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Review: Kate Miller-Heidke: Catching Diamonds at The Dunstan Playhouse

Review by Matthew Hocter

The cold winter of July 2009 lingers in my memory, a month etched in my mind as not just a seasonal winter, but also a personal one. The loss of one of the most influential people in my life tore an unrelenting wound in a somewhat already fragile heart, a void deeper than I ever thought possible. Just four years prior, another loss had carved a similar emptiness, leaving me adrift in a what felt like a sea of grief with no foreseeable shore. It was a terrifying prospect, and one that felt utterly beyond my control.

Yet, as with all forms of heartbreak, music emerged as a beacon of solace. Its melodies, woven from warmth and empathy, have a remarkable ability to mend fractured hearts and pave the way for healing. In that all-encompassing and what can feel like a never ending well of sorrow, I stumbled upon a song by Australian singer, Kate Miller-Heidke. Used on a popular soap here in Australia, the notoriety propelled  it to the top of the charts. The song, "The Last Day on Earth,” has a hauntingly beautiful quality, both in its vocals and lyrics. It resonated with a profoundness that only a truly gifted songwriter could achieve. It hit hard. Something deep within me had now created this need for repeated listens, searching for a missed nuance with each new play. Miller-Heidke's voice and words, in that moment of profound sadness and self-absorption, offered a cathartic release, allowing the floodgates of grief to finally open. Such is the healing power of music.

Many a winter would pass before the opportunity to witness Miller-Heidke perform live presented itself. Fifteen, to be exact. While her inclusion in the 2024 Adelaide Cabaret Festival lineup initially seemed unorthodox, her name stood out amongst the plethora of acts within the program, a name that I knew I had to see perform live. Finally.

Opening with “Fire & Iron” from 2012’s Nightlife album, Miller-Heidke was joined onstage by her husband and musical anchor, Keir Nuttall, his guitar a resonating counterpoint to her voice. While the initial impulse might be to surrender to the purely aesthetic – her beauty a physical manifestation of the ethereal quality inherent in her vocals – Miller-Heidke's stage presence transcends any superficiality one might want to lean into. It embodies a paradox, an allure that is both distant and strangely familiar. An unspoken star quality of a bygone era that for lack of a better word, was mesmerizing. 

A stunning rendition of "O Vertigo!" marked a shift, as fellow Adelaide Cabaret Festival alum, Jess Hitchcock, graced the stage. Their voices intertwined, adding a layer of depth to Miller-Heidke's music. Moving between established hits and forays into the world of musical theatre with selections from Bananaland (a collaborative effort with Nuttall) and Muriel's Wedding, the setlist highlighted Miller-Heidke’s versatility and artistic evolution. Yet, amidst all the music, it was songs like "Sarah" and the poignant cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Kathy's Song" (a favorite of her Nanna Meg) that truly shone and allowed for her stunning vocality to take centre stage.

Miller-Heidke's undefinable stage presence justifies the adoration she receives. From her Eurovision triumph (the pop-operatic “Zero Gravity”) to deeply moving ballads like the aforementioned "Last Day on Earth," there's a palpable sense of national pride woven into her performances, all delivered with an Australian accent – a feat still so elusive for many singers in this country. The closing act, "Words/Paint It Black," showcased the playful synergy between Miller-Heidke and Nuttall as she sang into his guitar, which in turn sampled her vocals, culminating in a mind-bending guitar solo. It perfectly exemplified a personal adage I hold true when reviewing live music: "Live music is THE ultimate truth teller." And the undeniable truth of this evening was that all that graced that stage at the Dunstan Playhouse, were and are the living embodiment of the exceptional talent that lives on this wonderful land.

Image Credit: Claudio Raschella


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