Jimmy Barnes is the type of singer who can sell out entertainment centres, so it’s always a thrill when he decides to put on a more intimate show at a venue like Lizotte’s. It’s been far too long since I’ve made the trek down the Pacific Highway to the only remaining Lizotte’s venue, but the promise of “hits and rarities” was too appealing to resist.

Jimmy’s daughter Elly-May Barnes warmed up the crowd with her star-studded band, The Ragged Company. With The Superjesus’ Sarah McLeod on tambourine and The Art’s Kara Jayne and X Factor winner Reece Mastin on acoustic guitars, this act was always going to impress. Their set was made up of covers destined to please the mostly baby boomer crowd, including cuts from David Bowie, The Everly Brothers, and Neil Young. I was a little concerned at first, with Elly-May’s vocals clearly showing nerves. However, a couple of songs in she seemed to find her feet and sing with sweetness and surety. The band’s harmonies were gorgeous and their organic arrangements of these classics allowed them to shine. The quartet seemed to be having such fun together, and the crowd responded in kind.

While Elly-May and her crew were well received, her dad was the man we were all here to see. The atmosphere when he took the stage was electric. We hung on his every word as he delivered an empassioned version of “Trouble of the World,” a song Mahalia Jackson sang in the classic film Imitation of Life. After he was done Jimmy told us about watching the movie with his dad as a young boy, thinking little of the film but being so blown away by Mahalia’s performance that he decided to bestow the name upon his daughter. She was there to his left, supporting his rich, raspy voice with her own throughout the show.

And what a show it was. I’ve seen Jimmy Barnes so many times over the years. He was actually my first concert all those years ago. Most times I’ve seen Jimmy he was rocking out with the sound turned up to 11, delivering the kind of hits that have become Aussie radio staples. This was a different kind of show, one that allowed Jimmy to celebrate favourite songs from his own back catalogue and the world of music that wouldn’t fit at those other gigs. I never would have expected to hear Nat King Cole’s “Around the World” at a Jimmy Barnes gig, but he performed it beautifully. Flesh and Wood was a favourite album when I was growing up, and I loved hearing cuts from it like “Brother of Mine” and “You Can’t Make Love Without a Soul” that rarely make the live set. No doubt with the stories contained in his upcoming book Working Class Boy fresh in his mind, Jimmy punctuated his songs with tales of his childhood and relationship to music.

I heard a few grumbles about the notable absence of hit singles, but I didn’t mind doing without them. While a ballad like “Flame Trees” made sense on a night like this, Jimmy’s more raucous numbers would have seemed incongruous. I’ve heard those songs so many times before anyway, so getting the chance to hear other tracks provided a welcome change of pace. Where he might ordinarily close the night with “Working Class Man,” we heard a flawless rendition of “Love Me Tender” instead. It was the perfect way to close this very different and very special Jimmy Barnes show.

Image source: own photos

It was bittersweet driving to Lizotte’s last night. As I sat in my car outside the train station, waiting to collect my husband, I heard the news on the radio that “The Cubbyhouse” would close its doors in April. Long-term readers will know how much I adore this venue. A night out at Lizotte’s always feels like a treat. The food is amazing, the wine is good, the service friendly, and the entertainment top notch. I’ve been lucky enough to see artists like Jimmy Barnes, Amos Lee, Daryl Braithwaite, Richard Clapton, and Darren Percival there, in surroundings that are so beautifully intimate. The Newcastle arm will remain, and I’ll look forward to attending shows there, but I will miss this place terribly. How wonderful it was to have a venue which could attract such stellar talent and bring it to music lovers in such relaxed surrounds just 15 minutes from my home.

All those thoughts of how much I’d miss it ran through my head last night as I did my best to soak it all in. I savoured my wine, the crispy tempura prawn entrée, and the always impressive battered flathead and chunky chips. The combination of seafood and pinot grigio put me in a chilled space for the appearance of support act Simon Meli. I didn’t even mind that I was sitting behind a pole which prevented me taking decent photos. I was just excited to see this Voice alum stripped back with just an acoustic guitar, and performing the originals we didn’t get to experience on the show. I’m not sure if he’s improved since his time on the show or whether the TV didn’t do him justice, but his voice blew me away. There’s such a rich, warm quality to it. On The Voice I was impressed by his showmanship, but I didn’t feel he was one of the program’s strongest vocalists. After seeing what he can do just sitting on a stool, playing a guitar, I think perhaps I underestimated him. I loved his originals, but his closing cover of “Ramble On” was the highlight.

Then it was Thirsty Merc’s turn to take the stage. It’s been such a long time since I saw them play, and they took me on a real trip down memory lane with their set. It was so cool hearing how they breathed new life into their material. So often an acoustic show delivers the same songs with quieter instruments, but Thirsty Merc took the opportunity to play around and make those early songs something new. I won’t lie, it wasn’t always successful. I felt the slowed-down version of “My Completeness” was sleepy, with none of the spark of the original. But with great risk comes great reward. “Katie Q” was a bit of a filler track on the band’s first album, but the jazzier live version had me tapping my feet. “Emancipate Myself,” the song that turned me on to the band all those years ago, and “Build a Bridge” were also real highlights.

This show had me feeling nostalgic, but it was about so much more than rehashing the past. Thirsty Merc might be closing the door to the first ten years of their life, but the inventiveness they showed in this set prove there’s still plenty of life in this Aussie band.

Image source: Thirsty Merc Facebook page

When I was a kid, we didn’t have massive children’s acts like The Wiggles and Hi-5. Children’s entertainment wasn’t really a thing, so we sought out our own songs that resonated. For me it was “Butterfly Ball” by Roger Glover, “House on Pooh Corner” by Loggins and Messina, and perhaps most importantly, “Alexander Beetle” by Melanie Safka. There were no convenient CDs or digital version in those days either. Playing it was a bit of a production. We’d beg Dad to bring out his copy of Candles in the Rain and he’d remind us that we had to stand still so the stylus didn’t jump. So we’d keep our feet planted while we made those little beetle noises and sang along to the beautiful tale of a runaway bug. As I grew older I discovered more Melanie music, but that song was always one I held a little bit closer to the rest. And it was that song that took me to Lizotte’s, Newcastle, on 22 June.

I’d told myself that “Alexander Beetle” was such a small song really that I wasn’t going to hear it. I was going to be happy with the big hits and whatever else she decided to play. And I probably would have been. There’s a wonderful aura about Melanie. She’s so warm and giving, and her voice has lost little over the years. Her band is stellar, especially her son Beau. His incredible guitar talents might only be matched by how sweet he is looking out for his mother.

I was so happy just soaking it all up in the intimacy of Lizotte’s, and then she asked us what we’d like to hear. “Alexander Beetle!” yelled out a voice from a few tables away, and a few other voices joined the chorus. It seems I wasn’t the only one so touched by that little song. A hand flew to my mouth in surprise, and my heart soared as I realised it was going to happen. I was going to hear that song live that had meant so much to me. Do you know what that feeling’s like? I sang along as I fought back happy tears and decided it didn’t matter what else happened; this was already an incredible show.

I told myself I didn’t care what else happened, but I guess there was a part of me that would have been disappointed had I not heard the hits. They were all there, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma,” the delightful “Brand New Key,” her incredible cover of “Ruby Tuesday,” and the jubilant “Candles in the Rain,” sounding so perfect. I gained a new appreciation for these songs as Melanie told us tales of their history.

Melanie plays those songs because she knows we want to hear them. She’s such a generous, giving performer. But she’s also quick to tell you that she hasn’t been idle over the last few decades. Her set included a smattering of new songs too, with lyrics so thick with wisdom. She lamented the way radio is only interesting in playing young shit, and listening to her new material I had to agree with her. She’s an artist that still has so much to give to anyone willing to listen. Who needs radio though? Hearing her incredible songs, new and old, come alive in such a small venue was so much sweeter.

Image source: own photo

I think it’s a good indication that a concert review is well overdue when you’re preparing to head out to another show and you still haven’t put your thoughts about the last one down. So a day before I venture back to Newcastle, I’m finally sitting down and casting my mind back to July 6 when I saw “Tim Freedman does Nilsson” at Lizotte’s.

Ordinarily, unless the venue forbids cameras, I take a photo to share with you. However, I decided not to this time around. What you would see is Tim Freedman, lead singer of The Whitlams and sometimes solo artist. A camera couldn’t capture the way that Tim channelled Harry Nilsson for this very special show. And so it felt more fitting, more in keeping with what Tim was trying to achieve, to post an image of that singer-songwriter instead.

What I didn’t realise when I stepped into Lizotte’s that night was that Tim Freedman wasn’t simply doing the songs of Nilsson. He was properly doing Nilsson, complete with a Brooklyn accent and the nervous presence of a man who was never comfortable up on the stage. He humbly told tales of his famous friends and life, and I found myself hanging on his every word. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about music history, but I found myself learning plenty about his relationships with John Lennon, Mama Cass, and Keith Moon. Clearly Tim’s done his research.

And clearly he’s got a deep bond with Nilsson. He gave stunning performances of the hits and the lesser known tracks, even ones I didn’t realise Nilsson wrote like The Monkees’ “Cuddly Toy.” His voice was never quite going to hit the same heights, but a smart arrangement of “Without You” didn’t make me want more. It had the right emotional core, unlike that terrible Mariah Carey interpretation. “Everybody’s Talking” was another real highlight.

Tim could have left after performing Nilsson’s material and everyone would have been happy, but he took a brief intermission before returning with highlights from his own catalogue. My dad commented that listening to these songs again made him realise just how much Tim’s songwriting has been influenced by Nilsson’s music.  Tim spoke about how he was still perfecting his Nilsson show in preparation for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. If he can get it better, Adelaide’s in for a real treat, because I thought it was already a stunning homage to one of the world’s greatest songwriters.

Image source: Wikipedia

While the rest of the country was fawning all over Harrison Craig, I was falling for one of The Voice’s more seasoned contestants. I was captivated every week by Mitchell Anderson, and when he was given the boot I couldn’t wait to see what he’d do next. Thankfully those plans included a show at my favourite haunt, Lizotte’s Kincumber, last Friday night.

That voice that was so powerful on television gave me goosebumps in an intimate venue like Lizotte’s. The bio on the menu claimed that Mitchell is one of the best white soul singers, but I don’t think we need that qualifier. Few voices anywhere drip soul as much as his.

But there’s more to Mitchell than just a voice. He oozes positivity out of every pore. It’s just so much fun to see him perform. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as he treated us to a set that paid tribute to the world’s great soul and blues artists. He treated us to a few originals, but it was those covers that got the place on their feet. Many of them were featured on The Voice, but there were many more than didn’t make it on the show. I loved hearing him take on a few BB King and Joe Cocker numbers. That Voice cover of “Dear Prudence” though is still one of the best things I’ve ever heard.

One of the best things about a show like The Voice is that it gives a guy like Mitchell, and the talented musicians he’s played with for years, exposure. They certainly didn’t play second fiddle to their now famous frontman. Every one of them has the musical chops to play with the best in the Australian business. Together their sound was so tight. What a wonderful thing such experience is.

People like to find fault with shows like The Voice. However, after witnessing a concert like Mitchell’s, I’m really glad it exists to introduce me to artists of his calibre and help him attract the crowds he so richly deserves.

Image source: own photo

There are certain performers that keep you coming back year after year. They always sing the songs you want to hear, sound sublime while doing it, and give so much of themselves to their fans. For my family, Richard Clapton is one such performer.

I first saw Richard Clapton performing a free show with Mental as Anything at the Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum decades ago. I didn’t really know I was a Richard Clapton fan back then. The show was something my parents took me to at an age when I didn’t control such things. But I was definitely a fan by the time I left. I was stunned by how many of his songs I knew, and how effortlessly he performed them.

So many years have passed, and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Richard since. We’ve all grown, but the consistency of his concerts remains. So when my parents won a free dinner and show at Lizotte’s Newcastle, we knew we’d have to see Richard again.

What a shame we had to suffer through Hats Bennett before we did. I rarely make comments so harsh, but there really wasn’t a lot to like about Hats. His hat was cool, and he was a really solid guitarist. It’s just a shame that he didn’t stop there. His songwriting was really underdeveloped (a song about introducing a new cat to another? Really?) and his voice had serious limitations. I don’t need a perfect voice, but if yours isn’t strong you probably shouldn’t aim for a falsetto. It seems I wasn’t the only one, as the crowd’s reactions ranged from bored to bemused.

All was forgiven once Richard stepped on stage though. What a talent he is. It might seem clichéd to insist that he only gets better with age, but the addition of Jak Housden to his band ensures his music is certainly sounding better than ever. Hit after hit washed over us, punctuated by Richard’s witty banter and insights into that brilliant back catalogue. Richard doesn’t seem to mind staying with those time-honoured songs. He knows why people see him play, and he’s only too happy to oblige. He treated us to just one song from his new album Harlequin Nights, ensuring he didn’t push the patience of a crowd that clearly wanted to just sing along.

An encore seemed like a mere formality. We all knew he’d never leave us before singing “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Girls on the Avenue.” Even when his trademark sunglasses snapped in two before that last track, he knew he had to soldier on. He did only half joke that he’d do away with anyone who snapped a photograph though, and when someone cheekily did with a smartphone, I thought he might follow through on that threat! But it was all in good fun, and the perfect end to another great night with Aussie rock royalty.

Image source: own photos

I’ve been reading a lot of criticism about The Voice lately. I’ve heard that the program exploits its artists, that it doesn’t recognise the talent of established musicians, that industry professionals shouldn’t appear in the first place, that it’s gimmicky and fake and not the place Australians should turn to when discovering local music. I don’t deny the talent of many Aussie musos slogging away in the pubs and clubs. I accept this program isn’t an arena that many musicians would feel comfortable competing in. But when I question the value of a program like The Voice, I just have to look at Darren Percival.

Darren was one of those musicians I knew before he stood in front of those four chairs last year. I’d seen him sporadically live before then, singing backup vocals for James Morrison, and Jimmy and Mahalia Barnes. It took that program to take Darren to the front of the stage. And that’s just where I like him.

There’s something about the promise of a Darren Percival performance at Lizotte’s Kincumber that is irresistible to me. I’ve now seen him three times at the venue since he won The Voice, and every show’s been special. Darren seems so comfortable here, in this small space where punters can pass him handwritten notes acknowledging their parents’ wedding anniversary and milestone birthdays. He seems to thrive on the intimacy that comes when he can step down off the stage and walk amongst us, sitting down beside one adoring fan, taking the hand of another. There’s none of that inevitable distance that comes from a larger venue, and we all lap it up.

Much like the last time I saw Darren, the set contained highlights from Darren’s time on The Voice, the Ray Charles covers featured on his latest album, and a few other favourites. The blend doesn’t change too much, but there are always a few surprises. Who on earth would have expected a cover on Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue”? That alone might have been worth the price of admission, but I also hung on every word of his incredible version of “Georgia on My Mind”, and his solo take on “Without You”, the song he sang with mentor Keith Urban while on “that reality show”. His rousing rendition of “Hit the Road Jack”, with back-up singing from the captivated audience, was also spectacular.

You can say what you want about The Voice, but I’m thrilled it exists if only to see artists like Darren headlining concerts like the one I witnessed. I wonder which of the new breed I’ll be raving about in this way next year?

Image source: own photo

In a week that’s seemed far too short, it’s nice to take a breath and look back on a moment I got to slow down. There really is no better place to do that than Lizotte’s, especially when the wonderful Jake Shimabukuro is playing for you.

I ordinarily frequent the Kincumber Lizotte’s, but Easter festivities lured me to the Newcastle venue with my parents. There’s a different vibe to the Newcastle venue. It’s still warm, but there’s a little more space to spread out. That means it loses a little of the lounge room feel, but it’s still much more intimate than most venues around. And just like the Central Coast, the food is to die for. I struggled through my generous serve of herb battered fish and chips after a big Easter lunch, but it was too delicious to leave.

There was no support act tonight, perhaps because following Jake would be a tall order. I’d caught some of his performances online, but I really went into this show knowing very little. He joked that expectations are always low when people see someone playing ukulele. His reputation precedes him though. I was expecting greatness, but I didn’t expect to be quite as engaged as I was.

You see, I’ve always been a lyrics girl. Without lyrics to hang on to I wondered whether parts of the night might drag. No chance. Jake relished sharing the stories of the moments that surrounded his original songs, and they allowed us to understand the instrumental pieces better. He’s also such a compelling, dynamic performer. You can feel him, whether he’s strumming hard or playing so softly that you have to strain your ears.

The sounds he gets from a ukulele are incredible. The instrument has a range of just two octaves, yet he somehow makes it sound like so much more. He played it like a mandolin, like a guitar, like a piece of percussion. I couldn’t believe the tones he created.

While his originals were solid, the covers wowed me. I knew I loved his version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and it was a fitting encore. However I was most impressed by his take on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was just so clever, with the ukulele singing all of these incredible parts, from rock to opera.

My expectations weren’t as low as Jake teased that they might be, but they were still exceeded by this incredible musician.

Image source: own photo

I was blown away when I caught Darren Percival at Lizotte’s last September. This intimate Central Coast venue was perfect for showcasing the talents of this incredible performer with a knack for connecting for people. The impact he made on our television screens in The Voice was amplified ten-fold in the small surroundings of the “Cubby House.” So when he announced a return visit, we snapped up more tickets without hesitation.

Darren had a bit more material to play with this time around thanks to the recent release of A Tribute to Ray Charles. The audience embraced those classics tunes just as they did the covers Darren delivered on The Voice. I was particularly impressed by his takes on The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and Ray’s “Georgia on my Mind.” I’ve heard so many people put their stamp on the latter, but his soulful version stands out as one of the best I’ve heard. In hindsight perhaps encouraging people who’ve enjoyed too many of the house wines to take over the vocals on “Shower the People” wasn’t a good idea, but the singalong was certainly lots of fun. Familiar tunes made up the bulk of Darren’s two-part set, but he treated us to a few choice originals, including the stunning “Damage Down” heard on The Voice.

There was no support act; instead Darren played for close to three hours. We couldn’t believe it when we left and realised we’d enjoyed Lizotte’s hospitality for almost six hours that evening. But time flies in this place where good food and wine are in abundance, the service is always warm, and some of the world’s best performers entertain you from mere meters away.

As we were enjoying those delicious meals a Lizotte’s spokesperson came to our table and informed us Darren had announced more shows at the venue this April. Again, we didn’t hesitate to buy a few more tickets. The combination of Darren Percival and this wonderful venue is just impossible to resist.

Image source: own photos

This concert review is way overdue. There were birthdays, a few days away in Port Stephens, and a nasty cold I’m still fighting, so it’s only now that I’ve had time to cast my mind back and reflect on the wonderful music I heard in Lizotte’s on April 12.

It was a stormy miserable night, the kind of night that tempts even the most serious music lover to pike on the cheap tickets they’ve already bought and rug up in front of the television. After all, we bought the tickets for Annabelle Kay’s show after hearing just one song, her cover of “The Real Thing” on Adam Hills’ In Gordon Street Tonight. But I didn’t pike, and once I was toasty warm in “the cubby house,” with a full belly, and being soothed by some gorgeous music I was glad I’d made the effort.

Dominique Morgan and two of the members of her outfit The Six Dollar Shoes kicked off the night with some bluesy folk music. I loved Dominique’s sultry, husky voice, and the stripped back sound of her band. I’m not sure what they sound like when they’re full strength, but the acoustic mode really allowed their songs to shine through. I want to make special mention of the drummer, who provided the backbone of the songs by banging on a box with his bare hands and feet. Their originals were surprisingly tight for an outfit that had only worked together for a few months. I also appreciated the covers that peppered their set. Their takes on “Steal My Kisses” and “Purple Haze” showed this is an act with real diversity.

Then it was time for Anabelle Kay, the local girl who’d captivated me with her unique voice and folky sound on television. As a newcomer to her music I didn’t know any of her songs, but this was the perfect setting for an introduction. In such intimate settings with stripped back instrumentation, often just Anabelle herself on a guitar, ukulele, or mandolin, I could hear each and every lyric and truly appreciate the melody behind them. I was a little disappointed she didn’t play more songs with the mandolin, the instrument that first attracted me to her, but it was a minor quibble on a night of such glorious music.

As my husband and I looked around the crowd it felt like we were surrounded by the friends and family of the artists that appeared. It’s encouraging to see musicians so well supported by their loved ones, but I hope it’s not too long before these two awesome acts earn some mainstream recognition.

Image source: own photos