Tales of Western Sydney Sydney Festival:
The Aurora 18 Jan 2015 4 out of 5 stars
There is a slight but crucial error in the press release accompanying the soon to be released fourth album from Perry Keyes, Sunnyholt. It says he is “a singer/songwriter from Sydney, Australia” when in fact it should be “Perry Keyes is a singer/songwriter of Sydney, Australia”. In fact, you could go further and say he is the singer/songwriter of Sydney, Australia.
We have a number of very good songwriters who chronicle and capture the nature of lives in this city, and one of them – Tim Freedman – was in the audience for this show. But as a set almost entirely comprised of new material from the new album showed, no one writes with the detail, the grasp of the quotidian and the unflinching heart of Keyes. (Which is why it was so heartening to see a sold-out show and a snaking queue patiently waiting to get into the Aurora tent. Is this the year the rest of the world finds out just how good he is and has been?)
More than a regular gig, in this festival set Keyes was backed firstly by a largish band of cello, violin and piano accordion augmenting the usual guitar/drums/keys for songs which mostly played subdued countryish ballads but once or twice ramped up to a Coloured Girls-style bustling pop rock. And then, just as importantly, he was backed by a wall of screens showing a masterfully constructed still and moving panorama of another Sydney.
On those screens were images of an inner city with an industrial base, an outer city with barely any base; kids tumbling into play and old men stopping mid smoke; the listless under-employed and the strained over-committed; the dull eyes of acceptance and the grim mouths of defiance.
That’s also what we got in the songs, the “ghost stories”, from the seated Keyes, singing under his customary peaked cap with a voice moving from husky earthiness to urgent edginess to slow crumbling resignation and back through those gears as each song-story demanded.
In between them occasionally we got, in the manner of Bruce Springsteen on stage in the late ’70s and early ’80s, longish personal stories which put real-life meat on the semi-fictionalised song narratives – particularly those about his aunt, uncle and cousin who were moved from Waterloo Housing Commission to Mount Druitt Housing Commission in the Gorton years.
These yarns didn’t pre-empt the stories of the songs but merely set the tone as much as the milieu. They didn’t have to work any harder than that though because the songs themselves held us tightly transfixed, immersed in Sydney. Maybe not the Sydney we know or might visit any time soon, but then, that’s the point.