Some of the most talented musical performers of the rock and roll era were dying to get into The 27 Club, literally. Tragic ends due to drink, drugs or suicide at the tender age of 27 earned membership for Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, James Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and most recently Amy Winehouse.
For a short season, the Butterfly Club aims to become The 27 Club, which, according to its press release, will be “…a whiskey-filled den where the lives, deaths, interviews and most crucially, the songs of some of the finest musical names of the 20th century are being brought back to life.”
Unfortunately, this kind of spiel sets up expectations – such as by promising a “smoked [sic] filled sleazy dive bar where lights are dim” – that it doesn’t deliver on. The 27 Club does offer around an hour of interpretations of the songs of its members, but it’s a long way from rock n’ roll with rough edges. Disappointingly, it was all a bit tame.
It’s entirely reasonable that our performers, Zack Anthony Curran (Blood Brothers), Keane Fletcher (The Ten Tenors) and Andrew Kroenert (Show Boat), would seek to reinterpret, rather than reproduce songs of The 27 Club. The show got off to a solid start with our vocalists harmonizing in Joplin’s Mercedes Benz (co-written with poets Michael McClure and Bob Neuwirth), which I’ve just learned was recorded in one take only two days before her death. This would seem to be a pertinent detail for the show, although despite the promises, we weren’t given too much about the lives of the 27 Club members.
There were some snippets of interest, such as an account of a meeting between Joplin and Morrison, and a revelation of Cobain’s ongoing stomach problems causing him to misuse painkillers. Often though, we were given the “what” of a demise rather than the “why”. And given the limited information offered, the device of having three people giving news accounts at once for an incomprehensible result was a loathsome misuse of time.
From a musical point of view, the success of those initial harmonies may have created a structural problem for the show. On stage we saw three men, two wearing black and red check flannelette shirts, two with the same trimmed beards, two in denim jackets, who often sang their solos in a similar range or style. Across the set of material, the night felt quite homogeneous, needing changes in sound or mood to vary proceedings and keep my interest.
The vocals and accompaniment of synthesizer, piano and semi-acoustic guitar were all technically flawless, yet often lacked impact. In particular, renditions of Winehouse’s Back to Black and Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower lacked the attitude or vitality that made the originals so memorable.
By the end I felt that – rather than being dangerous or sleazy – many of the versions could have come from angels sitting on fluffy white clouds, angels for whom notions such as betrayal or sorrow were weak and fading memories. The tinkering with the source material and polite delivery didn’t always please everyone in the house, as shown by the patchy applause offered at times.
Taking the media release, the promotional images and the show together, I have the impression that The 27 Club doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. The problem here isn’t with the talent, but with the choices in composition. Currently this is basically a concert that flirts with the theatrical elements I was led to expect. A writer and director might help better shape an argument as to why we should preserve the music of the tortured talents of The 27 Club and be interested in their too-brief lives.
The 27 Club
The Butterfly Club, 5 Carson Place, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 15 July 2015 – 8.30pm
Season continues to 19 July 2015 – 8.30pm (Sunday – 8.00pm)
Information and Bookings: www.thebutterflyclub.com
Review: Jason Whyte