Live Review: Grace Cummings, Cool Sounds, Freya Josephine Hollick

3 February 2020 | 2:59 pm | Andy Hazel

"What strikes the audience tonight is that [Cummings'] voice is so powerful."

More Grace Cummings More Grace Cummings

After another scorching hot day and a series of tropical downpours, a near-capacity crowd fills the Northcote Social Club. It's an unusual cross-section of Melbourne society; community radio listeners, young converts and older fans who might have caught the headline act at a bushfire benefit show. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the word is out about Grace Cummings.

“I don’t subscribe to any religion, but I’m pretty spiritual, if you know what I mean,” says Freya Josephine Hollick. “It’s about making heaven every day on earth, every day you’re on the ground,” she tells a very receptive crowd as she strums her painted blue acoustic guitar, and eases into her 2019 single Jesus Hates It When You Smoke. Like most of her set, it seems strange to be watching such careworn Americana in a Northcote pub. Hollick’s songs feel like they are from such a different time and place. Later, she tells us about recording the slide guitar track for her song Nobody’s No Better Than No One on a verandah facing Joshua Tree National Park, a place which, if you close your eyes, it’s not too hard to imagine being. Her set is a warm and engaging one, helped enormously by the lead guitar work of Tom Brooks, whose fluid playing makes her closing song, Love Lingers On, something truly special.

Following Hollick comes local septet Cool Sounds, who, it turns out, base their idea of cool on a blend between American guitar-pop and Glaswegian indie. Their set is a series of soundalike songs that mine a rich group of bands like Real Estate, Crayon Fields and Mac DeMarco, which is no bad thing. Singer Dainis Lacey sounds remarkably like Lawrence of the band Felt, which again is no bad thing. His reedy whine threads across the band’s set which is largely made up of gently euphoric songs from their 2019 album More To Enjoy. Newer tunes Wrangler and one with the working title 'Seth Cohen' feature bubbling guitar runs that never wrest attention from the songs themselves, hinting that even better things are on their way.

The room is near capacity as Grace Cummings and her band arrive on stage and anticipatory chatter dies away to a reverential quiet as they kick off their set. Songs are stripped-back, early Neil Young-style dry rock'n'roll. There is no reliance on effects or bombast here, the songs let her hirsute backing band stretch out and shine in a way that feels warmly familiar from the get-go. While Cummings’ songs feel thrillingly fresh, multiple references to The Band’s 1978 concert film The Last Waltz during the set get laughs of recognition from the audience, giving you some idea of our shared musical loves. 

The reason we’re here watching this disarmingly good '70s rock is for what it supports, the voice of Grace Cummings. That instrument that has already prompted rapturous descriptions of its unique qualities - and to try to describe its rusty, burned tones seems almost redundant - even though she is only one album into what we can only hope is a long career. What strikes the audience tonight is that her voice is so powerful, it is like listening to someone with the range of Joni Mitchell, who is singing all the frequencies all the time. It is more like a force than a voice and it often seems to overwhelm Cummings’ body. Her eyes bulge, her hands slacken on the guitar and it often takes her several seconds to fret chords as she plays, as if the act of singing temporarily occupies all of her attention and drains her, leaving her to recharge between lines. In case we need to hear this phenomena more clearly, Cummings’ band leave her to play several songs with an acoustic guitar which are a mercurial highlight of the set. The Look You Gave, a song inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Portrait Of Dr Paul Gachet, and 'Cutting Edge', which sees her joined by her band, are high points in a barnstorming set. Closing with 'Common Ground', it’s clear that the crowd have shared something unrepeatable.