Rock: Australian sparkling whine




IT'S A tough gig, being an Australian band in London. Back home a hefty fan-base clamours to hear your special blend of acoustic baroque pop. You beat Nick Cave and Savage Garden to the Aria award for Song of the Year and become the subject of a major record company bidding war.

Commercial radio gives you heavy rotation; your stunning debut album Angel Blood goes gold. Labour Party politicians are quick to seize photo opportunities. The media even prints your name in its intended lower case.

But tonight, Upstairs at the Garage, it is just Leonardo's Bride and a clutch of noisy antipodean backpackers - more eager, initially, to catch up with each other than to shut it, listen and enjoy.

Unfazed, the lead singer Abby Dobson strums a few deceptively light chords on her acoustic guitar before unleashing a megawatt-powerful voice which conjures melancholy, romance and sex seemingly out of the ether - disarming all remaining chatterers in the process.

A blonde twenty-something with a penchant for wearing fairy wings and tinsel, her (unnecessary) technical request for "a bit more sparkle" in her vocals is at odds with the dark, angst-ridden presence of co-founder, songwriter and guitarist Dean Manning.

After busking away the early Nineties in Europe, Dobson and Manning returned to Sydney with a swath of original material, formed leonardo's bride and toured Australia on the back of a self-financed EP. With great business savvy, they refused two mainstream recording contracts before Mushroom Records promised them free rein plus a jazz rhythm section for Angel Blood.

Their intense but restrained live shows are equally intended to place emphasis fairly and squarely on the music. Indeed, with candelabras, cushions, red velvet drapes and four seated band members, this evening's lounge- style intimacy renders Dobson's first person reflections on life and love all the more startling.

Backed by Manning, conservatory-trained bassist Patrick Hyndes and a beer-bellied drummer called Howler, she belts out power ballads, delicate laments and quirky, catchy melodies with professional ease. Dobson seems to be one part Gwen Stefano to two parts Sinead O'Connor; soft rock with folk music's do-it-yourself aesthetic.

Urban hippie Manning's predilection for ornate lyricism takes in both Dahl-esque fairy-tale ("Here walks a giant/and the world is just a stone in his shoe") and rather gratuitous cultural name-checks (try Lewis Carroll, Lenny Bruce, Oscar Wilde and, er, Marcel Marceau...).

It is a loaded collection of songs, swirling with undercurrents and complimented by modest instrumentation - drum brushes here, tiny cymbals there - and fine harmonies. Offsetting any tweeness with bouts of humour, growling feedback and even a brief psychedelic wig-out, leonardo's bride plays a tightly coiled set which hints at stadium status but remains firmly rooted in their Sydney living room.