Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Honesty in the air in stellar show

19 February 2022

Perth-bred Stella Donnelly is adored for her subversive and political subject matter, but Claire Coleman finds even more reasons to like her.

Stella Donnelly, supported by Alexia Parenzee ·
B Shed, Fremantle/Walyalup, 18 February 2022 ·

Love was in the air at Friday night’s one-off Perth Festival appearance by local singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly.

It wasn’t just that the crowd revelled in feel-good Strictly Ballroom nostalgia, inspired by her band’s joyful cover of the John Paul Young classic, “Love Is In The Air”, first heard as part of Triple-J’s Like A Version series.

Or that the opening act, Alexia Parenzee, got everyone into a good mood. Her band’s tight grooves and Parenzee’s own rich, soul-inflected vocals shone in their reggae-infused cover of Nina Simone’s “Baltimore” and Parenzee’s debut single “Creed and Colour”.

The ebullient atmosphere could only be explained by one thing: the crowd was just totally taken by Donnelly.

An image of Alexia Parenzee performing at Stella Donelly's performance, she sings into the mic her arms extended. She is lit up with a red hue.
Alexia Parenzee impressed with her soul-inflected vocals. Photo: Danica Zuks

It was clear the audience held many long-term Donnelly fans when, two songs into the headline set, they joined in singing “Mechanical Bull” from her 2017 debut EP Thrush Metal. They also lapped up the hometown mentions in “You Owe Me”, with its descriptions of Donnelly’s employment at the Claremont Hotel, and in “Raffles”, a new track making reference to the iconic Applecross landmark.

Perth loves it when a local smashes it internationally. Since launching 2019’s Beware of the Dogs, Donnelly has been widely acclaimed in the international music press, including by venerated writer Robert Christgau (even if Christgau’s review of the album talked more about the male “assholes” she derides than it did about her or her music – ironic much?)

Donnelly is often praised for her deft handling of heavy topics, and it’s easy to see why. The chatty folks at the back of the room fell silent as she launched into her best known protest anthem “Boys Will Be Boys”, a song in which Donnelly tells a friend’s rapist exactly what she thinks of him.

One in five women have experienced sexual assault, and all of us at one time or another have played the role Donnelly does in this song; bearer of an impossible, impotent rage after such experiences are disclosed by friends. The song helped me feel seen. The responses of the many cis-het men in the room were unreadable.

Reviews of Donnelly often end here, but it’s a shame not to mention the adept musicianship that is one of her greatest assets: Donnelly is a masterful arranger. Every element in every song is there for a reason. You will never see anyone in Donnelly’s band in a protracted vamp. Her tracks don’t bother with this sort of musical filler. Instead, Donnelly and her stellar band are tasteful and restrained.

Whether it’s drummer Chris Wright holding out until the second verse to introduce the snappy floor tom and snare part in “Lunch”, guitarist George Foster’s feather light Nord piano solo in the dying moments of “Mosquito”, Jack Gaby briefly rocking the sleigh bells in “Season’s Greetings”, or Donnelly herself playing keys with her right hand while singing lead on “Love Is In the Air” and simultaneously dropping in a few bars of shaker with her left hand – every sound was there for exactly the length of time it served the song, no more and no less.

This sense of balance carried through in Donnelly’s manner. She was gleeful and playful in the superbly cheesy dance duet with Gaby in “Die”, but provocative in her polite dig at Perth Festival sponsor Woodside.

No wonder she leaves audiences spellbound.

Pictured top: Stella Donnelly’s musicianship is one of her greatest assets. Photo by Danica Zuks

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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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