Ali McGregor with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, May 26th 2023 – Live Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Ali McGregor.

Whether you’ve known her through opera, cabaret, her annual Melbourne International Comedy Festival Late-Nite Variety-Nite shows, or you’re completely new to her existence (better late than never), her headlining concert ‘Ali McGregor with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’ which took place at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Hamer Hall last Friday the 26th of May, had something in it for everyone to enjoy.

Beginning with a beautiful overture from the Australian opera Lorelei, the 60-piece Melbourne Symphony Orchestra brought the venue to life with majestic music that was only enriched by Ali McGregor’s captivating stage presence. Taking to the stage in a dazzling gold number, equipped with her beautiful voice and a variety of fun stories that she was happy to share, Ali McGregor had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand (not literally) from start to finish.

Conducted by Benjamin Northey, accompanied by McGregor’s existing band members including musical director and pianist Sam Keevers, double bassist Ben Robertson, and drummer Hugh Harvey, McGregor shared her genuine delight that all could make it, but especially Harvey, whose wife was due to give birth the same date as the concert.

Luckily, the baby arrived the day before, so Harvey could thankfully still perform and be part of the iconic event. After all, performing at Hamer Hall is no ordinary feat with McGregor likening performing at the Melbourne venue with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to a team playing at the AFL Grand Final at the MCG. For Ali McGregor, this was her spiritual place, thus headlining at Hamer Hall with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was not only an honour, but a dream come true.

Kickstarting with 80s tune Soft Shell’s ‘Tainted Love’ reimagined in a jazz style, McGregor’s stories were as delightful as her performances. All filled with excitement, passion, sincerity, and married together with eclectic sounds and musical mashups that on paper wouldn’t make any sense, with Ali McGregor’s creative input and gorgeous vocals, it’s awe-inspiringly genius.

This was evident with ‘Queen of the Night Mambo’ which consisted of Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ aria from opera The Magic Flute being injected with the catchy Cuban music style. It was an unlikely combination that made the experience of hearing the two music genres successfully melded together even more surreal and exciting. The concert wasn’t only fun, stimulating, and unpredictable, but it was also surprisingly educational.

I discovered the likes of Cleo Laine through McGregor’s intimate performance of ‘Thieving Boy’, accompanied solely by principal clarinettist David Thomas. I witnessed Ali McGregor’s love for rock music with her covers of INXS’ ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ performed in a dramatic, sensual, and commanding way, and Blur’s ‘Song 2’, which sounded so different, McGregor practically made it her own – even the “Woo-hoo” parts!

Like a woman possessed, Ali McGregor’s mouth trickled out sounds I didn’t even know a single human being could make during her section dedicated to the late Peruvian songstress, Yma Sumac. Performing no less than x3 songs from Sumac’s repertoire; ‘Aytapura’, ‘Taki Rari’, and ‘Chuncho’, with her friend and jazz guitarist Paul Rettke accompanying her alone for the latter, I was already thoroughly impressed with what this one-night-only concert had to offer, and we were only in Act 1!

The act even had an outfit transformation from her sparkly gold outfit number evolving into a long-sleeved green and gold accented gown, complete with a peacock headdress. It was theatrical and stunning witnessing McGregor’s attire change in a blink of an eye, and I was certain that she’d show up in another outfit for Act 2. I was happy to be right when McGregor returned to the stage after the interval in a sexy red number with a diamante butterfly buckle and a faux fur shawl. I was only sad there wasn’t a fourth and final outfit after McGregor surprised us with two in the first act.

I hate to overuse the word ‘genius’ but that’s what the second act was filled with; super clever mashups that you never knew you needed.

Admittedly, I still haven’t seen the film The Fabulous Baker Boys, but I really want to after hearing the mashup of the film’s song ‘Making Whoopee’ and 90s Aqua anthem ‘Barbie Girl’ with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ (or Michael Bublé, depending on what generation you’re from) combined with Gorillaz’s ‘Feel Good Inc.’ had me respectfully silently ecstatic in my seat and excitedly wondering if anyone else in the audience recognised the origin of the unlikely but genius paring.

One of the most breath-taking moments of the night however, was when Ali McGregor brought out her husband, comedian, TV presenter, and overall nice guy Adam Hills to accompany her in a gorgeous spoke-poetry and song mash-up, combining The Church’s ‘Under The Milky Way’ with Australian poet Banjo Paterson’s ‘Clancy of the Overflow’.

I adored how genuinely nervous Hills was before beginning the number, stating that it was intimidating performing at his wife’s concert because when he stuffs up at his shows, he at least knows that he’ll survive. I’ll never forget the moment when light hit the disco ball above them which shone little freckles of light throughout the venue during their performance. They were like frozen brilliant snowflakes and I really wish I pulled my phone out to take a photo. It was stunning. Oh, Hills’ performance was fine by the way. He had nothing to worry about. It was perfect, and the way the pair exchanged gleeful smiles after their performance ended was just so sweet.

I’m certain that everyone has a favourite moment of the night. For me, I have several. The cover of the Foo Fighters’ ‘Best of You’ was nothing short of phenomenal. I never thought I’d want to headbang to a symphony orchestra, but there I was, in my seat energetically nodding my head while Ali McGregor flawlessly executed the song with so much vigour and grace.

Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ had me wanting to pull my phone out and shine the light on my phone while swaying it around, much like people use to do at gigs with cigarette lighters. But I quickly remembered that I was in a concert hall and had to be respectful. But I want you to know that I really, really wanted to. I also had hoped that somebody in the audience would recognise this song too, so that they would get the full appreciation for the reimagined version Ali McGregor was gifting us, much like I did.

But the best part was by far the finale. In the perfect musical marriage, Ali McGregor combined Queen’s ‘Somebody to Love’ with Lizzo’s ‘Cuz I Love You’ and it was heavenly. I was overjoyed with how well the songs worked together, how beautiful they sounded as one, along with Ali McGregor’s voice, and together with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The amount of power, control and range she has with her voice is so impressive.

But in this performance, my brain seemed to freeze when conductor Benjamin Northey turned towards the audience. Silently I had wondered why. Then, in an instant, my unspoken questions were answered when scatters of members of the audience (a hidden choir!) jumped up to sing and chant repeatedly the iconic Queen lyrics, “Find me somebody to love”.

In that moment, I was very moved and I would be lying if I told you my jaw didn’t drop in awe. I love Lizzo, Queen, and ‘Somebody to Love’ is one of my favourite Queen songs. It was so iconic and magical, you just had to be there. Naturally, this also inspired everyone else in the audience to stand up, joyfully sing along, and give Ali McGregor the standing ovation that both she and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra so deserved.

‘Ali McGregor with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’ was so artfully fantastic and wonderful, I only wish that their collaboration would be an annual event. Can you imagine the other marvellous mashups that Ali McGregor could conjure? Think of the possibilities! I’m also certain that at this point, Ali McGregor can do pretty much anything and she should be very proud of this concert.

It was truly an honour to watch her dreams come true that night and the experience of being there will stay with me for a long time. Plus, in case I forget it really happened, I have the ticket stubs (I managed to get them printed at the box office!) to prove it was real. The way that she breathed new life into so many songs I’ve known for years is insane. Ali McGregor is a national treasure that we’re damn lucky to have and call our own.

‘Ali McGregor with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’ occurred at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on Friday the 26th of May.
For more information on Ali McGregor and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, please visit the links below:

Photography by Laura Manariti.

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