Sunday night at the Gov saw a gruff-voiced, Betty Grable shirt-wearing Stewart D’Arrietta pay homage to Tom Waits in a two and a half hour show aptly titled ‘Belly of a Drunken Piano’. In true Waits style, the singer slurred his way through stories with punch lines in between piano-playing ballads like ‘Kentucky Avenue’, a song about a neighbourhood full of people up to no good but really they’re just people.
I find it amazing that a song with lyrics like Eddie Grace’s Buick got four bullet holes in the side / And Charlie Delisle sittin’ at the top of an avocado tree / Mrs. Stormll stab you with a steak knife if you step on her lawn / I got a half pack of Lucky Strikes, man, so come along with me can be so full of beauty and nostalgia, but that’s what Waits does. He’s the crooner of the red light district, the poet laureate of drunkards and freaks, and D’Arrietta got everything right. Half-way through the show it occurred to me that one of the greatest miseries of my life is not having seen Tom Waits live, which I think is a testament to D’Arrietta. He played the part and sang the songs so sincerely and with such profound sentiment that he had me in a state of longing. Does that normally happen at Fringe?
SA Music Hall of Fame inductee Rob Pippan on guitar, Shaun Duncan on the double bass and Matt McNamee on the drums gave D’Arrietta and his keyboard centre stage and became that smoke-hazed lounge room backdrop of a band this type of performance demands, subtly seen though indispensible when you’re grooving along in your seat to ‘Romeo is Bleeding’ or having a shake in a dark corner to ‘Way Down in the Hole’. Other highlights were ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking’, ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’, ‘Martha (Closing Time)’, ‘The Heart of Saturday Night’ and ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)’, which is that heartbreaking song that has the ‘Waltzing Matilda’ refrain throughout, perfect for an encore.
Call-outs to Bruce Springsteen and Charles Bukowski didn’t go unnoticed, and I think Waits would’ve liked them. Perhaps, too, D’Arrietta’s few originals. I thought one had a slightly Elton John-caught-up-in-Waits feel to it, interesting enough for me to search up more of his originals when I got home. For the record, Stewart D’Arrietta’s good when he’s doing Stewart D’Arrietta, too. And apparently he’s very good as Leonard Cohen, which was another show he did as part of the Fringe, and quite the busy man this past month, he also accompanied Australian actor and musician John Waters in the Fringe’s ‘Lennon – Through A Glass Onion’. I considered both of those shows when I first got out the Fringe guide and a felt-tipped pen but I couldn’t go past Tom Waits, my absolute favourite, but even if I hadn’t have been familiar with Waits, I still would’ve loved the show – the whole atmosphere was infected with a gritty kind of class – and I no doubt would’ve left a fan.
Tulpa writer Liam McNally sat down with Porch Governor Sharni Honor in the wonderful surrounds of Glenelg’s Seafaring Fools, to talk music in Adelaide, how Porch Sessions got its start, and the journey from beginning to award and success!
How did Porch Sessions start out? Was it initially your idea or did you have collaborators from the start?
It started out as a tiny idea in my brain. I’ve always been a passionate follower of music and it was a response to an assignment, of all things, while I was studying at Music SA. At the end of the year, they were like ‘put all your skills in one little box and see if you can put on an event and make it happen’. I remember looking back at my big journal and on the second page I’d scribbled ‘porch sessions’. And then I had the first gig in my parent’s front garden and threw it all together. I had no idea what I was doing. There’s no manual on how to put [a gig] on in someone’s house. A lot of it was straight-in-the-deep-end, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. After doing the first one, the response was massive. It was sold out, 150 people. Timberwolf played our first show, who’s now killing it. The headliner was Benjalu, which is now one half of Boo Seeka who are also doing great things interstate. I guess after that first show, it was, ‘this is great, when’s the next one?’ And then it hit me, ‘I can’t just have gigs at my parents’ house for the rest of time, how’s this thing going to grow?’ Then the travelling element came up.
Where was the second gig?
It was actually a punter who came to the first gig. My yoga teacher at the time, straight after the show, she was like ‘I’m having the next one!’ Realistically, now, the house was a little bit of a tricky space to work in. We had two shows back-to-back there and a guy named Stu Larsen who is now one of our favourite artists played two sold out shows there and that kicked things into full motion.
Where did the idea for Porchland come up?
I guess the cool thing about Porch Sessions is that it ultimately started as a travelling backyard music festival is now a brand that represents nice times, amazing experiences, and unique spaces. The idea around Porchland is that as we have so many intimate shows that can be fifty people in a tiny space and [from that] we bring together everyone from these tiny gigs to have a dance and celebrate. We bring it all together in one space.
Have you branched out into pubs and other different things?
We’ve dabbled with curating music in spaces but we’re pretty diligent on the reason for which we exist. We don’t exist in venues, and that’s kind of our point of difference. That said, we do curate music in spaces and help people out in that sense. I guess to take music out of that and create venues where venues don’t exist is our biggest passion.
Do you ever do a gig in the city?
Not really. We have done Tram Sessions. That was a concept that originated in Melbourne. We’re good mates with the guys who run that and we toured it to Adelaide. We pick a tram stop, everyone jumps on and we play like five songs. People get on. People get off. It’s uncomfortable. It’s amazing. That’s the main thing we do in the city.
So, taking music to the audience, rather than the audience coming to the music?
A thousand percent. It’s amazing how much can be said for creating that atmosphere and setting the tone before the music even starts. When you design the architecture of a space, it can dictate how the night goes. When venues get in that stale space and become sometimes more about the bar and making money and surviving, which is what they have to do, the music becomes secondary to them surviving, ultimately.
On the subject of surviving, how do you find surviving in the Adelaide arts scene?
It’s hard. Very, very hard. The thing about Porch Sessions is that we pride ourselves on having super high quality across the board. High quality music, first and foremost. And we pay for it. We have some of the highest artist fees across South Australia for the music we book. For some reason a lot of people assume, ‘that’s a nice thing, it must be like a volunteer thing’. No way. We pay our artists really quite well, and all of our staff and photographers, and videographers. All the content that comes out of our shows is really valued and we’re pretty diligent about that. It takes a long time to balance all of that while trying to stay afloat and put bread on the table. It’s really tricky.
It is concentrated for a lot of people into one month. I know a lot of us who do this as a full-time job are very quick to wipe our hands clean of March and just step away from it because we slog our guts out for the rest of the year. It’s easy to be disheartened by it.
I suppose it’s a bit of a case of people building up all year for Fringe season and they just own that one month.
It’s exciting and people are pumped but we’ve got to look after the people who maintain our arts scene year-round. I guess, for people like us who live and breathe the industry, it never stops. It’s quite hard to get on the level of those who do dip in and out. It’s quite hard to be in those shoes sometimes but that’s reality. It’s really hard to keep on top of when things are happening. It’s work for people to go to shows and to find out about things. We have to remember that as curators.
Is that why you have Porchland, as your big event, about as far away from March as you possibly can?
For sure. It’s taken time. I guess the beautiful thing about Porch is that by moving really slowly, we’ve developed a really strong following and a lot of our shows do sell out. When we do have shows 45 minutes from Adelaide, to pull 180 people to a space is really quite cool. That takes a really long time to build and generate.
Is the advertising you do, like the coasters and posters here [Seafaring Fools], really just for Porchland, rather than the Sessions?
We’ve been pretty underground with our marketing for Porch Sessions. Social media is huge for us; mailing lists, word of mouth, the artists themselves. That sells the shows without us having to put up posters. Also, with such a turnaround of shows – we probably run over thirty events in a given year – if we were to put out marketing for every show, it’d be work that wouldn’t need to exist. I guess that’s the cool thing about Porchland, we can get people who’ve never heard of what we do to this one big event.
The Sessions themselves just build by word-of-mouth, then? I don’t think I’ve ever seen any advertising for a Porch Session.
I guess it’s that there is a kind of ‘beautiful secret’ element to it, and being in residential houses, we just publicise the suburb [rather than address] and put out the line-up. There isn’t much of a need for it. The next three shows, in the summer series, are all sold out, which is super cool. There isn’t much of a need for marketing. It’s an amazing privilege to have in Adelaide.
You’ve built to the point where you have a major social media following and you won the award Best Music Event/Festival at the SA Music Awards, beating out even Womad.
It was so unexpected. Everything at that festival [Womad], I go to, and admire, and get inspired by. That was mindblowing. Unbelievable.
As wonderful as Womad is, it must have been something to see someone other than them win anyway.
We were at the back, drinking beers and we were like ‘that’s not Womad – oh my God, this is not a drill!’ It was bizarre. To be considered on the same level is cool in itself but to actually take that [award] out, is very cool.
How’s that affected things? Is it just in the industry or externally as well?
I think actually across the board. It’s amazing how many people have heard about it. It lifts us into a new bracket. It attaches a new professionalism to what we do and nationally it’s been really well recognised.
How many sessions do you have ready in advance at any given time?
We’re always forward-programming. We’re still pulling into place the rest of this season that runs up until the start of May. We have another three shows we’re going to release over the next couple of weeks and that’ll be the season done. Then we start on the winter shows. We also have Porch Session on Tour where we pack up five caravans and travel between Queensland and South Australia. It’s full-on and fast-paced but it’s the best. We’re already starting to plan for that next year.
Tulpa Magazine thanks Sharni Honor for her time, Jack Fenby for the Porch Sessions feature photo, and Harley Vincent for the photo from Porchland.