Ben Lee‘s back and he’s become a Holy Roller. He’s no longer content to be just a songwriter, musician or pop star. Instead, he’s gone and grown a beard and is like the late dark horse, George Harrison in that his spiritual beliefs are intersecting with his music with often mixed results.
The support act was Appleonia or Jessica Chapnik-Kahn. Some keen observers will remember Chapnik-Kahn from her work with Lee on The Square film soundtrack. She is also responsible for co-writing some of the songs on Lee’s latest record, Ayahuasca: Welcome To The Work, while the latter is helping her produce her debut album.
Chapnik-Kahn’s voice was beautiful and had as much intensity, sweetness and emotion as Sarah Blasko. She was accompanied by an electric guitarist as she sung along to her own original compositions. Some of the songs had blues-rock riffs that could’ve been written by The Black Keys or Jack White. The lyrics were a taste of things to come in the main set and were heavily rooted in religion and philosophy. “She Is The Sun” – one originally sung with The Vines’ Craig Nicholls for the film, Despite The Gods – was a pretty distillation of all this and closed the first religious movement with something dark and atmospheric.
Ben Lee opened his set by welcoming us to “The Experiment”. He acknowledged that for the past decade he has been on a spiritual journey to awaken his own sub-conscious. He also said the show would be more like a prayer than a concert and that there would be some awkward bits and failures because some ideas are far too abstract for this format. But he did also offer us some “dessert” by promising to stick around for a few catchy songs at the end.
Lee was joined by a seven-piece band that included Chapnik-Kahn, Nadav Kahn (Gelbison) and Avasa & Matty Love,among others. The rag-tag group remained seated at the front and looked like a bunch of gurus sitting atop an altar. They played the album, Ayahuasca in full to a generous and largely receptive sold-out audience. The record’s name is actually from a psychoactive, healing medicine from South America that is consumed like tea and is supposed to make your spirit rise.
They started with “Invocation” and “Welcome to the House of Mystical Death” which were like two calls-to-arm with gorgeous harmonies. The latter was an expansive and layered pop tune that made you think of an African sunset. The following, “Welcome To Being Born” was about release or letting go of who you thought you were. Some audience members took this opportunity to lay back and meditate or they could’ve just fallen asleep- it was a confusing sight.
After some more peace, love and brown rice and dabbling in mythology, religion, spirituality and philosophy the band took things up a musical notch. The rousing Christian rock-meets-Hillsong, “Thank You” was about tearing down different boundaries in faith. The more enthusiastic devotees of Lee and his new-age mantras took it upon themselves to come together and do a liturgical dance of sorts.
Ayahuasca is going to be a record that polarises people. It’s not designed for the fans that fell off of Lee’s bandwagon with the turgid, The Rebirth Of Venus (because it didn’t have the old-fashioned pop synonymous with Awake Is The New Sleep or the indie goodness that was “Cigarettes Will Kill You”). Lee actually joked that a friend of his had said that this record was destined to be the most beautiful thing Lee’s ever produced and career suicide and in some ways he’s right.
For myself personally, there were times where I could appreciate where the artists were coming from. But for the most part I found the muddled spiritual messages and overly-sanctimonious preaching to be over-bearing and self-indulgent. I felt like Fran from Black Books who proves a hard convert and easy relapser when her friend is glowing like a shiny, happy person on a new diet and yoga regime. Call me cynical and closed-minded but there are days when my own agnosticism is pushed to the limit and I err on the side of full-blown atheism. But then, that’s just me.
My favourite part of the show was at the very end when Lee chose to wield his acoustic guitar and play a romantic pop ballad. His quietly, sublime version of “Gamble Everything for Love” almost had me in tears. “Into The Dark” got a few fans up and dancing while the excellent pop of “Catch My Disease” got us acting like a pack of gleeful school kids. It would’ve been the perfect song to end with (and it had eclipsed the Ayahuasca material) but Lee decided to steer things back along the spiritual path.
“Song for the Divine Mother of the Universe” was nice and thoughtful enough. But it’s obvious that the masses can’t go past his Awake Is The New Sleep record. In all, Lee’s church show was delivered in an appropriate context. It was a divinely honest, bold and considered effort. It had its moments but overall, it seemed to prove that when it comes to pop, you’ll have to leave your preaching to the converted.
Originally published on 13 April 2013 at the following website: http://www.theaureview.com/sydney/ben-lee-appleonia-jessica-chapnik-kahn-paddington-uniting-church-11-04-13
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