Mia Dyson with Al Parkinson at Howler Melbourne

Mia Dyson
Reviewed by Kinch Kinski | Photography by Lauren Murphy

Howler is a massive venue hidden away behind a car-park in Brunswick. Inside, ferns and vines wreath the cavernous rooms, strange metallic sculptures twist up from the floor, and box lanterns hang like glowing geometric stalactites from the roof. I headed to the band room at the very back of the bar and, as she stamped my wrist, the young woman taking tickets asked “Was that too hard or was that okay?”

I was touched and confused by her concern. First up was Al Parkinson, who opened her set with an a capella song about the stolen generation. The room and stage were large enough to intimidate, but Parkinson commanded the space with her husky alto voice, finger-clicks, and sheer charisma.

Aside from charm and a great voice, Parkinson also writes excellent songs. Simple, catchy melodies support lyrics that are thoughtful, down-to-earth, and often sweet. A highlight of her set was ‘At night‘, a confidently sensual, idiosyncratic ballad detailing Parkinson’s love of ‘kissing in the night time’.

The second half of Parkinson’s set featured her ‘Babes’ Emilee South, Esther Henderson, and Jane Hendry. Three women with talent, swagger, and the matching denim jackets to back it up. Bringing two violins and smooth 1950s-style harmonies, the Babes rounded Parkinson’s sound out beautifully.

The set ended with a surprising — and very good — cover of ‘Bill Bills Bills’ by Destiny’s Child that had punters chair-dancing and singing along.

In the interlude between sets Howler’s band room filled to capacity. Intermittent clouds from a smoke machine set the mood. When Mia Dyson and her band took the stage the audience gave a raucous welcome.

“I don’t know where you got on this train,” Dyson said, “but stay on board.”

Dyson’s band for the night was impressive. Liz Stringer, a formidable artist in her own right, provided tasteful keys and vocal harmonies. For the heart-rending ‘Made from the Same Clay’ Stringer took charge of Dyson’s guitar, earning very loud approval from the crowd.

Dyson’s tall, somewhat whimsical bass player Tim Keegan grinned as he punched out floor-shaking basslines and tight, pitch perfect harmonies.

Danny McKenna was on drums, and the man was a joy to watch. His playing absurdly good on every was song, making tricky patterns at high speeds seem like child’s play. He also looked like a bushranger with fashion tips from Al Capone, which didn’t hurt.

Whether hammering out soulful blues-rock riffs, or dialling things back to let power ballads like ‘Tell me‘ breathe, the band never put a foot wrong. As good as the band were, it was Dyson who shone the brightest all night. For one thing, she writes damn fine songs. ‘When we’re older‘, the first single from Dyson’s latest album Idyllwild, mixes roof-raising rock’n’roll with tender, simple lyrics.

The second single, and title track, is a cracking pop-rock number about Dyson’s unconventional Californian honeymoon. The song is an earworm with frenetic rhythms and a chewy vocal hook, and it was killer live. My personal favourite was ‘Any three chords’. It’s a hummable, mid-tempo song about the joys of playing in a band and packs an emotional punch with its bittersweet refrain: ‘If only I could sing for a crowd who loves me better than I can – any three chords will do.’

Then there’s Dyson herself. In a simple spotted shirt, with short sleeves rolled way up and buttons hanging open, Dyson looked every bit the working class rock goddess.

As she sang she hovered close to the mic, eyes closed in complete commitment to the songs. Her voice reminiscent of Martha Wainwright, but with sharper edges in all the right places.

When she moved from the mic to jam with the band her body juddered and jolted with the notes of her guitar, as if her entire self and not just her hands were playing.

In fact, the highlight of the night wasn’t any particular song or lyric, but a guitar solo. For most of the show, Dyson’s solos were subdued — short, tasteful lead breaks with ragged little hearts. But on ‘Cigarettes’ she let loose.

The solo started big with rock’n’roll chops, lazy syncopation, crunchy discordant notes, and some impressive technical flourishes. Then the band pulled back and Dyson’s playing became quiet and almost achingly sensual. Dyson seemed to be telling us secrets, the notes whispered from her guitar’s frets for barely a moment before subsiding.

As the tension built, the band and Dyson gradually worked their way to a cacophonous finale that had the crowd screaming Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan style. It was a thing of beauty. Music to make nuns break their vows and leave small-time music reviewers wiping away a tear. So many electric guitar solos are either a second thought or a preponderous mess. It was nice to be reminded that, in the right hands, they can take you on a journey.

The band gave two encores, both excellent, ending with a beautiful rendition of Dyson’s 2003 song ‘Cold Water’. By the time they were done the room seemed sated, but I don’t think anyone would have argued with a third encore.

Dyson’s latest album Idyllwild is out now on CD, vinyl, and digital. You should definitely buy it because it’s aces. But if you really want to experience her music, get along to a show. Just don’t stand too close to her guitar if you prefer your face unmelted.