JOE McKEE FAREWELL TO PERTH SHOW @ ELLINGTON JAZZ CLUB, MONDAY SEPTEMBER 10
Through night buses, liquor stores and veggie patches, I snake towards the jazz club, the dark crisp edifice hemmed in by leaves and golden arches. The front door guides me into an unlit recess, black but for a square aperture to my right with a woman’s face in it. She looks up from her books and admits through the next door, where wooden tables loiter, little fire-tongues tasting the saxophone-laden air. The man in the waistcoat pours me a pint that seems bigger than a pint, and another man in another waistcoat proffers a plate of warm bread, gently steaming and edged with trimmings. Duke Ellington winks down at me from the adjacent wall.
A piano, a guitar, a microphone are reclining on a riser, basking in a tepid incandescence. They’re nonchalant; still quietly they hum with promise. After an uncertain, flaneuristic duration, RACHEL DEASE slides up like a specter and seats herself with an omnichord – a sort of lo-fi electronic autoharp – on her lap. She’s just returned from New York, a town lucky enough to bear witness to her ‘City of Shadows’ show; a song-cycle with string quartet based on 1940s crime scene photos from Sydney and Perth. Tonight peels away the embellishments and leaves Dease with only her analog gadget for company. It’s good company though. The omnichord leaks surprisingly rich 8-bit chords and exhales dusty drum machine patterns, and when its touch-plate is “strummed” it releases gilded, unfurling clouds of celestial pseudo-harp. Such is the minimal but compelling palette that backdrops Dease’s somber tunes: murder ballads, existential night terrors, surreal travelogues, wine-stained lovesick strains, including the Dease-penned theme to recent State Theatre show “It’s Cold Outside.” Fans of Beach House will appreciate the cocktail of steadfast drum machine, organ-seep and distant, almost pained, “masculine” vocals, though the tone here is far more Gothic and enigmatic. Amid the finely tuned originals come some well-placed covers: Band of Horses’ “The Funeral” (a version that exceeds the original, I’d venture, though props to horse-dudes for writing the thing) and a ‘mash-up’ rendering of 10CC’s “I’m Not In Love” and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Runaway.” For one person to command a room’s attention and imagination for the best part of an hour with a lone instrument and a voice is always impressive; what’s more, I find myself supposing I could listen to a recording of this set over and over. Luckily, Dease has a solo record in the works. I will be lining up eagerly when it arrives.
Rachael dissolves in a haze of smoke and loop-layered harmony, leaving the svelte and irreverent JOE MCKEE in her stead. There is no separating Joe’s personality from his musicality. He is a charmer – you can see it in the way he greets his friends, the way he orders a beer – and a mystery (which you can’t see, that’s why it’s a mystery). The man is composed and self-assured, but with a penchant for music’s capacity to unstitch wounds and expose maundering psychological chaos. My mind clicks and rewinds to 2006 – I was in high school – I bought Snowman’s debut, self-titled album from 78s. On the same day I watched the band play. I went on to listen to the record on an almost daily basis. It opened with a track called “The Black Tide” which, even then, felt more “Joe” than “Snowman” – languid strings billowed spookily over muddy guitar notes and distant horror movie dissonances, but the defining feature was Joe’s rich, haunting baritone, smoking itself through a 50s-crooner type melody. This aesthetic, albeit tempered by time, experience and refinement, his carried through to his solo album ‘Burning Boy’ – dense with unnerving beauty and blurry, filmic arrangements. Gently jazzy chords – major 7s and 6s, the odd 13, meet 60s folk fingerpicking patterns to evoke sepia water-lilies, but steely echo and stormy layered reverberations suggest they’re viewed in some kind of sinister slide projector scenario. Tonight Joe conjures all this with just Gretsch and looper, which is an impressive feat given the lush, orchestral quality of the textures on the album – it’s not a matter of simply looping riffs and harmony notes, but creating silvery strands of sound that seamlessly intermingle. All the while, Joe’s deep, breathy voice intones cryptic poetry that nevertheless recalls familiar, identifiable scenes (“Darling Hills […] I dream of your burning skin / from a foreign place”). His stage presence – which involves plenty of *off*stage presence and personal-space invasion, is by his own admission a little “surly” – but it creates a visual dynamic, a use of physical space, often lacking in solo performances. It pays off particularly when Joe finds his way to the Ellington’s piano in his final song and almost haphazardly tinkles out a beautiful counterpoint to a precarious, looping guitar motif; he then experiments with beating some nearby drum skins before returning to cut off the soundscape and say fare-thee-well. Farewell for the night, and for the next while – from here, he sets off again around the world, touring Europe and the USA. Joe McKee is an understated songwriter, who has never shown an interest in forging pop hits or immediate hooks. Tonight’s set, as well as his album, feel very much like a rich and nuanced “slow burn” – one that is sure to endure for years, slowly opening up, one treasure at a time.
We unglue our eyes and ears and bodies, spill out onto the footpath, and disperse. Tonight has been all about subtlety, quietude and space, but its continuous statement has been loud and profound: Rachael Dease and Joe McKee are two Perth performers who we can quite comfortably say are world class, be it with an ensemble or alone – and as they travel the world with their songs in tow, so the world begins to agree.