Badass is good for the soul

14 March 2021

It wasn’t your standard Perth Festival show but Claire Coleman says The WA Badass Gospel Choir was a welcome salve for a feminist’s bruised and battered soul.

“The Western Australian Badass Gospel Choir”, Perth Festival ·
The Rechabite, 12 March 2021 ·

Sometimes a gig drops with perfect timing. When illustrious singer and guitarist Abbe May called in Ofa Fotu, Joni Hogan, Quentin Thony, Grace Barbé, Sarah Pellicano, Tara John (also playing keyboard) and DJ Cinnamon (guitars and percussion) to make The Western Australian Badass Gospel Choir, and when Perth Festival then programmed the ensemble as part of its “Nights at the Rechabite” series, nobody could have known the cultural climate the gig would emerge into.

In a week when the news cycle was dominated by reminders that gender equality is still a distant oasis, watching a troupe of “badass” women and queer performers live up to their moniker was a welcome salve for a feminist’s slightly bruised and battered soul. The week’s events could be read between the lines of the earnest, but often funny and expletive laden mini-sermons by May, Thony and Fotu. Ever a boss at cutting through weaselly media-speak with something direct and genuine, Fotu summed it up: “You just gotta be a decent human, is that so hard?”

A close up of a singer holding a guitar, singing into a microphone. She has shoulder-length brown hair and a white hat on.
Sometimes a gig drops with perfect timing, and Abbe May and her troupe of “Badass” singers nailed their Perth Festival gig. Photo by Matthew Gedling

The Badass Gospel Choir’s soul dominated setlist provided an energising counternarrative to the heaviness of the week. Featuring two locally produced songs – May’s “Doomsday Clock”, and “Fighting the Times” by Addison Axe of Perth band The Tommyhawks – the set was otherwise a highlights reel of tunes from some of popular music’s best recognised women performers, including Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Alicia Keys, Whitney Houston and Fiona Apple.

Living up to the technical prowess of these international powerhouses might be intimidating to any other group, but the Badass Gospel Choir have the chops to meet the challenge. A cappella moments in the Choir’s renditions of “Say A Little Prayer” and “Many Rivers to Cross” showed off the tight pitching and dynamic control of not just the lead vocalists, Pellicano and Barbé respectively, but the whole group.

Fiona Apple’s structurally tricky “Hot Knife” requires obvious effort to execute, but Hogan’s lead anchored the complex and potentially skittish backing vocals, keeping it grounded. Ginuwine’s “Pony” is a nasty song, but a lengthy guitar solo from May that parodied the phallic guitar waving of various well known male guitarists made the whole thing feel less lecherous and more like an unusually technically proficient musical satire.

Making an ensemble from a group of solo artists could lead to a potential fight for the spotlight, but nothing like that was on display here. While the vibe was closer to the VH1 series Divas Live than to a conventional choir show, the group’s attention to blend and balance made sure it never degenerated into a riffing battle. In fact, in songs like Alicia Keys’ “Falling” where the lead was shared among the soloists, and John’s accompanying keys had a sparkly moment too, their individual sensitivity in pushing themselves forward and then stepping back to let other voices through showed the strength of the group’s musical and interpersonal rapport.

This synergistic energy extended to the audience which, coupled with familiarity with the material, lent the event a friends-and-family atmosphere. The support act, vocalist Solomon Pitt, played a starring role in ushering in this warmth. Pitt’s lovely stage manner placed the audience instantly at ease, to the extent that he had everyone enthusiastically singing along as early as the second song of the night. His buttery voice sat effortlessly on top of accompaniment built up with loops and riffs by guitarist Matt Fagan in a way that suggested neither was driving the groove, it just somehow happened. A particular highlight was the duo’s rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”, including a drop-in of a chorus or two of Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” which might have been spontaneous.

Aspects of the show’s production and organisation seemed slightly out of sync with the usual carefully controlled and choreographed Perth Festival offerings (when was the last time you were at a Festival gig where a fan was so overcome by a performer they threw their undies on stage?). However looser shows like this make a space for the Festival to showcase more of the wide range of musical talent living and working in Perth.

Picture top: The Western Australian Badass Gospel Choir at The Rechabite. Photo by Matthew Gedling

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Author —
Claire Coleman

Dr Claire Coleman is a pop musicologist, choral conductor and musician. She trained classically in piano, but wrote her doctorate on nostalgia in indie folk, and continues to lecture remotely in pop music studies in Berlin and London. Claire compares the high of bullying strangers into singing to doing hypothetical illicit drugs, so watch out or you might end up an unwitting participant in one of her choral adventures.

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