19 April 2015

Review: Blackbird Ensemble, Dreams

Music Director, Claire Cowan
Director, Renee Lyons

The Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave

Review by Catherine Hamilton

DREAMS is the Blackbird Ensemble’s latest reincarnation, and its smallest one yet. But what it lacks in breadth it definitely makes up for in depth, this show being more intimate and physically stylised than previous endeavours. Entering the performance space is like stepping into a bohemian bedchamber. Each band member sleepwalks onto the set, dressed in charming vintage-style pyjamas. It’s the characterisation element that sets DREAMS apart from previous Blackbird shows, the handiwork of visionary director Renee Lyons. The evening feels like an extended hallucination. There is an equal amount of frenzied rocking out, nightmarish twitching and lilting lullabies on offer, subtly shepherded by musical director Claire Cowan as she flits between cello, banjo, keys and vocals at one end of The Basement Theatre. Near her is the supremely talented Jonathan Burgess on bass and double bass, and the masterfully rhythmic Tristan Deck on drums and percussion. Sleepwalking down at the other end of this extended bedroom is the zen Jonnie Barnard on guitar, the mystical Kevin Keys on trombone and the spirited Callum Passells on saxophones. Centre stage is Charmian Keay on violin, perched atop one of the several unmade beds that make up the set. DREAMS’ two lead vocalists, Jessie Cassin and Mikey Brown are free to wander and roam as much of the set as they can manage; Cassin makes a particularly enchanting entrance by descending from the clouds via glittering golden ladder.
It wouldn’t be a Blackbird Ensemble production without Cowan’s expertly crafted and defiantly complex arrangements that tie together some of the most unlikely musical bedfellows. After opening with Radiohead, Calexico and Iron & Wine covers, we witness a jarring mashup of Loudon Wainwright III and The Smiths. Before we’ve had enough time to wrap our heads around that, we’re up, up and away tumbling over covers and mash-ups that boldly defy genre and the expectations of a “mini-orchestra”. Highlights include that ever-mystical Kevin Keys scaring us all a little with his rendition of Lullaby by The Cure and then Mikey Brown really showing us what he’s made of in I Had A Dream Joe by Nick Cave. Once again, Blackbird leaves me with an interesting and varied list of artists to mull over, rediscover or introduce my ears to.
The reduced size format is refreshing and, though it doesn’t break down the fourth wall entirely, the more intimate environment enables a different kind of connection between the musicians and audience. The audience whoops, cheers and laughs with the band and the evening feels more like being at a gig than at a concert. This borderline-claustrophobic proximity did have its challenging moments when it came to sound design; there were entire chunks of the more boisterous songs where I couldn’t make out what was being sung. It was simply getting lost in the noise. There were other times where players were drowned out by their neighbouring instrumentalists, despite microphones or amplification. This too may have affected the players’ ability to interact with each other; Cowan and Barnard seemed relatively isolated from the core of the band. I’d be interested to see how DREAMS interacts with other environments, in a still-intimate-but-not-SO-small venue.

DREAMS is an inspired aural trip into the world of musical sleepstates and the magnificent set, lighting and costume design combine to create a gorgeously stylised and captivating fantasy to hang out in for the evening.