Master and apprentices leave you thirsty for more 

11 September 2023

A collaboration between Thirsty Merc’s Rai Thistlethwayte and WAAPA’s contemporary music students showcases creativity and talent. It’s also loads of fun, writes Ara Jansen.

An Evening with Rai Thistlethwayte and WAAPA contemporary music students 
Rosemount Hotel, 8 September 2023 

Billing this show as an evening with Australian artist Rai Thistlethwayte is a bit of a misnomer. It’s more like a delightfully unexpected collaborative gig and an explosion of the joys of playing music.   

The Thirsty Merc singer, songwriter and pianist has spent the week in Perth working with WAAPA’s contemporary music students. Rather than a procession of musicians shuffling on and off stage to support him as the night’s title would suggest, as co-musical director he has created a set with way more interest and fun than a bunch of covers faithfully rendered.  

All up more than two dozen singers and over a dozen musicians are involved. Students share the duties of instrumentalists, lead singers and backing vocalists performing a mix of originals, Thistlethwayte’s songs and the odd cover. The varied combinations are refreshing and creative. Props to the sound and lighting, which is excellent.  

The diverse program is surprising, featuring a sprinkling of Thistlethwayte’s work even though his talented fingerprints are present all set. The visiting artist is unstintingly generous, solicitous and inclusive. He’s a relaxed and delightful raconteur who keeps all the plates spinning, as he sings, plays, chats and encourages. It probably puts plenty a nervous student at ease and he is as free and obvious with the compliments as the students are with their admiration.  

A pub choir version of John Williamson’s Rip Rip Woodchip is a perfect way to involve everyone and a delightfully unexpected song choice, complete with an announced key change in the middle. Later, an uplifting massed a cappella number builds up from a beatbox snare to stomping feet, clapping hands and voices.  

There’s a lot of love in the room for the talented young performers. Photo: Kathy Wheatley

Packed with friends and family, the venue is already largely won over, like the giddy aunt who proudly laughs about pretending to take credit for the drummer on stage. The encouraging hooting and hollering from fellow students bring a lot of love to the room. “He’s a beast,” is the compliment uttered more than once about Thistlethwayte both on and off stage.  

Persia Najafzadeh is clearly the group’s songbird of a Norah Jones/Madelene Peyroux persuasion. Her stark cover of Carmichael and Mercer’s Skylark with Thistlethwayte on piano flits and soars. The room pretty much stops.   

Watching Reece Collard, quietly commanding on backing vocals all night, I wonder if he might step into the spotlight. With fellow singer Harry Clifford, he gets the chance. Wow. The Beatles cover Come Together is a powerful combination of musical restraint and jubilant celebration as the duo trade soulful and rock vocals. It’s glorious art in the making, in front of an audience ready to soak it all up. 

The presentation form and choice of songs across the set showcase the variety of styles the students are exploring – there’s a killer drum duel between Zac Wise and Thistlethwayte on piano, an engaging Satriani-esque journeyman rock guitarist and a singer, songwriter and guitarist heading for heavier territory alongside good lashings of funk and groove. Nicole Cappeluti’s Nine to Five and E Leis’ Yield explore young struggles. The final song is Thirsty Merc’s Tommy and Krista, its rollicking energy closing the show on a high.  

Thistlethwayte is right – the future of music is in some pretty capable hands. “These musicians have an amazing vision,” he says. “I’m blown away by the level of talent. Staying creative is what it’s all about – it has saved my life a thousand times.”  

In some cases, it’s still raw and finding its way, but the diamonds are quite clearly forming.    

Pictured top: Rai Thistlethwayte is a relaxed and delightful raconteur. Photo: Kathy Wheatley

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Author —
Ara Jansen

Ara Jansen is a freelance journalist. Words, bright colour, books, music, art, fountain pens, good conversation, interesting people and languages make her deeply happy. A longtime music journalist and critic, she’s the former music editor of The West Australian. Being in the pool next to the playground is one of her favourite places, ever.

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