The Long Way Home

James Whitney in "The Long Way Home"

James Whitney in Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force’s
“The Long Way Home”
© Lisa Tomasetti

When I think of a soldier taking “The Long Way Home” I think of the lyrics of that old Scottish song “O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and Ah’ll tak’ the low And Ah’ll be in Scotlan’ afore ye”.

By tradition it’s sung by a Scot wounded on an English battle field to his mate. He’s going to die and the fairies will take him through their land along the low road back to Scotland while his friend will walk.

The same is true in modern war. Those that die find their way home long before those that live.

One of the things we have come to realise in modern warfare is that coming home often does not stop for the soldier when he walks off the plane from the battlefield.

So the play “The Long Way Home”, produced by the Sydney Theatre Company and sponsored by the Chief of the Defence Force General David Hurley, explores both the reasons and the problems of Australian soldiers as they come back both physically and mentally from the battlefields of Afghanistan.

The play was written by Daniel Keene after a many week workshop with returned soldiers who now fill almost all the roles in the production. The soldiers do an excellent job, it’s impossible to tell these amateurs from the professionals.

It’s hard to write critically about this piece of theatre since a weakness in a performance, a badly delivered line or bad stage movement, are both forgivable and almost unseen through the strength of the connection between audience, the performers and the work.

A simple set and simple costumes are enhanced by some vivid video and lighting changes. The production is well designed and well directed.

Almost from the first “The Long Way Home” deliberately grabs the audience and plays with it’s emotions, moving us through fear, sympathy, understanding and sometimes even love. The playwright and the performers have not shrunk from the task of making the audience understand all the dark times and feelings these men and women go through as they come back.

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Review: Adele Live At The Albert Hall Blu-Ray

English: Adele performing "Someone Like Y...

Adele performing “Someone Like You” during a concert in Seattle, Washington on 8.12.2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The last Blu-Ray I reviewed on this site was KD Lang ‘Live In London’ and it is hard not to make a comparison. Here we have two strong female vocalists with strong emotional connections to their music and an obvious love for their craft performing in the same town. We also have two performers who rely on their voice alone with no large bands, light shows or a dozen backing singers.

Technically this is an excellent production with clear, well balanced sound across all five channels. The publisher has even thrown in a CD for you. Unfortunately the direction is off, the cuts are too fast for Adele’s style of music and the Director is throwing every trick in his book at this DVD. Luckily Adele’s performance is so good this is still watchable but half the cameras and a quarter of the editing would have produced a better video.

I have never seen Adele live and after this Blu-Ray she is high on my list of must-see performers. Her songs are highly personal and she gives a personal performance connecting with both the music and the audience chatting amicably and honestly with the crowd throughout.

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Kindle Paperwhite Review

Kindle Paperwhite

Kindle Paperwhite (Photo credit: Zero2Cool_DE)

The Paperwhite is my second attempt at using an e-reader and I have to say I am seriously impressed. Until now I have been doing my e-reading on an iPad after I found an earlier version of the Kindle not to my liking and the difference is much more than I thought.

I bought the WiFi only unit (my iPhone can be a hot spot if I really need connection on the road) with the “faux leather” cover. The cover slightly increases the weight and about doubles the thickness but gives two advantages, the first is that it has a magnet that turns the Kindle on and off, useful since the power switch is small and inconveniently situated on the bottom edge of the Kindle, and it keeps the screen clean when shoved into an untidy bag. Even at double the thickness it’s still thinner than the average paperback. It’s easy to get the Paperwhite into the case but harder to get it out, I wouldn’t want to be doing it all the time.

The screen on the Paperwhite is very good. At 212 pixels per inch and with the built-in front-light text is easily readable at quite small sizes. The screen is actually three layers; at the bottom is the e-ink display and on top of that is the capacitive touch screen and finally the system that illuminates the e-ink below. The illumination system uses LEDs at the bottom of the screen and there is some slight shadowing right at the bottom but I quickly got used to that and now only notice it when looking for it. Put together it is high-contrast and easy on the eyes, it is by far the easiest to read I have ever seen. Text, no matter font or size looks crisp and clear.

Using a touchscreen for the interface works but does have some drawbacks. The first is that unintentional touches of the screen can turn the page. The other is that the processor in the Paperwhite is obviously as dumb as a post and as slow as a snail so I sometimes find myself touching the screen and wondering if the Kindle had felt me as there is a noticeable delay, not so much when turning the page which works well, but when browsing through my books and collections. It’s most noticeable when typing something using the on-screen keyboard, you have to be slow and steady or you will miss letters.

The storage on the Paperwhite is 2Gb rather than the 4Gb of the Kindle Keyboard. Given that 2Gb is enough to store hundreds of books (Amazon says 1100 and I wouldn’t argue with that) I think that you would have to be a grinch to complain about that.

Amazon claims a battery life of 8 weeks but that’s with WiFi turned off and the light set quite low and only an hour a day of reading. Given that I set the light higher than that, left WiFi on all the time and often read for more than an hour a day I found it was more like two weeks. Still, that is considerable more than you will get with any tablet and plugging it in to recharge once a week or so is no hardship.

One of the newer additions to the Kindle operating system is the idea of “Collections” to organise your books. Given that I have over a hundred books in my Amazon account and most of those are needed on my e-reader then some way of organising everything is a godsend.

Shopping for books on the Kindle is painful. It can be done if you know what you are looking for but any sort of browsing is slow. On the other hand there are a huge selection of books on Amazon for the Kindle that are free and I don’t mind shopping on my computer or iPad. The same is true for the “Experimental Browser”, it’s slow and painful to use. If you want a device for the web then this is certainly not it.

Adding other e-books is easy. I have a bunch of software e-books I bought from O’Reilly since they offer a cheap e-book if you own the paper version. Getting them onto the Kindle just required plugging the Kindle into my Mac where it pops up as a drive and copying them across. As a PDF reader the Paperwhite is not the best but if you can get a book in Amazon or Mobi format then transfer away.

In conclusion, if you have been on the fence about buying an e-reader then Amazon have finally produced something that will probably sway you toward purchasing, if you have an e-reader that is a couple of generations old then an upgrade to the Paperwhite is well worth considering.

The Pirates of Penzance Review

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ at the Sydney Theatre Company.

This is a production imported from the UK and directed by Sasha Regan with an all-male cast.

I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, I suspect it’s one too many poor productions in a suburban theatre and I’ve never been a fan of opera in any of its forms.

On the other hand when it is done well it is marvellous theatre with hummable tunes, a nice plot and good comedy and make no mistake this is G & S done well.

It starts with the simple set that allows the production to move swiftly from scene to scene. The costumes are equally simple, which means that the chorus can quickly change from pirates to daughters to police and back again as required.

The all-male cast is refreshing in the the way that it is not men in full drag with wigs and false bosoms but merely men wearing dresses and singing in a high register, in fact with faces fairly devoid of makeup and hairstyles that could only be described as short back and sides it is their singing, plain white dresses and movement that define them as female characters. It is an all-male cast without being overly camp. The first appearance of the daughters gets a laugh but personally I mostly forgot they were men when the chorus were playing daughters. There were moments with Mabel and Frederic however where it was impossible to deny that you were watching two men romantically involved.

The major characters are well performed and well sung. Alan Richardson’s Mabel is an amazing performance with his ability to sing up to a high D flat. The Act I finale is a just amazing with Richardson demonstrating a brilliant voice at such a high register for a man.

Musically it is just a single piano played by the Musical Supervisor Michael England and it fits the simplicity of the rest of the production like a glove. All the simplicity and paring back work wonderfully to leave the musical and its songs and humour to stand out.

My other stand out performance was Joseph Houston as Ruth. It was a performance with humour and style. Vocally my ear is not good enough to split Richardson from his co-star Mathew Gent as Frederic, Gent has a slightly easier task since he sings an octave or two lower but his voice is warm, rich and clear. He is, I am told, also “incredibly easy one the eye”. Some of the actual acting from the chorus was a little stiff or a little overdone but it is a fine line to tread in a comic opera.

The choreography was good with several moments of style and some of genuine humour. It was an excellent mix of a slightly modern style and the classic plonking G & S style, it certainly added to the humour of songs such as “Modern Major General” and “A Policeman’s Lot”.

Taken as a whole this was an enjoyable, watchable and fresh production – G & S for the 21st century and a modern audience.

Review – The Dark Side of the Moon Immersion Box Set

“The Dark Side of the Moon” spent an incredible 15 years straight in the Billboard Top 200 album chart and another two when it was re-released in 1994. It has sold over 50 million copies worldwide. It’s hard to explain it’s significance, hard to explain it’s huge appeal.

For such a massively popular album it must have been written quite quickly. Roger Waters put the concept of an album that dealt with things that “make people mad”, a topic close to the band given the illness of former member Syd Barrett, when they assembled in December 1971 prior to touring and they first performed the material at the end of January 1972. The band continued to refine the material through rehearsal and tour performance before first recording sessions at Abbey Road Studios from 24 May to 25 June, setting out on the road again and completing the album in January 1973. The album was engineered by engineer/musician Alan Parsons, the band give him a great deal of credit for the eventual album.

If you are one of the many people who has spent far too much time with your consciousness altered in some way listening to “The Dark Side of the Moon” (DSotM) then it may be time for you to take strong hold on your wallet. This is because the most expensive boxed set version of the album has now been released. The good news is that this set offers the most amazing quality and most comprehensive collection ever assembled for a Pink Floyd album.

At the core of the set is 6 discs; 3 Compact Discs, 2 DVDs and a single Blu-Ray disc. Disc 1 is a CD of the 2011 remaster of the album. Disc 2 is a CD of the live performance at the Empire Pool Wembley in 1974. Disc 3 is an Audio only DVD containing the 5.1 surround mix from 2003 in two sampling rates, the 1973 LPCM stereo mix and the 1973 4.0 Quad mix from 1973 also in two different sampling rates. Disc 4 is an Audio-Visual DVD of the Pink Floyd concert in Brighton in 1972, The Dark Side Of The Moon documentary from 2003 and the Concert screen films in the original LPCM stereo mix and a 5.1 surround mix. Disc 5 is a Blu-Ray containing all the material from discs 3 and 4. Disc 6 is a CD of previously unreleased tracks including demo versions of ‘Us And Them’ and ‘Money’ and an entire early mix of the album. Obviously if you have a Blu-Ray player you can consider this a 4 disc set as the two DVDs are replaced by the single Blu-Ray.

Along with those disks you get a bunch of memorabilia and stuff including a facsimile concert ticket and back stage pass, a book of photos from the DSotM tour, some marbles, art cards, drink coasters and a scarf.

Make no mistake if you have a good stereo system and Blu-Ray player then there is no better way to hear this album than popping disc 5 in and spending a day trying to decide if you prefer the 1973 quad mix or the 2011 5.1 surround mix, personally I prefer the surround one. The 2011 remaster has in my opinion taken some of the sound out of the bottom, making the softer passages clearer, and added better channel separation and some top end clarity. You will need a good sound system, good speakers and patience to hear the difference. I tried hard to tell the difference between the Blu-Ray and DVD versions and convinced myself I could, but failed on a blind test given by a friend.

When you have done that then glorying in all the other material such as the live performances and concert films is another joy. Make no mistake, it is entirely possible to lose more than one entire weekend on the extra material. One of the joys of this material is the way you can follow the progress of the album from the original ‘demo’ recorded by Waters in his garden shed studio through the live material to the eventual album.

This boxed set is a total essential for the dedicated Pink Floyd fan.

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K.D. Lang ‘Live in London’ on Blu-Ray

Let’s start with the technical aspects of this recording.This Blu-Ray was recorded by the BBC for high definition broadcast and you can tell. It is for recordings like this that I spent so much time and money getting my home theatre just right. The audio is a DTS Master Audio 16 bit/48khz 5.1 mix. The  quality is superb, the balance across all 5 channels is excellent and the sound stage is massive. There is a slight echo in the vocal that perfectly suits the look of the room.The picture is incredibly clear high definition captured in a well lit studio with great camera work throughout. The BBC should be proud of the job they did on this Blu-Ray.K.D. Lang’s performance in this small venue is remarkable, stellar, superb. She is enjoying herself here, with her usual band at the time backed by an orchestra courtesy of the BBC. There is not a single song that does not show off her remarkable voice and stage presence. The BBC concert Orchestra add a lush, full feel to most of the tracks and seem to fade into the background in others.Lang walks the stage, at times her eyes closed as she reaches for that perfect pitch and tone at others her smile is so wide that it threatens to split her face. Here is a true vocal talent, a true performer doing what she loves.

Even if you don’t love K.D. Lang you may well enjoy this just for the quality. I can imagine high end home theatre stores owning a copy just for demonstration purposes.

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CD Review “Aretha Franklin Complete On Columbia”

Might Not Be The Aretha You Know And Love

First, let me start with a few admissions. I believe that Aretha Franklin is among the half dozen finest voices of the second half of the 20th century. I also believe Jerry Wexler taking her to Muscle Shoals is a seminal moment in post war music history.

I also have to admit that her Columbia recordings, all made before the big hits of her time at Atlantic reveal a young voice of great quality and power.

That’s what really causes the pain. As I listen to these recordings I revel in the voice and cringe at the continual bad song choices, bad orchestrations and bad backing.

Let’s cover the physical. This collection of 11 CDs booklet and DVD, each housed in a facsimile of the original album art, contains the songs off each album and a few extras. The remastering performed this year is excellent. It lifts the quality of the recording without losing any of the original. Included in cardboard case is an excellent booklet. I also appreciated the extra takes and outtakes on each CD. My count is around 200 tracks if we include all the extras but not a couple of “advertising” tracks.

There are some good tracks and some real gems among it all. “Maybe I’m a Fool”, for example, stands out on the first album and two tracks later “By Myself” shows the young Aretha can sing Jazz. On the second album, “The Electrifying Aretha Franklin” you can almost forgive the terrible “I Told You So” and “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” due to the quality of “Nobody Like You” where the band gets out of Aretha’s way and the jazzy “Exactly  Like You” that follows it. On the other hand both the albums produced, arranged and conducted by Robert Mersey are an over produced wash of sickly strings and total over the top kitsch, I’m sure even in the sixties producers knew better.

My personal take. I was given it for my birthday, ripped it to my computer and put 150 tracks on my car iPod – I’ll now see how many of those don’t get skipped but I’m thinking I’ll end up with about half the tracks worth keeping. As I write this “Bill Bailey” from “Tiny Sparrow: The Bobby Scott Sessions” is playing and getting me tapping my feet.

This then becomes a truly essential collection for the lover of Aretha’s voice. The problem is that I will, for one, never forgive Columbia for the wasting of that young voice. Listening to these recordings it seems clear that they never really knew what to do with Aretha. They seemed to be treating her as a new Ella Fitzgerald, a jazzy chanteuse or perhaps replicate the success the label has with Billie Holiday. Even when they gave her a gospel song they did it without choir and backed by a jazz orchestra; throwing in a tambourine doesn’t make it gospel. Don’t mistake my intent here, there are some hits and some great recordings in the five years she spent with Columbia and Aretha is capable of great jazz and blues singing. I also don’t want to discourage anyone from buying this collection. Just realize that it is not a collection by the woman that finally found her voice and her musical home in 1966 at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. If you are after more of the sound she quickly developed at Atlantic this is not it. However it is an excellent collection of songs by a superb woman. I wish I could give it five stars but it really only deserves the four.

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Cafe Bleu

by Style Council

In the seventies and eighties a number of innovative and interesting bands emerged from England. The Style Council was one that grabbed a fair amount of attention in independent circles here in Australia while never really breaking out into mainstream in the U.S. Paul Weller and Mick Talbot deserved better(that’s Paul on the right of the album cover, Mick on the left.) This album would be their best.

Style Council are impossible to pigeonhole. The best description is that it is undeniably popular music that has a uncluttered sound and a feel that is sometimes jazz and sometimes R & B. Over production is definitely not a problem for Style Council, the music is clean and clear.

The album opens with an excellent pop piano instrumental written and performed by Talbot. The rest of the tracks have Paul Weller on lead vocals and his vocal style is a little laid back and jazzy. My favourite track would be “You’re The Best Thing” – a marvellous romantic track.

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Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook

Fine Fitzgerald sings perfect Porter

The late great Ella Fitzgerald had probably the best jazz voice ever put down on tape.

This collection of Cole Porter songs was the first of the “Song Book” collection issued by Verve and was so successful that they followed it up with an Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart collections, though in my opinion the Porter song book is the best.

The recordings were laid down in 1956, the year after Porter’s final Broadway musical, Silk Stockings, opened. Ella recorded them with the Buddy Bregman orchestra at Capitol Studios, L.A.

The one flaw (if it is a flaw) with this set is that almost all the songs are so commonly recorded that you find yourself comparing them to other artists. Unsurprisingly Ella’s voice compares well, some of the orchestrations are, however, not quite up to later standards as those by such masters as Nelson Riddle. Don’t mistake me, Buddy Bergman did a fine job for 1956 but at times the orchestration seems dated and at others tries a little too hard to keep up with Ella.

The style of the tracks varies greatly, according to the mood of the song. Ella picks up the beat and syncopation in such masterpieces as “You’re The Top” and slows and sexifies the voice in “I Love Paris” and “Love For Sale.” Overall the collection has a mellow, jazzy feel that varies between romantic and downright sexy.

If you are looking for a good collection to load into the CD player for a romantic dinner, a quiet night watching the lights on Sydney Harbour with a brandy in one hand or just appreciate the varied styles and depth of talent of Miss Ella Fitzgerald then it is hard to go past this two CD set.

Atlantic Rhythm And Blues 1947-1974

What does one say about an eight CD, 203 track collection from the most important rhythm and blues label? The first word is `definitive’, the second is `superb.’

The Atlantic label under Ahmet Ertegun assembled one of the richest archives of tracks of any company and this collection serves up an amazing swathe through thirty years of popular music revealing along the way the development of the musical sound we now call R & B. Along with well known artists and tracks there are lesser known tracks by the greats (“Drown In My Own Tears” recorded by Ray Charles an excellent example), tracks you recognise but never knew the artist (“Lucky Lips” by Ruth Brown) and unknown gems (hard to specify since you might have known about Ivory Joe Turner while personally his “Empty Arms” was a surprise to me.)

Personally I found the first CD good for historical reasons; to hear the Chicago based Atlantic sound emerge from the more southern soul sound. The eighth and final CD is a testament to how far down a good label can go when it is immersed in a corporate environment. The words `disco’ and `dreck’ spring to mind. Why Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway felt they needed to cut such a woeful version of “You’ve Got A Friend”, but even at the last there are jewels such as a few good tracks from the “Spinners”

The six in between are perfection. Think of an R & B artist and chances are there are at least two or three tracks of theirs in the collection. Ray Charles, The Drifters (fronted by both Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King), Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, The Coasters, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave – and that’s just hitting the highlights.

This collection goes beyond essential. Anyone who professes a love or understanding of popular music needs this set.

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