Sydney Festival Review: Paul Capsis with the Fitzroy Youth Orchestra showed a dark gothic chameleon paying tribute to his inspirations

Paul Capsis is a performer who appreciates artists who are both unique and true to their real selves. You could argue that he too fits into this distinctive mould. His Sydney Festival show at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent was an eclectic love letter to his many inspirations.

The repertoire for the night was arranged by musical director and guitarist, Jethro Woodward. The backing group, The Fitzroy Youth Orchestra featured three other musicians on drums and guitars as well as a multi-instrumentalist on double bass, piano and tuba. Together they made a full-bodied sound that blended in effortlessly with Capsis’s velvety and sensitive vocals. Capsis and Woodward have collaborated together before and there was an easy chemistry there.

The star of this show was undoubtedly Paul. He looked resplendent in a leather jacket, sequinned vest and black feathers in his dark hair. It was a carefully chosen ensemble that was equal parts Suzi Quatro and Janis Joplin, along with a finishing touch by iOTA backstage.

“Ego Is Not A Dirty Word” had an expansive pop sound. Capsis’s vocals often sounded like Shirley Strachan’s. Capsis often made things look effortless as he fashioned his idiosyncratic tunes. Case in point: the mashup of “People Are Strange” and “Sweet Dreams.” This was moody and atmospheric, and the sort of thing that could have led to nightmares in less capable hands.

A change of pace occurred with some 50s balladry in “Behind The Door.” It was the kind of thing you could imagine young people in love dancing along to cheek-to-cheek. Capsis joked that the tracks had been one “Slit your wrist song after another.” These had a raw and edgy quality to them; especially the murder ballad, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”

There were emotionally-wrought moments like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” with the odd lyric from Led Zeppelin’s other song, “Ramble On.” “Back To Black” was pure anguish and Capsis evoked the late Amy Winehouse’s wailing, badass spirit. Too bad she can never see it.

Capsis is no stranger to Tom Waits’s “November” having performed this at the “Black Rider” shows in Melbourne last year. It was great, but the clear audience favourite was some swamp music in the form of “Proud Mary.” This one sat somewhere between CCR and Tina Turner because it had a blues backbone with a punchy theatricality. That description actually applies to a few of the other cuts that featured in this show.

If there was one song that Capsis owned it was the one made famous by his beloved Janis Joplin. He delivered “Piece Of My Heart” with the same intonations and vocal tics as the late Southern Comfort-swilling legend. This Kris Kristofferson penned tune remains a masterpiece. Capsis certainly knew how to find the right balance between silken melodies and a gravel-like drawl and this was clear in “Perfect Day.” That song lived up to what it said on the tin.

Paul Capsis has tread the boards on many different stages over his 37 year career. For his cabaret show he had embraced every inch of his colourful spirit and provided an enjoyable evening of powerful boogie-woogie. Capsis channelled every great diva and artist. His enthusiasm and passion was obvious in his edgy and quirky style. The terrain was vast and Capsis was every bit the chameleon raconteur and Goth explorer.

The reviewer attended opening night on 17 January.

Review score: four stars (out of five).

Paul Capsis, Jethro Woodward and the Fitzroy Youth Orchestra played two shows at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent as part of the Sydney Festival.

The 2019 edition of Sydney Festival continues until 27 January, for more information and tickets please visit: https://www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/paul-capsis-with-jethro-woodward-and-the-fitzroy-youth-orchestra#info.

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