23 October, Spiegeltent, HBAF2018 By Michael Hawksworth
What is it about Tom Waits? This is about the fourth time I’ve been unable to avoid invoking his name in music reviewing in the past 18 months. His influence must be as pervasive as his listenership is limited. He’s a cult, a musician’s musician, a poet’s poet, a beatnik’s beatnik, regraded, I expect, as exhibit A of the gritty, untameable real.
For artists, authenticity, that uncalculating zone where a picture, a story, a film, a song springs directly from some essential ground of being, is the goal. That an audience unfamiliar with the performer’s idiosyncrasy will accept it, embrace it, even applaud it, is in many ways the dream that spurs the practice. And artists genuflect to originality and authenticity in their heroes.
Musically speaking, that deep rootsy Americana of Robert Johnson’s blues and of Harry Smith’s Smithsonian Folkways Anthology, is a seductive place. The songs are raw, human, improvised lo-fi contraptions that document hard-scrabble lives. They are some of the first words in the book of rock n roll, the last word in authenticity. I’m not surprised this vintage music continues to speak to New Zealand experience – in the same way and perhaps for the same reasons as another musical import – reggae.
Delany Davidson is a fan, and a compelling performer of this sound, and particularly, in Ship of Dreams, of its more outré, Gothic excesses. His guitar, even as it cranks out familiar dustbowl blues figures, sounds like a chugging pump or a clanking pipe or a creaking swing. Davidson plays with a sense of the instrument as pure sound generator. Most impressively he knows how to play the negative space around the notes, so to speak, to stretch the whole as soundtrack which is why this experiment in film and song, for the most part, transfixed the packed Spiegeltent.
Performing alone on the stage before a screen, Davidson’s music is a natural fit with the films, often treated to resemble worn copies of early European arthouse. These films are composed, designed and shot by Davidson on an iPhone, and are remarkably accurate pastiches. One piece riffed on the boating romance of Jean Vigo’s 1934 film, L’Atalante, while others channelled the expressionist spirit of Fritz Lang and FW Murnau. The idea really showed its potential with a quite psycho rendering called Hans’l und Gret’l. I’d forgive Davidson any amount of fetishizing his source material if it meant he would consistently produce stuff this good. He loosened the hold of genre and pastiche and experimented with stuttering breakages in the flow, like a faulty reel, breaking the rhythm altogether to produce, with only vocals and microphone, something that sounded like an anarchic parody of a Jimi Hendrix solo. It was arresting, and it punched through the genre expectations in a way that gave his looped rhythms the tension of early Tall Dwarfs.
This was the world premier of the show. I wouldn’t mind checking it out again sometime. It’s an idea with still untapped potential, if given a little more rope.