John Shand Sydney Morning Herald
Music can be powerfully cathartic, which is why most cultures boast a cousin of the blues. The Eastern Europeans do melancholy, loss and tragedy - along with all the shades of blue in between - as well as we do triumphalism. Luckily they also know how to kick up their heels, so this Mara! concert - as ever, centred around the music of Bulgaria - was an equally profound and giddy cycle of catharsis and celebration.
It was a treat and a privilege to hear this band in such intimate confines. If what ensued was seldom Mara! at its most energetic, it was often at its most poignant. Steve Elphick's bass solo on Na Dolu ached with the first bitter taste of that melancholy, a mood sustained on Andrew Robson's Glastonbury Lullaby, the bass, now bowed, sumptuously rich, while the composer's soprano saxophone impregnated a mist of sadness with flashes of abandon, then spiralled through the happier strains of Zhetva (Harvest) in tandem with Llew Kiek's bouzouki.
Against the spartan backing of Kiek's guitar and Paul Cutlan's bass clarinet, Mara Kiek brought the Greek tragedy Dance of Zalongou to agonising life, her voice like brittle glass as the tale unfolded of women choosing to kill first their children, then themselves, to escape slavery. She sang her soul out on the equally moving Bulgarian lament Troitsa Bratya, supported by the crying arco bass of Elphick, before The Big Dance eased the pain away, Cutlan's soprano scooting over the boisterous rhythm.
Cutlan's bass clarinet showed off its kaleidoscope of tonal colours on Por Ali Paso Un Cavallero, with its lugubrious bottom, sleek, dark middle and sprightly top. Above that was a register of heartbreak, and when he slid back down the horn it was not so much a release as an affirmation of the intensity.
Kiek stabbed his trademark staccato interjections into the solo guitar accompaniment of Mara's delicate delivery of The Green Singer, a setting of a Shaw Neilson poem. That voice became imploring for another wonderful new song, Sorella, featuring plaintive and inventive guitar from Kiek. He switched to the ringing baglama for the filigree introduction to Ey Shahin, the tenor and alto then braying like mating donkeys. Wonderful.