GIG REVIEW: TONY Q, CASSI MARIE + ISSY BURNUP, Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane, 11/11/20

Words by Kate Lockyer {Kate Lockyer Music}

The audience at Black Bear Lodge last night were treated to a fabulous evening of country tunes from up-and-comers Issy Burnup and Cassi Marie, as well as old hand on the Brisbane music scene Tony Q and his bandmate Ben. The intimate show, with each artist delving into the stories behind their songs, was nestled within the cozy atmosphere of Black Bear Lodge. All of the musicians brought something different to the table – Issy, an unabashed quirkiness that endeared her music to us immediately, Cassi, songwriting flair that belied her 19 years, and Tony, an infectious country twang that had feet tapping. 

With all four musicians set up on stools on the stage, it felt like we were all there to listen in on their jam session as they took turns sharing their songs. Issy started the night off with a song she said was written about the idea of a date with Mr Bean, after going on a date… a really bad date. She confessed, “I felt like I needed a cattle prod just to get him to say something!” This first song introduced us to her individualistic lyricism, singing “I’ll be your muse from the southern land”. 

Cassi’s first song was equally remarkable. She wrote this song with Steve Boom and told us about her experience co-writing through emails and voice memos during lockdown. Silver and Gold was a tender tribute to love, showcasing a gorgeous sweetness to her voice. Beginning with moody, measured strums, the earnestness of Cassi’s songwriting is clear from the beginning, and with lines like “All our love is silver and gold / We keep it polished so it doesn’t grow old”, I don’t think anyone could have come away from the night without falling a little in love with her lyrics. 

Chatting with Tony before the show, he told me about his long journey in coming to country music, having played an diverse mix of genres including jazz and heavier grunge, before finally deciding to play what he’d always loved – country. And we should be glad that he did, because it suits him to a tee. Introducing his first song for the night, Road to Nowhere, Tony said that there was a turning point as a songwriter when he returned from serving in the army in Afghanistan, a re-evaluation. The tune, in keeping with the love-song theme that had started the night, conjured images of a romantic getaway. Harmonies from Ben Morine in the chorus and Ben’s catchy guitar solo created a magical setting for the romance of the lyrics. 

Every chance she got, Issy’s whimsical style enchanted us with her unique chords and her husky vocals. Trying to pin down a genre for her music seems impossible, and when I asked her about it after the show, she said she likes it that way, although she’s had some interesting labels, like ‘desert rock’. I’ll call it something along the lines of country-folk noir – like film noir, but with a healthy dose of country riffs to lighten the mix. I say this because her second song of the night was dark and intoxicating, a spooky murder ballad called The Other Realm, and following this, her songs continued explore a darker side to her songwriting. Her voice soared in the high register of this song, a tune she claims that she has no idea where it came from, apart from its musical beginnings playing around with guitar scales. This sparked agreement from Cassi, as they discussed how songwriting inspiration can sometimes come out of the blue. 

Issy’s music continued to showcase her eclectic style, with softly arpeggiated chords populating the first verse of I Don’t Wanna be Alone Tonight but working to an immensely catchy chorus that repeats the titular line. This song was reminiscent of Australian artist Didirri’s single I Can’t Get Last Night out of my Head, which features a similarly sing-along-able chorus. It was followed by the contrasting darker, folky style of Issy’s songs Nightrider and In the Darkness. We found yet another facet of her style in When’s Takeoff, which included unbound Bowie-esque vocals and celestial lyrics. 

Cassi Marie has both a depth and a purity to her music that is breathtaking. Having performed since she was nine, her musical maturity is impressive. Her second song, Long Road to Forgiveness, displayed a dizzying dynamic, between the soft-sung verses – “is it gonna be yours or mine?” and the intensity of “Now you’re down on your hands and knees / Begging for your life”. My favourite of her songs, though, was undeniably Who I Am, written when she was 16. Cassi introduced it as her most personal song, and shared the story of her scoliosis diagnosis, trapping her in a back brace for several years, leaving her unable to play guitar or even express herself through her clothes. The heartrending lyrics had the whole room floored: “I can finally be who I am / No more running, no more hiding / The road that I thought had no end / Has brought me back home”. Another little gem of songwriting in Cassi’s set was If I Let You, a tender song that imbued all the tentativeness of young love. Her exquisite vocals took centre stage in all of her songs, from the cool, almost bluesy tune It’s a Long Way Down, to the youthful charm of Starving Heart, or the cheeky playfulness of Daisy, written about her dog. 

Tony Q and bandmate Ben entertained the audience with their polished performance, keeping our feet tapping all night. For his second song, called A Change in Time, Tony talked about being disgruntled with his job, though he loved it, and leaving his position of 13 years in the army. Deftly picked, nostalgic notes from his acoustic guitar floated into being, and the deep tones of his vocals sang to us that he’s “leaving the bad days behind”. A standout performance of the night was his next song, Sacrifice. Tony said that he had seen what war does to people when they come home, and though he never wanted to play the song live, an experience of a soldier coming up to him, touched by his performance at the Sydney War Memorial, encouraged him to play. He shared the story of a friend of his, who paid the ultimate price while in Afghanistan. Yesterday was also 11/11 – Remembrance Day, and his song was a special moment as we all paused to think about the soldiers who have sacrificed for their country – in my case, moved to tears thinking of the soldier I knew. One line stayed with me, that I think sums up the feeling of those who return from service to suffer PTSD: “This war ain’t over in my mind”. For anyone who has a soldier in their own life, this was a deepfelt tribute to their sacrifice and struggles. 

Tony’s next few songs definitely hit a more upbeat pace, with SPF (or the alternative title, No Sunscreen Like a Bar) and Honky Tonk Bar in the City taking the time-honoured Australian country music tradition of playing songs about pubs and making it their own. SPF is set to be the title of The Tony Q Band’s next album, delayed because of the pandemic but very much still in the pipes. For Brisbanites who are familiar with Johnny Ringo’s, Honky Tonk Bar in the City is a rocking tribute to the local watering hole. While they describe the bar as loose, the performance was tight, with a driving beat and infectious guitar daring you NOT to tap your feet, singing about Johnny Ringo’s most infamous fixture – “A bull that’s gonna be buckin’ all night”.

The night was a fantastic showcase of our local country talent, from the quirkiness of Issy’s dreamlike country-folk, to the earnestness of Cassi’s stunning vocals and insightful lyrics, to the seasoned tones of Tony Q and his unforgettable tunes. 

Follow the artists below:

Tony Q | Cassi Marie | Issy Burnup 

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