Americans over 40 don’t know him, but apparently everyone under 27 or with a personal connection to Australia knows Matt Corby, a 2007 runner-up in TV’s Australian Idol contest. After several ups and downs, albums, transformations and years, the pretty-boy image (in the finals, one Idol judge called him “a super-talented himbo”) has vanished, but the talent definitely remains.
The crowd erupted when the stage went dark. Corby came on solo, armed with his incredible voice and a MIDI machine, performing “Monday.” It took him a bit to set up the background, but only a few bars into his vocals, I knew we were hearing a rare talent. After the opening number, the band arrived for a particularly well-crafted show which showcased the many styles and broad interpretive vocals Corby uses without ever making his audience wonder “What is this doing here?”
What makes Corby thrilling? He uses his exceptional abilities to surprise his audience. Most great rock vocalists are either singers (Marvin Gaye, Roy Orbison) or screamers (Steven Tyler, James Brown), but Corby, like Robert Plant and Aretha Franklin, has his feet firmly planted in both techniques, and works the Hell out of both. He also has an enormous vocal range, from a solid baritone to high tenor and a mean falsetto, and transitions seamlessly between them. He scats in blues, jazz and, occasionally, rock. Last, but hardly least, he can—and does—turn up the volume without warning; Adele does exactly the same thing, lulling us into a comfortable ballad, then springing a beautiful, booming wakeup call, often in a different octave or key, but loud. Corby juggles these techniques in songs touched with jazz, hard rock, pop, soul and synth, and builds a sonic rollercoaster ride for the entire audience. It’s a rush.
Once the band got onstage, each song segued into the other, mostly without pause. About the fourth song, for which he strapped on an electric guitar and went all swampy on us. “The guy can jam!” said Tom Kirk, the violinist from the opening act, Julie Byrne. Corby made a brief speech which no one around me—even Australian transplant Sharina Lynch—could understand, but patter ranked a dim second to the music. The dozen songs in the set spanned soul, pop, rock, smooth jazz, gospel and protest—if that’s a genre. Late on, when Corby ditched his electric guitar for a hollowbody, apparently fans knew another hit, “Soul’s A’Fire” was coming. A dark and brooding blues number, it became one of my personal favorites, too.
Tom Kirk marveled at the turnout and the enthusiasm of the crowd, and claimed he’d never heard of Corby before being asked to open for him, so I began to question others how they learned of Matt Corby. Aussie Lynch caught him in a club outside Sydney eight years ago, before she moved to New York; she told us he then drew about ten people, but made her a fan. “And now he’s selling out Bowery Ballroom and Rough Trade, in New York!” she said. One guy said “My girlfriend’s Australian.” The other 20 people either saw a video or found him on a Pandora/Spotify-type service, which suggested Corby “…if you like….” Bon Iver’s name came up most often. Only Lynch mentioned Idol, which of course must have triggered Corby’s original video hits.
Corby closed out the night with “Empire,” from his upcoming album Telluric, and segued into an amazing cover of “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It ain’t easy to follow Sam Cooke, folks, but Matt Corby’s cover sent chills down more spines than mine. This guy’s the real deal.