Live, Music, Reviews

The Sound of Falling Stars (Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide)

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“Things they do look awful c-c-old” sang The Who, talking about their generation, “I hope I die before I get old”. But the bittersweet legend of an early death long preceded 1965. Take your pick – you might start with Goethe’s 1774 sturm und drang best-seller The Sorrows of Young Werther; or that Marvellous Boy, Thomas Chatterton, dead at seventeen; John Keats expiring from tuberculosis at 26; or Percy Shelley drowned at 29. The list is long and the mythologising is relentless.

It is no wonder that the 20th century perpetuation of this gemlike memorial flame – in Hollywood films and pop music – is even more intense. Death cults and the mass media were made for each other. Nowadays, the smartphone has taken recreational grieving to an altogether new level.

In The Sound of Falling Stars, a journey up the stairway to Rock and Roll Heaven, writer and director Robyn Archer delves the music, medical records and motivations of those celebrated singers who died before their time. This is not a new idea and the project is sometimes unwieldy, but it has a set-list to die for and a true star performer in Cameron Goodall to bring it all to life.

Beginning with those immortals from the 1950s, Elvis Presley and Hank Williams, crooning Are You Lonesome Tonight?, Your Cheating Heart and the blood-chilling Angel of Death, Goodall is in full command of his daunting task – to morph, channel, impersonate and interpret his way through a list of some of the finest vocalists ever recorded. And he gives it a very good shake.

The chronology has some surprises including vocal ones. He delivers a rich operatic tenor for O Sole Mio, introducing the short life in the fast lane for pop Caruso, Mario Lanza. Archer rewrites Drink, Drink, Drink to include “Drink, Diet, more Drink” to indicate his overeating, crash dieting, alcohol problems and eventual heart attack at 38. Also showcasing his vocal range is Beyond the Sea, the Bobby Darin (infarction at 37) hit, along with Splish Splash which also topped the charts

Death by aviation features, of course. Mercifully we don’t get American Pie, but Goodall takes his hat off to Buddy Holly (Rave On/Be Bop a Lula) The Big Bopper, and the 17 year old Hispanic heart-throb, Richie Valens with a vibrant version of La Bomba, splendidly supported, including with back-up vocals, from the band – George Butrumlis on accordion and Enio Pozzebon on keyboards.

From pop to soul – and gospel — the melancholy list turns to Otis Redding and the ill-fated Sam Cooke. Again, Goodall’s renderings of (Sittin’ on)The Dock of the Bay and Try a Little Tenderness are terrific and we want more than just snippets of Cooke’s Cupid and the immortal classic You Send Me.

The end of the ’60s decade is well-represented, of course, since the casualty list was unusually high – and especially shocking when Hendrix, Janis Joplin (who is unmentioned here) and Jim Morrison died within months of each other. The Jim Morrison cameo is vocally compelling – including Light My Fire and People are Strange– but the impersonation, as with some others, verges on caricature and undermines – not the solemnity, that is not the issue – but the credibility of the musical tributes.

There are a number of highlights in this very high calibre production. Goodall’s version of John Lennon’s Mother, brilliantly captures its primal anguish, and the uncanny replication of both Buckleys, pere and fils, Tim and Jeff, with Hong Kong Bar, Song to the Siren and The Smiths cover, I Know it’s Over, is outstanding.

The singer-songwriter acoustic material works well every time. The band creates a surprisingly big sound when required (despite the absence of bass and percussion) and creates a tenderness with, for example, the Nick Drake material. Goodall is an excellent guitarist – 12 string for the Buckleys and intricate finger-picking for Drake’s introspective minstrelsy on Fly and Way to Blue. Elliot Smith also gets a deserved inclusion with Waltz #2 but didn’t need the chest stabbing gestures – that seemed, shall we say, heartless.

It is a great buzz to see a brand new show that exceeds even the high expectations that Robyn Archer and these superb musicians merit but there are elements that are still not yet resolved. It refers to more than 30 singers in its catalogue of the deceased and the asides on Sal Mineo, Michael Hutchence, Marc Hunter and others become hasty and flippant. Better to dwell longer on fewer and sing these classic ballads and blues in their full thrall.

Also, it may add ‘edge’ to have a frame narrative from Sid Vicious but his thoughts on either music or the fragility of existence are not memorable. Sid was named Vicious after his ferret and he was a pathetic lost soul, not a Romantic halcyon – so Archer’s commentary on the rock and roll death wish is not well located.

Far better is the actual conclusion to this night in the tower of song, Kurt Cobain’s enigmatically brilliant Smells Like Teen Spirit. “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous/Here we are now/entertain us/ I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now/entertain us”.

Amazingly, Cameron Goodall still has enough in the tank to make this an extraordinary finale – triumphant, vehement and deeply wounded. It speaks for all the evening’s stars now fallen – sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.

We will be hearing more of The Sound of Falling Stars. It will not be dying young, that’s for sure.

[box]The Sound of Falling Stars (performed June 22): Cameron Goodall with George Butrumlis and Enio Pozzebon, written and directed by Robyn Archer.[/box]

One response to “The Sound of Falling Stars (Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide)

  1. Yes I’ve thought a lot about this and why. You see to be any sort of artist requires a lot of skill and a lot of luck. Anybody with sense and forethought would not try to be a rock and roller or a movie star etc. because the success rate would be like 0.0001%. The successful artist thus are often extreme risk takers. Another way of looking at it is that they have an inability to delay gratification. For those that are immediately successful like Stevie Wright it is easy to believe life will always be like this. So there are 3 forces leading the movers and shakers to indulge in activities that us “normal” people shun. For them it is a tragedy and for us it is a disaster as we are then denied their marvellous contribution to cultural life. Having said all that I don’t believe that I or indeed most people could claim to deal well with that amount of wealth, power and fame.

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