Ben Ottewell + Matt Walker with Shane Reiley @ The Workers Club, Melbourne 29/06/13
Check out Lauren Duiker’s awesome shots of the gig here.
If you’ve never been to The Workers Club in Fitzroy, the first thing to understand is that it’s a pretty intimate venue. I mean that well for the most part. The joint has a lot of character, a kind of quaint rustic charm, but spacious it certainly is not. Fine for acts Ben Ottewell and Matt Walker who had a stage all their own, but not for a reviewer wearing two jackets and sweltering snugly between three flannel-shirt wearers.
I must discuss the heat and confined space for it perfectly prefaces the connection shared between performer and audience on the night. I complain, yes, but the communal warmth seemed to encourage a special reception. We as a viewing public may have moved as one coagulated, sweating mass within the eight by ten metre room but we were all reached as one body and so much is forgiven, including the suspicious lack of air-con driving us inevitably toward the bar.
Support act Matt Walker, a guitar-toting bloke’s bloke, sings the kind of tunes you drink a frothy to. I don’t mean that you should be inebriated, no, but something about his vocal character and presence inspires a content heart. And for an Aussie drawn to The Workers, nothing makes a content heart like a drink. His tunes thus have two-fold strength: strong cultural authority as well as the hint of considerable aches and pains calling for suds.
Walker’s musical counter-part Shane Reiley played a versatile set, switching between mandolin, lapsteel and vocal duties throughout. The duo explored space and dynamics with each other, the musical equivalent of a loving chat between old friends. The technique of chatter in real-time, a blues discipline, is not easily learned. Walker and Reiley, impressively, appeared casual as they bared themselves. It was clear they’ve been at it for a while and their conversations were inspiring to listen in on. Walker’s retrograde hollow-body, the 70-something year old Aristone, helped to push out the crunchiest and sexiest of tones set-long. Closing number ‘Just Add Wine’ featured cracking licks of BB King quality and white-hot lapsteel dives. Ultimately, complete with their dress and elaborate instruments, the team looked as though part of the foundations of the club.
There could have been no better opening act for lone troubadour Ben Ottewell, singer and writer for alternative rock group Gomez. Setting himself up with two Gibson acoustic guitars and two beers (of unknown branding, I like to think Heineken), he quickly got to work.
Take away from this piece, foremost, that Ottewell is a salt of the earth kind of guy. He chuckled with us, invited conversations, explained his processes. For instance, after finishing a stirring rendition of ‘Shapes and Shadows’ from his solo record and pausing to tune, he cared to tell us to chat among ourselves until he was done. Several other exchanges prompted chortles:
“Hey Ben,” a bloke in front of me asks, “what key is that in?”
“Uh, this is in B. B Major.”
We all laugh. Ben looks unsure of his answer.
“Uh, yeah. B Major.” He laughs.
The key in question belonged to a cover version of ‘Hamoa Beach’, a Gomez tune. Ottewell’s shelled arrangement contributed a different strength and mood, one more melancholy than the slightly-optimistic inclination of the original. Hearing Ben cry ‘that’s just the fear talking’ aside a solitary chord is powerful stuff.
Ben sings with grit that gives a rough edge to his higher register and a rounded bottom to lower notes. He plays with distinct imperfection – fret buzzes and mis-picks abound – but this is necessary to convey the sense of humility he carries with him. ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Get Miles’, both nailed live, involve technical string-picking across an openly-tuned guitar. Not an easy feat.
Ben is, above all, a wise and likeable guy. His music speaks to his character. Despite the heat and initial discomfort we felt as one attending consciousness he (and Walker before him) eased us into content and relaxed punters. To hear Gomez in an acoustic form is bloody excellent, and Ottewell is the best conduit for it I’ve experienced so far. Records like How We Operate (2006) delight in subtleties and nuances, the kind that are captured beautifully by a single man, a single guitar, and a few beers.