Blacker than Cohen, gruffer than Waits

Marian Poole
Marian Poole
A select audience gave warm applause to Bill Direen’s second Dunedin performance of his 2018 song cycle M.J. Savage song-cycle,   World War 1, 2, 3 and  The Hospital Pass  at the austere New Athenaeum Theatre on Saturday night, writes Marian Poole. 

The scene was set by Alex Wolken extemporising on the keyboard as the doors opened and candle-lit tables, which were successfully suggestive of soiree intimacy. Though Direen has worked in many cities, he continues to produce music in the vein of what is now deservedly known as the Dunedin Sound. His music remains highly original and perpetually evolving. This latest venture, in collaboration with poet Alan Brunton, has taken another twist. Blacker than Leonard Cohen, more guttural than Tom Waits, it has become more theatrically based experimental art music than alternative rock, while remaining indefinable.

In this premiere of  M.J. Savage song-cycle  there are sounds of sideshow music boxes,  burlesque vaudeville and hopelessness from the opening  Build the Ideal  to the closing  Kindly Stranger.

Scratchy, fragmented images from a bemired and gristly World War 1 juddered across the screen behind the musicians. Stuart Porter (saxophones), Alex Wolken (piano), Adam Stewart (percussion), Matt Sanson (keys), Susan Ellis (cello, vocalist and trumpet) and Brendon Ryniker (guitar) complemented Direen’s texts and songs with an aleatoric free improvisation, wails, thuds and screams. The combined effect is that of a world horrifically disjointed while making for compelling  viewing and listening. There is no room for mere morbid voyeurism.  

Crime and the Brothels  was a standout item.

Lighter moments in The Hospital Pass  were provided by Direen on guitar with modified, faltering folkish numbers including Simple Grave Digger,  and Put a little Sugar in your Pocket Friend,  written by Brunton. 

A wonderful full-on experience but not for the faint-hearted.


Bill Direen and Guests

The New Athenaeum Theatre, Saturday,  May 12

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