Missy Higgins Live At The Independent Armchair Theatre, Cape Town, South Africa, 7 July 2006
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South Africaby Mandy J Watson
South AfricaCape Town, South Africa
Posted: 12 July 2006

Missy HigginsAbout two weeks ago, I had just returned from London when I received an email from Jase, which said, rather emphatically, "You need to go to these. YOU NEED TO GO TO THESE!!!". He was referring to a list of early-July South African concert dates (trust an American to know more about what's going on in my own back yard than I do) for the Australian singer-songwriter Missy Higgins, who is a highly acclaimed, well-respected artist in Australia, but is still playing small venues elsewhere as she slowly introduces her music to the rest of the world.

Jase has been waxing lyrical about her music for months but I still wasn't particularly familiar with her work, beyond some of the tracks that are available on her site, because he is always recommending great music and most of it is not available in South Africa, so I've filed away a number of artists in my "must check them out sometime" list, and Missy Higgins was one of those.

However, Jase knows his stuff, and not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to see this enigmatic artist, who pulls massive crowds in Australia but is completely unknown in South Africa, live in concert in my own city, I grabbed Doane and we headed off to Observatory, in Cape Town, on Friday night to catch her first concert here.

The Part I Didn't Enjoy
The concert was advertised as starting at 9pm, so we arrived just after 8pm, only to find that the venue, The Independent Armchair Theatre (which is a club/bar, not strictly a theatre), was closed, with a note pinned to the door to say that it was only opening at 9pm. So, to kill time, we arbed [?] off to the Obz Café, where I had one of the few decent (although expensive) cappuccinos I've had in a long time. Just before 9pm we returned, paid our R40 [?] cover charge, and entered to find we were some of the first people there.

It's been a while since I've been to The Independent Armchair Theatre, but last time I was there there were actually a lot of couches, and it was quite comfortable to sit on them and watch live performances. Now there are only about three couches left, and they've been pushed against the walls far away from the stage (and they were all occupied), so we picked a spot between other early patrons at the edge of the dance floor, about four metres from the stage.

And waited.

As the room began to fill up the DJ played what I can best describe as world music, although I was never quite sure as the bass was turned up way too high and it was uncomfortable to listen to. The volume of the music was also much too loud, which made trying to hold a conversation with anyone immediately next to you (to kill time, if nothing else) absolutely impossible, so even the ambient noise was pretty loud as everyone in the room shouted at everyone else to try and make themselves heard, as no one was interested in the music - we were here to watch a Missy Higgins performance, which didn't seem to be happening.

After over an hour of this (and cramps already beginning to form in almost every part of my body), the local support act ("...support act?...It's 10:15pm!"), Simon van Gend, appeared on stage. The best song in his set, which comprised about eight songs and lasted about 45 minutes, was called "Minor Revelation" but, unfortunately, much of his performance was marred by further bad sound settings (that were only partially corrected after about five songs), with the bass still turned up too high, and the treble at that point now also set excruciatingly high - so much so that it was painful to listen to the first few songs and I thought my ears were going to bleed.

To my great relief, during the brief recess between Simon's set and Missy's appearance, a member of Missy's entourage went on stage and checked the settings of the guitar, piano, and all the speakers, and had the guy at the mixing desk tweak settings in preparation for Missy's arrival. This effort seemed to do the trick, as the bass and treble issues were thankfully absent during her set, and the sound was absolutely fine. I mean, I think so. My hearing is probably permanently damaged from the first two hours.

At Well Past 11pm The Independent Armchair Theatre Actually Presented Missy Higgins
At about 11:15pm (which is really brain-dead time for me, especially on a Friday) Missy finally appeared on stage with very little fan fare and immediately settled herself behind her Roland keyboard. After just a brief greeting and explanation that this was her first time in Cape Town, which was met with your typically proud Cape Town cheers, she launched into two of my favourite songs back to back, "Nightminds" and "Katie", both of which were greeted with enthusiasm by members of the audience who are familiar with her music. I think by the time Missy hit the chorus of "Katie" the rest of the audience (which now numbered about 200 people, in a packed room) was hooked, and she had us in the palm of her hand for the remainder of the evening. The emotion that pours from Missy during the chorus of "Katie" is just spectacular and incredibly moving.

I went into the concert knowing some of the songs, such as the two already mentioned, but not all of them, which I think is preferable because you have less expectations of what something should sound like (or how you would like it to sound) and instead you're free to enjoy the experience unencumbered by all of this. It also helped that, in the end, we were treated to three new songs, which demonstrate how well Missy has grown as a composer since her debut a few years ago.

After finishing "Katie" Missy left the piano and moved to the centre of the stage where she grabbed her guitar to prepare for her next song (and she continued to drift between the piano and the guitar for the rest of the evening). At this point, having gauged the audience's mood and feeling more comfortable with us, she launched into the first of many "behind the scenes" stories that peppered the performance and gave us a glimpse into the life of this performer. In this case, it was to explain the origins of the new song "Angela", which was inspired by a black-and-white photograph of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in a hotel room in which she was staying in LA at one point.

Next up, and still on the guitar, was "Ten Days", which Missy described as the closest she's ever come to composing a love song. She then remained on the guitar for "Peachy", another new song, which, she explained to our amusement, was her musical reaction to the "Ten Days" relationship about six months later, once it had fallen apart. She performed the song with great energy and I can't wait to hear an album version of it.

One of the benefits of being able to watch a live performance is that you are able to experience an artist's mannerisms and witness unscripted moments unfold, something that I realised while watching Missy perform. She has some quirky, odd physical mannerisms that are absolutely endearing and add considerably to this young performer's charm. Not only that, but she is a gifted musician who shows considerable skill on both the piano and guitar. Initially I was disappointed to see that there was no supporting band, or even just a supporting guitar player (although I'm actually a sucker for a good drummer or percussionist), but my feelings were short-lived. Missy is extremely capable of commanding a stage, and the audience's attention, all by herself.

The set was beautifully complemented with anecdotes, some of which included stories of touristy experiences in South Africa, which we all found rather amusing (as we always do), and it was all peppered with a wry sense of humour that I particularly appreciated.

Occasionally during the set I glanced around at the audience members to try to gauge what they were feeling. All the people near me were mesmerised by Missy's performance and very appreciative, although in a typical laid-back Capetonian way (we're famous for it).

One of my favourite moments of the evening (as if it's easy to choose) was Missy's performance of a new song, "Where I Stood". The chorus is subdued, by which I mean it lacks a typical musical hook or other technique that performers often use to draw the listener in, but emotionally powerful and I can't actually imagine how a studio version of this song could be better than the live performance to which we were treated.

In fact, although I liked the general production on Missy's debut album, The Sound Of White, especially the cello that is used on most of the tracks, I was amazed at how well the music stands up when it's just Missy with a piano or an acoustic guitar. In a number of instances during her set I found myself preferring Missy's live, acoustic rendition to the album version.

Speaking of which, the set was over far too quickly, with the rest of the songs being renditions of tracks off The Sound Of White, bar "The Cactus That Found The Beat", which I think is a quirky audience favourite as it invites audience participation.

For the encore Missy performed "They Weren't There", which was requested by an audience member. As an introduction to, and explanation of, the song we were treated to a brief history of Missy's one-night stands (which, I think, she immediately regretted). I think that happened partly because, by this point, it felt as if we were a group of old friends in someone's living room, which is a testament to this performer's ability to remain engaged with her audience throughout her set, via her sense of humour and infectious energy level, nevermind the powerful lyrics and emotional intensity of her performance, which the studio album just doesn't capture in the same way.

To me, this was one of these rare occurrences of a performer who is better live than on a studio recording. Not only that, but her lyrics are stunning, filled with imagery and metaphors that I will be decyphering for years, and the music, as a whole, is the kind of music that you want to have stuck in your head for days (and it was!). My experience was extremely positive and I will not hesitate to catch Missy in concert in the future.

Besides an amazing experience I take away the knowledge that I was at Missy Higgins' first Cape Town concert (and one day I will be saying: "...back in the day when it was still possible to sit close enough to see her on stage..."). My only gripes? The set was far too short (and the concert started too late), although we were privileged to hear three new songs, and I really wanted an autograph, which I didn't end up getting. Next time!

Set List
Nightminds (piano) [lyrics]
Katie (piano) [lyrics]
Angela* (guitar)
Ten Days (guitar) [lyrics]
Peachy* (guitar) [lyrics]
This Is How It Goes (piano) [lyrics]
Where I Stood* (piano) [lyrics: requires login, but they don't bite (...much...)]
Any Day Now (piano) [lyrics]
Scar (guitar) [lyrics]
The Cactus That Found The Beat (piano) [lyrics]
The Special Two (piano) [lyrics]

They Weren't There (audience request) (piano) [lyrics]

*New, unreleased song

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