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MEDIA: Reviews: Live '03

Metro Roma Room, Sydney

Friday 21 February 2003

review by Bernard Zuel - Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February 2003

Not enough paying customers know this yet, and its owners have taken a while to figure out how best to present it, but the Roma Room - which used to be the cinema adjacent to the main room at the Metro - is exactly the kind of venue that Sydney needs.

Unlike Melbourne, we've lacked the kind of space that offers intimacy for both band and audience without the smoky, noisy, bar-driven ambience of pubs like the Annandale or Hopetoun or the uncomfortable and expensive setting of the Basement.

In other words, the sort of room where an artist who doesn't work on volume (both sound and audience size) but isn't going to fill a State Theatre or even a Metro can play to an audience who can sit down, dance or just stand quietly and pay attention. Artists like Stephen Cummings.

Cummings, who these days looks a little like The Sopranos mobster Paulie (with the feral koala look courtesy of grey "wings" of hair), is a funny man. Even after nearly three decades of performing, his nervousness before an audience is evident. But it is channelled into near-stream of consciousness rambles that spiral into self-deprecating punchlines. He is also a fine singer with a voice that, while it doesn't seem to have aged since he sang on the steps of the Opera House in 1978 at 2SM's Rocktober concert, has a richness that only comes with experience.

It's a voice that lends itself both to ballads (his forte) and the rockabilly-laced songs from his new album, Firecracker. And he's always been smart enough to support that voice and his songs with some of the finest of Melbourne's musicians.

All those elements were present for this one-off show but they didn't quite gel. Not for the new songs, anyway. The opening double of "songs from my sensitive years" - earlier, slow-tempo mood numbers backed only by guitarist Shane O'Mara - confirmed that few can do the ballad of the thinking man better.

However, the new tracks were inconsistently treated, with some tempos sluggish and a couple revealing weaknesses in their live arrangements that will probably be sorted out as the tour progresses. It made for a patchy night that lacked spark at times but at others suggested a lot more fun will be had once the band, singer and songs settle into the right combination.

Return Of A Firecracker

Corner Hotel, Richmond - Sunday 16 March 2003

review by Michael Dwyer - The Age (Melbourne), 20 March 2003

The verb "to go off" hasn't been prominent in Stephen Cummings's vocabulary these past 20 years. But as a literary man, he didn't title his new album Firecracker on a whim. Two drummers, two bassists, one back-up babe and two seriously smoking guitar-slingers gave the singer's rockabilly flashback a suitably fiery launch on Sunday night.

Best known these days for atmospheric, acoustic balladry, the upbeat novelist-crooner shared a recent epiphany: "The only point in being in a group is if people dance". The crowd, of people aged in their 30s and 40s, was initially reserved, but the band's almost childlike enthusiasm made the unthinkable happen.

Watching drummers Peter Jones and Peter Luscombe negotiate a spangly silver double-kit was a thrill in itself. Cummings clearly enjoyed the extra rhythmic support, using it to cut loose both vocally and physically, especially when he downed his guitar to plead Why Doesn't She Want Me? with all the sweat and smoulder of a genuine R'n'B dynamo.

If his more restrained work has made it possible to overlook one of the great voices of Australian rock in recent years, this time it wasn't so easy. Cummings's strident upper register made a welcome return on the more rollicking likes of The Popular One and Love's Coming, while his smoky whisper lent perfect weight to the barstool lament of Go Right Ahead And Break My Heart.

His regular guitar Shane O'Mara provided most of the flash, but the line-up was particularly distinguished by the presence of former Daddy Cool twanger Ross Hannaford. With the unassuming grace and taste of a proper legend, the lanky gent in the corner peeled off fewer notes per second, but made them count triply - especially when he pulled out his green Bic disposable for some offhand slide in the home stretch.

The set was almost entirely drawn from Cummings's new record, as has been his wont since his late 1970s heyday in front of the Sports. Those hoping for a sentimental favourite were hence disappointed, though he did reach back to '94 for The Big Room and '99 for a raw-boned and driving reconstruction of Wishing Machine that the Velvet Underground might have been proud to call their own.

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