Some musical heroes swagger into town like Genghis Khan announcing intent to conquer all by wielding electric guitars like scimitars. Others fly under the radar like Clark Kent and then turn into Superwoman. Helen Shanahan slunk into the first weekend of the Denmark Festival of Voice like a gut shot deer (Deer In Headlights) and left an all-conquering hero.
Don’t be deceived by her demure statue, self-deprecating banter or her small guitar. She is a killer. A WAAPA graduate in voice, a recipient of the Telstra Road to Discovery award, a WAMI song of the year winner and genuine songwriter extraordinaire.
Due to COVID-19 Helen recorded the music for her sophomore album Canvas in Perth and sent the material to Brad Jones at Alex the Great recording studio in Nashville for mastering. Canvas was released in March 2022.
Helen starts with Deer In Headlights without her guitar pickup plugged in and laughs at her self fulfilling prophecy. Ben Vanderwal on drums may or may not have plugged his electric harmoniser in. No matter they nail the song Under The Maple Tree showcases the brilliance of her songwriting.
Given the challenge of writing a song about sugar in an online writing group, Helen wrote a sickly sweet song which she subsequently binned and wrote this bitter sweet classic. What follows in I Only Hide, Driftwood and Figured You Out is like a psychiatric textbook of social anxiety descending in to psychological dependency and then full-on emotional gas lighting by a narcissist.
The 21st century has started like the century of the narcissist. No one is immune. It takes a hero like Helen to call them out. It almost feels like the beauty of the later song shows too much respect to the said narcissist and all narcissists in general.
At times Helen and Ben sound like Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz with a hint of bossa nova. Due in part to the sensational drumming of Ben Vanderwal. While tuning for her solo song Canvas Helen is heckled by her 18-month-old daughter Bonnie. It is a beautiful counter point to the at times painful lyrics.
Ben and Helen end with 2015’s Finding Gold with the audience obliging with a singalong.
This was a commanding performance by two amazing West Australian musicians.