Patrick Wolf at the Tivoli Theatre, Brisbane
Friday, 7 September 2012.
More than four decades ago, John Lennon and Paul McCartney sang, on The Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ of the transformative powers of music, promising listeners a listening experience that would “take you away, take you away.”
It’s true, of course, that the very best music does possess the power to transport you to another realm entirely, but it is also true that such transformative, transcendent moments are unutterably rare.
Watching Patrick Wolf perform onstage at Brisbane’s historic Tivoli Theatre, immersing himself ever deeper in his songs and taking the enraptured audience along for the ride, I was reminded of the power music has to make you feel you’re truly somewhere else, somehow holding the hand of the musician as he or she takes you on a sort of magical mystery tour.
Though he is only 29, it is no great exaggeration to say that British musician Patrick Wolf is like no other musician working today and is quite possibly the most prodigiously gifted musician of his generation.
As such, there is then perhaps no other musician as well equipped to potentially provide listeners with the sort of illuminative, immersive musical experience achieving that feeling of transcendence requires.
Since bursting onto the international music scene a decade ago, Wolf has released five brilliantly brave and experimental albums, each bolder than its predecessor, each new song never anything less that utterly intriguing.
For him, song writing is a deeply personal experience, as cathartic as it is expressive, as is the process of crafting the melodies on which his lyrics hang. Bearing that in mind, the stripped-down, acoustic format of the night’s proceedings are especially well suited to traversing Wolf’s very particular musical oeuvre.
After an astonishingly good opening set from support act Brous, who herself offered up reinterpretations and rearrangements of the songs from her self-titled EP, as well as several new, as yet unreleased tunes, Wolf strode onstage, with his tall frame handsomely clad in a bespoke suit that seemed inspired by centuries past, took a seat at his harp and immediately launched into ‘Teignmouth,’ taken from his 2005 LP, Wind in the Wires.
Like most everything he performed, it was a near virtuosic rendition that completely re-imagined the original whilst still retaining enough elements to make it recognisable. ‘Paris’ and ‘The Magic Position’ also received similar re-workings, the acoustic reinterpretations somehow bringing to the fore their inherent fragility, hitherto somewhat obscured by the melodies buoying them.
“Wolf expertly and emotively trawls through 12 songs, variously playing the piano, harp, ukulele, viola and dulcimer.”
It’s a risky thing for any musician to do – to mess around with the songs their fans have come to know by heart and love them for – but Wolf has never been afraid of pushing the envelope and if not now then when?
After all, for Irish-born, London-raised Wolf, 2012 marks his 10-year anniversary in the music business. Later this month he releases an ambitious double-album, Sundark and Riverlight, on which he revisits, re-imagines and reinterprets songs taken from each of his five LPs.
As a celebration of both that musical milestone and the imminent release of the resultant double-album, he’s currently traversing the globe on an entirely acoustic tour, playing songs from Sundark and Riverlight, and changing his setlist nightly, thus ensuring that no two shows will feature an identical line-up of song performances.
Along for the ride are both a violinist and a clarinet player, but the show is largely Wolf and his violinist, what he does best: digging into his extensive back-catalogue and demonstrating his astonishing musical ambidextrousness by not only utterly re-imagining the structure and sound of the songs themselves but also playing an astonishing array of instruments.
Over the course of a solid 90 minutes, Wolf expertly and emotively trawls through 12 songs, variously playing the piano, harp, ukulele, viola and dulcimer. Though he is a classically trained violinist, tonight it’s the one instrument he doesn’t touch, seemingly preferring largely to stick with the other musical instruments he has to hand.
Still, his ability to play so many instruments with such proficiency isn’t especially surprising, given that Wolf was so intrigued by the theremin that, aged 11, he literally made his own, ordering various bits and pieces from catalogues, researching the instrument at the library, and gradually piecing one together in the confines of his London bedroom.
He has received classical training in piano, violin and composition, but found the strictness of a university conservatorium education too constricting and left after barely a year, instead busking and working as a bartender until he landed a record deal with an indie label in the UK.
It’s difficult to pick highlights in a show that was itself one continuous highlight, but it is worth noting that Wolf managed to create a set list that perfectly balanced darker, more emotionally revelatory and contemplative songs with others that were comparatively more upbeat and celebratory or overtly joyous.
In that regard, it is particularly lovely to see him perform, with obvious joy, ‘House.’ He prefaces the performance with a story about having lived in the song’s titular London house for five years and, during that time, having created a true sense of home for both himself and his friends.
He also confesses to owning a kitsch vintage Queensland-themed tablecloth and further reveals that, during 2011’s disastrous floods, he felt so badly for Brisbane and its residents that “the tablecloth came out of the cupboard and stayed on the table for a really, really long time!”
After ‘House’ he segues into the gorgeous, love-song, ‘Bermondsey Street,’ a jaunty, up-tempo tune that celebrates about the love that couples, both straight and gay, found after meeting on the song’s titular street. Wolf performs it with joyous abandon, grinning wildly and pounding away at the piano as he croons: Oh, I love this house, I love this house / Gives me the greatest peace I’ve ever known / Oh, I love to hear those conquers fall / Smash them on in Suffolk stone / And I love that here you live with me / Gives me the greatest peace I’ve ever known / Cos I’ve been too long a lonely man / Yes, I’ve been too long a rolling stone.
He then immediately launches into a gorgeously evocative, lushly poetic lyric that recalls the British pastoral poetic tradition and is quintessential romantic Wolf: I love the curling of your hair / Gives me the greatest peace I’ve ever known / I see Dylan Thomas in your face / Recite Butler Yeats now in your grace / So let seasons turn / Grow paradise Garden / And to my mind reassure / The native has returned.
As anybody who has seen Wolf perform live before will know, he’s also fond of conversing with the audience, sharing jokes and tales between songs. Tonight he shares some real gems, perhaps the funniest of these being his retelling of having spent the previous night trying to overcome jetlag by visiting a local pub.