SYDNEY FESTIVAL: Rogue's Gallery - Sydney Opera House Forecourt (28.01.10)


As I sit down to write this review, I’m reading a newspaper article on Rogue’s Gallery, comprised almost entirely of reactions to the show from Twitter. Many of which seemed to be negative, and thus they argue: Sydney was outraged by the show! Since when did out-of-context comments on Twitter become a voice of authority? Well never fear Australia, because that’s what the AU review is here for – to tell you all what really went down. In 140 characters or more.

Firstly, I believe context is important. With a price tag of $150, and an association with Sydney Festival, a “certain type of crowd” was always going to be attending the show – not for any other reason than “it’s an expensive Sydney Festival production, so I can’t miss it!” While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, the point is that this sort of crowd was possibly not the crowd for which Rogue’s Gallery was originally intended. But at the same time, the beautiful potpourri of talent who comprised the show would have left everyone with a highlight (or 12), at the very least!

But before we get to the potpourri, let’s take a step back and explain what the show is all about, and why it was, without a doubt, the flagship music event of the festival. 

It started with an album. Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp, on the set of Pirates of the Carribean, thought it a fantastic premise to get a group of musicians from around the world (including Bono, Sting etc.) to perform pirate songs and sea shantys. The result? An eclectic selection of tracks, curated by Hal Willner, with influences far and wide – and a lot of fun along the way.

Hal went on to bring the album to life on stage in the UK, with a similar concoction of artists playing songs from, and inspired by the album. And now, Sydney Festival have brought it to Australia for one night only – set within the surrounds pictuaresque Sydney Opera House and its Harbour. The ships rolled by, their horns drifting across the air. The sea breeze, and a good bit of rain. As frustrating as the last part was (especially for a show this long), it all combined to create an atmosphere that was truly appropriate for the pirate themed adventure Hal and co. took the crowd on. An adventure never to be repeated.

Like the album, the show was a mixed bag. Some tracks worked better than others – and some tracks enjoyed a bit too much interpretation from the performer in question. Note “What Do We Do With A Drunken Sailor…” in which Liam Finn awkwardly sang along with David Thomas, who took the ‘Drunken Sailor’ experience just a little bit too far. But such was in the spirit of the evening, and anyone who thought it was ‘shambolic’ just didn’t ‘get it’. And as Hal pointed out “I’m sorry for that… you’ll never forget that performance”. Indeed we won’t. And that’s not a bad thing.

The show opened with Baby Gramps (who also opened the original album), an American roots revivalist, vaudevillian and raconteur, who gave us two tracks, and looked like a hillbilly version of Santa Claus. Awesome. His second track, the fantastic “Crossbone Scully”, introduced the crowd to the backing vocalists – which included Sarah Blasko, Tim Robbins, Katy Steele, Todd Rundgren, Camille O’Sullivan, Marry Waterson… and many others. The stage set up was slightly frustrating here, with the 2nd row of vocalists hidden behind the front... at least from where I was standing – but didn’t hinder the experience. And they all had their moment in Baby Gramps shoes, in any case.

Peter Garrett followed with “Barbaree” – one of the nights highlights. In his first appearance in Australia, Todd Rundgren didn’t waste the experience – performing several times (and several instruments) throughout the show, collaborating with many performers along the way. This included Peaches, who came out wearing her usual ridiculous clothing, with a bit of a pirate theme. She was an excellent inclusion into the lineup, and was clearly having a blast, launching onto the stage with a ‘pirate posse’, one of whom she beat with fake chains. There probably should have been more of this, to be fair.

Marianne Faithful followed with “Botany Bay”, which a few “Twitter” folk had also complained about. But she was clearly not drunk , she just didn’t know the words all that well (when she came back to perform another song later in the show, not a lyric was misspoken). It wouldn’t surprise me if she only was given the song a few days ago – and isn’t a carefree attitude what a pirate’s life is all about? And they’re usually drunk, too, so even if she was drunk, that seems incredibly appropriate! This was my first time seeing the legend in action, and forgetting the lyrics or not, she was amazing to see in action.

Gavin Friday with “Baltimore Whores” was another highlight (and this was his track from the album), and this was followed with Marry Waterson, singing a song without any backing instruments – except for that of the Princess Cruise Ship’s horn in the background. How could the setting be any more appropriate? Sarah Blasko performed “Lowlands Away”, a beautiful track which was originally performed on the album by Rufus Wainwright & Kate McGarrigle – it was of course dedicated to the latter, and treated with care.

The funniest moment in the night came during the track Todd Rundgren and the INCREDIBLE (and beautiful) talent that is Camille O’Sullivan collaborated on. She preceeded the track by apologising, in advance, to her mother for its content – “Good Ship Venus” (also known as "Friggin' in the Riggin") was the track, and she and Todd really got into it – singing loud, and singing proud: “Twas on the good ship Venus, By Christ you should have seen us, The figurehead Was a whore in bed, sucking a dead man’s penis”. 

Cue applause.

The backing band was of particular class as well, with excellent use of the saw – especially during one of Tim Robbins numbers, which became as much a performance piece as anything else. He left the stage with a big grin on his face – he was really having fun with this. And they all were – and for myself, it was infectious. It was a perfect balance of fun tracks, and truly beautiful numbers, such as “Tom’s Gone” by Gavin Friday and Sarah Blasko. And I really, truly enjoyed the whole show – and when the show finished with an "Aussie Sea Shanty" lead by Peter Garrett and Peaches in the form of “Bound for South Australia” – the crowd was chanting for more. Again – I fail to understand where this criticism is coming from?

Perhaps it's coming from a lack of cohesion. A proper “pirate” host would have made a big difference in the feel of the evening, especially one 2 hours and 40 minutes in length – suddenly a show that was jumping all over the place (with purpose) would have at least appeared cohesive for the more sensitive in the crowd. And as much as I respect the guy, Hal Willner can’t carry that crown. Naturally, Peter Garrett tried to, but in doing so reminded us that he’s now a politician, and isn’t nearly as cool as he used to be. So he probably should stick to the songs in these contexts. And wear a pirate eye patch.

This brings me to my other cricitism of both the crowd and the people on stage – not nearly enough Pirate wear! Where's the spirit, people? Although those blue ponchos did look … no, a pirate wouldn’t protect themselves from the rain, that’s just silly. They’d be too drunk off rum to notice.

So maybe that’s what the naysayers needed? More rum!

While the show indeed had its highs and lows (much like an adventure on a pirate ship), I couldn’t help but leave knowing that I’d experienced something truly, unashamedly unique. This is a show which will never be done again in this context, and love it or hate it as a whole, we all got to see some pretty incredible performers (a potpourri themselves), having a blast on stage, perfoming songs they’ll probably never sing again - and all the while giving it their all. 

It’s what live entertainment is all about – the unexpected. And for that, Sydney Festival have delivered Sydney a five star performance.

Yo ho, yo ho a pirates life for me.