Eleanor Friedberger @ The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney, 29.01.12
Words: Victoria Birch
Photography: Roshan Sukhla
My, aren’t we keen beans, the man and I. He’s in front of me, head of the queue. I’m early but not early enough by the looks of it. Can’t deny him the prime spot. Front row, right of the aisle. He sits there with a lady, they’re both well into their 70s (is that relevant? Yes it is, as a fuck-you to anyone who thinks seniors should be steeped in nostalgia and stored somewhere dank and musty). Anyway, I’m wedged in next to them – personal space and appropriate body contact be damned. My knee is weirdly jumpy.
Not sure why I’m nervous. I like Eleanor Friedberger plenty enough, not so much that my guts should be twisting and knotting with jittery excitement. It might have something to do with the Famous Speigeltent (here for the Sydney Festival). The ‘mirror tent’ is a tiny splendour bedecked in velvet and wood. At 5pm on a Sunday afternoon, daylight bounces too cheerfully around its interior. I’ve been here before and found it difficult. The small, small spaces are all intimate. I got caught under Bill Callahan’s ‘”blank and rinsing gaze” once. It made me so uncomfortable I had to leave.
So maybe it’s my bold front row seat and the threat of eye contact that’s the issue. Or perhaps I’m worried the light will leech Eleanor of dramatic consequence. (I was far too mild-mannered when I reviewed her album recently. I sounded a bit peeved about the ‘My Mistakes’ video when actually I hated it. Hated it for knocking the stuffing out of the song. Hated the heavy-footed narrative. Hated the fist-gnawingly kooky characters that sit on steps outside Eleanor’s place being quirky and eating big piles of processed cheese).
Not all songs need to be handled right. Some have enough mettle to withstand wrong videos and places but Eleanor’s slightly askew pop songs need care. (Can I say that today she is wearing the kind of pants that if my nan were with me, she’d nudge me in the ribs and tell me the girl needs to put some jam on her shoes and invite her trousers to tea). Anyway, ‘My Mistakes’ arrives early and is struggling. Cowering and exposed in the daylight it’s as shy as a dormouse. There’s just Eleanor and her guitar (which is left to do all the heavy lifting). Bereft of yelping keys and those rickety processed beats, the strum of her poor guitar is utterly aimless. No careering pulses to power even the smallest foot tap. I jump up and yell in my best man-on-the-terraces voice* “come on Eleanor, give it some welly”.
*in my head.
I can’t stop staring at her too-short trousers and odd shirt – she looks so un-styled. White plimpsolls reveal an ankle scarred by feasting mosquitoes. Apparently she’s touring soon with some “hipster” US TV show. Wonder if they’ll allow Eleanor to be quite so herself.
We’ve got through ‘Heaven’ and the bit where Eleanor has to provide her own backing vocals. Rather than lug around one of those fancy looping pedals, she sings into the mic then pulls her head backwards so she can leave some melodic ahhhhs behind her. It’s cute but sounds rubbish.
This is better. ‘Lost At Sea’ is better. The guitar is no longer wielded like an apology. From here it’s going to be all right (as in everything is right not merely alright). That’s ‘When I Knew (I Was Wrong)’ is the song that makes me forget I’m on a chair with a pitiful comfort to pain ratio. It was dewdrop new to me and even now, a few days on and some sizeable humdrum later I can still remember every word. Sort of, perhaps not, but the essence is there. A girls’ own adventure, road-trip, bullying, dungarees (Oo I do remember this bit, “She was wearing a pair of dungarees and so I sang ‘Come On Eileen’”), a (wo)mance that may or may not be more than that. You can listen to another live version here.
It sounds completely different with a full band. The addition of some hand-clappy drums and electric noise-makers give it added zing. I preferred our version. Without all the extra fuss it’s possible to detect the melancholy and soft longing that sits quietly at the back of the cheery rhythm.
It’s still daytime, still bright inside but Eleanor and her songs are now at home. I love shows like this. Rather than strut around the stage from the get-go, it’s a performance that needed to settle in. Shaky at the start, unsure of its surroundings, slowly gathering confidence (I’m trying to avoid the cliché about babies and first steps and all the joy of that initial overly sure wobble run). Eleanor becomes so engrossed she forgets to keep a check on the time and has a wee panic about the fact she didn’t want to know the time and now she wishes she did. Anyway, it’s fine. Someone gives her a nod and she grins like she’s remembered something great that’s not for sharing.
When she says that she can play a few more there’s a smidgen of silence that’s broken by the the man (the one next to me, the old one) he lets out an audible, loud and life-affirming ‘yes’!