Adelaide band, The Deer Johns, set out to do the impossible in their Adelaide Cabaret Fringe show – provide An Abridged History Of Modern Music – which was also the name of their show which concluded its run at the Adelaide Rowing Club last night.

Advertised as a two-hour show, the ‘abridged’ selection had only covered the mid-sixties to the late eighties when the second hour had concluded, and as I had another commitment to attend to I could not stay for the second lengthy set as they went about bringing their overview up to the present day.

If you are playing for friends and relatives – an audience subset which many of last night’s attendees may well have fit – then blowing out your set times is not much of an issue. If, however, you are playing within a tightly scheduled festival program then you do have an obligation to try and fit the advertised performance duration so that those attending can make and keep plans accordingly.

The performance itself started very promisingly – albeit starting the overview in 1965 and hence ignoring Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and many other classic sixties performers such as The Who and The Kinks, which was a brave and debatable choice.

After a fleeting, tongue-in-cheek accordion accompanied snippet from the title song of Ebb & Kander’s musical Cabaret, the real commencement point was The Beach Boys’ masterpiece God Only Knows. Covering a song so rich in complex melody first up was a brave move, but the band hit the pocket straight off, announcing themselves as a band with significant musical taste and chops.

Even more courageously they went straight into The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) before tackling the epic closer, A Day In The Life, off the same iconic record.

It was a terrific version, right down to the sustained piano note at the end, and even finished with a quick harmonised vocal version of the backwards ‘Will Paul be back as Superman’ run out groove that completed the original vinyl sequence.

Such attention to detail had me salivating at the prospect of what might be yet to follow.

A switch of style saw them offer up an equally accomplished take on the sinuously heavy  Jimi Hendrix tune, Foxy Lady. This proved to be another fine performance, highlighted by some fine guitar work from Andrew O’Callaghan and the tight drumming of Chris Marshall. In fact, Marshall was consistently excellent  and really did not miss a beat throughout the whole first half of the show.

Some cracks began to show in the Bowie choice, Space Oddity, where some pitch issues troubled the vocalists and they had to scratch around to try and find the right notes.

A tightly rocking rendition of The Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash took us out of the sixties before we ventured into the seventies where Stevie Wonder’s Superstition presented the first real misfire of the night. Again, whilst the rhythm section tried hard to keep the song on track, vocally it proved a strain for both singer and listener.

The video accompaniment throughout the performance was well synched giving us snippets of video clips and live performances of each performer the band had decided to include in their historical overview.

Elton John’s Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting was solid, but as we moved into the later years of the seventies and into the eighties, the selection unfortunately became very predictable and pedestrian, a shame after such a fantastic start.

Stayin’ Alive was a poor choice, as none of the band has a passable falsetto. The subsequent yo-yo’ing of the voices up and down the register trying to find a comfortable spot to inhabit was hard to cope with – and similar problems occurred later as the band attempted the out of character Kiss hit,  I Was Made For Loving You and yet again in the medley which included Madonna’s Like A Prayer.

Choosing Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing as the band’s most representative number was a backfire too, clearing the dance floor instantly.

The dancers were soon back, and the now well lubricated crowd appreciated some prime Acka Dacka and U2 tunes, and these were good, solid moments in a section of the set where the wheels were threatening to come off.

It is clear that The Deer Johns are all excellent musicians – Andrew O’Callaghan and Jesse Cotton are accomplished multi-instrumentalists, and bassist David Ashman also does a passable impression of Tone Loc – but they are in desperate need of a lead singer who can allow them full rein to play (and sing good harmony vocals) without the distraction of having to step up to the main microphone and shoot for the power of the high notes and come up short.

This band, nevertheless, approached the performance as a chance to indulge in some high-spirited fun and, despite overshooting the advertised running time, gave the assembled crowd a more than generous opportunity to sing and dance, and relive the rock and roll abandon of their suburban youth.

Most people there would have been more than happy with that by the end of the evening.


An Abridged History Of Modern Music with The Deer Johns, was performed as part of this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Fringe Festival, at the Adelaide Rowing Club, on Saturday 24 June.