I don’t visit Scarborough much, and haven’t since I last went there to buy plants from Marjorie’s backyard (Marjorie sells plants from her backyard, and bric-a-brac from her garage, and sends the money to a school in Zimbabwe). Sometimes I pause, midway through a trip to or from some other destination northwards along the coast, and take a quick salty plunge. Certainly I’m not often here at night.
But a show at this new venue, El Grotto, has pulled me away from my cradle, on a Thursday night no less, and so I walk through the shadows of the Rendezous Hotel and the Giant Roundabout Clock, and into the Mexican-themed restaurant/bar.
Amber Fresh, aka RABBIT ISLAND slips onto stage as the grotto's patrons drink beer and chomp on gourmet hotdogs.
Moving between piano and guitar, she reanimates songs I've now heard dozens of times but never grow tired of. I think it's mainly because they're such good songs but also because the delivery is so honest every time, the music's core emotion so vividly rekindled. A pop song's lustre can dull if the hook is overplayed or the mood is wrong: Amber's songs seem to transcend such concerns. They're more like poems, they breathe and expand, their sensibilities shift with each iteration's emphasis and lilt, they shoot through their surroundings like soft lightning. It must be hard to deliver a tune like 'Adam's Song' in a boisterous beachside bar, singing a paean to human rights and equality, lamenting the injustices of the global economy and social subjugation. But Amber does it, serenely and fearlessly, transfixing whichever ears are prepared to pause their conversations listen. Joining in on drums is none other than Evelyn Morris - aka Pikelet - whose remarkable intuition and technical skill leads to a host of inventive, neatly interlocking accompaniments - despite being totally off the cuff.
Following in the wake of this dream team are another superlative duo, ERASERS. The pair originally hail from these Northern beachside communities so the setreads as a kind of peculiar homecoming, or at least a return to the landscape that must have partially informed their origins. It's not hard to imagine that their patient organ tones, misty vocals and undulating guitar lines are a kind of musical analogue for the long and sighing coastline or - equally - a kind of peaceful meditative salve to the antagonistic attitudes that peer-band Last Quokka sing about in their song 'Northern Suburbs.' In any case, their set is a characteristically beautiful commingling of warm synthetic and organic sounds, pushed ever-forward by polyrhythmic drum machine momentum, encouraging both dance energy and introspection.
As the night's unfurled, the dinner crowd has slowly waned and the attentive listener contingent seemingly swelled. It's amid a newfound atmosphere of anticipation that PIKELET moves to the stage although things are still pretty casual (what I failed to mention earlier is that the "stage" is styled as a comfortable bohemian lounge room, with lamps, old couches, pot plants and Persian-style carpets).
Pikelet begins by acknowledging the Noongar people as the traditional owners of the land on which the gig takes place, and that sovereignty was never ceded. The former point is well-known and can risk sounding trite without further elaboration, which is why the second clause is so potent: here we are, still on stolen land. It's a brief but crucial point of political context, of the sort which suffuses Pikelet's practice; everything is considered with regard to networks of representation and power, and creativity cannot (alas) occur in a vacuum.
The musical performance itself is a thrill to behold; a wild rube goldberg machine of synths, vocal and drum live-sampling, sequencers and sound-manipulation. There's 'One Structure Also Many,' whose rich arrangement emerges as if by magic, like a Mr Squiggle composition suddenly making sense - it's a very special jigsaw of a song. 'Dear Unimaginables' complements a kind of neo-Gershwin piano dream with ambiguous lyrics referencing ambiguity itself: "It is open, it is unwritten. It is always near, but never quite here." The high-pitched yearning towards the song's close is incredibly intense - "It feels so distant, what I want" - a vague universal given tremendous gravity by its brilliant delivery. The unsettling 5/8 of 'Interface Dystopia' is one of Pikelet's hardest-hitting polemics to date, offering the daunting question "can you remember the last time you had any fun without… interference from capitalist dystopia?" The feeling that the world is unavoidably tainted by failed and violent systems can be overwhelming, and is perfectly encapsulated in this singular track, which although devastating, ends on the comforting communality of the experience ("you're not the only one, you're not the only one who feels completely hopeless sometimes."). On a brighter note we get the Pikelet classic 'A Bunch,' offering heartfelt thanks and love to friends and fellow travellers in the weird adventure called life.
Rabbit Island, Erasers and Pikelet might make perfect sense as a lineup, but despite using some similar tools and effects, their respective musics aren't that similar. What really seems to bind them together is a shared, earnest belief in the positive power of music, and a vibrant empathetic streak to their craft: empathy with the landscape, empathy with other people. An openness to new ideas, and an aesthetic of warmth.
As I write, noted fear-mongering racist/misogynist/bad guy Donald J. Trump has just been elected President of the United States; "leader of the free world." Hate's got the popular vote, and we wait and pray and see where its tendrils extend. The world is an increasingly scary, mean place.
We need love, we need beauty. We need artists like Amber, Rupert, Rebecca and Evelyn more than ever.