It’s always slightly disappointing when a support act comes out to zero crowd. However, those who didn’t come in early at The Thornbury Theatre on High St to see Tommy Castles missed out. Big time.
A teenager, Castles is already a confident and established young performer. With bare feet and curly blonde hair in a low slung pony, Castles is far from conventional. First and foremost, he played his acoustic guitar backwards! It’s hard to explain, but instead of coming at the fretboard from underneath as per usual, he made chord shapes from the top.
Then, as if that wasn’t impressive enough, he played chimes with his face. Seriously. Attached to his free-standing microphone, Tommy Castles ran the top of his mop underneath the golden chimes – barely missing a beat. He also strapped on some sort of mega mouth organ and invited two equally youthful looking mates onstage to provide bass and drums.
Although his lyrics gave away his age (‘Pocket Full of Lies’ he wrote about Tony Abbott, and ‘Thinking About The Mind/Dreams’ had the dead repetitive chorus chant of “Am I awake, am I alseep?”), there is no denying Castles’ incredible multi-instrumental and experimental abilities, and he is definitely one to watch!
Second on the bill was the short but soulful Emilee South. Playing to an equally sparse crowd didn’t seem to worry the 20-something singer-songwriter, who filled the room with her big, big voice regardless. Having toured the world solo since 2011 living between Melbourne, St. Tropez and Honolulu, South’s whiskey-soaked tales of travelling down the Ala Wai canal had a great deal of authenticity.
Despite the gender appropriation (which seems very popular these days), South’s stripped back cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Goin’ Out West’ was particularly punchy. Armed with just her guitar and her voice, South’s effeminate proclamation of “I don’t need no make up / I got real scars / I got hair on my chest / I look good without a shirt” was surprisingly powerful.
She played some originals too, the calypso-infused ‘Beauty Queen’ and ‘You’re A Fool’ which she recorded as a duet with Marlon Williams. Her themes of voodoo, love young and globe trotting fitted in nicely too with the forest decorated stage – just waiting for Benny Walker.
An Echuca boy at heart, the man of the moment stood out in his frequently photographed pink and orange shirt and black jeans. The Indigenous singer-songwriter strutted out ahead of his seven piece band, smiling at the constrained, seated audience.
He started the set solo and acoustic with the title track from his new album, Through The Forest, and it sounded peculiar – deliberately. Some sort of extreme echo on the microphone made it sound like dozens of Walkers singing together, and the effect was both fascinating and eerie.
His band – dubbed The Family Tree – kicked things up a notch with their big, electric blues sound. Out came the mustard-yellow Fender Telecaster and amp, along with a consistently used wind section (spearheaded by Matt “Hewy” Hewson on the saxophone). In matching paisley shirts, back-up singers Cassie Leopold and Pagan Atherton hammed it up in the background with synchronised dance moves and big smiles.
They were at their loudest on ‘Will There Be A Light’. The song is also a slight stretch for Walker’s own vocal talents, demanding a straining yet subtle chorus. Walker sung it with the right amount of emotion and lyrical cleverness (cue the lines “The trouble I have with dying is it scares me half to death”).
The bluesy ‘The Fool’ began with a killer, old-school brass section, Walker’s husky, come-hither vocals eased in over a slick guitar riff. It’s an infectiously funky beat, and live, Walker’s Pete Murray-esque voice certainly got everyone toe-tapping. Fender’s are made for that kind of groove, so the solo was suitably smooth.
Walker slowed things down with a few stories about travelling the country with his new album. Walker admitted that most of his songwriting came from feeling worn out on the road. Some came at a friend’s kitchen table, others on a sick bag mid-flight.
He kept it mellow with ‘Now That I’m Broken’ – a soft ballad with comforting acoustic rhythms. When meditative in song, Walker can be mistaken for evoking John Mayer vibes, and when rocking out with his full band, it’s somewhere between John Cougar Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. ‘Don’t Cut Me Down’ is an example of this, and requires a full, electric sound.
Although it was a low-key launch in terms of numbers, Walker certainly knew how to get a groove going. He is a natural on stage, and supported by his very enthusiastic and skilled band, there is no denying that a Benny Walker gig is an enjoyable one.
Through the Forest is out now via Black Murphy Records.