Jon Lord & george
Sydney Opera House
25th January 2003

Katie Noonan has the voice of an angel! But more about that later . . . I finally had the pleasure of seeing Jon, george and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) at the Sydney Opera House for their Festival of Sydney performance of Jon's Concerto, on Saturday night, 25th January.

Despite having lived in Sydney all my life I never tire of the Opera House - it is just such a magnificent building, and an ideal setting for this type of concert. The performance started with a couple of symphonic works played by the SSO alone. Although I didn't recognise the works they were quite beautiful, with a kind of pastoral, Vaughan Williams feel to them. And just 'left of centre' enough to whet the appetite of what was obviously not the standard SSO audience!

george then joined the orchestra, to rapturous applause, and ran through a cross-section of songs from their album Polyserena - a huge hit in Oz during 2002 - as well as a good amount of new material. Their eclectic mix of musical styles gelled beautifully with the orchestra's majestic backing. These are all great songs, but the orchestra really brought them to life and added a depth of both sound and emotion. For most bands, having a lead singer like george's Ty Noonan would be seen as a gift from The Almighty. Close your eyes, and you'd swear you're hearing Jeff Buckley at his best. He effortlessly switches gears from soothing balladeer to screeching banshee (well a male version!), with a piercing falsetto upper register that could smash glass. The falsetto in particular is more the clean high tone of Jeff Buckley (God rest his soul) than Gillan scream, but very effective nonetheless, and hitting similar musical and emotional highs. But his sister Katie, with whom he shares lead vocals, is nothing short of an enigma.

Her considerable talents are a joy to behold on george's album, but hearing her live, and especially in this context, removed from the constraints of the three minute pop song, she soars! Her voice has the same seductive, sweet, almost girly quality of The Sunday's Harriet Wheeler, but with that added ethereal element of a Kate Bush or Liz Fraser from the Cocteau Twins. But then she takes you to other places altogether, rising to operatic heights with such haunting beauty, such passion, you just close your eyes and get carried away by it. Especially during one of the new songs (if 'song' is the right word!), the interplay between her voice and the orchesta's string section was just mind-blowing. This was one of the night's finest moments. I think it was called 'Holiday', and I felt like I'd had one after hearing it! Katie's rendition was to this show what Sam Brown's 'Wait a While' was to RAH. The slow and seductive build to an orgasmic crescendo is what really great music is all about! (Am I getting carried away here? It's hard to find the words to convey the emotion of these moments!) Needless to say, this woman is a considerable talent. If you ever get the chance to hear her live, grab it!

After she turned us all inside out with her singing, she'd return to the keyboard and nail it on that as well! What I really like about george is that, in a world of glib, computer-generated three minute disposale pop songs, they stand-out as a 'muso' band. Although all still in their twenties - even early twenties - they're all very accomplished musicians. In fact my guess is that they're a bunch of kinda alternative, left-field misfits who went straight to the conservatorium from school, formed a band there, came out, and became 'overnight sensations'! Their debut album went straight to number one and stayed there a long time, they performed sell-out shows around the country, and now - all within a year or two - they're playing the SOH with the SSO and the legendary Jon Lord! Their youthful enthusiasm is very evident, as is their relative inexperience with 'working' a live audience. So they didn't say much between songs, and both singers seemed nervous, at least at first. But when they got into the music, that all vanished. The new songs are showing a new level of maturity - watch out for this band, I think they'll be big outside Oz too.

Apologies to those unfamiliar with george - which is probably most of you! But it's for good reason that this if the first band that Jon has let perform his Concerto! (It was them who approached him by the way.) And now, for the moment you've all been waiting for! As alluded to by Jon in his Q and A session on January 21st, george's treatment of the Concerto is quite different to Purple's.

In the first movement their interplay with the orchestra is more respectful than combative - they wait their turn then let fly, whereas with Purple it's a battle royal! george are more concilliatory and complementary. This is in part due, I think, to the type of band they are - more subdued than Deep Purple - but may also reflect their youth. Fine musos as they are, they lack that supreme confidence - almost arrogance - that only comes with experience. They are in awe of the orchestra - Deep Purple was, at least in the first movement - in competition with them.

This is also reflected in Nick Sterart's guitar playing. Now let's get one thing straight - there aren't many players on the planet who can match it with Ritchie Blackmore or Steve Morse on guitar, and Nick, though a fine player in his own right, is not in the same league as those two savants! I'm sure that, in time, he'll make his mark as a guitarist, but for now, Nick is content to hold back a bit and learn from the big boys. So his soloing, though accomplished, lacked the aggression and virtuosity of Blackmore / Morse, and again, it was more to 'add something' to the overall effect rather than to 'take over' like the other two. Having said that, his solo pieces in the first movement were very fluid and tasty!

The thing that surprised me the most about the Concerto was how Jon played a relatively 'minor' (if that's possible with Jon!) role. The gig was promoted as 'george and the SSO, with special guest Jon Lord', and that's really how it was. Unquestionably, this was george's night, and Jon clearly respected that. I think he chose to contribute to the production as an arranger rather than to dominate it as a musician. So the parts that Jon played in the original Concerto were taken by george, with Jon adding depth and colour, only soloing at opportune moments. Which brings us back to Katie Noonan. Vocal prowess aside, she also shines as a pianist! She filled Jon's big shoes admirably, with additional keyboard work from her brother and, of course, the guiding hand of Jon.

The Noonans each took one of the two vocal sections, both giving it a very different treatment to Mr Gillan's. It was only towards the end of the second movement that Jon got a big solo part, and he used that opportunity to vibe up the Hammond in a very Purple sort of way (much to the delight of the initiated!). However those moments, familiar and enjoyable as they were, were short and sweet, and again Jon melted into the wall of sound. (Significantly, he was seated on the far left of the stage instead of front and centre as might have been expected. This encapsulated his approach to the piece both musically and symbolically.)

The third movement saw the whole effect cranked up a notch, with all the players getting into the flow and working-off each other. Katie Noonan kicked off the percussion section with some nice conga playing (is there anything she can't play well?) with all sorts of other banging and tinkling things joining in. This melded seamsessly into Jeff Green's very inventive drum solo. Great technique with lots of changes of pace and direction, culminating in a thundering solo that was almost worthy of Paicey!

Another nice touch in the final movement was an additional vocal harmony section. It's been said before, but siblings often seem to be able to harmonise in an almost (maybe literally) an organic (yes, I did say organic!) way, and these two, being both great singers in their own right, find an incredible and close chemistry in their harmonies.

At the end the whole place went ballistic, with an extended standing ovation and smiling and bowing aplenty! Then george & Jon walked off together, before george walked back on for a couple more numbers. Interestingly, at this point Katie Noonan read a statement on behalf of the band, Jon and other Sydney Festival artists opposing the invasion of Iraq and requesting that the US and its allies adopt all means possible to avoid war. The statement said there's sometimes a blurred line between art and politics and that usually they keep clear of it, but on this occasion they felt very strongly about the issue and wanted to 'stand for peace' in a public way. Given that Deep Purple have never been a 'political' band, Jon's involvement in the statement was quite significant I thought.

Katie also acknowledged how thrilled the band was to have had the opportunity to work with "the legendary Jon Lord". A couple more george songs followed, then more standing ovations, then back came Jon, more smiles, bowing and applause, and it was all over.

All up a very memorable experience, and perhaps one that heralds a new era for Jon as a composer and arranger rather than as primarily a rock muso and 'frontline' performer. It was definitely george's night, and I'm sure that's just how Jon wanted it to be. He'll have his moments in the spotlight at The Basement with his ten piece band on February 7. Very much looking forward to that. A surprise guest appearance from Katie would be a nice touch!

review: Paul Hogan

jon lord - australian tour 2003