Louis Tillett sails back into town for more nights at sea

In the summer of 1990, a tall and imposingly mysterious figure, hidden under a wide-brimmed hat and long black overcoat, took the stage alone at the open-air Lycabettus Theater to impress the packed venue with his spirited baroque-type blues that were both belted and caressed out of the grand piano. The occasion marked the underground Australian artist Louis Tillett’s first ever show in Greece as the support act for compatriot Nick Cave and his backing band, the Bad Seeds. As things have now turned out, it was Tillett’s first of many performances here over the ensuing years. His frequent returns to Greece as part of his European tours, where Tillett has steadily built a cult following, have included a couple of lengthy stays in Greece. Now back for an undetermined period of time that may last a year, Tillett will perform at the capital’s Mikro Mousiko Theatro in the Koukaki district (33 Veikou St) this Thursday night. Tillett, who also played two shows at the tiny venue last year, may also perform additional shows as the opening act for another Australian group, the Dirty Three, an acclaimed, melancholy, violin-led instrumental trio, which is playing at the same venue on May 31 and June 1. But the prospect remains unconfirmed. «It’s the appreciation of unashamed expression of emotion, be it on the streets, in bars, or clubs that tends to draw me here. I feel this helps me both psychologically and artistically. One leads to the other. I feel comfortable here,» said the Sydney-based artist. «I find Sydney to be a sterile place. Its beautiful locale doesn’t express spirit,» he added. Hailing from a medical family, the 43-year-old Tillett has fought psychological problems and drinking woes that date back to his teenage years to produce a considerable and commendable body of work for well over a decade now. After playing with various fringe acts in Sydney, among them the Wet Taxis, No Dance and Paris Green, Tillett made an impressive debut as a solo artist with 1987’s «Egotripping at the Gates of Hell,» a potent rock-jazz-blues cocktail for which the pianist-singer-songwriter was backed by a wide cast of formidable Sydney-based musicians. Its successor, «A Cast of Aspersions,» released in 1990, followed in a similar «big-band» vein. But Tillett has since opted for a gradually sparser approach to the instrumentation of his songs. The de-escalation began with 1992’s beautifully somber «Letters to a Dream,» an intricate piano-and-cello dominated album whose lyrics were based on a series of harrowing diary entries. Tillett then stripped down his sound to just piano and guitar for two worthy releases in the mid-1990s, «The Ugly Truth» and «Midnight Rain.» He was accompanied by Charlie Owen, a regular collaborator, and one of Australia’s most gifted guitarists. More recently, Tillett has preferred playing alone, especially on stage, as part of a more meditative approach, or out of a desire to derive stronger guidance from his songs. «I’m more determined than ever before to make the solo piano-and-voice thing work,» said Tillett. «I want to avoid any form of extravaganza. It’s not the way I want to go. I’m not interested in being some sort of a circus clown. This is more like the devil doing the devil’s work,» remarked the soft-spoken Tillett, whose on-stage voice metamorphosizes into a mighty gale force. «A Night at Sea With Louis Tillett,» a recent documentary featuring excerpts from one of Tillett’s shows in Sydney and insight into his music and personal troubles with comments from family members, colleagues and friends, has given the underground figure exposure at home. Aired nationwide early last year by its producer, ABC, Australia’s state-run broadcasting commission, the documentary had cut short Tillett’s intended extended stay in Greece following the completion of a European tour. Management rushed Tillett back to Australia for a series of shows in a bid to capitalize on the interest prompted by the documentary. Some 400,000 viewers had tuned in. Despite that fanfare, the peripheral figure is now back here, hoping to write new material using «Australia’s Least Wanted» as the working title for his next project.