Review: Lonnie Holley, Melbourne Recital Centre/MIJF

The sculptor-turned-singer’s free-flowing compositions defy categorisation.
Review: Lonnie Holley, Melbourne Recital Centre/MIJF

Lonnie Holley. Image supplied.

Performing as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, musician Lonnie Holley has been described as an artist who defies categorisation. The singer only began releasing music in his 60s, but was renowned throughout the art world for his sculptures, paintings and installations.

Opening for Holley was instrumental duo – and his band – Nelson Patton, who played an experimental set, which would have been just as fitting as a score to a David Lynch film as it was within the smoky backdrop of the Melbourne Recital Centre. At times haunting, Dave Nelson’s trombone was skilfully looped and layered with Marlon Patton’s percussion and electronic compositions.

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Holley was introduced by his manager Matt Arnett who provided a comprehensive background into the artist’s life. The audience was told Holley made tombstones for his niece and nephew who died in a house fire and it was this that lead him to realise how cathartic art can be. A self-taught musician, he only began recording music in 2010 after he started tinkering with his old Casio keyboard. He released his first album in 2012 and has since toured with Deerhunter and been sampled in Bon Iver’s music.

Holley’s set took listeners on a journey, asking them to question the state of humanity through songs which traverse racism, the mistreatment of the environment, women and contemporary American politics.

The singer’s free-flowing compositions include stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and his tracks are punctuated by an angelic voice that often shifts into a bellow, growl and sometimes a whistle.

I Woke Up in a Fucked Up America questions the state of politics, and had a bit of a softer feel than the version on his album MITH. Singing about destruction and the pitfalls of hard labour without being credited, Holley’s lyrics may change between songs, due to its improvisational nature, but the messaging is concrete and hammered home by his at times-guttural voice.

Holley played keys on all tracks except one, the music flowing well with Nelson’s trombone and Patton’s vibrant percussion, electronic soundscapes and vocal manipulation of voices to accompany Holley’s lyrics.

After just over an hour, the musicians were invited back for an encore via a standing ovation. Before telling an anecdote about his amorous ways, Holley launched into a quirky funk piece involving Siri (yes, that one), ending the set on a fun note, showcasing that his music can’t be categorized and is as diverse as the life he has lead.

Inspiring in many ways, Holley has been described as a prophet, and after almost an hour and a half, it wasn’t hard to see why.

4 stars out of 5 ★★★★

Lonnie Holley
1 June 2019
Melbourne Recital Hall, as part of Melbourne Jazz Festival
Tickets $45-$55

About the author

Sabine Brix is a writer, editor, podcaster and electronic musician with a specific interest in personal storytelling that captures the essence of why people create. She was the former Online Content Producer at Archer Magazine and editor of the LGBTI website: Gay News Network.

She has produced sound art for BBC's Radio4  and composed music for the web series Starting From Now, which screened on SBS.

Follow Sabine on Twitter @sabinebrix