Songbirds swing by north coast
By Jeanti St Clair, ABC North Coast Arts Reviewer
Martha Wainwright is perhaps the most unsung but most talented member of her musical family. Late last year, the 37-year-old released her first studio album since two major life changing events happened in 2009 – 2010.
Come Home To Mama is full of grief, love, pain and reflection, a part-apocalyptic narrative and part-personal catharsis. But above all, it is a tribute to family and her mother, the Canadian folk musician Kate McGarrigle who died of cancer in early 2010, not long after Martha’s son was born during a difficult birth.
Wainwright performed two shows in at Byron Community Centre’s intimate theatre at the head of her Australian tour and, with the crowd buzz from her Saturday show very positive, I was looking forward to seeing her on Sunday.
Supporting Wainwright was a cut down version of Melbourne’s Brighter Later, a downtempo electro folk outfit fronted by Jaye Kranz. The shy trio played a short understated set of beautiful, subtle and rich atmospheric songs, a marriage between Brian Eno and the Cowboy Junkies in mood and measure.
Then a short interval later, the bird-like Martha Wainwright bounced on stage, wearing a mid-thigh high dress and a pair of sweet sandals, looking like she’d come in from a summer’s day at the beach.
Wainwright strapped on her acoustic guitar and began with a song written by her mother and aunts, The McGarrigles but never recorded by them: I Am A Diamond, a song about imperfection and self-empowerment, sung almost as a call to arms, with the guitar standing in as a rough and rustic accompanist.
Then Wainwright’s trio joined her as she tackled some songs from the new album, beginning with the ironic love song Can You Believe It, the album’s most upbeat moment.
It was the first of many moods to grace the night – from the upbeat and poppy, to melancholy moments of reflection about mothers and mothering, right through to torch song territory when she sang two French songs from her 2009 tribute album to Edith Piaf.
Martha Wainwright’s voice is simultaneously honey-like and coarse, lusty and tender. She can sing jazz standards too, like she was made for them – take for example, the encore performance of Stormy Weather where every yearning and lover’s ache is felt.
I’d been waiting to hear Proserpina all night. This was the final song Kate McGarrigle wrote. She performed it on stage with her daughter six weeks before her death, and has obvious importance to Martha’s current set.
Sadly, the power of Come Home To Mama’s backbone tune was lost on the night to under-rehearsed backing vocals from Brighter Later. It was the one soft spot in an otherwise strong show.
Instead, two songs from the new album were my highlights: I Am Sorry and Everything Wrong. There’s great power in both these songs about troubled relationships, lyrically and in Wainwright’s soaring and heartfelt vocals.