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My Friend The Chocolate Cake
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My Friend the Spiegeltent

Monday 19 November 2001

I guess it's a rare thing to have played a show in the same venue in three different cities, picturesque ones at that, but that has been the case with My Friend the Chocolate Cake and the Famous Spiegeltent; the ornate, free-standing, mobile venue that manager and musician David Bates has brought to Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival.

The first time I experienced the venue was when the Cake travelled to the glorious city of Edinburgh for its festival. We arrived jetlagged and weary to be greeted at the small Edinburgh airport by three mad Scottish women, each named Susan, who were employed as artists' representatives.

After taking up their offer of a wee dram of peaty west-coast single malt (Isle of Jura if my memory serves me) only to find that this meant finishing off the whole bottle, as is custom, we ventured down to the tent that was to be our home for two weeks.

A sight to behold: built in the 1920s and retaining its salon-style character, the circular tent has a red and blue canvas roof, old stained-brown wooden booths around the perimeter, mirrored pillars, a wooden dance floor, stained-glass windows throughout and an ornate chandelier adorning the ceiling.

There's an informal, slightly raised stage at one end and a boutique bar at the back, room for about 400 punters and the scent of history permeating the air. A strange and fantastic place in which to play music.

Holding the stage was a 70-year-old Australian woman, named Madam Pat, and her band playing smoky jazz covers; Pat belting out songs with verve to a full house whooping and cheering at the end of each tune. We grabbed a booth and, basically, didn't leave for the rest of the fortnight. We hung around for Messrs Smith and Blackwood, a bizarre sideburned cabaret duo performing piss-take covers such as Shirley Bassey's sensational Bond song Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Janis Ian's When I was Seventeen.

After half a dozen tunes, Blackwood would grab the turntable and spin kitsch '70s' dance tunes well into the night. (I had the good fortune of joining them on the last night, when we performed the Homer Simpson version of Seventeen).

This was the place to be and we saw little else of the festival. We'd meet there in the early afternoon for coffee, perform to good crowds just as the sun was going down and, after a vain search for decent food (we were in Scotland), head back to the tent for the late night club, staying into the wee hours.

Certain members slept the night in the booths after particularly indulgent evenings, to be woken in the morning by Frank Bates, David's wonderful father and the Spiegeltent's repair-and-fix-it-man. Frank, who passed away earlier this year, was very much the soul of the tent and uncle to all who performed in it - a man of dignity, handsome with bright eyes, and the ability to converse equally about sport and social justice.

Performing in the tent offers the same rewards for the band as it does the audience. The atmosphere soaks over you and, being a circular venue, there isn't a bad seat in the house. Every nuance and breath can be felt; in the quiet moments you can hear a pin drop, and the interplay between those on stage is shared with the punters.

I like singing fairly soft at times and keeping a lot of space in the songs, and the tent is perfect for this type of delivery. But it handles a belter as well, and when you let rip, the stage shakes and the punters come with you for the ride.

I guess the audience is just as excited to be in the Spiegeltent as is the band. Often mid-song, I'd vague out, gazing off at the interior, and I noticed the audience did too. The intimacy of the venue deters those prone to yabbering and that's a fine thing for band and paying audience alike.

The success of the Spiegeltent is mostly due to David Bates, the man with the vision and entrepreneurial spirit to bung it in the shipping container and bring it to Australia. He is a musician himself, a man of culture and politics. He treats his acts with respect and they return it doubly.

It is a musician-friendly set-up - rare in this business - a good sound system, an audience friendly showtime (8.30pm) and good lighting (one terrible omission though; no drink rider, one I hope you rectify next time David! ).

The bill he has booked for the Melbourne season reflects his vision. He has managed to capture part of why this city is regarded as one of the premier music cities in the world, booking musicians who should be part of an arts festival, and who should also be reviewed in the arts pages and discussed by the high arts mob: Jimmy Little, Augie March, John Butler Trio, Stephen Cummings, Andrea Rienets, Chris Wilson et al.

We can only hope that the venture has been worth it (can't imagine how it wouldn't have been) and that the tent will be a regular feature of the Melbourne Festival and the following weeks for years to come.

David Bridie is a member of My Friend the Chocolate Cake and a solo artist. The Spiegeltent will be in Melbourne until November 25.
The Age,
November 19, 2001