Songs of the Haight Ashbury

SLICK PERFORMANCE: Diana Anaid inhabits the music of Grace Slick in a scarily authentic and important show.
SLICK PERFORMANCE: Diana Anaid inhabits the music of Grace Slick in a scarily authentic and important show.

I WAS lucky enough to see the songs of the haight-ashbury show where it began - in the Stokers Siding Hall - about 16 months into its remarkably successful run. That first show had pulled in 450 of the faithful, a record-breaking horde, who, while they didn't come in such numbers this time, remained as a core group of the audience. So this was an anniversary of sorts, and while celebrating the past is what the show is all about, its great legacy is in its insights for contemplating a volatile future.

The performances are extraordinary. They're spearheaded by S. Sorrensen, whose gift for grandiloquence and wry humour are perfectly employed for his role as MC and court-jester. His narration neatly eulogises the peculiar gifts of notorious singers of the Haight Ashbury era, placing them in the context of political and social events. His emotional involvement in the role is self-evident; it underwrites his conviction in the importance of this production.

Did I say importance? Yeah, this show is important - and timely. It harks back to an epoch when people were waking from the stupor of the 1950s and realising that shit was real - they were being lied to by governments and led into unjust, downright evil wars. That these events just happened to coincide with the proliferation of psychedelic drugs seemed a happy accident, but was in no small way responsible for the explosion in lateral thinking and cosmic expansion of ideas, music and social justice culminating in the revolutionary hippy flower-power era. The bards that emerged acted as modern-day shamans, entering altered states of consciousness to access ancient wisdoms and lost power, in their own inimitable ways seeking to restore the balance between the furious modern world and the enduring natural cosmos.

Right now in Australia and round the world, grass-roots movements such as the anti-CSG networks, Occupy and Wikileaks are also ringing alarm bells, made all the more urgent by the exigencies of climate change. The hottest summer on record and its attendant bushfires are a wake-up call to any thinking person (politicians aside) that it's time to do something. Throughout history music has been at the forefront of social change, anticipating and confirming seismic ruptures in the way we think and act. Songs of the Haight Ashbury reawakens emotions and adrenalin in the same way that Janis, Joni, Jimi, Bob, Grace and James T did. It's a timely nostalgia trip that gives urgency to our own emergency.

The band is uncannily good. All highly experienced players, they're familiar with the dangerous and unpredictable terrain of great rock and roll. With unflappable sangfroid they deal out folk, blues and flat-out rock in rapid succession, enabling the singers to enter their roles in psychedelic abandon.

Which brings us to the singers. The casting is superb. The North Coast may have a small population compared to its geographical imprint, but the gene pool of musical talent represented here is prodigious.

The naturally sunny disposition of Andrea Soler is perfect for Joni Mitchell's ethereal love child. Toying with a winning cocktail of sexy waifishness and childish whimsy, she effortlessly brings out the power of Mitchell's intelligent folk-rock, culminating in the early performance peak of Big Yellow Taxi.

Bill Jacobi is perfect as the tramp troubadour, pouring as much of himself as he did of Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Country Joe into their acoustic ballads. His jaunty air belies a muscular guitar sound and voice honed by relentless gigging experience. His version of Like A Rolling Stone eschewed Dylanesque parody and celebrated the great song that it is.

Possessed of an earthy and apparently inexhaustible set of pipes, Li'l Fi is a ripe avatar for the bawdy blues of Janis Joplin. While she's perhaps a little too robust and healthy to accurately portray the troubled superstar, this is theatre and Fi's consummate power and presence made for electrifying versions of Piece of my Heart and Mercedes Benz.

As white as Saos, Connor Cleary makes no attempt to channel the unearthly remove of Jimi Hendrix's drug-augmented voodoo guitar séances, but he's remarkably adept at steering a juggernaut of overdriven guitar, amps churning at maximum volume, that in the wrong hands could have become a train wreck.

Diana Anaid as Grace Slick pulled a white rabbit out of a metaphysical hat. A little stiff in her first number, by the time she got to Tobacco Road, Diana had slipped through some pan-dimensional crack and morphed into the possessed she-demon that was Grace Slick. As producer Nick Hanlon remarked, that song bears uncanny parallels to Diana's own early life and she was able to step right into it, seeming to expand and glow as she roared through catharsis, transforming personal tragedy into a pagan exultation.

James T is a survivor of the era in question, and his authenticity is immediately apparent in his fabulous slide guitar playing and formidable presence. A one-time member of Canned Heat, he didn't sing the original versions of Goin' up the country and On the road again, but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. His performance is a thrilling reminder of the unearthly power of the Haight Ashbury's legacy, that still reverberates today.

Just as the show presents a kind of interactive diorama of a dramatic, flamboyant past, whose implications are still being workshopped in our own turbulent times, so it looks to the future - metaphorically and physically. Nick Hanlon, who devised and produced the show and has secured four slots at the 2013 East Coast Blues Festival, is looking to take the show abroad, aiming for the Edinburgh and Glastonbury festivals and beyond.

As Sorrensen's narrations clearly portend, the show carries hopes that on a world stage they might reawaken some of that long lost optimism and cosmic wisdom of the hippies, in devising some workable solutions for our troubled world.

The show-closer, Grace Slick's Somebody to Love, pulled the entire cast out for what became an uplifting and affirming anthem. It took the roof off Stokers Siding Hall and confirmed the show as an integral part of the people's movements that are again threatening a dangerously toxic status quo.

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