The Fiery Maze is a suite of some sixteen-odd songs conceived by New Zealand born music legend Tim Finn and late Australian poet Dorothy Porter back in the summer of 1995. Later that year Finn invited singer-actress ingénue Abi Tucker, fresh from her stint on Heartbreak High, to bring voice to Porter’s ‘sex, drugs and rock & roll’ themed lyrics. They recorded the tracks, but without a contract to release them commercially, the trio moved on, until Tucker recently contacted Finn, searching out one particular song from the set that has haunted her ever since.
Porter’s unfortunate passing in 2008 prevented the chance for these songs to become a planned rock musical, but this public staging at least shines light on the achievement the trio made some twenty years ago. Presented like a concept album concert, each song flows into the other with the title track bookending the performance.
What’s apparent from the outset is the distinctive 90s rock sound of these songs, which when delivered in Tucker’s best rock-chick stylings is reminiscent of the likes of Chrissy Amphlett, Suze DeMarchi and Abby Dobson of Leonardo’s Bride. It’s almost surprising that songs can so easily distinguish themselves as being of the 90s, but certainly it seems Finn has taken these tracks out of his back catalogue, perfectly preserved and without an ounce of 21st Century contamination.
The central theme of Porter’s lyrics is generally love, but not the soft and gentle kind, rather the down and dirty, sexy kind. With lyrics regularly evoking rock gods of the 60s – Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison – it seems Porter was revelling in her opportunity to turn poetry into rock & roll by celebrating all her musical heroes. Spun through a filter of Victorian escapades around Ballarat and St Kilda’s Luna Park, Porter’s tastes are clearly on show, with feminist overtones and hinted references to Patricia Highsmith.
If something is missing in this ‘album concert’, it’s a track that stands out as being the ‘first single’. Most memorable of the numbers is the title song, perhaps because it tops & tails the suite. Tunes like ‘Bride Doll’, ‘Like Janis’, ‘Black Water’ and ‘Like An Etruscan’ have distinguished lyrics but all of them lack a convincing hook that would that get them regular airplay, even back in 1995.
It seems odd to assess this production like theatre, as it’s more accurately described as a concert, and in that sense, Nick Schlieper’s design is suitably evocative of the mood set by the music. Sound amplification levels sit right at the limit of acceptability for theatre, throwing the music at the audience and denying the opportunity to be fed the lyrics more poetically; nevertheless, it would be perfect for a venue like the Corner Hotel.
It is a treat to see Finn perform live on stage with Tucker, working almost like a one-man band, playing drums with his feet while he flits between keyboard, guitar and upright piano with the upper half of his body. However, Brett Adams also lends skilled artistic support on various guitars and the trio regularly create lovely harmonies. Director Anne-Louise Sarks has helped elicit a soulful performance from Tucker who writhes and growls her way sexily through the performance.
If 90s era rock music is (or was ever) your thing, The Fiery Maze will take you right back to a time in Australian music when women like Deborah Conway, Jenny Morris, Sarah McLeod and Ella Hooper rocked it out. A golden epoch we haven’t really seen since.