Portrait photographs by Catriona McKenzie |
Performance & cd black and white photographs by Derek McClure |

Review: Kathie Renner & The Search Party

The Studio | Holden Street Theatres

Sunday 29th August, 2pm

Ray Smith


I rarely have the opportunity to visit the Holden Street Theatres, but the warm and intimate venue was the perfect place to see and hear a concert by Kathie Renner and The Search Party.The well-attended show was opened by guitarist Hugh Stuckey, a musician we don't see often enough on Adelaide stages but, hopefully, his relatively recent return to Australia from the United States will offer more opportunities for him to perform locally. He's a musician not to be missed. Stuckey sat quietly in front of his amplifier, stage right, and allowed his semi-acoustic guitar to do all the talking. His fluent and fluid hybrid picking was clean and precise as he seemed to blend classical and jazz feels with an unhurried ease. I had assumed that the evocative and emotion-filled pieces were originals, until three pieces in I was able to recognise the familiar strains of Bye Bye Blackbird amongst the complex chording and intricate melodic phrases that poured effortlessly from his instrument. It wasn't until he back announced the four pieces he played as, I Fall In Love Too Easily, Strange Meeting, Bye Bye Blackbird, and Throughout, that I realised that he was actually playing extant works by other composers. His performance was subtle, understated, and utterly enchanting. A highly skilled and tasteful performer, whose shows everyone should keep an eye, and an ear open for.


Kathie Renner joined Stuckley, with special guest Martin Cheney on electric piano, to offer one piece from her 2019 solo album, by way of a segue into the main concert. The presentation of the piece, The One, featured Renner's clear, clean, and very assured vocals against the shimmering backdrop of Stuckey and Cheney's restrained and uncluttered accompaniment. The work felt like a song from a musical theatre piece, and featured Renner's characteristically complex and well-crafted lyrics, and her perfect enunciation and easy stage manner allowed the audience intimate access to this deeply personal narrative.


After an interval of about 45 seconds, the band entered the stage. Kathie Renner on acoustic guitar, keyboards, and vocals, Hugh Stuckey, playing yet another beautiful semi-acoustic guitar, Steve Todd, on a rather complex drum kit and hand percussion, and the very well known Shaun Duncan, on five-string bass guitar. The band that Renner had assembled was absolutely perfect for the performance that she had planned, each player a formidable force in their own right, yet extraordinarily sensitive to the material being presented.


Todd's percussion work was remarkable. His apparently effortless movements, around a kit filled with unusually expressive tools, formed a gentle soundscape that was more melodic than supportive. The familiar use of percussion to underpin songs and solos via purely rhythmic devices was augmented with delicate punctuations to Renner's narrative that lifted the songs, rather than just forming a foundation on which they could be laid.

Duncan's bass was in perfect synch with Todd's percussion, and yet wove a unique path through the songs, offering a barked-out solo here and a high-pitched journey up the neck there, each time emphasising the lyrics, the story being told, rather than slavishly following the chord progressions in Renner's often riff-based compositions.


Stuckey continued as he had begun, with subtle and gentle support and virtuosic solos that exhibited not even the smallest indication of ego. Each of these fine players was on stage for one purpose and one purpose only, to highlight and enhance Renner's work in the most unobtrusive way possible. It was a masterclass in restraint and a perfect example of the 'less is more' philosophy that is so very difficult to accomplish, and therefore rarely witnessed.


Renner herself has an easy, comfortable feeling on stage. It is where she's supposed to be, and that easiness allows an audience to relax and completely immerse themselves in the work being presented. Her chat is witty and informative, and her personable nature soon captivates an audience. Her backstories, told with such integrity, wit, and confidence, leave the listener feeling like they are in conversation with an old and trusted friend. The songs themselves defy categorisation as they move from jazz to folk, from Latin beats to pop simplicity, while rarely reliant upon the verse/chorus, verse/chorus format that many songwriters find themselves falling into. 


Renner's songs are stories, personal narratives that allow us into the character, history, and philosophy of the writer, yet are broad and familiar enough for an audience to easily identify with them. Her lyrics are clear and poignant, her voice, often used as another instrument, as her nonverbal vocalisations add yet another potential direction within the song structure. There were so many flavours on offer, each one as tasty as its predecessor, and each one presented with the care and attention to detail as a five-star feast. This was a thoroughly entertaining and engaging show that held the audience spellbound, and those musicians amongst it enthralled and very impressed.