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Notes on A 24-Decade History of Popular Music Chapter III

By Taylor Mac, at Melbourne Festival

Wed 11 – Fri 20 October | Forum Melbourne

Get tickets here

Notes on the notes:

  • These are notes, not a review.
  • I’ve never used my blog for this kind of writing before. I’m giving it a try.
  • Leave a comment if you like.
  • I may write more after each part of the show. I might not. I might type this up into something more formal. Or not.
  • Taylor Mac uses “judy”, lowercase, not as a name but as a gender pronoun.

See Notes on Chapter I | See Notes on Chapter II 

Chapter III: 1896-1956

18 hours in, 6 more to go.

The turn of the 20th century, two world wars and the 50s in one night. I was called up to the stage with all the other people who identified as men between the ages of 16 and 40 to go and linger in a trench with some rats and a single bottle of rum which I never got to taste. It was very uncomfortable and squashed but of course that was the point. There were a lot of us and we hardly fit. The lights were dazzling and the whole experience disorienting. I could hardly hear the instructions through the speakers, and so kept getting things wrong. Up there, between the double bass and the drum kit I realized that for Taylor the music is in surround sound, the stage, of course, is completely immersive, its own little world quite different to the perception of it from the audience where the sound all comes from one direction. As Taylor’s rendition of Danny Boy got lot louder and louder, it got to the point where Taylor was completely drowned out. I was immediately behind judy, but couldn’t here judy’s voice because the speakers were pointing out into the audience. I wondered how Taylor could hear judy, or perhaps judy could not. All of this reminded me just how different the experience of the production on stage is to the reception in the audience. The way Taylor holds it together in overwhelming moments like that is through the discipline of training. For me it was a war zone.

The war songs made me realise that this the whole event is Music Hall, it’s a variety show. Keep The Home Fires Burning was always the penultimate song at the Music Hall shows my family took me to as a child, often in seaside towns. It was the tear-jerker before the final number when all the acts came on. They also sometimes had a medley of war songs and would run through them, the audience singing along as they sped through. I don’t recall ever going to Musical Hall or variety show since then. What brought me out was Taylor Mac’s epic idea for 24 hours. Apart from cruises and holiday camps (but there aren’t so many of the latter any more) where else does variety take place, and why would you go?

When I first encountered Taylor Mac, judy was a troubadour, travelling around singing about love and life, building an audience on the experimental theatre circuit, doing something no-one else seemed to be doing at the time and singing a lot. There were shows where it was basically a spot light on Taylor’s face for an hour lighting down to a little ukulele. The sequins on the facial expressions were the whole set and enough to keep you enraptured song after song. Now, the scale is extended to a whole orchestra and costume after costume, but at the centre it is still Taylor’s body doing all this work, gelling all the glitter together. Tonight, as the final band members leave the stage I imagine we will see that ultimately none of the glitz was necessary. The core of the whole experience is that Taylor can and will hold the whole room in the palm of judy’s hand. There will be nothing left other than all there ever was.

It’s two hours before Chapter IV and I still haven’t had time to discuss the shape of the whole event, the preservation and careful metering of performance energy, and the occasional moments when Taylor seems to let rip, like in the fast version of ‘Turn, turn, turn’(?!) at the end of Chapter III. Maybe tomorrow?

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