The biggest moments in Australian live entertainment

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

For a nation that flocks to live performances like bees to honey, it’s bizarre to look back on a time when the very idea of it was taboo. Way back when Australia was established as a penal colony, the joys of English-style theatre were considered at odds with trying to mete out punishments. Happily, the killjoy authorities ultimately didn’t get their way and Australia is nowadays home to a billion dollar live entertainment industry that is one of the world’s most vibrant and diverse.

A beloved band reunites

For the CEO of Live Performance Australia (LPA) Evelyn Richardson, last year’s performances by Crowded House at the Sydney Opera House were a really special moment. The four concerts marked the 20th anniversary since the iconic band performed its landmark show, ‘Farewell to the World’ in front of 100,000 people at the same magnificent venue.

“It was so great to see them again live and still on top of their game,” said Richardson, who was among the audience of 5,000.

Photo by Yvette de Wit on Unsplash
Photo by Yvette de Wit on Unsplash

Burning the midnight oil

A stalwart of Australian stages is Midnight Oil, whose sheer stamina and lasting popularity is impressive: the band started out in the seventies and are still selling out shows as we speak. Midnight Oil grew its dedicated fan base organically by regularly performing in pubs that were willing to play host to their wild ways. In 1979, Midnight Oil played a riot-inspiring gig at Sydney’s Stagedoor Tavern that is still remembered fondly today, despite the police being called in to shut the doors for crowd control. Sydney mourned the loss of the Stagedoor Tavern, which shut its doors in 2009.

‘Like a sermon’

Singer-songwriter Lachlan Bryan can’t go past a particular performance by another Australian great, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. For Bryan, who is the front-man of the award-winning alternative-country band Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes, the performance by the ‘Prince of Darkness’ epitomized Cave’s ethereal qualities and lasting appeal.

“A warm summer night had fallen by the time Nick and the band finally took to the stage, immaculately dressed and bathed in soft white and purple light,” Bryan recalled.

“The show was stunning: in some moments Nick leant over the front rows, as if delivering a sermon, while at other times he sat at the piano and crooned his more delicate songs… Here was a genuine Australian hero on the stage – deep, intelligent, articulate and imposing.”

Photo by Matty Adame on Unsplash
Photo by Matty Adame on Unsplash

Smells like what?

Internationally, one of the biggest moments in the modern history of Australian live entertainment came about because of a forward-thinking booking agent. In 1992, Sydney’s Magnet Promotions took a punt on a little-known band called Nirvana, after liking what they heard on their debut album, Mudhoney. Part of Nirvana’s tour included playing at what was then a new festival – The Big Day Out – and by the time they arrived, Smells Like Teen Spirit had become the anthem of a grunge-inspired generation.

Recognising the greats

In 2001, Live Performance Australia (LPA) founded the annual Helpmann Awards, which recognize excellence in the many disciplines of Australia’s vibrant live performance sectors. Last year’s winners included stand-up comedian Tom Ballard, who takes down IS (alas only figuratively speaking), Justin Bieber and our general inhumanity. Also on the list of winners was theatre director Lee Lewis for The Bleeding Tree, which came about as a result of Lewis’ desire to rewrite the law around punishment for domestic violence victims who kill their abuser in self-defence.

A must-see adaption

Richardson said that Secret River, by the Sydney Theatre Company, was an incredibly powerful depiction of white settler’s impact on Australia’s indigenous peoples. The play is an adaption of Kate Grenville’s book of the same name, which was shortlisted for Miles Franklin Award and the Man Booker Prize in 2006.

“It was a fantastic night at the theatre, beautifully presented and so moving. Every Australian should see it,” Richardson said.

Photo by jens johnsson on Unsplash
Photo by jens johnsson on Unsplash

When it’s more than a moment

Rolling Stone contributor and author, Andrew P. Street, said that live performances can be significant not just because of the quality of the performance itself, but because it signals a change in tastes and genres.

For Street, whose upcoming book The Long and Winding Way to the Top: 50 (Or So) Songs That Made Australia will be released in November, it was a performance by the Hilltop Hoods at the 2004 Big Day Out in Adelaide that made him rethink his views on contemporary Australian music.

“I wanted to see the Hilltops Hoods live, since I knew them vaguely from our families living in neighbouring suburbs, but I couldn’t get close to the Atrium Stage: there were thousands of people jammed in, climbing up trees and dangling from supports to see them over the intense, jam-packed crowd,” said Street.

“That was the moment I realised that Australian hip hop had arrived and that my beloved musical genre of scrawny chaps with fringes and guitars were on the way out.”

Review: The Good Girl of Chinatown, by Jenevieve Chang

imagesThis memoir by first-time author Jenevieve Chang describes her escapades in Shanghai as a member of China’s first burlesque troupe during the late noughties. At its heart is a poignant attempt by a young woman to reconcile the complex layers of culture and identity across different moments in time and place.

Chang was born in Taiwan and her family lived briefly in Alaska and Utah before settling in Sydney. Her upbringing revolved around her being a ‘good girl:’ her parents considered excellence non-negotiable. When Chang came fourth in a Little Miss Chinatown beauty pageant, her father hit her – four times – with a cane. Chang started binge-eating in defiance of her mother criticising her puppy fat: she responded by foisting laxatives on her daughter. The tug of war over Chang’s body continued for many years and she vividly recounts the violent arguments she had with her father, who insisted that his role as the family patriarch included the right to physically abuse her.

Chang is eager to escape the toxic relationship and successfully auditions for a place at the prestigious Laban conservatoire in London. Her attraction to the world of dance stemmed from its ability to turn her body into a ‘pliant vehicle.’ She writes, ‘I wanted my body to become strong. I wanted my body to become both my armour and my expression. I wanted to lose myself in the excruciating and honest pain of a dancer’s life.’

In London she discovers burlesque, and with it, a newfound sense of liberty: ‘Being naughty was good – it gave the audience what they wanted. And for me, it came with a welcome sense of freedom.’ However Chang often spins out of control when she’s in the driver’s seat. The book opens with her waking up naked and alone, covered in her own vomit. She’s horrified when a beau cheerfully recounts their public promiscuity. She dabbles in drugs but manages to stave off an actual addiction.

Having watched her parents’ marriage ‘play out like a prison drama,’ Chang’s expectations for her own marriage are fairly dismal. She proposes to the yoga teacher she’d been dating to continue living in the UK and thwarts his attempts to make it a long-term commitment. When she invites her parents to the wedding, her mother flat-out refuses because her husband is black. ‘I mean, have you thought about what your children will look like?’ she spits into the receiver. Chang is disappointed, though not entirely surprised. When she was 13, her father had told her: ‘If you ever date a black man I will shoot you. Then shoot myself.’

Her parents behave with such appalling callousness that it’s difficult to summon up the energy to learn their backstory or that of her grandparents, and doing so doesn’t redeem them (nor does it attempt to). Learning a second cast of names and configuring their significance to Chang is onerous and there is an unavoidable element of conjecture involved. Chang’s writing is lovely, but becomes awkward when she describes herself as a new-born baby in the third person. A more economical recollection of her family’s backstory would have benefitted the book, which is interesting enough when dealing with Chang’s narrative.

The chapters recounting her years in London are entertaining, if sometimes difficult to fathom. Chang becomes the ninth member of her husband’s overcrowded home, which includes his coddling mother and his sister, whose children bear the brunt of her alcohol-fuelled tirades. Her 35-year-old husband caps his working week at 10 hours and the rest of the household income comes from welfare. Chang’s relationship with her in-laws quickly becomes hostile: it’s that and a mouse infestation that tips her over the edge. She convinces her husband to forge a new life with her in China.

Chang’s descriptions of the megacity of Shanghai are evocatively drawn: ‘From the edge of my balcony, Shanghai spirals out like a serpent, coiling its way out to the Bund around a choking, madly pumping heart.’ Its humid summer air, she writes, ‘clings like a needy lover.’ She’s unaware that expats regard Shanghai as the ‘city where marriages go to die.’ Instead, Chang arrives full of excited optimism and immerses herself in the glamorous expat lifestyle. One night, a Frenchman in a bar calls her a ‘banana.’ The crude metaphor is used to describe expats of Chinese descent (‘yellow on the outside and white on the inside,’ her friend explains.) After enduring a ‘lifetime of identity issues,’ Chang is depressed to be ‘reduced to a variety of fruit.’ Therein follows a spate of unpleasant encounters that include an apartment eviction and a nightclub owner who refuses to pay her because she doesn’t look like a foreigner.

‘I was being rejected by “my people” for no better reason than the way I looked, which was just like them. It made me think that no matter how good I was, how agreeably I behaved, it didn’t matter here. That whichever way I went about it, I would face pain and rejection.’

Meanwhile her husband, by virtue of his ‘exoticness’ commanded an inflated salary, having been ‘catapulted straight to the top of [China’s] emerging health industry’ as an ‘emblem of imported wellness.’ She realises sadly that her husband ‘had succeeded in being embraced by the Chinese community in a way that I hadn’t.’ But to her credit, Chang doesn’t simply roll over. With admirable chutzpah, she leads the six-piece burlesque group and relishes the once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunities it brings (such as entertaining a blushing Jackie Chan). The Chinatown Girls don’t have it easy in Communist China, but it’s a heck of a ride Chang takes the reader on.

The Good Girl of Chinatown is out now through Penguin Random House. 

[CUE TRUMP VOICE] ‘It was huuuugge’: Whale watching in Sydney

Photo supplied by Go Whale Watching.
Photo supplied by Go Whale Watching.

I ticked off an item on my bucket list when I went whale watching a few weekends ago, and I had such a fantastic time that I thought I’d write a quick blog post about it. It was the best outdoor adventure we’ve had in Sydney so far – though Wollongong came close and I’m pumped about going to Waterfall this weekend (more blog posts coming soon!).

What an epic breach! Photo supplied by Go Whale Watching.
What an epic breach! Photo supplied by Go Whale Watching.

We moved to Sydney last year in late October, which is the tail end of whale watching season – meaning we missed out (FYI the whale watching season runs from May to November). I had no idea that whale watching was so affordable: I bought tickets on Groupon and it cost us $35 each (down from $80 each) for the three hours we spent at sea.

As we lined up to get on the boat at Darling Harbour, one of the staff from Go Whale Watching warned us that the sea conditions were rough that day and that we could come back another time if we weren’t up for it.

“I’m not joking – it’s really rough out there. But it’s not unsafe,” he said merrily.

With Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background. Photo supplied by Go Whale Watching.
With Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background. Photo supplied by Go Whale Watching.

Sherpa and I looked at each other nervously but decided to press ahead – we’d managed to have it together enough on a Sunday morning to make it there on time and didn’t want to risk not being able to repeat that… I do wonder how many people end up in flat-out dangerous situations for really banal reasons.

I still find it amazing that whales don't upturn boats. This is getting pretty close! Photo: Go Whale Watching
I still find it amazing that whales don’t upturn boats. This is getting pretty close! Photo: Go Whale Watching

Anyway, we took a seat on the upper deck and cruised out under Sydney Harbour Bridge. We were given a safety talk, the main point of which seemed to be to hang on to something with at least one hand at all times. ‘All times,’ repeated the dismembered voice through the loudspeakers.

As soon as we left the harbour and hit the seas, the boat started rocking like a mechanical bull. It was nuts! As I held onto a pole so hard that my knuckles turned white, a passenger opposite looked at me and said, ‘This is crazy.’ I didn’t see him again after that because he went down to the ‘puke chamber’ (the indoor section), which is where most of the passengers sadly ended up. Sherpa and I were one of the few who didn’t get seasick. I don’t know why but I was so grateful.

Here's me and Sherpa holding on! It was amazing to be in the open waters of the Tasman Sea after leaving our house a little over an hour earlier.
Here’s me and Sherpa holding on! It was amazing to be in the open waters of the Tasman Sea after leaving our house a little over an hour earlier.

I was terrified of falling into the freezing Tasman Sea but I stopped being such a chicken when we saw our first whale (which was only about 30 minutes into the trip). It was so beautiful, huge and exciting that I remembered the reason why I was on the boat. I was also reassured by the female staff member who told me that her husband was steering the ship and that she wouldn’t go out to sea with anyone else (I’d been bleating about not being able to see the life jackets – she told me they were downstairs).

We also caught sight of a mother and baby that splish-splashed quite close to us for a couple of hours as they swam together side by side. I now know that humpback whales are the most fun whales – they have the best moves. Fortunately, those are the ones that you can see in Sydney.

The scenery is gorgeous too. Photo: Go Whale Watching
The scenery is gorgeous too. Photo: Go Whale Watching

Just to give an indication of how rough the seas were that day – for about an hour, no one took photos. Like, no one. Even though the photo opps were crazy amazing. We needed to hold on with both hands! In the incessant selfie culture that we live in these days, I think that speaks volumes about how much our boat was rocking and rolling. A massive wave would come towards us and everyone would titter, ‘Ooooooh’ and then squeal as we came thumping down the other side of it. I’m pretty sure that we had unusually wild weather that day and it wouldn’t normally be an issue (and voyages are cancelled if the weather is really bad). And when I got used to it and realised we weren’t going to capsize, it was a massive rush and I sort of loved it.

Frothy waters. Photo: Go Whale Watching
Frothy waters. Photo: Go Whale Watching

Go Whale Watching offers a money-back guarantee if you don’t see any whales. I was sold as soon as I read that bit of their sales pitch on Groupon. We didn’t see any whales breaching (ie flipping up in the air) near us, though I did see a couple breach further out in the distance. The thing to remember, as our captain pointed out as we passed by Taronga Zoo, is that you’re seeing animals in the wild, and animals in the wild can’t be summoned to appear or to hang around and do tricks. That may sound obvious but when you’re really hyped about seeing whales, it will prevent you muttering stuff under your breath that makes you sound like a crazy lady, i.e. ‘Dumb whales’.

You amazing creature, you. Photo: Go Whale Watching
You amazing creature, you. Photo: Go Whale Watching

My photos aren’t that spectacular (I was holding on, remember), so I asked Go Whale Watching if I could publish pics from their Facebook page of other journeys, which they have kindly allowed me to do. Don’t worry, this post isn’t sponsored – I just wanted to tell you how amazing it is to see whales in Sydney and to urge you do it before they leave us behind on their amazing 5,000 kilometre journey north.

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