Humour can often be subtle, but subtlety does not mean that the audience avoids deep body-shaking belly laughs. The danger of the belly laughs is increased if the humour is backdropped by a bunch of serious, slightly confused-looking and variously bearded black-clad men, whose main distinguishing features are their hats. Many. Different. Hats!
Some Spooks lost on an English Moor
Many Western Australians have already come across and enjoyed performances of the Spooky Men of the West, best described by their progenitor, Stephen Taberner, as "the experimental landing pod from the spooky mother ship. For many years they exemplified and burnished a magnificent variant strain of the spooky culture and shared personnel, ideas, and beard grooming techniques".
That quote gives a peek at the quirkiness and, what is often described inaccurately as, the "self-deprecating" humour of the whole Spooky machine. The truth is to be had in their on-stage discussions, generated and led by Stephen, about the absurdities of the regularly misplaced expectations about men and their roles in our complex world. Men apparently have no chance of understanding it all, so why not sing about it?
The "Mother Ship" referred to by Stephen is of the Spooky Men's Chorale (SMC). They've done seven tours of the United Kingdom that included occasional trips to other parts of Europe, and have been a mainstay of both folk and community festivals up and down the east coast of Australia.
Stephen Taberner with some of the Spooky Men of the West
Apart from occasional percussion (mainly feet and hands), it is all a cappella — not an instrument in sight — and yet the music is stunningly beautiful, or funny, or both. The very funny narrative text is all Stephen Taberner, but watching the faces of the Spooky Men puts an entirely new layer on both the performance and the levels of humour, which is sometimes close to the knuckle. However, even while I was laughing, I found a lot of it thought provoking.
They are probably (but not certainly) better known for their collaboration with Fred Smith on Fred's Urban Sea Shanties and Dust of Uruzgan CDs. Both Fred Smith and The Spooky Men's Chorale have made many very successful CDs on their own, but despite the impressive quality of their recorded music, and like the Spooky Men of The West, the real treasure is in seeing them live. Especially the Spooky Groups!
Picture the scenery on stage: black, with an intimidating semicircle of men dressed to stand out starkly against the backdrop in various shades of… black. Un-inspiring, you might start to think, until you notice that it makes the faces stand out like the fresh canvasses they are about to prove themselves to be, painted with the emotions of men (you might well laugh here) on the brink of magnificent confusions, troubled by both the big and the small, and their own very quirky takes on things many of us take for granted. But not only this; there are tributes to other Cultures (Beautiful music from Georgia in the Caucasus), and not-so oblique (but very funny) references to other musicians. Seen live, they are unforgettable.
There is lots of Youtube footage from The SMC's seven tours to the UK. Their work can be seen here or you could learn more about them here
They are coming to Perth as a part of The Spooky Men's Chorale National Tour 2017
Saturday 20 May, 8pm , Octagon Theatre, UWA, Nedlands
See the website here.
For the same price as the concert, they are offering audience members a chance to go to the concert and also join Stephen Taberner and the Men in a singing workshop on the Friday (19th May) before their main gig. Doing this will mean the chance to sing with the Spooky Men live in the performance on the Saturday 20th of May in what Stephen Describes as "a glorious multiheaded singing beast called The Axis Of Spook". This covers some of the Manhommerie that makes the Spooks the hilariously bizarre group they are, as well as being a part of the learning of two songs ; one sweet love song and one magnificent pyramid building song.
About this, Stephen says, "the imparting of these songs will involve the transmission of many of the deepest held secrets of spookiness. there will be learning parts. and blokes of all genders (in other words, everybody) are most welcome to be a part of this.
On the evening of the performance, the carefully positioned troops of the axis will rise... and lend their voices to the mighty sound".
I've heard them several times in concert, and can say with confidence that the Spooky Machine is mighty indeed.