The Toff in Town is surely one of the best mid level venues in Melbourne and it’s especially nice when crammed with people, lining patiently at the oddly designed horse shoe bar, chatting happily and clinging to the candle lined walls, waiting for enough people to arrive when it becomes acceptable to stand in the middle of the room. On this particular night The Toff was set up in ‘theatre mode’ with their small round tables set up directly in front of the stage for those who wished to sit and inspect the performers up close, providing an intimate feeling to the proceedings.
The first act up was Duke Batavia, Many people may know their front man Ben Birchall, who has been a mainstay on the Melbourne music scene in various guises over the years, although he was quick to point out that this is a new band, not an incarnation of The Corrections or Klinger, “I’m not the Duke,” he said. Although this was the group’s first ever gig, this was not a set that could have been performed by newcomers, as it bore the tight, well honed musical chops of all the years its members have served onstage. Birchall played on ukulele for the entire set, (doesn’t everybody these days?) but this could hardly be called ukulele music, each song built dynamically with fuzzy guitars leading up to big catchy choruses. Even though the entire crowd were uninitiated with the material they sounded like instantly classic pop songs, well crafted and thoroughly enjoyable. Despite being their debut performance, the Toff already seemed too small a venue for them, and there were definitely some radio friendly singles to look out for in their set.
Sophie Koh is another artist whose name should be familiar; she has been carving away a spot for herself in the Melbourne musical community over the past five years, and judging by tonight’s performance she has really found her feet. Walking on to polite applause shortly after the band hit their first notes, Koh stood at the microphone, hips shaking in a black sequined dress looking every bit the diminutive popstar. Then she started singing, and what a great voice she has, sitting perfectly on top of the glitchy synth pop that her band, including longtime collaborator Tim Reid on guitar and singer-songwriter-in-his-right D. Rogers on synthesizer provided.
Anyone who has seen Koh perform in the past would not be able to help but draw the conclusion that she has come into her own, moving away from guitar based folk/pop, which at times veered a little too close to territory being covered by numerous other female singer/songwriters, to the straight out indie pop that was delivered tonight with no small amount of abandon. This became most obvious when she played older material, which sat oddly next to the newer tunes, and although they were charming in their own way they didn’t have the same degree of catchy fun, almost like she was stuck between two different guises, and it was the sexy popstar that suited her better than the sweet indie folk singer. Koh has been holed away in Los Angeles writing many of these tunes with a certain Ben Lee for an upcoming album and if the music gods have justice she should reap some rewards with this new direction.
Speaking of charming indie pop, someone who specializes in just that is tonight’s headlining act, Ms. Georgia Fields. Once again a band took their places and launched into the first tune, seconds before Fields entered and seated herself behind an electric piano. Recurring themes with the previous acts: ukuleles, D. Rogers (this time on bass, backing vocals and glockenspiel, you’d hope everyone’s paying that man), quirky catchy songs, pretty girl, sequins.
Fields and co. performed material both new and from her debut album, last year’s Georgia Fields and, while on record many of the songs are mostly based around piano and string arrangements with little rhythmic accompaniment, tonight’s versions were delivered with a three piece band, placing the material in a slightly less lush and more direct traditional rock band setting, without the rock n’ roll obviously. This was a wise choice as the band were able to deliver a lot of power and emotion to these songs; during ‘This Is Not a Drill’ they moved from single piano notes to a cacophonous eruption within a couple of bars and then back again, Tim Heath’s twangy guitar tone adding an edgy garage sound to the proceedings, which complemented Field’s piano and uke playing.
With a home ground advantage on her hands, Fields had the crowd eating out of those prehensile extremities from the word go, often causing laughter even during moments of pause, such as when a guitar wouldn’t emit sound or she didn’t have a needed capo handy, at one point politely thanking an audience member when a call of “you’re gorgeous Georgia!” came ringing out. This type of played down charm is a big part not only of the singer’s onstage persona but also of the songs themselves whose lyrics are often filled with cheeky innuendo, and also the way in which those lyrics are delivered.
Most of the time Fields sings very close to her speaking voice, which lends the lyrics the aforementioned earnest charm, á la The Lucksmiths or Darren Hanlon, however there were a few occasions during this evening’s performance when she displayed a soulful Rn’B style which showed off a powerful and impressive range. One such moment came when Fields donned an electric guitar to perform a solo rendition of Genuine’s 1996 hit ‘Pony’, which provided levity in a celebration of sleaze (remember ‘if you horny, let’s do it, ride it my pony’ everyone?) and damn if she didn’t do it well.
To mix things up a little and compensate for the lack of a mini-orchestra, halfway through album track ‘Satellite’ a horn section appeared, adding a sonic layer which amounted to more than the total number of players onstage. Although she was begged for more, Fields played a single solo encore and then bade everyone farewell, and so the crowd shuffled out to the street with ‘Pony’ reverberating in collective heads. On nights when treated to lineups such as was provided by Birchall, Koh and Fields, Melbournians may well reflect on how lucky they are to live in a city that nurtures such talent.
– Alex Watts