Despite Melbourne Music Week being in full swing across the city and dozens of free gigs sucking punters from lounge rooms and pubs, tonight’s show is packed, attentive, and clearly there for the music. The relatively unknown pianist and singer Laura Smock launches the evening and cuts a commanding figure. Standing attentive over a synth, eyes closed and singing breathily with a voice that sounds at once natural and yet trained, Smock silences he room with the slightest effort, particularly during her song Remain. Though seeming sometimes nervous, given the delicate nature of her music silences are loaded, a bold cover of Massive Attack’s Teardrop shows that she is a fearless interpreter and, should a platform arrive, massiveness awaits.
Quite how Tulalah have remained an unknown proposition is befuddling, and unlikely to remain the case for long. Ostensibly playing upbeat jazzy-folk these clearly very accomplished musicians are some of the most imaginative combos around. Sporting more instrument exchanges than a primary school let loose in Swop Shop, Oliver Bannister’s double bass and the evocative vocals of Bridie Cotter anchor songs as they spiral and shift, full of imaginative twists and darkly atmospheric turns. Blasts of brass come and go, guitar, ukulele and percussion pull songs this way and that, but never to the song’s detriment or pushing showmanship over atmospherics. Occasional whole-band harmonies are stunning when they appear and missed when they’re not. Any forthcoming folk festival not putting Tulalah on the bill is selling themselves short.
Speaking of top-notch musicianship that doesn’t overwhelm the song, Tully on Tully are loaded with it. Despite not being referred to twice in their band name, the combination of Greg Rietwyk’s deft and sparkling guitar, Pete Corrigan’s keys, Iain MacRae’s bass and Frank Lees drums allows Natalie Foster (aka Tully) the freedom she so obviously embraces.
Opening song Going on Like This immediately sets the scene as being one of trumping already lofty expectations. It is, in short, a stunning example of careering, gutsy rock. Boasting a harder edge than the quirky indie pop they've been pushing before, ToT seem willing to take risks and push themselves as musicians. Older song So Close has been reinvented in a powerful and arresting way, with a new emotional strength found in the moments of restraint, belying a rapid maturity. Foster’s voice is powerful, expressive and distinctive; everything you want from a singer. With a little of The Sundays’ piercing clarity (and fluid, chiming guitar work), Cyndi Lauper’s fearless originality and the muscular soul of Renee Geyer, Foster already sounds accomplished. Unlike many of her peers, she and the band defy easy categorization. Lyrics to their recently Triple J-playlisted single Naked and its forthcoming follow up Stay (featuring another rising star Hayden Calman on vocals), are exceptional for their boldness. This closing brace of songs cements this as being one of the most surprising and strong gigs of the year. With an album in the bag, it’s a safe bet to say 2013 is theirs.