were then treated to the first song Little May had ever written together – a track call 'Midnight Owl'. I can only imagine how amazing it must have been to be in that room as these three woman created their first initial track and realised that they had something altogether amazing. Like three witches around a cauldron, the lush harmonies, tambourine and guitar finger picking no doubt demanded that their music would need to contain epic ebbs and magic flows. I had images of a large open night sky and a roaring bonfire to accompany this track.

Although we had already heard a, “new song,” the next song we were told was a, “really new song.” The drum beat set the scene for danger and drama. Like a maiden riding a horse on a full moon night with cape flashing out behind her as she goes to rescue her beloved from some foul fate, this music was ruled by rhythm and timing. The lyrics, “I’ll make a run for it tonight because my head is a mess but my feet are on the ground,” probably added to the altogether romantic image I had in my mind. I really loved this song and would love to hear it again.

The next track, 'Fire' spoke of unrequited love. It was just before the song that Hannah (after telling us the name of the track) said, “It might be boring telling you the names of all of these tracks.” Boring? No. It was not. I love knowing a little about the song – its name, its theme, its origins. It’s a little pleasure and privilege for us audiences to know about what artists create and why. And it usually starts with the title. I enjoyed the lyrics here. “I’ll walk in this door and leave with nothing.” The bass in the song really had that desperation needed to suggest a heart searching and a heart frantically longing.

Electric lead guitar led us into the next track. The three part vocals here almost had a warble - like women grieving in some medieval square. Haunting, heart wrenching and definitely not of this era. This song also featured dramatic pauses which added a layer of suspense and tension. The dreamy guitar interlude almost had the feel of soft keyboards over the top of a chant. Again, another witchy brew concocted just right.

The next song was a cover called 'Australia Street', originally by Sydney indy pop/hiphop band Sticky Fingers. I was not familiar with the band or the song. But post gig after doing a little research I realised the music Sticky Fingers make is so different to Little May that it was a surprise to see that they wanted to cover it. But cover it they did. With no drums or bass the girls turned the hip hop rap section into a percussive yet melodic song with soft and dexterous vocals. And somehow adding a sweet ghostlike layer of ambience that Little May do so well.

The penultimate song of the set was the addictive single 'Hide'. Liz handled the lead vocals so expertly here that if I closed my eyes I could have been listening to the recording (which I admit I have listened to over and over and over….) This song was effortlessly cool and an absolute stand out of the set for me. The enjoyment that Little May have playing it is obvious. This is a white hot song and it must feel wonderful to be in the middle of this song singing, “Can you see me count to three? No I wont play your hide and seek.” It was hard not to move along to the rhythm and be swept up in the dark groove.

The final song of the set was a song called 'Mexico'. This song used drop D tuning - which always adds to a fuller more country sound. I was delighted to see that Liz used some guitar drifting in this song as her hands plucked at the strings then smacked the body of the guitar to create a bass like drum. She also used harmonics – hitting the strings of the guitar to create alternate high pitched sound (I sound a bit technical here don’t I?). If I had any doubt before (I did not, but IF I did) Liz would have smashed it out of the ballpark – she showed she is an exceptional guitar player. And to do all this while singing lead? Well, just a bit legendary methinks. A disco ball spun and reflected off the walls the moment the build came in. It was the only lighting change of the set – and although a very simple one, worked a treat.

I was lucky enough to meet the girls after the set and found out that it was Annie’s birthday. If I had found out during the set I am sure the audience would have burst into THAT song. But Annie chose to keep it to herself and stick to other, more beautifully crafted songs. So happy birthday Annie – I hope you had a wonderful night!

All of the women of Little May were so down to earth and friendly in person. If there is a gig near you, go see them, as soon you will have to wait in line just to get into a venue to see them on stage.
Little May have an EP coming out in March. They will also be touring in 2014 with Norwegian singer/songwriter/guitarist Mikhael Paskelev. And of course as winners of Triple J's Unearthed Laneway festival they will be featured playing amongst international artists such as Lorde.

Little May.
Big Love.

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