They’re like a choral group that does really funny political commentary and jokes about masculinity.
Image supplied by The Spooky Men’s Chorale.
When you encounter The Spooky Men for the first time, the immediate visual impression is that this is a group who are impossible to categorise. The hats are what you notice first: a peculiar assortment of styles and vintages, ranging from what looks like colonial-era safari headgear to the great fluffy ears of a vintage flying cap. The black clothing is similarly eclectic: there’s the classic brocade of a shiny 80s waistcoat, a long dark sailor’s jacket, and an ordinary black tank top sported by one rotund fellow. And then there are the thirteen men themselves, some young and fresh-faced, some towering, bearded and old, craggy as forest trees.
A friend asked me about the show afterwards. ‘They’re like a choral group that does really funny political commentary and jokes about masculinity’, I explained. The friend looked blank. ‘They’re very good’, I added defensively, ‘and they also have a section where they do Georgian choir music.’ I realised, at this point, that I had stumbled into the tactical quicksand of the Spookies’ identity. A group like this connects with audiences not only because of their exquisite harmonies, but also for their anarchic refusal to be pigeonholed. And it’s possible to read this refusal to be shoved into a bloody box as a deeply political gesture: an uproarious middle finger salute to the deadening processes of standardisation.
The cleverness and the humour of the gig have stayed with me. There are jokes that rely on word play and taking apart the conventions of performance: ‘Maybe we’ll bring the house down… maybe the house was feeling quite down anyway’. Or lyrics, such as in a song titled We are Not a Men’s Group, which includes the deftly trilled phrase ‘we all have unresolved issues with our fathers’. Some of the comedic impact comes from visual gags: a whiskered gentleman preens himself in a small mirror while the rest of the group looks anxious and swoops into a rendition of Kasey Chambers’ Not Pretty Enough. At other times, the humour is self-depreciating or sly. Choral leader Stephen Taberner quips that it’s ‘easy to mistake divine enlightenment’ with ‘just not having a fucking clue’.
In between laughing at themselves, the Spookies observe the twin ironies of masculinity and contemporary politics. Critiques of power and the powerful are never far from the surface. Taberner describes the group as ‘tilting at the impossible windmill of masculinity’, and jokes about the subtle art of political commentary with a song titled Vote the Bastards Out. Yet there is tragedy woven through the uproarious, the ridiculous, and the farcical. In a song about climate change, a deftly wrought metaphor is drawn between people waiting at an airport in a large white room for their baggage to arrive – all pressing forward to claim their things – and what Taberner describes as a ‘tragedy of the commons’ as masses fail to recognise the collective impact of their individual actions. ‘We just want our things’, chants the chorus, a sobbing plea against consumerism that is both gentle and powerful.
One of the most enjoyable things about The Spooky Men is their egalitarian ethos, a continual blurring of the line between the audience and performers. It’s not surprising that they’ve built a significant following by playing at folk festivals. During intermission, choir members wandered through the audience, chatting and sipping drinks; after the gig, they said goodbye to people at the exits. As their encore piece, they sung a beautiful version of Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love. In a surprisingly sweet finale, the singers came down from the stage and the audience stood up to dance.
4 stars out of 5 ★★★★
The Spooky Men’s Chorale
31 May 2019
Civic Theatre, Newcastle NSW
Tour continues around Australia, UK and Germany