Geographies are folding in like a chatterbox: Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Japan, Santorini. As Saturday night spins into view I’ve just flown in from one of those places, and disco-revivalist crooner Donny Benet’s flown in from another, and North Perth is where we converge, under the auspices of the Rosemount Hotel.
It’s been a while between drinks in the steamy, curving beer garden; red bricks, leaves, cigarettes, neon and denim all stippling the half-darkness. It’s darker in the venue’s main room, where the air is getting warmed in a DJ kind of way by Camp Doogs’ tropical-souled rudder COEL HEALY, and NICOLE FILEV, who’s increasingly a kind of local lynchpin, not least for her role in the new dub-plate-meets-live-percussion performance series, Intercontinental Sounds.
Parachuting in from the dizzying peaks of conservatorium rigour is homegrown jazz pentacle GRIEVOUS BODILY CALM. Their name is spoken in hushed tones among gig-goers, and it’s not on account of the underwhelming pun. As local cartoonist / radio experimentalist Tristan Fidler will put it to me the following day, these guys really “do it.”
The band’s hive-mind sound is pumped along by the hefty kit of Alex Reid and bass-belch of Zac Grafton, rhythms snapping and lurching as they carry forth a raft of textural and melodic explorations. Matt McGlynn’s trumpet see-saws between fanfare-like “head” melodies and more colubrine wanderings. Edo Ekic’s guitar is mostly content to blend into the backcloth - adding fusionistic chord flavours, depth and tension - only occasionally bursting into the limelight to deliver high-octane melody and emancipatory shred.
By far the most unbridled element at play is the keyboard of Josiah Padmanabham: though he’ll return to chord stabs, riffs and simmering electric-piano vamps where absolutely necessary, he’s more often found exploring the stratosphere in audacious, eruptive manoeuvres. His synth tone’s a sci-fi fever as he climbs the frequency range in obscure scalic runs, bending pitches to his dissonant whims, hanging on the crunchiest notes like a Herbie Hancock gone rogue. If at times it’s piercing and a little too “out” for the earthly ear, it still adds a thrilling volatility, too often absent in the playing of highly adept musicians. His restless dancing and frenzied facial expressions add a lot to the experience, too.
Do GBC live up to the hype? If you’re a lover of contemporary jazz that embraces hip hop, electronic, rock and funk influences (see: BadBadNotGood), you’ll likely think they do. With their vigorous virtuosity and not a lot of the titular “calm,” they won’t be everyone’s cuppa. But tonight, new material reveals increased focus on immersive grooves and unhurried mood-scapes, boding well for those who like a bit of steady rain between flashes of lightning.
Two Henries - SIMS & MAXWELL — hold the room in their thrall for the next stretch, effortlessly trotting out their deep knowledge of dance-oriented music from assorted diasporas. Back in the cool air outdoors, I collide with friends old and new. We sip freely and the night seems to uncoil in slow motion.
DONNY BENET, by any measure, is the evening’s spiritual centrepiece. The Sydney-based purveyor of camp is the kind of figure people rally around, his addictive synth-disco hooks muddled perfectly with his thick moustache, loud shirts and notorious lank hairstyle.
If you’re only vaguely familiar, you could be forgiven for thinking Donny Benet is a wholly ironic pastiche of 80’s Euro-disco sleaze, or indeed a kind of comedy act playing at the intersection of nostalgia and cringe. But the reality is more interesting: Donny’s father, Antonio Giacomelli Benét, was a bona fide Italo-disco accordionist who set his son and heir on the righteous path. After a stint as an airport hotel crooner in LA, Benét returned to Sydney and, as well as contributing to Jack Ladder’s The Dreamlanders alongside Kirin J Callinan, began to spruik his original synth-pop compositions.
Tonight, Benét is about eight years down that particular path, celebrating the release of a new album titled simply but amusingly The Don. The approach this time around seems to be a cosmopolitan refraction of romance’s timeless cycles, from love at first sight in Japan (“Konichiwa - I love you”) to desperation on Greek Islands (“I don’t want you to leave me, on the coast of Santorini.”) The lyrics are knowingly silly, sometimes overtly dumb, often very funny, and usually delivered with enough genuine feeling to elevate them beyond parody or mere kitsch.
Indeed, Benet’s sincerity tonight is totally disarming, and is a big part of what makes the show feel special. Between the pulsating pillars of synth, pelvic-thrust bass lines, melodramatic vocal melodies and dated drum machine, Benet addresses the crowd to describe the origins of songs: aging friend’s romantic anxieties, dalliances with Tinder (detailed in the energizing “Love Online”) and real life divorces. Suddenly, the skilled recycling of 80s pop tropes feels less like a contrived shtick, more a way to process and express life in one’s musical mother tongue, with a knowing nod to how ridiculous it might seem from the other side.
There’s a sense of joy and release in these songs as Benet sings and sways over laptop backings, and the feeling is contagious. Audience members begin to climb on stage, one by one at first, to dance serenely with the Don – then in greater numbers for a big messy love-in. Benet, unflappable, continues to intone smoothly and occasionally jump on his moog synth for an agile, warbling, outrageous solo. The set ends with Benet asking us to imagine he’s gone off stage and then cuts straight to an encore, the flagship tune “Sophisticated Lover,” with its syncopated chord stabs, rubber bass and barking snare. Surrounded by adoring dancers, Benet’s cool exterior is occasionally perforated by a goofy grin. No pretentions, just a distinct pop dialect, and the singular elation when it puts us all on the same vividly-coloured page.