PP ARNOLD ★★★★
Thornbury Theatre, May 18. Returns May 25 at the Night Cat, Fitzroy.
Acclaimed film 20 Feet From Stardom tells the stories of some of the worlds best black women soul singers of decades past – but upon whom the spotlight never quite shone long enough for them to achieve the same fame as the names they sang backing vocals and recorded for.
PP Arnold was not featured in that documentary – perhaps because she left the United States for England to support the Rolling Stones as part of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue – but she might well have been.
Arnold has seen it all and at the second of four intimate shows in Victoria she delighted in name-dropping, taking her audience on many a shimmy down memory lane. (At one point that included a walk through a park with Mick Jagger, laden with innuendo; and a sharp sting of black humour as she recalled Ike Turner giving her a hard time – “Not that hard!”)
It was as if her good friends the Bee Gees, the Small Faces, Cat Stevens, Eric Clapton and Jagger were all there in the room with us. But she had Australian music royalty backing her up instead, in You Am I (sans Davey Lane), the sumptuous Talei Wolfgramm on vocal harmonies and James Black (RockWiz, Men at Work, The Black Sorrows) on keys.
Arnold commanded the stage in a blazing red sequinned dress to Wolfgramms black velvet and diamantes; Rogers sported a fawn paisley suit and a baby blue and gold “Timmybacker” guitar.
We were treated to familiar hits – each of which Arnold had an endearing back story for – and some lesser known tracks from her two 1960s solo records.
Early in the set she paid tribute to Tina Turner (notably, not Ike) in River Deep Mountain High; there was Angel of the Morning and Different Drum, the Bee Gees To Love Somebody, the Beach Boys God Only Knows and the Small Faces Understanding.
Some of the more classic soul tunes just cried out for a horn section. The band hit its stride in the second half of the set, which delved into the more guitar-driven sounds of Arnolds lost album The Turning Tide, recorded in the late 60s and early 70s with Barry Gibb and Clapton but only released last year, incredibly, after a decades' long legal battle.
But the sheer force of Arnolds voice – seemingly effortless and with incredible vibrato and a huge range – was there from the get-go, and it alone confirmed we were in the presence of greatness.
Arnold gave her own talented backing singer a moment in the spotlight during Give a Hand Take a Hand (recorded for The Turning Tide before the Bee Gees themselves recorded it in 1974). Wolfgramm nailed it, naturally.
First Cut is the Deepest, penned by Stevens and Arnold's biggest hit, was naturally a standout. Its quieter moments allowed the emotional punch of her flawless delivery to shine where other songs threatened to drown it out. Not so for Rogers, who hit an absolute clanger at the start of his guitar solo and then fumbled his way through the rest of it.
It hardly mattered. Everyone on stage was having so much of a good time that it spilled right over into the audience.
“Grandmas still got it,” Arnold joked with us. In fact she has a new album coming out soon, she told us – nearly 50 years after the last was recorded.
If were lucky, perhaps shell tour that one too.
Hannah Francis is Arts Editor at The Age.
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