A night at the Open Studio with Sarah McDonald

sarahSarah McDonald is lost in the woods. No, it’s not an actual forest we’re talking about; imagine a forest of tunes and sounds she seems to have landed into, and now she has to make her way out of it, like some sort of action-adventure role-playing game, only her weapons are songs. She has to choose carefully. And she starts with Tom Waits’ “Temptation”.

“Temptation” is why I’m here. Here, being Northcote’s fantastic little big venue called “Open Studio”, where there’s always something good happening, even on a random Wednesday night like this. I barely managed to get here in time to catch the last part of the previous band’s set (the ever-electrifying Adam Rudegeair), but at least I’m here for “Temptation”.

I’ve heard a lot of versions of the song and Sarah McDonald’s is easily my favourite: deceptively laid back and self-assured, with an undercurrent of emotions waiting to sweep you by. When she sings “Rusted brandy in a diamond glass”, it’s the rust she focuses on, not the diamond. Tom Waits would approve. I can easily imagine him sitting among the “Open Studio” patrons (he would fit in perfectly, it’s his kind of crowd), nodding and smiling, sparks coming out of his squinting eyes. He would also approve of the remaining of the songs that followed, creating a set list that Sarah jokingly referred to as “’30s Megamix” – she’s on to something there, unearthing some rare mid-war gems and reinventing some classics (she even fit in a “feel the Bern” mention in her introduction to “On the Sunny Side of the Street”).

There’s a lot of nostalgic glamour associated with the ’20s and ’30’s era. Singers who choose to sing this material often end up as replicas of the sultry divas of the past, dressing up in satin gowns and pearls and stale femininity. Not Sarah McDonald. She approaches her material with a tomboyish attitude, phrasing the classic jazz and obscure torch songs that comprise her set list with a punk sensitivity and a kind of modern-day angst delivered by this beautiful, soulful chili-infused chocolate voice of hers. When she opens her mouth, she showers her audience with raw emotion. No pretense, no polished femininity, no nonsense. It helps that she’s sexy as hell when she does it; and that she’s surrounded by a killer band: Ron Romero on tenor sax, Kumar Shome on guitar, Ben Hanlon on the bass and Lewis Pierre-Humbert on the drums. As these musicians spew fire from their instruments, people get up and dance to her singing, even if she sings Monk’s “I mean you” (not the most danceable song out there). And before, we realize it, she has managed to grab us by the hand and lead us out of the woods, to safety.

“At this time of the set, it’s time we drop an Amy”, she says, singing Winehouse’s “You know I’m no good”. After that, Adam Rudegeair joins her on stage, sits at the piano and they offer a crisp-sounding, hard swinging rendition of the Cure’s “Lovecats”. We’re home.

*Sarah Mc Donald will play at the Paris Cat on Friday 24 June; she will return to the Open Studio on Sunday 3 July.