Life in the Late Eighties
The Deer Johns @ The Big Slapple – Apollo Theatre
6:00pm, Sat 17 Mar 2012
So – The Deer Johns were quite the surprise packet last year, combining the music that is near and dear to my youth with a cute coming-of-age narrative to create an experience that was both original and familiar; despite the odd jarring arrangement, I had no qualms whatsoever in signing up for another dose. Having said that, I also felt a little trepidation going in: whilst the early eighties were my formative pop years, by the late eighties my musical interests had started deviating significantly from the mainstream norm… as a result, I was wondering how much the musical selection would colour my opinion of the show.
I arrive at The Big Slapple, and the queue is enormous, stretching well out of the building into the afternoon sun. I jot down some notes as I wait, and eavesdrop on the buoyant crowd; one chap comes running inside to join his friends just in front of me, and proclaims that “the door-guy reckons there’s four hundred seats… there’s only about ten tickets left.”
…wow. Despite the fact that the band’s three Gelatissimo shows had sold out last year, four hundred seats on a lazy St. Patrick’s Day afternoon was a bloody superb effort. There were, of course, subsequent logistical issues in getting the audience into the venue in a timely manner – I reckon the performance started fifteen minutes late – but the great thing about seeing shows alone is that it’s usually possible to get a decent seat.
When The Deer Johns take to the stage (which is littered with instruments – a comprehensive array of guitars, keys, and drums), you can see the joy in their faces – this crowd is their people, and there’s a rush of ebullience towards the stage. Their performance is very similar in style to last year’s effort: singer/guitarist Andrew O’Callaghan tells a tale of three young men, their trials and jubilations, friendships waxing and waning. Again, snippets of songs from the era punctuate the narrative, triggered by a some aspect of the story – a theme, a tone, or even the most oblique of references.
This time, however, some of the narrative is occasionally woven into the lyrics of the songs they use – that’s an interesting idea which leaves me in two minds, but it’s a technique that is sparingly used – and I think is all the more effective because of that. Again, one of the fundamental concerns when reproducing these familiar songs is the quality of the instrumentation: Simply Irresistible works straight-up, with Jessie Cotton’s bass-and-keys filling the space around Chris Marshall’s drums, and O’Callaghan’s guitar kicking in appropriately; Roam is more off-beat proposition, but their arrangement satisfyingly maintains the quirkiness of the original.
The narrative also provides the opportunity for some so-bad-they’re-good visual and lyrical puns – Broken Wings allows Marshall to provide comic relief with the help of an angelic puppet, and the second act sees the appearance of some hammer pants. Money For Nothing gets a great rendition, but unfortunately Kiss gets too much love – it’s supposed to be a thin, spacious track, not filled out with drum rolls.
But the most noticeable step up for The Deer Johns – beside the significantly deeper writing and meshing of music and narrative – was in the more overt parts of the production… most noticeably with the introduction of two bagpipers for tracks in both acts, with You’re The Voice being the standout (as well as getting the entire crowd singing along). If you’re in a position where you can play cards like that, and get a rapturous response from the audience in response, I reckon you must be doing something right; and whilst no musical era will ever entice me as much as the early eighties did, I’ll still be lining up to see how The Deer Johns apply their unique brand of musical storytelling to the seventies in the next Fringe.