Duff Odyssey: Sydney Vivid Festival 2017

Posted on 7th June 2017
Quite a Duffological week. From the interviews on 2UE radio and ABC-TV’s One Plus One, to a couple performances by Duff of a sample of songs from his 30-odd original albums, followed by an inteview at the World Bar, Kings Cross as Jeff Duff’s visage shone over the town in the iconic Coca-Cola billboard. All in the ordinary scheme of things for this hardest-working artist in the country, but a whirlwind for the simple fan.
So the Duff Odyssey retrospective was showing on two nights—firstly at Brass Monkey, Cronulla on the Friday (2 June), and then at Leadbelly (ex-Vanguard) in Newtown the following night (3 June). The first was something of a rehearsal for the second. It involved lots of banter with the small but adoring audience in this far-flung province of Sydney. Duff performed two sets, the second involving some Bowie classics, with an encore of Suffragette City. Duff could not oblige further; he had a midnight train to catch back into town. The second show had a bigger, booming sound, with a wildly enthusiastic audience; from where this punter was watching the show upstairs, the mosh-pit looked a total Bacchanale; a mayhem of ecstasy, especially through the climaxes of Duff’s Killing this affair and Bowie’s Young Americans and Under Pressure; and, of course, MacArthur Park. Here’s the songlist of Duff tracks (and that latter signature tune) from the Duff Odyssey shows:

Here’s a sample from one of the performances (at Leadbelly), Duff and the band doing Skinny Girls, originally as part of the Alien Sex Gods—here with Jak Housden on guitar, Glenn Rhodes on keys, and Ben Isackson on drums—making up what must be the most experienced, versatile and talented rock-band in the country. Duff introduced the song with some apology for any perceived misogyny (from misandrists?), explaining that he really wrote the song only about himself (!)
… and another sample from the Leadbelly gig: Duff’s original 1980s single I Want to be the Pilot, from his Lexicon album. There was also a later version on the Jeff Duff Orchestra album, and you can see Duff performing the song with said orchestra here. It’s a resounding, almost Scott Walker-esque (Nite Flights) song, with some searing guitar and back-up singing.
The talk with Paris Pompor (4 June) in a theatrette in the World Bar (ex Kardomah Café), Kings Cross was an intriguing, joyful and even controversial 84 minutes. To much applause and cheering from the audience, Duff reflected on the sorry loss of the Cross’ unique cultural venues and character as it has become gentrified over the years; but added that “change is the only constant”, and it’s not really the Lord Mayor’s fault. He also recounted some performance experiences over the years, including when he first performed in the Cross music/strip-clubs (the Groovy Room, the Whisky a Go-Go) as a youth in the ’70s, and (in the same category, surely) a romp with the TV-soap star Abigail. There were also novel twists and colourings to some of the classic anecdotes, such as the Ray Martin Show ban, and the Ballarat arrest. Also some thrilling news about a plan to re-record the Fragile Spaceman album with the Australian Symphony Orchestra—albeit thwarted, at this stage, by the Australia Council with their deplorable decision to reject Duff’s grant application to assist it (the first time he’s sought what would only be some fitting return from the Oz taxpayer for all the work he’s done for Australian cultural life). Also an anecdote—worthy of a whole NewsCorp article— about Leonardo di Caprio’s "anxious assertiveness" toward the guest-star Duff on the set of The Great Gatsby. Much thrilling, charming news, too, including about new shoes, new suit, and a new bedside bicycle.
abigailduff and di caprio in the great gatsby
Getting “straightened out” by Abigail, and “put in his place” by Di Caprio: A couple of the subjects of Jeff Duff’s talk at the World Bar with Paris Pompor

The event was apparently video-recorded and there are ample pix of the event on JD’s FB; perhaps I’ll upload my personal audio-recording of it, if it doesn’t appear elsewhere and seems kosher. Meanwhile, there’s this video-recording (from Geoff Schuck) of an intimate rendition of MacArthur Park with which Duff closed this engagement. He dedicated it to his neighbour who was in the audience. She applauded the loudest, and can be seen at the end of the clip, in her red cape, rising to her feet, as others just shook their heads in wonder, clapped their hands with what energy they had left, having truly melted away at the majesty of the performance.
And here is the Coca-Cola billboard appearance; filmed in the rain, as various tourists gathered about me with their own cameras to catch whatever speciality I was filming (!). (Sorry to not have video-recorded other episodes of this week; crowds can be so inhibiting, and filming everything can reduce the immediate experience of being there at all.)
And then, the next day, Fullers Bookshop in Hobart was finally seen to carry Jeff Duff’s autobiography, This Will Explain Everything. This Duffologist only had to reshelve the thing; not good enough to simply show its spine amid so many others; the whole cover must be displayed.
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– rodg.

MacArthur Park keeps melting …

Posted on 4th October 2013

Duff whips up musos and patrons all at once into romantic froffin ecstasy as he style-cuts, like Eddie Scissorhands, the finest sculptural turf out of his very own classic MacArthur Park. As recorded at The Grand Wazoo Gig, Caravan Music Club, Aug 2013 – thanks to john montesante bands.
On top of that hat, let’s also present JD doing MacArthur Park on the Ray Martin Show, from circa 1992, as recently highlighted on his facebook. When a popular artist held his own at the front of a symphony orchestra, on live TV. The truth was told in the following eloquent intro from the mainman of Oz TV at the time, Ray Martin:

"All right, I’m told by anyone who knows anything about music that it takes a brave man to attempt this next song. MacArthur Park is one of the most challenging ballads ever penned. But Jeff Duff has always thrived on a challenge. So now, with the Midday Show Orchestra, would you please welcome the very brave Jeff Duff and MacArthur Park …!?" – Ray Martin


Neat comments that followed JD’s showing of this clip on his FB included:
  Get’s me all teary. You do the best version ever.
  Hey Jeff, which year was that? Nice job
  Jeff Duff. Hi Freny, I think it was 1992.
  fantastic classic

Also lately on his FB, JD shared the following hot info:

I’ve attempted so many Jimmy Webb songs, I’m sure that I’ve had a bash at Paper Cup. In the past I’ve played quite a few Jimmy Webb nites with my orchestra featuring guest singers, including one of your comrades, Robyn Dunne. I think I’ve recorded MacArthur Park half a dozen times and fortunate enough to have had a hit with it in the seventies. I wish I’d written the song! I’m going to post a version I was lucky enough to perform with Sydney Symphony on the Midday show in 1991… ouch!

Yet another rendition to please – from the State Theatre, Sydney, 2013: Duff with Chris E. Thomas, a whole dance spectacular:

… and not to forget “Storylines”, Newtown, Sydney, 2011 (4,547 views as of posting):

A cake left out in the rain. A cake with green icing. But is that lime or avocado? And being pressed in love’s hot-fevered iron, as the cake melts, is just tolerable as an image, but as for lovers like a “striped pair of pants” …? What on earth is it about MacArthur Park that makes it, since the 1970s, one of Jeff Duff’s most recognized tracks – and most requested live performance covers?

Duff first recorded MacArthur Park with Kush, on their 1974 Warner album "Snow White and the Eight Straights" (the best version still on record? for its historical associations as much as the all-band commitment at the time? its bar-by-bar surprises as well as keeness?), and it was released as a single in 1975 (b/w Klue). A live recording of it is on offer on the Aztec (now Sandman) Records re-release of the second "Nah tellus …" Kush album (1975/2008) (celesta and folkish guitar licks for intro, horns soon blazing, much room for a voice that goes from sentimental to rocky in a flash, thoughtful and wayward by a phrase, as the band quietly mixes pretty wind and percussion, ahead of creating a pounding, full-throttled push to the climaxes; all appended with some punkish patter by Duff). Unique recordings by Duff of the song can be found on the first (self-titled) "Jeff Duff Orchestra" album (1989) (true-to-the-MS piano intro, deep-throated and breathy vocals, soft-pedalled rhythm and a smooth, sure orchestral approach to the climaxes), and on the Jeff Duff Band album "Lost in the Stars" (2005) (chunkier piano, electro-string/-guitar and percussive highlights, some trickled-down rhythms for folksiness, and slightly lighter but more plaintive voice, always climaxing in bold stupendousness, rocking even like Bowie’s epic Width of a Circle). The song (as per JDO) also appears on the 2-CD Jeff Duff compilation album "Martian Girls are Easy".

Tubes of Duff doing the song live are plentiful. There’s the Sydney Opera House performance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKeP9okuWq8. There’s the performance of JD fronting the Ed Wilson Big Band in a Tom Jones show:

macarthur_park_sheetWhy it’s so challenging can be picked up from just the first page of the score. First off, you notice how the bass is tonally split from the harmony, pressing out a minor seventh, or the dominant, against the “flat” or minor chords – hence the somewhat airy “la la” feel, but with melancholia never too far gone, even almost fundamentally resolved; pretty unusual for popular songs (even in Bacharach, although Bowie uses the technique on several Never let me down tracks, and on Absolute beginners).
Still complicating the musical picture, we’ve then got a couple changes of metre before the singer comes in, a switch from 4/4 to 2/4 for a bar (ok, like Bowie does throughout Soul love), and then a switch from 4/4 to 3/4 and then to 3/8 … for a quickly arresting climax … right ahead of the voice coming in with the lyric/melody – which has to quickly shift to a feel all about softly defiant nostalgia, angst-in-pleasure, surreal reminiscence … And then, in just the two opening melody bars, the voice has to avoid (in part) the time it kept the first time around. Pleasant novelty for the listener, but for the musicians, spot-learning’s not enough, there’s uncertainty about every next bar, a potential abyss to rise from bar-by-bar. … All in a day’s work for the Duff … and hopefully all appreciated by orchestra players as an expressive challenge. As its composer Jim Webb recently wrote (in an interview with The Guardian), he was challenged “to create a pop song with classical elements, different movements and changing time signatures,” and came up with MacArthur Park, “more of a suite than a song.” Webb also shares here the personal, romantic origins of the song.

A chord-chart for MacArthur Park is available from here.

Music journalist Susan Moore wrote of Duff as having “one of the richest baritone voices in rock,” and that “his version of MacArthur Park remains unsurpassable” (Moore, 1982, Australian Women’s Weekly, p. 170). That was after a #1 US hit with it by … the hot-stuff babe herself, Donna Summer. (See the article at the National Library of Australia site.)

Need more MacArthur Park? That’s what people have been shouting out for at the end of Duff’s gigs, unsated by Bowie songs. So add this tube, again via Ray Martin, Duff with broken wing:

And another one, as part of the Bowie Unzipped shows:

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– rodg.
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