Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen (Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne)

I’ve been wanting to see what Mikelangelo is about for some time now, and missed his Cave/ Waits/ Cohen songs night a while ago. I have no doubt it would have been interesting to see his basso profundo tear through those songbooks with passion.

Tonight (Saturday, May 7) it’s a bit different – the quiff has done what is basically a concept album – After the Flood – covering songs about the workers on the Snowy Mountains Hydro scheme in the ’50s and ’60s — at that time one of the world’s biggest engineering projects and certainly the biggest ever in Australia. It’s their first full album together in seven years and sees contributions from all Black Sea gentleman.

It has poignant meaning for Mikelangelo too – his father came here from Croatia to work on the project so it’s an intimate part of his family history.

After a great set of funky bossa sounds from the house DJ, reminiscent of the Black Cat café or Johnny Topper’s RRR show, the band process to the stage, literally. Marching to the stage in slow order like they are on a work gang. Picking up their instruments they launch into the first song.

They are all wonderful musicians. Most of them play several instruments and the total includes: violin, clarinet, trombone, uke, guitar, drums, piano accordion and percussion.

Musically they describe themselves as “Euro roots” which to my ears sounds like Balkan wedding band meets Americana. The mix is good and the songs are performed with respect and care. The band march around the stage in various attempts at choreography. Overall it’s slick and well done.

I was stuck in that weird place between feeling like I was at a musical theatre performance, a wedding and a music gig all at once

In fact it’s more like musical theatre than a music gig. That makes it odd to review, because it feels like I came here on false pretences. Let’s be clear, in most instances I would rather have my fingernails removed with pliers than see a musical (having walked out of Cats a mere ten minutes in).

So I have some problems with this show: if you hadn’t caught one of the pre-show interviews with Mikelangelo you would be wondering what all the references to Cooma were all about; there was not enough explanation between songs to help us understand what the songs were about,and the shtick that the band engage in verges too much on the Joe Dolce /Dolmio ad side for my taste. It’s those accents.

Parking those reservations, it was plain that much of the audience were unsure about this set too – it was very reserved group, applauding happily but notenthusiastically. A lot of that is listening to a full set of new songs, of course.

The highlights were some of the songs written and sung by the Black Sea Gents. Dreams Left Behind was eerily familiar – it felt like Somebody that I Used to Know  for much of it but did go its own way also. Rufino (the Catalan Casanova)’s singing was great and less forced than Mikelangelo often sounded. The Great Muldavio also contributed a couple of songs that stood out from the rest of the set – Like a Wolf was pretty damn good.

The band played two full sets tonight and the second set was a “hits and memories” set from their earlier albums. Here the audience did light up, cheering, singing along and anticipating the stops and starts of the songs. There were a lot of fans familiar with the band’s output and they got right down into it.

But it wasn’t a night of music that grabbed me and converted me on the spot. If I’d known the songs more it would have made a difference, but as a first timer I was stuck in that weird place between feeling like I was at a musical theatre performance, a wedding and a music gig all at once.

But these guys can play, they are fun and often funny too. If you don’t know their songs, listen to the album first on Soundcloud or your favourite streaming service, then check them out. They are playing a few shows in the next month or so.

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