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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : Down Underexposed : Handful of Mostly Unsung Australian Singer-Songwriters Deserve a Closer Look From U.S.


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — "The Melbourne Shuffle" mini-tour is a case of Mohammed going to the mountain.

The questers in question are a collective of six Australian singer-songwriters, plus four backup players. The mountain is the American recording industry, which got a look at the shufflers at the recent South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Tex., and will have another chance tonight at Club Lingerie in Hollywood.

Given the collaborative, and mostly impressive, show these mainly unsigned Aussies put on Monday at the Coach House, the mountain ought to pay close heed.

Highlighting the sparsely attended concert were striking debuts by Rebecca Barnard and Chris Wilson, two singers virtually unknown in the United States, plus strong sets by Paul Kelly and Archie Roach, known quantities whose worthy records have won each a cult following stateside. Of the shufflers, only Roach currently has a deal in the United States. His new album, "Jamu Dreaming," is his second excellent effort for the independent HighTone label.

Leading off the three-hour show, Roach displayed a rich, burry voice applied to country and folk-rock songs of tremendous emotional acuity and disarming simplicity. "Wild Blue Gums," a poignant love song in which a husband mourns his wife at her grave under blue gum trees, was filled with such stark beauty and grace that it's no great stretch to make comparisons to Hank Williams.

It's unfortunate that contemporary Nashville has such an unimaginative, white-bread mentality. Things being what they are, it's too much to expect the country-music industry to recognize and embrace the power and appeal in this Australian aboriginal who sings in an accented voice about his people's pain and endurance and his own struggles and joys.

Roach is the genuine item, which is a lot more than you can say for Billy Ray Cyrus and a lot of other "new country" singers who talk the talk of twang without having walked the walk of soul-forging experience.

Roach's singing was affecting and rich, never forced, but carrying a full measure of feeling. Vocally, he sounds like Dave Mason, only with greater gravity and strength.

The only thing Roach lacked was a stage presence that might amplify his obvious talent. Rather than projecting more than the songs contain, he was inward and reserved--able to perform movingly, but not provide the extra drama, the gesture or look that reaches out and connects and creates an indelible stage moment.

Kelly, who served as the world's lowest-keyed master of ceremonies, is an utterly unprepossessing fellow. Thin, balding, and cutting a figure that's far from dynamic, he has little chance of ever becoming a pop star.

But he is an exemplary pop-rock songwriter and an appealing singer (he sounds like a less nasal and less mania-prone Robyn Hitchcock, or a less languid Al Stewart). Given the real value of pop stardom--alongside any Michael Bolton original, Kelly's most routine material stands as a monumental achievement--that's not such a bad trade-off.

Closing the show (which ultimately ended with a full-cast encore of Dylan's "Million Dollar Bash"), Kelly offered consistently catchy songs full of understanding of what drives people in their emotions and their obsessions.

The most weighty number was the stark, enigmatic folk-ballad, "Everything's Turning to White." It is a subtly told tale of fate and morality in which a freak bit of bad luck intrudes into a man's life, giving him the chance to commit a small, casual, callous act of neglect that lays bare his awful hollowness and costs him his marriage. But this set by a fellow who knows how to delve deeply into anguish stayed mainly on the brighter side.

"Careless" was a highlight, a brisk, heartening folk-rocker in which a man who has taken a drastic wrong turn in life moves toward recovery thanks to friends who are anything but careless. Kelly also offered two songs, the darkly driving "Just Like Animals" and the reggae-beat "We've Started a Fire," that captured in a literate, never tawdry way what it's like to be caught up in sexual heat.

Rebecca Barnard wasn't even one of the four featured singers in the Melbourne Shuffle, having been brought along primarily to sing backups. But, given the spotlight for three songs, this fetching performer made such a striking impression that, in lesser company, she might have stolen the show.

The pretty, blond singer was the most comfortable and naturally engaging personality on the stage, moving easily to the music and showing brightness and spunk even in her backup role. She made the most of her brief chance to shine, coming across with strong material and a folk-rock voice that combined the strong presence of Shawn Colvin with tawnier hues that recalled Sandy Denny. If there's justice, she won't have to settle much longer for singing backups.

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