Gig review – The Drones play ‘Wait Long By the River…’, Sydney Opera House, 24 May 2015

Can it really be ten years since the release of Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By? Apparently so, and the Drones, sadly absent from the live circuit of late, are back to celebrate a decade of existence for this messy, sprawling beast of a record, a work of both brutality and beauty. It hasn’t dated a day.

It begins with ‘Shark Fin Blues’, which is classics Drones territory, images of despair and a desire for self-annihilation paired with some savage riffs. Once voted the greatest Australian song of all by their fellow musicians, it’s such a fiery, rousing opening salvo that one enthusiastic punter is inspired to yell “Play it again!”.

They don’t do that, but launch straight into ‘Baby’ which sees Gareth Liddiard’s ragged howl of a voice in magnificently malevolent form. ‘Shark Fin Blues’ and ‘Baby’ make for a cracking opening to a record, but all the more compelling in person where Liddiard makes for a magnetic frontman, wild-eyed and loose-limbed, spitting like a fountain and contorting himself crazily as he doesn’t so much play his guitar as strangle noise out of it.

Fiona Kitschin and Dan Luscombe, on bass and lead guitar respectively, are a much more still presence on stage but just as vital to the barbed sound which ranges from minimalist sparseness to dense intensity and underscores all the pent up frustration and anger of the lyrics.

For all the savagery of their music though they come across as fairly relaxed characters and aren’t afraid of having a laugh at their own expense. There’s a story about a “GPS fuck up” that saw them take a scenic route to the Opera House and when Liddiard blows out a hired guitar amp, he jokes he might have to put it on his credit card. Luscombe has another solution: blame fellow Vivid guest Morrissey.

There’s nothing light-hearted about ‘The Best You Can Believe In’ though, which builds from a deliberate, sparse opening and almost spoken word vocals into something cathartic and huge. You can hear the ghost of The Birthday Party here, that same sense of ominous abandon.

Equally thrilling is the midnight black ‘Locust’, where that indelibly haunting opening, just some sparse keys and Liddiard’s tumbing words, is greeted with euphoric recognition from the engaged crowd. There’s a real sense of space and isolation in this song and it’s hard to believe the name ‘Georgie’ has ever been sung with such passionate ferocity as it is here.

The guitar meltdowns of ‘This Time’ and ‘Sittin’ on the Edge of the Bed Cryin’’ continue the intensity, while there’s also a couple of classics to round out proceedings: the epic ‘The Minotaur’ and the haunted ‘The Miller’s Daughter’.

As well as providing a potent reminder of the enduring power of Wait Long… the night also offered a glimpse of what The Drones might do next with an unnamed new mini-epic, a typically fevered rocker with lyrics about death which climaxes in a tangle of guitar noise and an insistent refrain.

In the encore, they end with their traditional closing song, Kev Carmody’s ‘River of Tears’. A mighty howl of protest for the Indigenous activist David Gundy, who was controversially shot by police in his home, it’s a searing finish to a show which confirms The Drones as one of the very best live bands this country has produced.

Gig review – Spandau Ballet, Qantas Credit Union Arena, 15 May 2015

Did any band provide the soundtrack for more 1980s prom slow dances Spandau Ballet? Probably not – they were an era-defining, improbably fashionable cultural phenomena at their peak and they’re still big enough to almost pack out this stadium with many of the punters from their 1985 show in the same room returning tonight.

They kick off with the self-mythologising ‘Soul Boy’. It’s a blatant attempt at self-mythology, but it also just works. The lyrics about being forever young and dancing an endless dance seem far less ridiculous than they could given that Tony Hadley’s crooner’s voice retains every bit of its old smoothness.
‘Raw’ is just silly, an unconvincing attempt at a more muscular sound, but most of the newer songs like the synth-heavy ‘This is the Love’ and the refined ‘Steal’ prove more than reasonable facsimiles of peak Spandau. The classics like ‘Round and Round’ and the hook-filled ‘Communication’ remain bright and shiny crowd pleasers.

The crowd is even more pleased when the energetic Hadley moves into the upper tiers of the stadium to sing ‘Empty Spaces’ and lead a brief singalong of ‘Gold’. True to the nostalgic feel of the night, there’s also neon lighting recreating the signage of the influential Blitz nightclub and a video montage of the group in their New Romantic pomp, all tousled hair, soft focus photography, regrettable fashion and stadia filled with screaming fans.

Rather than trying to move with the times, Spandau Ballet have chosen to cling ever more tightly to their youthful glories. But on the inevitable set closer ‘True’, the softest of soft rock evergreens, and a fist-pumping encore of ‘Gold’, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that these songs are aging better than anyone could have expected. They remain quintessentially 80s, but now that’s their selling point.

At one stage, this reunion show seemed the longest of long shots as three of the band sued the Kemp brothers over songwriting royalties and the group descended into acrimony. But back together with their original lineup, still indestructibly popular and slick as ever, Spandau Ballet are now writing a much more dignified final chapter than their previous messy ending.

Gig Review – The Waterboys, Sydney Opera House, 2 April 2015

An ever-evolving outfit who have counted more than 70 musicians amongst their number over the four decades of their career, the current incarnation of The Waterboys sees bandleader Mike Scott team up with players plucked from across America’s most fabled music cities.

Suave guitar player Zach Ernst hails from Texas, keyboard wizard Brother Paul is a Memphis native and bassist David Hood is from the musical hotspot of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It’s a lineup whose roots lie in soul, blues and Americana, befitting the sound of new record Modern Blues, which is characteristically huge in scope and sweepingly romantic, though more heavily influenced by roots rock as well as the swagger and muscularity of The Rolling Stones this time around.

Apart from the youthful Ernst, they’re a seasoned outfit, though wildly enthusiastic throughout. Fiddle player Steve Wickham is particularly animated, high-kicking around stage, while Brother Paul attacks his keys with the zeal of a mad scientist and wears a maniacal grin throughout.

‘Destinies Entwined’ kicks off proceedings in grand fashion and much of the early stretch of the set is made up of material from Modern Blues.‘Nearest Thing To Hip’ is a stylish lament for a disappearing bohemian scene and ‘Still A Freak’ a statement of defiance and unfashionable optimism, played with real verve.

With lyrics that nod to Elvis, Hendrix and Sun Ra, these are songs that lament past heroes while ranking amongst the most vital and inspired songs Scott has written in decades. One brief, improvised song paid tribute to the recently departed Cynthia Lennon, but for the most part the mood was positively euphoric.

While the new songs were warmly received, the adulation went up a notch for the glorious ‘The Whole Of The Moon’, still the best encapsulation of The Waterboys’ romanticism and Scott’s ability to write lyrics both simple and poetic. A couple of other classics made an appearance, like ‘The Three Day Man’ and ‘Don’t Bang The Drum’, which saw the players pared down to Scott on keys and long-time member Wickham, whose playing was warm and melodic throughout, on electric fiddle.

The encore of the rousing, Celtic-tinged ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ finally brought the crowd – many of whom would have been in their teens when the song was first released in 1988 – to their feet, dancing with unselfconscious joy.

Gig review – The Lucksmiths, Hopetoun Hotel 2008

When Lucksmiths singer/drummer Tali White goes to introduce ‘Successlessness’ there’s a bit of discussion between him and his songwriter/guitarist Marty Donald, the upshot of which seems to be that they’ve worked out there aren’t enough ‘S’ tiles in a game of scrabble to make the song’s title. Donald would know: if the hangman-themed magnets at the merch stand or the fact his favourite possession is a thesaurus didn’t give it away, these songs, filled with neat puns, obscure references and acute detail amply make the point: the man is a wordsmith extraordinaire.

Clever lyrics are all well and good, but the thing that makes The Lucksmiths such an absolutely lovable live band is the irrepressible bounciness of their stage presence, their intelligent optimism. It’s there in the assured reassurance of ‘A Hiccup In Your Happiness’ , the stolen romance of ‘Southernmost’ and ‘Sunlight in a jar’, a song about the futility of summing up “complex, credible love” in musical form that’s all the more affecting for its hard-won hope. You’d have to search your vocabulary for new words to describe the good-natured storytelling of ‘Great Lengths’ or the winning jangle of ‘The Chapter in Your Life Entitled San Francisco’. By the time they reach the second-last song, the exuberant ‘T-Shirt Weather’, the Hopetoun feels so filled with glee it seems altogether likely it may actually explode. The Lucksmiths are nobody’s idea of a dangerous band, but how many other groups threaten venues with joy-fuelled spontaneous combustion? That’s punk rock. And oh yeah, they’d probably kick your ass at Scrabble.

Originally appeared in: Mess and Noise

Gig review – Loene Carmen, Annandale Hotel 2007

Some bands sound exactly like their name, others seem to live up to their artwork perfectly, but Loene Carmen is perhaps the first artist I’ve seen who sounds just like her merchandise stand. Rather than the standard black T-shirts and albums sitting on a table, her temporary shop consists of an antique suitcase packed with vintage knickers and small bottles of “genuine cheap French vodka”. It’s a perfect encapsulation of her gauzy, tear-soaked blues noir. Tonight’s set begins with the scuzzy rock & attitude of ‘My Friends Call Me Foxy’, a killer single, but not the best showcase for her intoxicating voice.

There’s plenty of time for that though – ‘Nashville High’ in particular is a shimmering wonder. Deliciously dark, sexy and dead cool, it’s exactly the kind of thing that has seen her earn admiring nods from a who’s who of Australian underground rock icons. Her band includes Jed Kurzel of The Mess Hall and Holy Soul’s Sam Worrad, but her smoky vocals alone are more than enough to entertain everyone from the middle-aged record collector types to the ballroom-dancing teenagers down the front. There’s an encore of course, with the great ‘The Bee’ featuring. Then, sadly, it’s over, but those small flasks of official Loene Carmen vodka, each guaranteed to contain a tear of joy, look mighty inviting.

Originally appeared in: Mess and Noise

Gig review – Art of Fighting, Factory Theatre 2007

Art of Fighting songs are always about secrets in one form or another: things left unsaid, places lost to any map, lovers never understood. That sense of mystery is there amongst the fragility of set opener ‘Skeletons’ and buried under the pure longing of ‘Distance is Virtue’ (“the one place I can’t be is near to you”). It’s certainly there in Ollie Browne’s magnificently emotional voice and the shimmering, gauzy guitar sound that surrounds it. These are songs that creep up and you and sneak into your consciousness, not least ‘Along The Run’ which could be mistaken for a lost gem from Ryan Adams’ fitfully brilliant back catalogue.

For a band whose muse seems permanently located in a place Ollie describes as “pretty fucking mellow”, they’re positively chipper onstage. Perhaps the most polite front-man in Australian rock, he dedicates one song to everyone present, notes with surprise the obscurity of some of the requests the crowd make (though sadly no-one demands their B-side cover of Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long’) and promises a band T-shirt will be out soon. If they do need a quote to emblazon across its front, they need look no further than the opening to ‘Heart Translation’: “Want to hold you like a secret, want to hold you like a hand”. That enigmatic passion would be a perfect hint towards the great secret of Art of Fighting’s appeal, their ability to turn the most abstract of longing into the most heartfelt of music.

Originally appeared in: Mess and Noise

Gig review – Bob Evans, UNSW Roundhouse 2007

With his unkempt hair, sticker-covered acoustic and half-filled wine bottle for swilling, Bob Evans looks every bit the perennial student. But as he sheepishly welcomes everyone to the new university year, he recounts his own academic career, which came to an end after “a year and four weeks”. It’s a typical Evans story, marked by the same mixture of humility and easygoing charm that makes his songs so easy to like.

A typically restless student crowd might be mainly here for the gentle beauty of ‘Don’t You Think It’s Time’ and ‘Nowhere Without You’ (and the cheap drinks), which are delivered with aplomb, but it’s the quietly moving B-side ‘Sister’s Wedding Day’ which steals the show. ‘Friend’ also hushes the crowd with its strikingly simple refrain that “I believe in love”, while ‘Me and My Friend’ comes across as the perfect ode to student bars everywhere: “Let’s find somewhere different where the carpet ain’t clean”.

He’s funny too, posing melodramatically in the path of the billowing smoke machine and strumming the opening notes of ‘Tears in Heaven’. In the encore there’s a cover of ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’, which he explains is “completely unrehearsed, so be gentle if I fuck it up”. Kevin Mitchell doesn’t, of course, which is just as well, because as he explains, “I really don’t want to get a real job”.

Originally appeared in: Mess and Noise