My Friend the Spiegeltent
By DAVID BRIDIE
Monday 19 November 2001
I guess it's a rare thing to have played a show in the same venue in three
different cities, picturesque ones at that, but that has been the case
with My Friend the Chocolate Cake and the Famous Spiegeltent; the ornate,
free-standing, mobile venue that manager and musician David Bates has
brought to Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival.
The first time I experienced the venue was when the Cake travelled to
the glorious city of Edinburgh for its festival. We arrived jetlagged
and weary to be greeted at the small Edinburgh airport by three mad Scottish
women, each named Susan, who were employed as artists' representatives.
After taking up their offer of a wee dram of peaty west-coast single malt
(Isle of Jura if my memory serves me) only to find that this meant finishing
off the whole bottle, as is custom, we ventured down to the tent that
was to be our home for two weeks.
A sight to behold: built in the 1920s and retaining its salon-style character,
the circular tent has a red and blue canvas roof, old stained-brown wooden
booths around the perimeter, mirrored pillars, a wooden dance floor, stained-glass
windows throughout and an ornate chandelier adorning the ceiling.
There's an informal, slightly raised stage at one end and a boutique bar
at the back, room for about 400 punters and the scent of history permeating
the air. A strange and fantastic place in which to play music.
Holding the stage was a 70-year-old Australian woman, named Madam Pat,
and her band playing smoky jazz covers; Pat belting out songs with verve
to a full house whooping and cheering at the end of each tune. We grabbed
a booth and, basically, didn't leave for the rest of the fortnight. We
hung around for Messrs Smith and Blackwood, a bizarre sideburned cabaret
duo performing piss-take covers such as Shirley Bassey's sensational Bond
song Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Janis Ian's When I was Seventeen.
After half a dozen tunes, Blackwood would grab the turntable and spin
kitsch '70s' dance tunes well into the night. (I had the good fortune
of joining them on the last night, when we performed the Homer Simpson
version of Seventeen).
This was the place to be and we saw little else of the festival. We'd
meet there in the early afternoon for coffee, perform to good crowds just
as the sun was going down and, after a vain search for decent food (we
were in Scotland), head back to the tent for the late night club, staying
into the wee hours.
Certain members slept the night in the booths after particularly indulgent
evenings, to be woken in the morning by Frank Bates, David's wonderful
father and the Spiegeltent's repair-and-fix-it-man. Frank, who passed
away earlier this year, was very much the soul of the tent and uncle to
all who performed in it - a man of dignity, handsome with bright eyes,
and the ability to converse equally about sport and social justice.
Performing in the tent offers the same rewards for the band as it does
the audience. The atmosphere soaks over you and, being a circular venue,
there isn't a bad seat in the house. Every nuance and breath can be felt;
in the quiet moments you can hear a pin drop, and the interplay between
those on stage is shared with the punters.
I like singing fairly soft at times and keeping a lot of space in the
songs, and the tent is perfect for this type of delivery. But it handles
a belter as well, and when you let rip, the stage shakes and the punters
come with you for the ride.
I guess the audience is just as excited to be in the Spiegeltent as is
the band. Often mid-song, I'd vague out, gazing off at the interior, and
I noticed the audience did too. The intimacy of the venue deters those
prone to yabbering and that's a fine thing for band and paying audience
The success of the Spiegeltent is mostly due to David Bates, the man with
the vision and entrepreneurial spirit to bung it in the shipping container
and bring it to Australia. He is a musician himself, a man of culture
and politics. He treats his acts with respect and they return it doubly.
It is a musician-friendly set-up - rare in this business - a good sound
system, an audience friendly showtime (8.30pm) and good lighting (one
terrible omission though; no drink rider, one I hope you rectify next
time David! ).
The bill he has booked for the Melbourne season reflects his vision. He
has managed to capture part of why this city is regarded as one of the
premier music cities in the world, booking musicians who should be part
of an arts festival, and who should also be reviewed in the arts pages
and discussed by the high arts mob: Jimmy Little, Augie March, John Butler
Trio, Stephen Cummings, Andrea Rienets, Chris Wilson et al.
We can only hope that the venture has been worth it (can't imagine how
it wouldn't have been) and that the tent will be a regular feature of
the Melbourne Festival and the following weeks for years to come.
David Bridie is a member of My Friend the Chocolate Cake and a solo
artist. The Spiegeltent will be in Melbourne until November 25.
The Age, November 19, 2001