Friday, November 16
REVIEW: David Zampatti
I had a diverting conversation with my wife on Friday night about the allure of the extraordinary Melissa Madden Gray, the artist known as Meow Meow.
She briefly wondered whether the boundlessly pneumatic cabaret artist appealed more to blokes. And as I helped Meow crowd-surf over our heads while she sang Come Dance with Me, I confess I was reminded of Bob Menzies’ famous “I did but see her passing by ...”
But Meow is much more clever than that. Her full-frontal attack on glamour, her insurgency in the war of the sexes never says “Come hither”. “Come over here and do what you’re told” is more like it.
Whatever empowerment is, that’s what Meow Meow is peddling. She’s got a joke about what boys like and guys want — and the women are in on it. The truth is that she appeals to everyone. The WAAPA (and Melbourne University law, fine arts and language) graduate has a prodigious talent to go with her intelligence and beauty, and she’s got the taste to use it wisely.
Her natural milieu — one she shares with Camille O’Sullivan and Amanda Palmer (more of whom later) — is Weimar cabaret and chanson realiste, but when she goes trawling there, she’s careful not to parrot or bowdlerise.
From the opening standard, There is No Cure for L’Amour, to Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas (which she sang in the original French, in its devastating literal translation, and in Rod McKuen’s saccharine Americanised version, all the while meow-handling Garry and Simon from the audience), she pays these great songs the respect of refreshing them with burlesque and comedy.
She also mines a contemporary repertoire, with fascinating results. Palmer’s Missed Me is just as extortionate as the original; Fiona Apple’s Not About Love just as bleak; and Patty Griffin’s Be Careful just as tender.
And you only truly appreciate the genius of Thom Yorke and his cohorts when you hear these women (O’Sullivan and Palmer as well) taking to Radiohead’s songs with their different voices; on this night, Fake Plastic Trees was simply wonderful.
It would be easy to just sit back and uncritically ogle Meow Meow, but there are still some things Gray might work her character through, especially as the rooms (and spiegeltents) she plays grow into halls, theatres and, who knows, like Tim Minchin, arenas.
Some of her arrangements (music director John Thorn on piano and Alon Ilsar on drums accompanied) and delivery baffled the Astor Theatre’s usually accurate acoustics, and she doesn’t always give each of her talents their due.
In particular, there are times when she should trust the songs and her singing of them to do the job for her instead of interrupting herself with comedy. I can’t believe she lacks confidence in herself as chanteuse but, in truth, the next time I see her, I’d love her to be Ms Gray rather than Ms Meow, and just sing to me.