HELEN TOWNSEND AND SHANNON SMITH
Photos by Linda Dunjey
History will judge ours as among the worst of times. We can’t say that out loud right now, because we have to keep our heads down and live through them, but we know it. Which is why light among the darkness is so important, as is community, as is music. This evening, at Kidogo Arthouse, Helen Townsend and her muse and musical partner, Shannon Smith, brought their audience music, community and light. She may not have meant it, ostensibly this was the launch of Townsend’s latest EP, Love, Lies ‘n’ Leaving, but tonight’s event and others like it will come to be remembered with the same folkloric reverence as Londoners in the blitz singing Vera Lynn songs in the tunnels of the Underground.
Even the spirits that inhabit Kidogo Arthouse ceased their business to stand and watch for a moment. It was magic.
One of the hardest working musicians in Perth, Helen Townsend has spent years building the audience that sat in the room with her and her band tonight. The sense of connection was there even before the music started. This was always going to be an event, not just another gig.
Choosing to open with the last track on her new EP, ‘We’re Through’, Townsend tonight completed her transition from the country pop of her 2019 album, Little Lover, to the unadulterated Americana that’s always been at the core of her creative being. After tonight, you get the sense that there’s no going back for Townsend, as was evident in her decision not to revisit any of the tracks from Little Lover. Apart from the four original tracks from Love, Lies ‘n’ Leaving (‘If I Didn’t Know Better’ is a Civil Wars original), the remainder of Townsend’s set was made up of a lovingly catalogued selection of covers.
From the traditional American folk of ‘Down To The River To Pray’ and ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’, both of which were popularised in the Coen Brothers’ take on Homer’s epic poem, ‘The Iliad’, O Brother, Where Art Thou?; to the early 1900s reminder that we’re not the first to have it tough, Ada Blenkhorn’s ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, which has been covered most notably by June Carter Cash and also appeared on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?; to a duet of Gillian Welsh and Dave Rawlings’ ‘The Way It Will Be’, there was plenty of American folk history to contemplate this evening.
You couldn’t help but get the sense that this was a line in the sand moment for Townsend and her music. Not only had she made a break with her immediate creative past, she’d also declared her true colours as an Americana artist, a somewhat strange thing to be in Australia. On the surface of it, anyway. In doing so, she put her original songs up against the best that the Americana genre has to offer, inviting us to assess whether they stack up.
It was a bold move.
Had Townsend and Smith —who at times narrated the show and very comfortably took up the role of band leader, no mean feat given the all-star cast, including Grammy Award winner, Lucky Oceans, among other local luminaries — not given the back story to the songs before and after they played them, had you not known your stuff, Townsend’s originals would have slotted into tonight’s set like they’d always belonged. You wouldn’t have picked them from the covers. The bluegrass of ‘Where Are You Now’ sounded like it had been written on a ranch house porch overlooking the prairies of Montana. ‘If You Were Real’ would have been covered by Dolly and Kenny if it had been written in another place and time. ‘We’re Through’ is an ode to the tension between the ennui and eternal hope that is America — it’s never over, no matter how bad things get. And, as for Devil’s Curse, a cowrite with the multi-talented Belle Harvey, it’s a road weary pean to the American heartland as much as it is a sharp reminder to behave, Shannon!
So, yes, Townsend’s songs stack up and stack up well.
What also shines through in the live performances of these songs is the vocal interplay between Townsend and Smith. Love, Lies ‘n’ Leaving is a song cycle built on harmonies and the juxtaposition of female and male voices. Rendered live, the balance between Townsend and Smith’s vocals comes to the fore, the harmonies are as rich and deep as a mountain pool. This was never more evident than when, fifth song into their set, Townsend and Smith stepped off the stage to sing a duet of the Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings co-write, ‘The Way It Will Be’, raising their voices without the aid of microphones or amplification. It was a moment of almost religious observation, the audience in thrall, the performers in love and the music carrying us together beyond our mortal travails to a place of reverence and bliss. Even the spirits that inhabit Kidogo Arthouse ceased their business to stand and watch for a moment. It was magic.
In that moment, Townsend and Smith arrived as Americana artists and, even though were we in one of the most Aussie places on Earth, sitting on the shores of Bather’s Beach in Fremantle, having just witnessed a sunset that you won’t see the likes of anywhere else in the world, it all worked seamlessly.
Called back at the end of their set for one more song, Townsend invited her audience to sing along with the full band on a rendition of ‘Down To The River To Pray’, proving that community singing and music is what we need to keep us going through these darkest of times. Gatherings like tonight’s are what will see us through and the light they create also will help create our common future.