Space Party, The Magic Rob Universe, Little Mac and The Monster Men

Column: Gig Reviews   |   Date Published: Tuesday, 13 August 13   |   Author: Amy Dowler   |   3 years, 10 months ago

@ Polish White Eagle Club, Friday July 26


The beautiful marriage between The Polish Club and Canberra Musicians Club continues to deliver, this time with a triple-header album launch for local bands Little Mac and the Monster Men, Magic Rob Universe, and Space Party.

Little Mac and The Monster Men kicked things off with a playful rockabilly set. Rockabilly is increasingly trendy, but there was the impression these guys and gal were true believers. Lead singer Susan ‘Little Mac’ Mackell had great stage presence and the crowd were well and truly warmed up by the end of the set.

Little Mac was followed by the space boogie of Magic Rob Universe. Clad in capes, there was a lot to like about Magic Rob (vocals, guitar) and his universe. Rob’s vocals were reminiscent of Syd Barrett or a less serious Robert Forster. The songs’ subject matter and psychedelic sensibilities were also similar to Barrett-era Pink Floyd – a very good thing in this reviewer’s book. Add to that a consistent driving rhythm and many punters were unable to keep to their seats.

The dancing continued when Space Party took the stage to close the night with a solid set of old-fashioned instrumental surf rock. Space Party delivered the highlight of the night when Mackell joined them to do Where’s Captain Kirk?, originally by British punks Spizzenergi.

It is a happy coincidence that these three genre bands are releasing albums around the same time. The triple bill made a lot of sense given the bands’ distinct but sympathetic styles. It also served to demonstrate the vitality of the Canberra music scene, populated by bands making interesting – and fun – music.



Dick Diver, TV Colours, Teaser Pony:

@ Transit Bar, Saturday July 27


What might a cultural anthropologist have made of the scene in Transit Bar? The small clumps of chums, wrapped in the heavy coats and tights last seen on the poster for the 1991 film Singles, studying each other over frosty pints of sweet cider. The invisible barrier that emerged 20 feet from the stage, where about 40 punters stood cheek to cheek. The obligatory blow-ins crowding the pool tables. What an odd bunch.

Teaser Pony was up first. Melbourne lad turned local Chrissy Higgins (doesn’t that sound familiar?) handled lead vocals and Malkmus-ian guitar, while an unnamed bass player contributed some of the most hilarious moves since Mark Knopfler goose-stepped across stages during Walk of Life. It was artfully dishevelled, good-natured, and tuneful. Higgins has a way with a phrase and should be encouraged onto Canberra stages.

TV Colours then assembled, this crack squadron of players backing main man Bobby Kill, and burnt through a few numbers from Purple Skies, Toxic River. Good god, they’re a live force. The invisible barrier in front of the stage was broken, as was the sound barrier. The confines didn’t assist, and although the mix in the house was good, that kind of sonic assault had a short shelf life in the acoustically challenged space. But the songs were so solid that it was worth staying and risking tinnitus.

I’ve described Dick Diver as the nation’s best band, and their second album Calendar Days as a modern classic. Both remain statements of utter fact. But the Dick Diver live experience was too unassuming by half.

Opening with Interstate Forever, the dynamic on show was one of non-show. Bassist Al Montford played the goof between the bookends of co-vocalists Rupert Edwards and Alistair McKay, backed by drummer/singer/occasional guitarist/wearer of overalls, Steph Hughes. When the most charismatic member of your act is behind the kit, though, and the sightlines of a venue aren’t great, that’s a problem. As was the flagging energy of the headliners.

They started well, with Alice and Calendar Days soaring. Montford pulled some drunk dad moves on Head Back, and Lime Green Shirt ripped along like the most perfect combination of Flying Nun highlights. When Hughes stepped beyond the kit and took the lead, it was very welcome, and when she invited her sister onstage to handle backing vocals on Gap Life, it was a nice touch.

But the combination of dwindling energy and inaudible banter struck, and even though they’re a considerably gentler band than TV Colours, the wash of sound began to grate.

Another compadre wondered about the vibe in the room, which remained positive throughout – suggesting there was an element in the celebratory reaction to each tune that was akin to keening to be in the gang. Meaning that the buzz surrounding this band was the primary reason this particular performance was being so well received. That angle was unkind, but I understood it. I was hearing progressively lazier versions of truly great songs as the night went on, but the crowd still went nuts for them, and the reactions seemed a little forced. The tiredness, shyness, and post-slacker-trying-hard-to-not-care vibe essentially boiled down to a show that flagged.

Make no mistake – Dick Diver is a great band and they must be treasured. But as a live band in an out-of-town setting where the nuances can’t be heard, they’ve got a ways to go. Flying Teatowel Blues closed the set, and while this was a tune that felt it might take off at any moment, it didn’t. It ended with a wobbly whimper, and there was no encore.



Capital Jazz Project: Tight Corners:

@ The Street Theatre, Thursday August 8


The last time I was in Theatre Two at The Street, the room was basically a stage with a few chairs and some rudimentary lighting. Much needed renovations have completely transformed this space, making it inviting and engaging – and therefore a suitable environment for Sydney-New York-Melbourne group Tight Corners, comprising saxophone, piano, bass and drums, to tackle the challenging work of bop pianist Herbie Nicholls, beyond categorisation pianist Thelonious Monk, and avant-garde soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. It seems Tight Corners is a very recent project, which makes it all the more amazing this group decided to tackle three artists whose bodies of work are defined by rhythmic and harmonic complexity.

The interaction between the four musicians was good – pianist Jex Saarelaht deserving mention for bravely replicating difficult, asymmetrical rhythms and themes on Monk’s astonishing 1956 composition Brilliant Corners, and also due credit must go to soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston for tackling Steve Lacy’s extended weaving lines on The Bath from the 1999 Lacy album Monk’s Dream.

Lacy was a devotee of Thelonious Monk, and Herbie Nicholls pushed the boundaries of bop, so you could say that by interpreting these three artists Tight Corners were attempting to express the idea that innovation is the engine that drives progression in jazz, and the fluidity of the performance suggested that Tight Corners met the challenge. My one criticism is that the group worked from scores, and although this is completely understandable given the complexity of the music, some effort from Tight Corners to move beyond the score and interpret Lacy, Monk and Nicholls in their own way would have been appreciated. Nevertheless this performance was highly entertaining, another feather in the cap of the Capital Jazz Project.



Splendour in the Grass 2013:

@ North Byron Parklands, Byron Bay, Fri-Sun July 26-28


Patchy weather, the resulting weekend-long mess of sludge, and the late cancellation of headliner Frank Ocean certainly did not help smooth Splendour’s debut run in North Byron Parklands. Nor did reports of farcically long, four-hour bus trips from the ‘premium’ campsite to entry.

But amongst the teething issues, the slop, the weird Amish barn-building demonstrations, drunken, obnoxious 18-year-olds, and the guys who looked like Chet Faker, given the broadness of the line-up it was nigh impossible to not experience an act or two, or ten, that made the trip worthwhile.

Kicking off on Friday afternoon, high gain Californian surf rockers Wavves thrashed through a solid and enthusiastic set, throwing in favourites like King of The Beach as well as an unexpected cover of Sonic Youth’s 100%. Shortly after, Haim delivered an early Splendour highpoint. Filling the gaps in their still-thin studio catalogue with multiple extended instrumental rock jams, the sister trio exuded confidence throughout, leaving countless audience members alternately foaming and raving for days afterwards.

Portugal. The Man proved a slow burner over at the GW McLennan tent –nary a word uttered between songs, and it could be argued that their set lacked engagement. Ultimately, however, the strength of their catalogue showed through, bolstered by a smattering of tracks off their latest and consistently excellent LP Evil Friends.

TV on the Radio are an interesting concept live. Their immersive, densely layered studio sound can suffer in the open air, textural subtleties drowned and lost in a wall of sound. And true to form, while the depth of their back-catalogue allowed variety, and the delivery was enthused and intense, some songs came through muddled in the mix. TVOTR’s general brilliance still pierced the muck, however, with set highlights such as Second Song and Province.

Mumford and Sons closed out the first evening. Mumford perform with genuine enthusiasm, and did so at the Supertop to a massive response – it is here, somewhere in the middle of a sweaty, delirious, 20,000 person hoe-down crush during [insert banjo-pluckin’ sing-along hit] that any moustache-twirling points made about a lack of diversity in their sound suddenly become null.

Early on Saturday, the GW McLennan tent packed out and, as Vance Joy worked through the bulk of his short catalogue, the crowd waited patiently for him to play Riptide. Cannily, of course, Mr Joy played it last, after leading in with warm folk ballad Play With Fire – and, of course, the crowd blew up.

An hour or so later Irish folk act Villagers took the stage – and in front of a tent that sadly peaked at no more than half-full, they delivered a gripping set. Frontman Conor O’Brien is a deeply talented musician and wordsmith who plies his trade with passion and earnest enthusiasm, and for one hour, amongst the mud and swarming crowds of drunken teenagers, he cast a small daytime crowd into open-mouthed silence. Wry, nimble indie-folk gem (perhaps an apt description of Conor himself) Becoming a Jackal, and slower balled Nothing Arrived were high points amongst an array of peaks.

Back at the Supertop, Californians Cold War Kids fronted a packed tent. Their sound, a mix of big, creaking riffs and clinking piano, seems almost custom-designed for live performance, and here they were tight and their tone spot on as they hammered out each of their recognisable hits, one by one, to much adulation.

The National are always a thrilling, hair-raising live prospect. Their body of work is brilliant: quietly, wretchedly sad and explosive in equal measures. Pressed for a short summation, this description could be adequate to describe their live show – except in person they are larger, their presence completely enveloping and magnetic, each song expanded and intensified into a brighter, closer, more intimate version of itself. Opening with career highlight Fake Empire, the band set the simmering tension that they maintained through both quiet and crescendo, up until the closing crescendo of finale Terrible Love. While they found enough space in their festival-topping set to reach back in their catalogue, the list was well-populated with tracks off their recent, understated album Trouble Will Find Me – a set of tracks that, while already outstanding without exception on record, are better still in the moment.

Come early afternoon on the final day, Alpine hit the GW McLennan. At the outset their performance was marred by low vocal levels, and while barring sound issues their set was slick enough, smatterings of awkward banter didn’t help a general feeling that they didn’t seem too comfortable on stage that day.

While Everything Everything were still working through their array of catchy, shiny indie pop numbers at the Mix Up Tent, people were pouring through to add to an already almost inexplicably large crowd – one of the largest of the weekend – for Lorde, who had been hastily flown over from New Zealand following Frank Ocean’s cancellation the day before, the 16-year-old seeming confident enough on stage in front of a crowd salivating in anticipation of hits Royals and Tennis Court.

As the clouds regrouped and gumboots schlocked through ankle-deep mud with growing weariness, The Drones took to the stage of GW McLennan to blast crushing opener I See Seaweed straight into the faces of an age demographic that was considerably higher than the mean average. As the rain began crashing down in the darkness with atmospherically fitting timing, Gareth Liddiard introduced the iconic, obligatory and always brilliant Shark Fin Blues with wry humour: ‘It’s time for the best song ever written in Australia…It’s not that good.’

By now, three days’ worth of battling through the slop in cheap gumboots was surely beginning to take a toll on many, but for those whose dogs weren’t barking too loud just yet, Passion Pit provided a lively and engaging excuse to jig about in the mud of Supertop. And, while some were surely taking advantage of the fact that new festival closers Of Monsters and Men played Mountain Sound surprisingly early to trudge through the downpour back to their tent, peel the gumboots off their aching feet and ready themselves to make a quiet, early escape in the morning – many others stayed for Sunday night’s final, parting embrace of warm, accessible Scandinavian indie-pop.



Bernard Fanning, Vance Joy, Big Scary:

@ Royal Theatre, Sunday August 4


There is something odd about going to a gig on a Sunday night in the middle of winter in Canberra. The weekend mindset demands pajamas, hot chocolate and enough marshmallows to kill a diabetic horse. From the moment Bernard Fanning hit the stage at the Royal Theatre it was clear that he was stuck in the throes of a lazy Sunday, and so was the audience. Seeing Fanning going solo since Powderfinger split up is a little odd, and there is no doubt about the singer-songwriter’s talent, but the Royal Theatre show was one of the most lethargic concerts I’ve ever attended.

The crowd dictated their terms early on to Big Scary and Vance Joy by filling up the seated areas, with the floor looking deserted. Both bands tried their hardest but suffered the fate of so many opening acts, playing to an almost empty venue, but I hoped it would swell for Fanning. After the supports had left the stage and Fanning’s arrival loomed, I looked around the audience and something dawned on me … this was it. People were glued to their seats and the standing area looked more barren than a vegetable expo at a fat camp. Fanning arrived on stage with an acoustic guitar in hand to open the show with the tender Wash Me Clean off his first solo album, Tea & Sympathy. As Fanning fumbled over a few chords, but held it together like a professional, it began to become clear that there was an elephant in the room. Actually, we were inside the elephant. Fanning’s sound was lost in the half-empty Royal Theatre, a venue way too big and undersold. As soon as Fanning finished the song he apologised for the near ‘train-wreck performance’ (his words) and then invited everyone sitting down to move closer to the stage. Few people took his offer and Fanning continued to prod the seated ‘bludgers’ throughout the rest of the gig.

Fanning rolled into a few songs off his new album Departures but it was clear that he was disheartened in some way. I felt sorry for Fanning, because a performer can only feed off the energy an audience is giving, and the Canberra crowd was only offering light applause and cheering; but our numbers were meek. There was awkward silence as the band slowly changed guitars in between each song. At one point, one of Fanning’s band members quipped that he ‘didn’t realise there were so many librarians in Canberra’ and sarcastically mentioned the best times for the crowd to be quiet during slow songs. Fanning became sluggish, but there was no doubting the power of his soulful voice, and at the backend of the show he hit a little better form with the tracks Departures (Blue Toowong Skies), Not Finished Just Yet, Which Way Home, Tell Me How It Ends and Here Comes the Sadist. Lots of these songs had heavier electric guitar riffs that filled the empty space around the Royal Theatre, and suddenly, I wasn’t yearning for my flannelette PJs.

As Fanning said his goodbyes I was seriously freaking out that we wouldn’t get an encore. I’d never been to a show where there wasn’t an encore. Luckily, the crowd demanded Fanning return and he appeared behind a piano with a melancholic rendition of Watch Over Me, followed by the popular Wish You Well and a cover for George Harrison’s What is Life.

Fanning is one of Australia’s best singer-songwriters with or without Powderfinger, but he was sonically slain by the emptiness of the Royal Theatre one chilly night in Canberra.





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