Following on from the success of a similar Melbourne Festival event in 2010 – featuring John Cale, Gurrumul, Rickie Lee Jones, Meshell Ndegeocello, Sinead O’Connor and Dan Sultan – Seven Songs to Leave Behind returned on Saturday night, this time featuring an all-Australian line-up accompanied by an exceptional orchestral ensemble.
Within their seven song choices, all three artists are asked to include the first song they ever released (or the one that “made them famous”), their favourite song from their own repertoire, a song they wish they’d written, a song to share with the other artists, one by Leonard Cohen, a song selected by the audience and a funeral song.
The luminous Sarah Blasko opens the show with Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes, resembling a sylph in her long, flowing white dress (possibly Zimmermann). The purity of her voice breathes life into this hit song that was written for Watership Down – an animated film about rabbits.
“It’s so dark,” CW Stoneking is heard saying as he attempts to find his position on stage during blackout. Explaining his first song is suitable to be played at “someone else’s funeral”, Stoneking presents All the World Is Green by Tom Waits, complete with glorious brass and xylophone accompaniment. There really is no other artist in the world like Stoneking, he’s totally commanding and it’s thrilling to hear his versions of some classic songs.
Ali Barter reminds us tonight is “a night of change” (shoosh! We’d momentarily forgotten all about the election!). Sia’s Chandelier is a very brave choice and Barter’s effort is commendable given how tricky it is to find breathing space within those soaring choruses. Barter then remains on stage for a few more songs, her faithfully delivered Cohen tribute (Chelsea Hotel #2) and a stripped-back version of her own Girlie Bits – accompanying herself on guitar and with a superb violinist for added grandeur.
When Blasko returns to the stage, she introduces the song that was (allegedly) chosen by us, Nick Cave’s Do You Love Me?. For this song, she requires lyrical cheat sheets on a music stand. Despite the natural sweetness of her vocal tone, Blasko belts out the choruses in a raised octave and her lurching movements prove she’s dedicated to doing this song justice as the pianist’s dynamic accompaniment perfectly replicates the OG. Performing her own Never Let Me Go, there’s PJ Harvey sophistication fused with Aldous Harding quirkiness, and we wish for more of this in her future output. The strings positively shimmer. Blasko’s We Won’t Run is exquisite, with her vocal performance somehow making us feel vulnerable even though she never falters. “I hope that I’lł write a song that is so ecstatic and so beautiful and so generous as this song,” is how Blasko introduces Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting and once again her rendition is flawless.
It’s Stoneking’s turn once more and his banter is hilarious as always (especially his story about walking home stoned back in the day, carrying his Dad’s copy of an Arthur Alexander record under his arm, before a hobo in the bushes threw a pamphlet at him. Pausing briefly to pick up the pamphlet before discarding it, it wasn’t until Stoneking returned home without the record that he realised perhaps said pamphlet was the Arthur Alexander record, which he’d dropped, and the hobo in the bushes was a hallucination). Stoneking’s tender delivery of Love Letters that follows is something we could never have imagined we needed in our lives. His Cohen selection is Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye and something tells us he may have preferred to switch out the Cohen song requirement. This flows straight into Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, the audience erupting into cheers following Stoneking’s extended “boooooooooooooooorn“, at the end of the song’s opening line. Transformative.
Shortly after introducing and launching into his own The Thing I Done, Stoneking pauses to make an announcement: “I borrowed my son’s amp. It’s not quite as good as mine, that’s why I gave it to him.” The drummer has a tambourine placed on one of her drums to occasionally strike among all the other percussive flourishes required in this song – she’s remarkable and at one point Stoneking even turns around to clock exactly how these beats are being created.
Barter’s up next, revealing she often writes about her flaws in song, which is something she appreciates in other songwriters. After citing Loudon Wainwright III as an example, she lovingly performs One Man Guy.
As soon as we recognise Blasko is tackling Björk’s All Is Full of Love we get chills of excitement and notice similarities between their voices that we would never have pinpointed prior to this performance.
Stoneking’s take on Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally also offers up an opportunity for these killer musicians to each take a mid-song solo to gain their rightful applause.
All three featured vocalists return to the stage for tonight’s closing number, Cohen’s If It Be Your Will, led by Blasko and with Barter and Stoneking on BVs (although Stoneking doesn’t exactly look comfortable doing this).
The complicated logistics of putting on a show of this nature are not lost on us, and watching this talented trio perform songs that inspire them gives us further insight into what makes them tick. Pre-Seven Songs to Leave Behind we already rated Stoneking, Blasko and Barter highly; now we’re borderline obsessed.