Reviews/Cabaret/Fringe World Festival/Music

Australia nostalgic

11 February 2020

In Ballads, Banksias and Beauty, Jessie Gordon shows she’s the complete package, even if she’s a little road-weary, David Zampatti says.

Review: Jessie Gordon, Ballads, Banksias and Beauty ·
Ellington’s Jazz Club, February 10 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

There’s a line in Joni Mitchell’s “Boho Dance” that always reminds me of Jessie Gordon. It goes: “Even on the scuffle, the cleanest press was in my jeans”.

Translated, that means Gordon, the ambitious and seriously talented Perth jazz singer, is immaculate – prepared, presented, informed, organised, collaborated and supported. She’s the whole package. She’s also indefatigable: for this year’s Fringe World she’s doing nine different shows in more than 50 performances. This one, at Ellington’s, is her 42nd.

It’s not for me to pry into her accounts, but it stands to reason she’s calculated that the fringe makes dollars and sense for her. It’s also a great opportunity to show off her range, of skills and interests. Or she just can’t help herself.

So here she is, world-premiering a new show, Ballads, Banksias and Beauty, showcasing her more reflective side in a reverie of popular and lesser-known songs about Australia and Australian-ness.

Sadly, to quote another great rock lyric, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. This show is a collaboration between Gordon and the Grammy Award-winning pedal steel guitarist and musicologist Lucky Oceans, but a family bereavement means he’s had to return to the US and has been unable to perform in this season so far. I’m told he’s due home shortly and may be able to take his place before the season ends on February 16.

In his absence, the fine jazz pianist, Russell Holmes, jumps in to join percussionist Ben Vanderwal in providing tasty accompaniment to Gordon’s vocals, electronic gimcrackery and occasional ukulele. It’s all staged under muted lighting backed by fleeting, mostly nostalgic, images of Australian life thrown on the black back wall by Jasper Cook of crack video outfit VJ Zoo.

The suite of material Gordon has chosen, played without interruption or applause (by her request), is topped and tailed by Archie Roach’s elegiac “A Child Was Born Here”. It ranges from Crowded House’s “You Always Take the Weather with You” and The Triffids’ “Wide Open Road” to The Pigrams’ “Roadtrain”, The Waifs’ “London Still” and, brilliantly, Our Very Own Kylie’s “Put Your Hand on Your Heart”, re-imagined as a solemn heartbreaker.

A couple of original compositions, Gordon’s own “Disappointing”, with its expertly layered vocal looping, and Vanderwal’s “The Saddest Purchase”, were far from out of place in this select company.

But even the indefatigable are eventually fatigued, and the effect of those 42 gigs started to show as the evening progressed. Nick Cave’s translucent “Into Your Arms” is tricky territory if you let it slide away from underneath you, and the Whitlams’ “No Aphrodisiac” needed a pill – a harmonica break, a kazoo solo, even – to perk it up. The tinge of overworked huskiness that first poked up shoots in “Wide Open Road” was in full bloom by Don Walker’s “Flame Trees”, and the big Barnsey notes of its chorus, normally a straight run home for Gordon, would blind any weary driver.

But, hey, Gordon’s a super trouper, and she’ll always give it the entire scuffle. A couple of days’ rest, a little bit of Lucky on her side, and Ballads, Banksias and Beauty will be a winning addition to her overflowing bag of tricks.

Ballads, Banksias and Beauty runs until 16 February 2020 at Ellington’s.

Pictured top: Jessie Gordon – sans Lucky Oceans – in their show,Ballads, Banksias and Beauty‘.

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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