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Live Review: Lonnie Holley

3 June 2019 | 2:28 pm | Chris Familton

"[L]ike Gil Scott-Heron hanging with Tortoise and The Necks."

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Walking into the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room, with architect-designed tapestry as the vibrant backdrop, made this performance by Lonnie Holley feel like a special occasion right from the outset. The setting had more of the feel of a gallery gig with its hard surfaces, harbour-facing windows and temporary seating.

Holley is an artist who instils curiosity in his fans, eager to find out why his name gathered critical momentum on the back of his excellent album of 2018, MITH. Scanning the audience there were promoters, record label owners, radio hosts and other musicians, including Warren Ellis (Dirty Three, Bad Seeds) and Jack Ladder in attendance.

Our introduction to Holley’s set came from his manager Matt Arnett, who gave us a brief overview of Holley’s life, from his introduction to art in the late '70s when he made headstones for his sister’s two deceased children and then his first forays into music in 2010 when he re-wired a Casio keyboard. That context set the scene wonderfully as Holley made his way to the stage, accompanied by jazz duo Nelson Patton – Dave Nelson on trombone and loops and Marlon Patton on drums and Moog bass pedals.

What followed was a mesmerising set that traversed the worlds of jazz, blues and the avant-garde. Holley’s modus operandi is freeform composition – improvisation almost doesn’t seem like the right description given how complete, nuanced and unforced the music was. The one exception was a reworking of the single I Woke Up In A Fucked-Up America. There was innovation and humour too, with a song instigated by a mathematical question from Patton to Siri, providing the music and subject for Holley. 

As a singer, Holley’s voice travels from guttural growls to angelic, soaring melodic runs, all dipped in his rich, emotive and soulful tone, all the while maintaining a sense of thematic continuum through each piece. As he reached up and into new notes there was a kinship with Van Morrison, while his bluesy incantations were from the school of Muddy Waters. Aside from his ability to totally captivate the audience, it was the musicality of the trio that gave the songs range and endlessly fascinating detail, from loops and effects manipulating vocals and instruments, to the versatile drumming that was jazz, funk, trip hop and hip hop all rolled into one constantly morphing rhythm. 

It all amounted to a wholly absorbing and quite remarkable swirling, pulsing musical amalgam of post-rock and jazz, like Gil Scott-Heron hanging with Tortoise and The Necks.

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