A passion for performing
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A passion for performing

Deborah Conway has performed in rock bands and solo shows and is coming to Canberra to give a little more, performing with her partner Willy Zygier, Chris Johnson writes

Is Deborah Conway a living national treasure? Regardless of any list the National Trust might put out, the answer has to be a definitive yes. Conway's contribution to Australian music and popular culture is considerable and it is the gift that keeps on giving.

Right from her 1980s rock-chick days with Do-Ré-Mi and their smash hit Man Overboard, onto solo success in the '90s (try and get the tune It's Only the Beginning out of your head), to her all-female act with Broad and through to today's classy acoustic ventures, Conway has done it all.

And she is back in Canberra next weekend to give a little more.

Conway's voice, which has always been superb, is better than ever - strong and sweet at the same time - and the calibre of her songs is outstanding.

Her partner in crime (her life and musical partner) is Willy Zygier. Zygier's ability on guitar has to be witnessed to be believed. He plays well a number of instruments, including the banjo, mandolin and ukulele, but remains a master on acoustic guitar and insists he rarely picks up an electric instrument these days. Together, Conway and Zygier write highly intelligent songs and perform them to breathtaking perfection.

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''The passion of writing and performing remains undiminished,'' Conway said. ''It's a lifelong vocation and we are absorbed creating work on themes that have distilled our ideas with a new clarity. It's very exciting for us.''

And it is exciting for their audiences, as those who saw the pair when they last played Canberra a couple of years ago can confirm. In concert, the duo delivers the kind of performance that keeps everyone in attendance spellbound. Theirs are truly beautiful songs. They transform to another, old-world, time.

Stunning in their technical difficulty yet at the same time mesmerising in their simplicity, Conway and Zygier's musical creations delve deep into the human psyche to the point where they relate to just about every listener.

Audience silence is a rare commodity, but Conway and Zygier manage to capture it while performing.

The silence only gives way to rapturous applause.

An insight into the power of their songs can be found on the duo's current album Half Man Half Woman, which has met with rave reviews around the country.

It crosses genres effortlessly, presenting a mix of folk, pop, waltz, ragtime, country, blues, country blues and more. And all presented in an enchanting, parlour-style intimacy. Zygier's prowess on the instrumental High Times is a treat.

But so too is the pair's approach to other of the album's tracks including Agar Rag, Lying Next to You, It's Not the Same Without You, Cul De Sac, Chromatic Jew and Somewhere Different. A standout track is Spoken Like a Man - but it's a standout among a CD full of outstanding songs. Not a dud among them. And that's just the latest album. There is the whole back catalogue full of goodies to pick from.

Conway and Zygier say they continue to explore the breadth of sound that can be extracted from acoustic instruments combined with vocals. Their songs range from material about the stuff that can make people furious and curious to miserable and even happy. Their sound has been described as endlessly inventive within the bounds of real.

Both partners sing and play with a refreshing musical integrity and honesty that is hard to find today. Their Canberra gig will highlight the tracks from the current album, as well as some of the duo's and Conway's former offerings.

In addition, material for a work-in-progress new album will be put to the audience.

''We are mainly focused on performing Half Man Half Woman but there has been a flurry of new material generated,'' Conway said. ''And we are at that stage where we are showcasing work from a forthcoming project.''

Conway said the albums just keep coming and Australians should ''expect another one sooner than later'' but in the meantime they can ''catch us performing songs from the latest CD and the one before that and quite a few before that too, alongside some previews of the yet to be released work.''

Conway and Zygier often play purely as a duo and just as often with various combinations of backing band. This tour they have with them some of Australia's finest.

''We are playing with Shannon Birchall on double bass, of John Butler Trio and Spaghetti Western Orchestra fame,'' Conway said. ''And also we have Ben Hendry on percussion (from Flap!). These two are amongst the best acoustic musicians in the country.''

And she should know. Since 2008 Conway's other role has been as the artistic director of the biennial Queensland Music Festival, where she hand-picked some of this country's and other counties' best performers for the event. Considering that her home is Melbourne, the Brisbane role had Conway travelling interstate a great deal.

''As of delivery of my last festival in July 2011 I have resigned my position as artistic director for the Queensland Music Festival,'' she said. ''It was deeply satisfying work but it was time too move back to my major focus, which is always first and foremost as a musician.''

Queensland's loss becomes Canberra's gain as Conway and Zygier find time to visit the capital once again to impart a little more of their magic to a discerning audience.

Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier play Tilley's Devine Café on Saturday March 24.

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