By Chris Mineral
Deborah Conway did not come to the Athenaeum Library Reading Room for a look around.
Conway was there to sing songs and have a yack to Jenny Vallentish, library member, rock journo and inquisitor. Her musical foil Willy Zygier was by her side. Crowded house at the reading room on September 8 – filled with fans, devotees and librarians.
Alive and Brilliant is the opener, a song almost as bright and optimistic as It’s Only The Beginning. Zygier is a most skillful musician, playing melodies and chords with a bright zestfulness akin to the style of Grant McLennan. Conway’s guitar hummed along with her from the get-go.
A salt-encrusted section of the Spiral Jetty is depicted on the headstock of Conway’s guitar. Zygier mentions that the bright, rich, effervescent guitars they are playing are hand-crafted by luthier Jack Spira.
The amber light that bathed the stage was reminiscent of the light one sees at the last race at Tamworth at the precise moment when the horses enter the straight and the camera is looking true west.
Conway’s shadow was cast up to the edge of the louvred window, rising at an angle to the ceiling. This shadow was dancing along to the music. This was fitting as Conway is a most theatrical creature.
Conway’s latest album, Everybody’s Begging is her Femmes Savantes album, a Magnum Opus. The characters of the songs are cast upon an Old Testament setting, solemn odes, epiphanies and revelations oftentimes in minor keys filled with intrigue and curious chord progressions.
In As Sweet As Battles Won, Conway sings:
I was there at the camps
I was there at Babylon
I saw your face at Babi Yar
I am gone baby gone
Conway and Zygier are adept at sculpting words and sounds together – the artists concentrating on the no-focus point. As Sweet As Battles Won would be a perfect song for Jack Ladder to sing.
The Book Of Life is the song that resonates the most for days afterwards:
Everybody’s empty but its not for food
Everybody’s praying here to be rescued
The world’s in flames these maddened days of black and white
No shades of grey to keep at bay the darkest night
Like Ian McCulloch, Conway can achieve a momentary sense of the harder things in life. This song is a stark contrast to the ebullience of It’s Only The Beginning, or for that matter Alive and Brilliant.
In conversation, she mentioned Orson Welles and The Third Man, the songwriting capacity of Leonard Cohen and the fact that for Conway, sometimes the question is more important than the answer could be. After all, she introduced herself years ago singing What am I expected to do? With Deborah, Willy and Jenny talking there were at times four opinions on stage. And more again.
The closer on Everybody’s Begging, is the song Serpents Tooth and at this performance it is the final song of the night. A sublime song of abandon and surrender. A poignant conclusion to the show’s proceedings. As perfect a selection of song to conclude the night as The Church opening their recent Filmore West show with Aura. Horses for courses.
This daughter of Mustang Ford, younger sister of Judy Davis-Garland, fan of Agent Cooper’s methodology, played a brilliant set of music with Zygier. They could talk the talk with Jenny V. They are walking past a Ferris wheel towards a Great Salt Lake. And playing hide ’n’ seek.
While Conway is the director of her music, there can be no doubt that her cinematographer extraordinaire is the man with the nonchalant air Willy Zygier.
In a Neil Young-style Conway is happier jumping puddles by the side of a Victorian country road than barreling down the highway towards New South Wales. And yet she does have the capacity to hold a vast audiences’ attention, such as the time when she opened for Bob Dylan at the Rod Laver Arena with herself and an acoustic guitar. If memory serves me correct she was outstanding. But Conway was in her element at the Athenaeum Library and the realm of row upon row of books.