Live Review

Jen Cloher, T’Honi Kapa Haka, & Platonic Sex @ Princess Theatre

In case you can’t tell, I’ve been on a bit of journey,” stated Jen Cloher, a few songs into her set. Typical of her understated, humble approach and loaded with sarcasm and dry wit, to say that she has been on a journey is equal to saying the world is a big place, or, the moon is far away. In other words, a massive understatement.

Jen Cloher’s journey is well documented, and well known to anybody familiar with her excellent new album, I Am The River, The River Is Me. An album full of tales of growth and self-discovery, documenting Cloher’s reconnection with her matrilineal Māori heritage. Currently touring across Australia to celebrate the album’s release, in Meanjin / Brisbane Jen Cloher was joined by the ori performing arts group, T’Honi Kapa Haka and local indie-rockers, Platonic Sex.

Bridget Brandolini, singer/guitarist for the ingeniously named Platonic Sex has an incredible vocal range, so incredible that their performance damn near stole the show! I have followed Platonic Sex’s progress since their first release, double A-Side, Try Hard/Teeth and their debut EP, Grip, was one of last year’s standout releases.

For a group with such a small catalogue of material, they are clearly comfortable performing in front of an audience. It was the second time I had seen them live and they impressed even more on this occasion. Understandably, given their short back catalogue, their setlist comprised the bulk of Grip, including the song Be There, rarely played due to the song’s dynamics, which can get lost in some live settings. Despite the reservations, the song went off without a hitch, with the band themselves appearing especially pleased with its performance.

Devil’s Advocate was the obvious crowd favourite, with several members of the crowd singing along, loudly, which is no mean feat for a support group. This just goes to show that Platonic Sex have, despite their small discography, generated a name for themselves within Meanjin/Brisbane’s thriving music scene, and for good reason too, as they put on a bloody great show!

Jen Cloher came out strong, and opened with an erotically charged version of My Witch, complete with backup singers and sexually suggestive dance moves. However, she quickly changed gears, and tone, performing two tracks off her 2017 self-titled record, including the beautiful, Sensory Memory. Unsurprisingly, aside from a rousing cover of Land by Patti Smith, the setlist mostly featured songs off I Am The River, The River Is Me.

Mana Takatâpui, with its infectiously catchy chorus, had the audience singing along in unison, proving itself to be every bit the rallying cry Cloher intended. Protest Song, a quiet warning about not elevating those in the public eye onto ideological pedestal, was even more understated and solemn than on record. Alternatively, Being Human, one of the album’s strongest songs, was bigger, brasher and more anthemic, helped, in no small part, by T’Honi Kapa Haka.

It was impressive that, despite the live setting, Cloher managed to maintain the intimacy present in her new songs. However, when amplified on stage, these same songs were lifted, becoming bigger and bolder, allowing the audience to feel the sense of immersion so vital to the live music experience. For this, Cloher’s backing band deserves no small amount of credit and it is obvious that, beyond their musical camaraderie, they also share a close personal friendship.

Jen Sholakis has played drums in various bands with Cloher since 2006, whilst guitarist/keyboardist Anika Ostendorf, who records her own music as Hachiku, was credited with being a significant influence on the sound of I Am The River, The River Is Me. Rob Wrigley on guitar and Nathalie Pavolvic on bass round out the lineup, both have performed with Cloher since 2022, but their tight on stage dynamic gives the impression they have been part of the group for much longer.

Substantial praise is also owed to the Naarm/Melbourne based performing arts group, T’Honi Kapa Haka, who accompanied Cloher for shows in Boorloo/Perth, Meanjin/Brisbane, Naarm/Melbourne and Eora/Sydney. T’Honi Kapa Haka breathed additional life and significant power into the songs from I Am The River, The River Is Me, further connecting and personifying the threads of Māori culture entwined in the album.

Cloher’s personal connection to Māori culture was evident through her inclusion of traditional language in the album’s lyrics, but the reverence she holds for the performers and the culture they represent serves as further evidence of the sincerity of her journey. Always alongside and never behind, Cloher made obvious the fact that T’Honi Kapa Haka were not merely back up singers, but a vital part of the performance, equal to her, and the rest of the band.

Taking such a deeply personal record out on the road must be a daunting prospect on its own. To be able to personify your own journey into a culture, in a way that is respectful, but also entertaining, is something very few performers could achieve. Watching Jen Cloher perform and seeing how she interacts, with her band, with the T’Honi Kapa Haka, and even with the audience, it is evident she has given deep consideration to matters of respect and cultural representation. It is also obvious that she has a lot invested in these songs, in communicating her journey and celebrating her sense of belonging within the Māori culture.

Sincerity and honesty are touchtones of respect, when one approaches a subject genuinely and openly with their full self, it casts no doubt on one’s intentions. Jen Cloher has always been earnest and candid about herself, transparent in her representation of herself and capable of celebrating, not just her strengths, but also her faults. These are the qualities that make her such an incredible musician and performer, and what made this performance such an enjoyable and deeply moving experience.

- Nick Stephan.


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