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Man For All Styles

by James Cockington

18 March 1988 - Metro, Sydney Morning Herald

STEPHEN Cummings is a man in search of a style. So far this decade he's flirted with power pop as lead singer of Sports, ventured into electro-funk as a solo performer, and was cast as a sort of antipodean Bryan Ferry during his"Frank Sinatra of Saint Kilda" period. Now, after returning to a much simpler sound, he seems to have found his niche.

"I've always had very eclectic tastes in music," he says. "I believe that as you grow older you get different body rhythms, so I guess this is how I'm feeling now. I mean, after you see James Brown on stage you think, this is ridiculous, why am I even trying to compete? I don't have that sort of energy. I remember someone once asked Muddy Waters if white men could play the blues and he said 'maybe, after 300 years of bad luck'."

Stephen's new style, as featured on his album Lovetown, relies heavily on acoustic instruments with a pronounced "deep south" country feel, plus the funky black rhythms of New Orleans. There are touches of J.J. Cale and Ry Cooder, thanks to the guitar work of Andrew Pendlebury, who co-wrote many of the songs. The simple production suits Stephen's naturally twangy voice, which someone once described as being just like James Reyne's except you can understand the words. Before Stephen ever played in rock bands he was a country singer.

Those expecting the Stephen Cummings of the hi-tech Gymnasium period will be disappointed when he brings his new outfit to Sydney. Sorry, he doesn't do that any more.

This band includes the rhythm section from Jo Camilleri's Black Sorrows, featuring both acoustic and electric guitars and bass, plus one female back-up singer. Not a synthesiser or analog delay in sight. Always a reluctant performer, Stephen says he enjoys the experience much better now that he's playing guitar on stage as well as singing. "Now I've got something to do with my hands instead of just standing around like a dork," he says.

For such a radical reversal of direction, the album has already met with encouraging commercial radio response in Melbourne and Adelaide. In Sydney, to date, it has only really been picked up by yuppie station 2Day-FM, which is so enthusiastic it is sponsoring his performances at Klub Kakadu.

After 18 months away from Sydney he is ambivalent about his reception north of the border. "Sydney seems to be full-on house music or full-on heavy metal or Detroit so I've no idea what they'll think of me," he admits.

Off stage, with a young family to support, Stephen has turned to writing film scripts to keep the kids in Kimbies. His love is film noir and after working on one called A Time to Kill, the new one is tentatively titled Kill Me Lots, inspired by the trashy detective novels he read as a boy.

Despite having the sort of looks that could kill (including a five o'clock shadow no matter what time it is) Stephen insists that, unlike every other rock'n'roller in the universe, he doesn't want to be an actor at all. Pity, he'd make a far better Cliff Hardy than Bryan Brown.

Stephen Cummings is at Klub Kakadu, Oxford Street, Paddington on March 23, 24, 25.

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