A BLERTA concert never fails to leave an indelible impression, usually hilarious, after chaotic, and frequently brilliant. One remembers the fabled concerts where Alan Gorton rode a motorbike on stage in Christchurch, where Corben Simpson took his clothes off at Ngāruawāhia, and where the expected New Year's Eve rough-house at the Queenstown lakeside didn't occur because BLERTA happened to be playing its wig off. The St. James concert on their last tour, after their return from Australia earlier this year was one of these occasions. So also was Saturday night's Downstage concert.
To accurately describe the phenomenon BLERTA (The Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition) and its chameleon talented personnel without superlatives is difficult, to categorise them impossible. This amalgam of music, theatre and film has been pivoting around drummer Bruno Lawrence on both sides of the Tasman for some years now. The present format is smaller and more compact for the purposes of their campus tour (beginning at Auckland this week), their music is tighter, and the presentation more polished.
The line up consists of trumpeter, song-writer and film-maker (Acme Sausage Company), [Geoff Murphy], whose zany songs and films, and musical clowning contributes most to BLERTA's originality. Alto-saxophonist Bernie McGann, an Australian jazzman, powerful and versatile. Roy Murphy, trombone player, manager, and fall-guy in the comedy routines. Mick Lieber, guitar, a Londoner with a solid pommy-rock-band background, and singer Rick Bryant provide the rock ingredient. Well known to Wellington audiences who listened to Original Sin and Rick and the Rockets a few years back and more recently Mammal, Rick has thankfully discarded the cultivated repulsiveness, so fashionable since Lou Reed, Joe Cocker, et al, and has concentrated on good, honest (painfully honest), blues singing. Never a natural singer, he works hard and is presently in fine form, which isn't bad at all.
In the main though, if this sounds like a rave review, it is.
Also an erstwhile member of Mammal, Patrick Bleakley on string bass is the youngest member of the group and an outstanding musician already. Originally a cellist with a future, he played bass guitar for Mammal and abandoned the cello and formal music study to the despair of his teacher to go to Australia as bass player for BLERTA. In Australia he picked up the string bass that most difficult instrument, and using Mingus as a model has become very accomplished in a very short lime.
Pianists on Saturday night were Chris Seresin, an original BLERTA member whose elegant and restrained keyboard playing is a joy always, and Dave Fraser, an old jazz hand and sessions man who took over from Chris later in the piece. Introduced as "one of the finest keyboard players in the country" — he is and has been for a long time.
That's the musical contingent producing the unique BLERTA sound, a mixture of Sonny Rollins, Jagger, Mingus, Zappa, Alan Price and Jeff Murphy, with Chris Seresin's waif-like etheral piano chiming from the spheres.
Geoff Murphy's magical 'Bicycle Song' ('everybody's got a bike inside them, yuppar duppa) and 'Mr Bankman'( both would make tremendous singles), Rick Bryant's splendid treatment of another BLERTA original 'This is the Life' and Bernie McGann's haunting and disquieting 'New Plymouth Rock' are some of the highlights.
On the other side of the BLERTA coin are Geoff Murphy's films (an added bonus on Saturday night was Martyn Sanderson's documentary of the filming of Ned Kelly, A Stone in the Bush, and the stage show including a brilliant little piece of Martyn Sanderson theatre incorporating elements of music hall and revue, with Sanderson as Frank Sapper, Royal Army Bomb Disposal Expert. It is somewhat ironical to see him in this context, at Downstage; he founded Downstage Theatre with Tim Elliott and Peter Bland in the Walkabout Coffee Bar on the site of the present Hannah Winn Playhouse. Sitting now in this superbly appointed theatre, in the almost too comfortable chairs, watching this fine actor who has pitched in his lot with the BLERTA life style and cheeky ethic, one reflects that whatever Downstage was, and what it has become, Martyn Sanderson is still fresh, original and very good, (descending from the ceiling as if he owned the place — really!)
Ian Watkin also is good in the role of the crazed super-villan The Hand, and particularly in the voice only charactersation of General Confusion, Frank Sapper's commanding officer — this is splendid stuff. His MCing though, leaves more to be desired. He doesn't have to apologise for BLERTA, they are superb, his introduction of the band by bodgie names is silly and does no credit to fine musicians who should be known in their own right, and finally he shouldn't try so hard to be outrageous, he doesn't "pull it off" to quote.
In the main though, if this sounds like a rave review, it is. The music, the laughs, the pace and the performance are spot on. The Downstage concerts augur a brilliant campus tour that should not be missed.
First published in Salient, April 29, 1975. © 1975 Salient. Reprinted with permission.