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I know I’m supposed to be supportive. I know there’s an unspoken rule stating that it’s plain un-Australian to criticise home-grown talent. But I just can’t get behind Clue to Kalo, the Adelaide group that were setting up as we arrived at what just might be Sydney’s smallest live venue, Spectrum.
Clue to Kalo play a whirling brand of psyched folktronica that might be OK, but for two things:
1. Manic hand gestures and eye-rolling theatrics that try to convey the “I’m so into the music” look, but just seem like they’ve been borrowed from Will Oldham, and;
2. Non-linguistic vocals of the “Tra-fa-la-la” variety. If you don’t get what I mean, think of the Cocteau Twins—remembering that Mark Mitchell is no Liz Fraser.
Maybe it all comes together on CD, but this is the second time I’ve seen Clue to Kalo, and the second time I’ve been distinctly unimpressed.
After Clue to Kalo leave the stage, the sound tech sets up for Casiotone for the Painfully Alone (aka Owen Ashworth), going through the usual mic testing and button pushing routine. After a while, the guy flicks another switch and a tinny beat fills the room. He starts tinkering with the bank of Casio keyboards in front of him, playing simple but powerful melodies, and begins singing in that unmistakable, almost-flat tone so unique to CFTPA recordings.
Owen Ashworth’s manner is so unassuming that he is able to move freely around the stage for a good 20 minutes without so much as a hoot of recognition from the crowd. But his music is impossible to ignore; its simplicity is startling. The stage lights flash slowly and randomly, and the ceiling is covered in lazily turning disco balls. It’s as though we’ve stepped into the saddest school disco ever.
Years ago, when my aunt tried to teach me piano on her very own Casiotone (this was back in the ‘80s, so she bought it without even the slightest sense of irony), I remember thinking about how alien and synthetic the damn thing sounded. Perhaps it’s just the effect of having lived through the great electronica boom of the ‘90s, but hearing the Casiotone now is like coming home after a long time away. It feels worn out, but warm. Nostalgic.
Which I think is why I love CFTPA so much. Everything just hangs together like that; all the elements back each other up. Ashworth performs with his head down, a mic tucked under his arm while he prods and bashes his various noise boxes. He seems like someone who might just have been, at one time or another, Painfully Alone.
After performing most of Twinkle Echo on his own, Ashworth brings out the stunning Jenn Herbinson to do vocal duties on some of the more lavish and orchestral-sounding Etiquette material. Her voice is sweet and simple, and she wears a bouquet pinned to her dress, just like the girl on the front of Twinkle Echo.
When I say that Spectrum may be Sydney’s smallest venue, I’m not kidding. There is literally nothing between performer and audience, and the furthest from the stage you can possibly be is about four metres. At this distance, the gig is painfully intimate, and every word is desperately clear. Proof: It is only at the Spectrum that I finally figure out half of the Smiths references in “Toby, Take a Bow”.
After the show, Ashworth starts packing up his gear, mingling here and there with the dissipating crowd. Two of our friends walk past and tell him how much they enjoy the show, and he apologises for not playing “It Wasn’t the Same Somehow.” He couldn’t fit the right keyboard in his luggage. But after tonight, the last thing this guy needs to do is apologise. He may be in from way out of town, but he brought us all back home.