Martha Wainwright @ The Triffid

Powerful, intimate vulnerability

There is something almost placeless about the Triffid.  I chain up my bike outside, drenched in late-summer humidity, and drift through the doors. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to the grunginess of the inner southside (you know, the bars that sweat their Brisbaneness in every track), but coming here on a Sunday evening to see Martha Wainwright feels like arriving unexpectedly in Minneapolis only to find an old friend waiting at the bus stop. If I try to imagine the venue now, the edges are all fuzzy; cavernous ceilings and dark walls swim into abstraction in my memory.  This is somewhere, sure, but it’s almost definitely somewhere else. And 'Somewhere Else' is an excellent place to see live music.

The support band - Oh Pep! - are part-way through their set when I arrive; they’ve just played their third track.  I wonder how they feel to be touring with Martha Wainwright.  They seem relaxed, except when the occasional thread of nervous energy ruptures into slightly-too-loud laughter or too-long banter.  It’s all incredibly endearing.  Their sound is a kind of indie-pop folk-punk hybrid; they’re all liminal zones and edges, no centre to the sound.  There is a rich conversationality to it - strong lyricism and infectious hooks holding a crowd who are definitely here for someone else. They’re good at what they’re doing.  As I settle in, I can feel an us emerging; in anthropological terms, we are feeling a sort of communitas, that collective joy produced through shared aesthetic experiences.  We shuffle forwards, lean in, breathe.

And then it’s over, and it’s time for the awkward lining-up-for-a-beer and very-polite-jostling-towards-the-front. A brief conversation with a stranger about existential dread and work culture.  And then, with little fuss, it’s Martha. Just her, and that voice. Everything about this gig feels understated, and I like it.  She mumbles a little, gets distracted, jokes with her band.  At one point, she breaks the rhythm of her set to tell a long, rambling story about a stain on her overalls. Apparently they used to belong to her mother, and she was upset to realise immediately before the gig that they were stained. She poured water on them and then stood under a hand-dryer to try and remove it, but it’s still there, and she can see it in the stage lighting.  It’s that kind of gig.

Over the course of the set, I learn several things about Martha Wainwright.  The most important thing is that she is incredibly likeable.  She’s one of those musicians who you see on stage and then accidentally mistake for an actual friend.  I don’t know Martha Wainwright.  But I do know that looking around this dark room while she sings “fuck the cancer, take no prisoners” is like sharing a shot of gin with 200 people and then telling tongue-in-cheek-vulnerable stories about our mothers.  It’s an accelerated intimacy.  The communitas builds us up.  

This gig is rich in a way that feels new to me.  Wainwright talks about her musical-heavyweight family members as though we’re all part of the same big community.  And perhaps, in a way, we are.  Certainly, when she strolls on stage to begin her set with a cover of her mother, Kate McGarrigle’s “I Am A Diamond,” before soaring through musical nods to brother Rufus and a set peppered with intertextual references to her musical lineage, she is more than an individual performer.  When she takes space like this - warm and buzzing and cheerful - Wainwright performs as a kind of assemblage; she is who she loves, where she came from, the people who surround her in these moments of vulnerability. And she (the she who is always already them) sings those relationships into every track.

When the set ends, and the collective intake of breath breaks into applause, we yearn her back on stage for an encore.  She ends the show with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel.  "We were running for the money and the flesh | And that was called love for the workers in song | Probably still is for those of them left".  As we filter out of the gig, I imagine that we’re huddling closer to each other, reluctant to break us the we that so recently formed.  There’s a magic to these moments.  I pull myself out of it, cycle home across the story bridge. I have lines from Factory running through my head for days: "There are millions and millions of people around | On my TV, walking my streets, making sounds | And I can walk with them, I love them, I need their love".  A poignant subconscious nod to an artist who is full of love, pain, and powerful, intimate vulnerability.

Anna Carlson


Zed Facts

In November 2013, Queer Radio was chosen by an independent panel of judges to win the CAN Awards 2013 Media Award. The Community Action Network Awards were first introduced in 1997 to recognize achievement that is positive and makes a difference in the inner city areas of Brisbane. Coordinated by the New Farm Neighbourhood Centre, the award citation reads "For excellence in journalism/social media which promotes the social inclusion and equality for all".