Live Review: Sun Rai and Ben Vanderwal + Zane Carney – 505, Sydney (23.04.14)

It’s not often that you come across an artist so unique and different that it’s almost impossible to categorise them. In this intimate setting at one of Sydney’s finest jazz clubs, we’re treated to just that from two intriguing and wonderful performers. One of whom is quite well known to Australian audiences in a different form and the other, an American who just coincidentally happened to be visiting our shores.

Opening the evening is Zane Carney and for almost the entire room, we are all new to this young American’s fine talent. A quick bit of research reveals that he’s currently touring around the country as part of John Mayer’s band, but this is only one notable entry in a lengthy resume, having performed and worked with Stevie Wonder, Keith Urban and Jesse McCartney to name a few. Starting with a track called “Hitchiking”, Carney takes us on a little journey with his sweet vocals and his singular acoustic guitar. His style and feel shifts ever so marginally from song to song, we get some jazz pop in “Driving In Circles”, which then alternates to a bit of a blues swing number in “Talk To Me Baby” – where Carney gets to show off some of his exceptional guitar work as his fingers furiously pluck and strum. We’re also treated to a couple of sensational covers, the first being Arthur Hamilton’s “Cry Me A River” and it’s achingly beautiful in its delivery.

After repeatedly assuring us that his next cover was not simply because he was in Australia, he cracks out Silverchair’s“Straight Lines” and the middle 8 guitar solo is a masterful display of his performance abilities, considering he’d only learnt it several hours earlier. As we near the end of an all too short set, “It Doesn’t Matter Where We Go” encourages a little finger-clicking audience participation and has a bit of jazzy swing feel to it. Wrapping things up with “Fade To Black”, it begins as an unassuming track that soon explodes into a broody dramatic rock song, complete with its own fade to black ending. Carney has been likened to such singer-songwriters as Jeff Buckley and Damien Rice and this is quite true of his guitar performing style but his vocals reminded me a lot more of Jason Mraz, sometimes soft and sweet, other times primal and powerful. For someone who is fairly new to being in the spotlight (as opposed to being in the shadows as a guitar slinger for hire) Carney manages to put on a solid performance winning over the audience.

You may be familiar with the name Rai Thistlethwayte, frontman and guitarist/keyboardist for Thirsty Merc but more recently he’s branched out with a new solo project under the guise Sun Rai. However if you were expecting a pop rock style show like his more mainstream band, you’d be miles off the mark. Joining him onstage is jazz drummer extraordinaire Ben Vanderwal and these two manage to make a lot of noise between them. Opening with “Know Somebody”, a funky little jazz pop tune that has some intricate on and off beat kick drum moments as the song hops along with its staccato keyboard chords. They then follow that up with “Escargot”, the title track of Sun Rai’s current EP and it’s just dripping with smooth funk beats as he combines the grand piano with the electric synth bass. Just like Carney before him, Sun Rai plays song after song and each one has something different to offer. “San Francisco Street” is a honeyed little love song that is ever so soft and delicate in execution and allows Thistlethwaite to showcase his voice, but it’s tracks like “Childhood Blues” and “Chase The Clouds” where he really lets loose vocally, utilising a loop pedal to do some beatboxing or scatting. It’s so damn funky and groovy I think the only reason why people weren’t dancing was due to the fact that there was no floor space.

“Whack Hop” gives Vanderwal a chance to deliver a cruising subtle slow drumbeat that brings us into a more laid back mood which is then followed by “Berlin Wall”, with Thistlethwaite singing ever so softly, ‘You come down like the Berlin Wall, you fight your own internal war, you haven’t lost your mind, you’ve lost perspective…’. It’s both heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. The closing two numbers are the real highlights of the evening. “Jimmy J” has Thistlethwaite moving away from the piano to stand at the front of the stage to rap some verses to us about a particularly amusing incident that happened in Canberra. The performance itself is genius, blending rap and funk together and it’s all done without a microphone and just Thistlethwaite projecting his voice across the room. He closes the night with “Til The Lights Come On” and despite the fact that there was no room to dance, you could hear the toe-tapping going on from the crowd and it’s almost impossible to watch anything other than his hands on the keys of that piano.

With so many different styles smashed together it’s almost impossible to categorise what we’ve witnessed. Watching Sun Rai prompts me to think how sometimes truly unique artists that refuse to sit into one genre end up struggling to find their place, particularly on the Australian scene. He’s spent more time over in the US forging a path there where there is a more widely accepting audience of these mixed genres. I can only hope that despite his repeated jaunts back State-side that he’ll continue to return back to his home country and regale us with his eclectic and irreplaceable sound.


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Carina Nilma

Office lackey day-job. Journalist for The AU Review night-job. Emotionally invested fangirl.