Friday, January 30, 2009

A Tale of Two (Australian) Cities: Melbourne

Melbourne. Australia's mecca for artists.
When I meet an Aussie at a gig or show somewhere, I never bother with the "where in Australia are you from" question; 9 out of 10 times the answer will be Melbourne. Not because this is where all the musicians in Australia are miraculously born (though don't they all wish it!), but this is the city they want to be associated with. You may have been born in "Shitney" (that's Sydney to all non-residents) but if like your average Aussie jazz musician you spent a few years at VCA- Victoria College of the Arts, then you will lay claim to this gritty city as your homeland.

And for good reason. Melbourne is bad ass. A stark contrast from Sydney, the city is about an hour tram ride from Port Phillip, a bay located on the southern side of Victoria. With no beaches in immediate proximity to the heart of the city, it seems the bored relied upon their imaginations rather than surfing skills to occupy their time. This would account not only for the thriving performing arts scene, but also for the hip fashion industry and plethora of artsy cafes. There is also a passion for sports with a huge stadium home to several Australian football and rugby teams. I found some great running routes up and down the Yarra River, which cuts through the city, as well as along the shore of the aforementioned Port Phillip bay.

Home to the contemporary arts is the super modern Federation Square. Here we perused art exhibits of Aboriginal art as well as an interesting exhibition of bicycles. With several large-screen tvs and cafe seating my travel companions and I spent numerous breaks sitting, drinking cappuccinos, eating something creamy, and watching the Olympics. We also took in a performance of Philippe Gentry's Lands End at the Arts Centre. Loved the theater, which included an exhibit of the Melbourne Ballet Company's costumes. The performance, eh... not my cup of tea. It had a distinct french Cirque de Solei minus the major acrobatics feel that made me feel like I watching extremely watered down theatrical modern dance. Then again, I do tend to be a bit of snob when it comes to anything remotely close to staged dance.

I also surprisingly found myself being a bit snobbish as I listened in on a few jazz shows. I'm usually pretty open to most interpretations of jazz, but a few of the shows I heard took the use of the word "jazz" almost too liberally. I'm certainly not a jazz "big J" (as the BF likes to call it) purist. It doesn't all have to swing or employ a flat 3 or 7 for me to enjoy it, but I think out of the four or so gigs I attended, including one at Bennet's Lane, the major jazz club of Melbourne, the one that featured a singer doing standards was the most enjoyable- I could've hung at that bar listening all night. After talking with a few Melby jazzers, it seems the style of jazz they enjoy most is the more free, modal, almost atmospheric jazz. I must admit, while I would get into two or three songs out of 2 sets, the majority of what I heard was absent of an obvious set form, even melody, and the tempos and grooves were remarkably the same. The solos were often the equivalent of a Hemingway type sitting at a cafe smoking a cigarette uttering a stream of consciousness philosophy on life. Seemingly hip at first, boring and pretentious after the second paragraph, I mean chorus. While it is always fun to see where live performance will go when a set form is absent, or abandoned, and I did enjoy several of the tunes, I found myself just dying for a blues. Something that established a key center and purposely stayed in or out, creating harmony or dissonance, not vagueness.

One area that I did not embrace snobbery was in the shopping! Oh my GOSH I would have given anything to be let free with a sky high credit card limit that I didn't have to pay off! We spent our shopping days mostly out on the streets, with one day in an outlet mall. I am happy to report not a Gap, Express, or Banana Republic in site! In addition to some small jewelry, my favorite purchases were for bags by Australian designers that are unavailable right now in the states. Ah, the victory of owning something semi-exclusive! If you are into designer bags, I highly suggest checking out Nicola Cerini and Catherine Manuell for pure awesomeness in a bag.

Artistry abiding in Melbourne, even the weather could not escape! Moody as any artist I know, it would rain for 5 minutes, be sunny for the next 7, cloudy for 2, then back to sunny. These moods, just like it's inhabitants, created an almost daily ultimate beauty. Some may consider Melbourne to be home of Australia's arts, but after seeing a rainbow almost every day of my week long trip, I will always remember Melbourne as the city of rainbows.

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