She’s not the messiah. She’s a very naughty girl. Well, I’m sure that’s how she started out. She’s grown-up quite a lot since then and now cracks a big whip, if her polyurethane hot-pantsuit is anything to go by. She can be pretty demanding of her dear old dad and I’m sure it’s always been that way, one way or another. Her sisters, populating the audience and making their boisterous, outgoing presence felt, are likely just as naughty. At least one, Vashti, shares Christa’s penchant for intelligent, bitingly satirical burlesque, in the prewar Berlin mould.
They like to frock-up. And frock-off, when the mood takes them, just as Christa used to do when she fronted Machine Gun Fellatio (front being the operative word). By contrast, Mrs Hughes seems the very picture of good-natured, come-what-may serenity. Surely there can’t be much left to shock her. I doubt her daughters have overlooked anything. No stone of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is likely to have gone unturned. Of course, it’s not exactly rock ‘n’ roll anymore. Christa has, for some time, teamed-up with her increasingly hard-of-hearing, 79-year-old, staunchly Catholic, box-banging father, to fashion their own brand of blues. 21st-Century Blues. What else? They’ve even recorded an eponymous album. It’s backbone is classic ’20s and ’30s tunes.
A case in point is the song that all but opened the first set: Good Time Flat Blues, originally recorded, if I’m not mistaken, by the Texas Nightingale, pianist and singer Maggie Jones (‘though she was born Fae Barnes, in Fort Worth) who, in just a couple of years (not even), between August, 1923 and April, 1925, recorded no less than 38 songs. Given that vintage, she was a contemporary of the mother of the blues, Ma Gertrude Rainey, and the woman who became the highest-paid black artist of the 20s, Bessie Smith. And let’s not forget (no relations, to the best of my knowledge) the first lady of the blues, Mamie Smith; the distinctive, sweet-voiced ‘queen of the moaners’ Clara Smith, and Ethel Waters, who sang with the likes of Basie. Good company to be in. Jones was famously backed by Louis Armstrong, on cornet, and Fletcher Henderson. Good Time Flat Blues, written by jazz pianist Spencer Williams (who wrote Basin Street Blues and later teamed with Fats Waller) and the, I believe, unrelated Clarence Williams, a jug-player and hustler, is regarded as her masterpiece and was recorded on December 17, 1924.
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Christa clearly respects the status of the song in Jones’ canon and pays homage in ensuring she renders it no less so. There’s no real question Dick shares the reverence, since he’s a music trivia machine, oral archivist and professional nostalgist, able to cite days, dates and, probably, even times, for famous sessions. And he’s old and accomplished enough to have played on the same stage as Louis and Billie, among countless others. Even though nudging 80, Hughes the elder sits comfortably in Fletcher Henderson’s position, at the piano, too. Meanwhile, Christa has a finely-calibrated, controlled vibrato which trills and thrills, but never spills. It is redolent of the early jazz age and Ms H boasts a clarity, power and purposefulness that rivals the true grit of the original.
The favourable comparison between Jones and Christa needn’t end there, since they would seem to share a mischievous streak: another of Jones’ minor hit recordings was infamously entitled, Anyone Here Want To Try My Cabbage. Jones probably didn’t get anything approaching her share of the credit as one of the pioneering blues singers. The fact is she was one of the top performers of the 20s, had a very attractive voice and a very creditable capacity for sustaining notes; something else almost eerily channelled, if you will, by CH.
I dwell on this one example from the Hugheses, as it typifies the stylistic authenticity of which they’re capable. Their collective magic is in being able to recreate the depth of feeling invested in the originals, while overlaying their very personal stamps. More importantly, one doesn’t detract from the other.
But if you think the inimitable Ms and Mr H are rooted only in the past, think again. A lifetime after Jones bemoaned her lack of a gin budget, Britney gave us Toxic, a song turned down by Kylie. Of course, Christa turns the dance-pop vibe on its pretty little head, reinventing it as a hot jazz classic, almost indistinguishable from the blues-based music that informed that which blasted out of New Orleans, especially around the red-light Storyville district, around the turn of last century. Complicit in this are the ample talents of the Honky-Tonk Shonks, a recreation of an authentic funeral band, from back in the day, replete with sousaphone (Sam Golding), snappy snare and big, booming bassdrum. And, since Christmas is virtually upon us, the group managed to recruit the infant Jesus (Justin Fermino) on saxophone and clarinet, virgin Mary on trombone, Joseph (Julian Cope) on banjo, and one or two other players comprising a veritable nativity scene, including a couple of wise men. Or women. or both. Christa occasionally dons a ukelele or banjo, to (thigh-high) boot. You had to be there. Pity you weren’t.
These eccentric, contemporary-turned-classic outings came in the second set and included a brand new, Iggy Minelli version of Lust For Life that was pure, compelling genius: a corruption of Mein Herr, from Cabaret.
Earlier on, we heard Down To Steamboat Tennessee, which Christa opens with a near-yodel, before segueing into a lament every bit as steamy as a sub-tropical summer’s night. Technically, it steps a little beyond the 20s & 30s era the Hs remake as their own, having been recorded and written (with Willard Robison) by Lee Wiley, piano master Jess Stacy and clarinetist Mugsy Spanier, July 11, 1940, in New York.
The Dick and Christa version is, perhaps, even more loping, languid and, well, wily.
Dick’s octogenarianism doesn’t inhibit his empathy with music he’s immersed himself in practically all his life, even if being acutely hard-of-hearing means Christa has to shout the name of the next number at him. However, even in this comically callous intergenerational exchange there’s a detectable, respectful affection.
The not-exactly-pigeon pair doesn’t shy away from tackling the outright classics, either; such as William Christopher Handy’s St. Louis Blues, the so-called jazzman’s Hamlet and one of the very first blues to cut it as a popular song, with its seminal opening lyric “I hate to see that even’n’ sun go down” and Spanish bridge. It gives Grant Arthur, among other Honky-Tonk Shonks, licence to really show his chops.
Summertime can be dangerous ground: one of Gershwin’s defining moments, yet so over-performed, by every woman and her toy poodle it risks defilement and ruination. But Dick, Christa and the Shonks breathe new life into it, with innovative phrasing. So, not only is the livin’ easy, we can breathe easy.
John Memphis Slim Chatman’s Beer-Drinkin’ Woman is a real showpiece for the breadth of Christa’s showbiz skills. Even teetering on 2011, there’s still something potently, feministically empowered about seeing a woman usurp a bloke’s traditional territory and ‘skull’ a beer (even if it’s a German boutique beer). Christa follows this still-provocative party-trick by tossing her head back and delivering a vocal that’s as much gargle as warble. It ain’t Rubin’s Tavern, Chicago, 1940, but the story rings as true as it ever did: buy Christa a beer and it looks like you’ll be back, begging, at the ATM, before you can say National Australia Bank.
The king of New Orleans jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, wrote his euphemistic Winin’ Boy very early-on, to overcome the nancy-boy finger pointed at pianists in his day, and presents a chance for Dick to strut his stuff, solo. Janis and The Dead have had a crack at it, but Dick gives it some individualistic shtick, even if the pseudo-explicit content would seem at odds with his moral perspective. I’m no aficionado but, pianistically, DH seems to have evolved a style all his own, the fruits of his labours falling not too far from the ragtime, stride and boogie-woogie trees. He’s technically adept but, more than that, has a depth of feeling for the music that only abiding respect and long-term intimacy can bring.
Blowin’ Yancey’s Bugle was penned by Dick in honour of Jimmy Yancey, a man who, incredibly, was never a professional piano-player, despite distinguishing himself so memorably on that very instrument. He brought an almost incongruous lightness and delicacy to typically heavy-handed boogie-woogie and Dick does him great justice, even emulating ‘Yancey’s bass’, a left-hand figure for which James Edward Yancey was renowned.
Dick and Leonie Cohen (a very polished jazz player, whose arrangement of Hava Nagila is compulsory listening) sat together for a piano duel, centred ’round I Got Rhythm. It proved one of the most entertaining spots of the entire evening.
Weed Smoker’s Dream was written by Kansas Joe McCoy and recorded by his band, the Harlem Hamfats, in 1936. It’s in a minor key and considered a classic woman’s blues. Christa again turns back the clock, taking us through a smoky, gin-soaked time-tunnel with her evocative vocals.
And what better euphemistic tune to follow-up than Wesley Wilson’s Gimme A Pigfoot, as originally made famous by Bessie? Christa makes it famous all over again, rekindling something of a similar spirit and style.
St. James Infirmary is, of course, synonymous with the inimitable Louis Armstrong, but the Shonks do it vast credit. Genre-crossing Pete Neville’s powerhouse drums are the backbone. (Amazing to think an old American folk icon of indeterminate origin dates back to a traditional English song from the 1700s! It went by various names, but still sounds invigorated and invigorating after 300 years or so.) The epic, underpinning, dirge-like tragedy drives a stake right through your heart.
It might seem like one giant leap from depression era to Franz Ferdinand’s Take Me Out, but Christa and co make it seem but one small step. Similarly, Basement Jaxx becomes basement jazz, with their take on Good Luck which, when all’s said and done is, after all, a blues. Think about Lisa Kekaula’s sad soliloquy: “Tell me, tell me, is life just a playground? Think you’re the real deal, honey? And someone’ll always look after you?”
Another one out of left field is The White Stripes’ The Hardest Button To Button, but perhaps it’s La Roux’s Bulletproof that takes the comical cake.
The closer, though, was Henry Creamer and Turner Layton’s After You’ve Gone, which was one of the top three pre-1920s jazz standards and one of precious few to make it to and through the swing era, a key survival tactic being the fact it’s so adaptable, working a treat as a ballad or something more uptempo. With it, Christa and the Shonks file off the stage in a fading procession, before being called urgently back.
The show was, and is, entitled Speakeasy and, yet again, Dick, Christa, as well as guests including balloon-lunged Grant Arthur on ‘bone and Leonie Cohen on piano, easily contrived the dense, close atmosphere that surely must’ve pervaded the blind pigs that sprung up during Prohibition. It’s low-down, 24-carat, badass, barrelhouse, bluesy and inimitably Hughesy; their final gig for 2010, capping a landmark year in which they released their debut album, garnering an ARIA nomination, and featured in Brendan Young’s AFI-winning doco, You Only Live Twice: The Incredibly True Story Of The Hughes Family.
Who would’ve thought the overlooked son of an eminent foreign correspondent, spy, subversive and Bond-like international man of mystery (himself the son of a famed ventriloquist) would become a venerable jazzer, not to mention journo and author? When he takes the stage, or his leave, his wave looks like some kind of grandfatherly papal blessing, or benediction. And who would’ve thought one of his daughters would become a rock icon, theatrical innovator, latter-day vaudevillian, burlesque bombshell, cabaret diva, provocateur, outspoken troublemaker and ringmistress, pregnant with talent, rebirthing the blues?
And a word about the venue, Camelot (so-named as it’s populated by a lot of camels, including the rare flying species), Yaron Hallis’ (the man who put the Monsieur in Camembert) tenacious answer to having Qirkz closed down by Marrickville Council, which features a full bar, friendly staff, TexMex-inspired tapas and more atmosphere than Venus.
*All photos by Eyad Bahadi