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Live Review: Andrea Keller's Five Below, Let Them Eat Cake

23 July 2018 | 1:47 pm | Ching Pei Khoo

"The band individually and collectively riff off each other, alternately building and collapsing crescendos, like the aural equivalence of being out of breath after an intense burst of HIIT training."

A lush red velvet curtain drapes across the glass doors that lead out to the sculptural garden, and muted spotlights above transform the long rectilinear room into a speakeasy bar. The smoke machine is indulgently set to overdrive, pumping out enough visual haze to rival the set of a mob movie.

Jazz aficionados will be thrilled to learn that the NGV has paired this season's MoMA exhibition with jazz music, seeing as how both came to define the period and city of New York in the earlier part of the 20th century. As a bonus, many of the musos on the program are still fresh off the recent Melbourne International Jazz Festival. For the NGV, it appears to be an inevitable, serendipitous date - pairing late-night art exhibitions with the moody, cerebral textures of jazz music. Unfortunately, a lot of jazz is suited to more intimate spaces, and the Great Hall, for all its unrivalled charm, remains a challenging space to performance introspective and delicate music.

Vocalist Sandy Whittem and pianist/composer Josh Cake, of Melbourne duo Let Them Eat Cake, display true grit in playing to an otherwise chatty, noisy room despite Whittem's incredibly pure, clear-as-a-bell, opulent vocals and Cake's technical mastery on the baby grand. They admirably battle through an unending cacophony to perform a '40s-inspired jazz and cabaret style of originally written songs with the wittiest, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, all bearing Cake's signature comedic flair. It's a pity that more than half the room misses out on the words of I Can't Believe There Are Nazis and Merlot, Glorious Potato, not to mention a very touching moment with Whittem blinking back tears during the tender waltz number that was written as a proposal from Cake.  

The fact that the duo's piano and mic are positioned on the floor instead of on the main raised dais may have contributed to the lack of the audience's attention. That and the surprising new format of the program, which sees both the supporting and main acts taking turns to perform two short sessions throughout the evening.  

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Andrea Keller, who was part of the Sam Anning Sextet during MIJF, is fronting her own project tonight, Five Below with Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Sam Anning (double bass), Mick Meagher (electric bass), and James McLean (drums) to launch their new album.

Their sound engineer opens by requesting 'minimum conversation' during the set, but to no avail. Even though the crowd has slightly thinned out by the final set of the evening, a constant stream of raised chatter echoing around the room still clamours over the atmospheric, acoustic soundscapes of Keller and her band. Revisiting Moments In Parallel, from Keller's back catalogue, the band deconstruct and re-examine the shifting rhythms and nuances of the composition, rising and falling as one, restoring new life into its bones. With Breathing In, a near ten-minute number that starts with sustained vibrato and rises so high at one point to exhaust even McLean in the drum solo, the band individually and collectively riff off each other, alternately building and collapsing crescendos, like the aural equivalence of being out of breath after an intense burst of HIIT training.

But one has to focus hard to shut out the chatter and let the music take us on that sensory, seamless journey. For those that made the effort, our senses remain stimulated and caressed long past the hour when the gallery doors close.