Fringe Review: Donnarumma presents Grace - The Songs of Jeff Buckley

Words by Matthew Hayward
Photos by Lewis Brideson

Attempting to interpret the musical canon with the associated mythology of an artist as revered as the late Jeff Buckley would be a challenging, if not incredibly daunting task for any musician. The iconic singer-songwriter made his indelicate mark on the world with his debut album Grace some 22 years ago, a slow burning masterpiece which embraced the stark intimacy of Buckley's personal life with grandiose theatrical intent.  His untimely death before he completed his followup album and subsequent release of Sketches for My Sweetheart, the Drunk only served to illustrate a bittersweet farewell to 90's alterna-rock culture.

Adelaide musician Louis Donnarumma may only be a relative newcomer to the local music scene, but the singer-songwriter has an incredible vocal presence that belies his age. His band, Donnarumma, featuring bass player Anthony Constanzo, drummer Max Tulysewski and additional guitarist Django Rowe are already well respected for their jazz pedigree and impressive work ethic around town.  Following the sold out success of the previous Grace shows at the Adelaide Fringe in 2016, Donnarumma returns to the familiar setting of the Grace Emily Hotel and Jive for a series of four energetic shows.

The band opened show with the Sufi inspired hymnal 'You and I', before launching into the unsettling fever dream of 'So Real'. It was clear from the initial strong audience reaction the songs held a special place in the hearts of those who were attending the gig, as well as the musicians themselves. 

Early highlights of the first set included a raucous road version of 'Eternal Life' and 'Grace', the Zeppelin inspired songs which brought the mercurial singer early critical acclaim.  These were contrasted by Buckley's quieter and lesser known works, such as 'All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun', an unreleased duet between Buckley and Cocteau Twins Elizabeth Fraser, dutifully performed on the night by special guest Maggie Rutjens.

Later in the evening Donnarumma returned for a second set of seminal Buckley songs.  Led by the propulsive drumming of Tulysewski, the band jovially performed goth-lite 'Witches Rave' as punters bounced along in approval.  Any earlier trepidation about performing such complex material evaporated, and the band loosened up to perform the rainy day coffee house soul of 'Everybody Here Wants You' and the haunting 'Last Goodbye'.

Donnarumma captured the emotive and cathartic resonance of Buckley's songs. Whereas a more immature performer might suffer from the fate of attempting vocal gymnastics without the sensibility or 'feel' for the songs, Louis and company gracefully (ahem) complimented the original source material without losing his own unmistakable voice.

And yes, while it would have been a surprise for the purist to hear how Donnarumma might have engaged with the Mystery White Boy live material or Buckley's more experimental diversions on the latter half of Sketches, the band delivered a confident and self-assured performance which for many was an early musical highlight of the Fringe calendar.