Thursday, April 26, 2012

James Vincent McMorrow @ Toff in Town, 12/4/12

It feels good to sit and listen to folk music, even on the bandroom floor at the Toff in Town. On stage a double-bassist alternately plucks and bows away beneath Emily Ulman’s fragile voice and guitar work – but, despite a neat cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”, the songs don’t quite cut through.

It’s standing room only by the time James Vincent McMorrow steps into the spotlight, and from opener “Sparrow and the Wolf” it’s clear the direction this solo show will take. Slowed down, what is a rollicking song on record now hinges on the lyric “Seen no joy in this world”, and the “oh-oh-oh-oh” singalong becomes an evocative lament.

A stark version of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” is an unexpected reminder of McMorrow’s roots in the post-hardcore scene – it’s just that, these days, his voice alone provides the dynamic shift from quiet to loud and back again. And this voice is definitely the bedrock of his appeal. The falsetto is almost Buckley-esque, and sounds even purer live and bathed in chorus. The lyrics are poetic but not cloying and, when he finally speaks to the audience three songs in, McMorrow’s banter is endearingly humble.

A story about food poisoning, passports and airports breaks no new ground, but people still hang on every word. Later he abandons “This Old Dark Machine” halfway through the first verse, explaining he can’t bring himself to sing the whole song with his guitar out of tune. This draws laughter and applause, and he is moved to share the tale of his only other experience stopping a song mid-performance – politely shooshing an obnoxious bunch of drunks in Philadelphia. The Melbourne crowd might not be so rambunctious, but whoops of delight greet the opening lines of “We Don’t Eat”, and the country-folk feel of “Breaking Hearts” gets toes tapping.

Wishing the audience a nice evening and a good life, McMorrow sings “If I Had a Boat” off the mic at stage left. It’s a fine gesture, but one those beyond the first three rows have cause to regret. Thankfully he returns to the stage and the mic for a heartstopping and clearly much-anticipated encore of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”. With rest, studio time and greater stardom now beckoning him after three years of constant touring, it has been a pleasure to spend this intimate evening with James Vincent McMorrow. And his beard.

(published in Inpress 25/4/12)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Espionage feat. Jacques Greene and Machinedrum @ Roxanne Parlour, 8/4/12

Heading out dancing still gives me butterflies. They flutter round my stomach like old friends bringing back all the nights out I’ve almost forgotten.

Section 8 is bouncing to “Blue Monday”, but I miss the carpark where we’d smoke and laugh at the Club X sign that read “Discreet Rear Entrance”.

At least the Shanghai Noodle House will never change: wait at least two hours after Spicy Bean Curd Noodle Soup before applying caffeine and alcohol.

The Exford must have a secret for every backpacker that passes through: mine is kissing an older woman under the table.

Who are these smokers? Oh, it’s the back of Billboards – that must have been me once, me and the long lost raver goths in the last days of Teriyarki.

Then into the dodgiest lift in town and up past Charlton’s, where Dan’s birthday rendition of “Lust for Life” ended with a stranger stealing the mic and pouring beer on his head.

Hard to imagine this place splattered in fluoro and fractals and goa for the first Earthdance Melbourne in 1998. Was it this floor or the next? Christian tripped out and we had to walk him home before midnight.

Now the doors open onto Roxanne Parlour, where The Operatives put on Flying Lotus, The Gaslamp Killer, Dam-Funk and Harmonic-313 – a killer show, and one of their first biggies. Soon Roxanne is closing its doors and, if worrying rumours about the structural soundness of its dancefloor are true, maybe it’s going out with a bang tonight. Vision of the infamous “Israeli wedding disaster” keeps floating  to mind – too much booty-shaking and we might all end up downstairs singing karaoke.

But I guess a lineup featuring Jacques Greene, Machinedrum and Funkineven is just worth the risk.

The crowd is quite sparse but the dancefloor thickens up as the first international takes the stage. Mr Dibiase seems squarely rooted in the West Coast glitch-hop scene, and most heads nod in appreciation. There’s even a few gangsta moves being thrown up the front. If the stereotype is true, this is definitely music for Gen Y – every thirty seconds brings a new track and a new vibe. I find myself recalling an old friend’s criticism of hard psy-trance: “there’s just no journey in this”. I simultaneously wish I was playing Nintendo and remember that I don’t much like hip-hop – hardly a ringing endorsement.

Dibiase starts and ends late, so local DJ Ed Fisher’s set is seriously squashed. He barely has time to drop a few soulful dubstep tunes that keep the floor warm for Jacques Greene. And when the French Canadian steps up, things take a turn for the housey.

I am not a great supporter of house. In fact, if people who have barely made my acquaintance were asked about me, I’d like to think their recollection might go something like this: “Blonde guy. Glasses. Hates house.”  I fantasise about wearing an undershirt that read “That’s not techno, that’s house”, so if needs be I could strip down and march around ordering everyone to leave the dance floor, or sit down, or whatever form of protest my ecstatic megalomania saw fit to organise at the time.

What is it about house that gets my goat? In short, it’s that I can’t stand easy listening dance music. I want to be surprised on the dancefloor, to be shocked into action by a rhythm, a sound, a melody, a sample – or preferably an original combination of all of the above. House is essentially minimal disco, the generic club soundtrack to a night of champagne, cocaine and dancing in high heels.

But despite this long-held vitriol (which may stem directly from the many precious hours of life spent queing to get into Q on Rundle St in Adelaide) Jacques Greene’s set is not even the first time this year I’ve felt glad to hear some house. The first came on the Monday of Rainbow Serpent, when the Sunset Stage’s all-night barrage finally mellowed out. And now, after the unwelcome assault of Mr Dibiase, a bit of four-to-the-floor goes down rather well indeed.

Not that Greene’s sound can really be pigeonholed as house. If there was a bridge between the UK funky scene and Radiohead, he’d be playing a party somewhere in the middle: black music rears its head in the R&B vocals and some of the beats, but it’s all drenched in bittersweet synths and often downright laid back. The crowd goes nuts for him, even singing along at times, but I find it hard to get a groove on – even when the rhythms syncopate and he wheels out the 303s.

One guy who has found his groove has also found his way on stage, a slightly chubby geek who is hyping the crowd and even grabs a mic to introduce Greene early in the piece. “Who gave that guy the mic?” My crew is not the only one exchanging rolled eyes – do they let just anyone up there these days? – but the laugh is on us when the stage invader turns out to be none other than Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum himself.

It all makes perfect sense: geeks do make the best electronica. The segue is quite smooth as Machinedrum begins in relatively ambient territory, but unfortunately he is a bit too comfortable on the mic. Outside the studio his voice is rather (what’s a polite way to say this?) tuneless, distracting from the crispness of the beats. Thankfully he only sings “Sacred Frequency” and one other track live, and then it’s down to business.

Although steeped in IDM, Machinedrum’s sound now draws heavily on the RnB meets happy hardcore vibes of the Chicago footwork scene. It makes for a frenetic dancefloor with loads of swagger, and things really ignite whenever a hint of jungle enters the mix. With footwork clocking in around 150-160bpm, the crossover potential is there – and already being mined worldwide by producers  including Africa HiTech and Om Unit (with whom Machinedrum collaborates as Dream Continuum).

At times I feel like my body is moving itself and I’m floating three inches above the floor. My feet haven’t moved this fast in years, and I keep pulling my jeans up around my knees in an effort to cool off. It’s euphoric but relentless and I run out of puff just before the hour is up, retreating to the back to prepare for the closing set.

The thing is, after the all-out assault of Machinedrum I just can’t quite catch the thread of Funkineven. He’s a cool London cat with a feather in his hat and he’s dropping the sweetest acid and electro (although I don’t recognise any of his own productions), but at 3:30am I need something dark to keep me going – and the ever present hint of disco in the mix keeps it a bit light and fluffy. I know I’ll regret it, but a quick conference reveals everyone’s pretty buggered. Back in the dodgy lift and out onto Coverlid Place we go.

It’s been another stellar event from The Operatives, with reasonable flow despite a seriously varied lineup. Machinedrum has destroyed the dancefloor and even brought some karaoke vibes with him – so, in the nicest possible way, my suspicions about what the night might hold have come true.

Before I know it I’m sitting on a couch with Burial on the stereo and a single malt whisky in my hand… then waking up walking to the train station, realising I’ve left my keys behind, running back and breaking back into my old house, running for the train and missing it, running for the tram and missing it, waiting for a bus that never comes, finally jumping on a train and dozing off until Melbourne Central then hopping on a tram, spotting Theresa walking in the opposite direction past RMIT, jumping off the tram and running after her to give her a big hug and tell her all about it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Round 2: Melbourne vs West Coast @ Paterson’s Stadium

“happy easter to u both, poor dees, but legs by 93 over eagles reigning premiers. visit soon. x”

For an Old English scholar and editor, Mum displays a surprising mastery of the condensed language of SMSes. Between wishing Theresa and me a happy Easter and urging us to come back to Adelaide, she commiserates with me over Melbourne’s terrible Round 2 loss in Perth – but strikes an appropriate note of Easter optimism with the news that Norwood have had a big win in the SANFL.

My favourite bit is the phrase “eagles reigning premiers”.

I get footy texts from two people: Mum often sends through Norwood results, and my friend Chris Nehmy keeps me up-to-date with the Crows, as well as occasional comments on the game in general. Yesterday, when I had already given up on the Dees for the afternoon, I received this fairly standard piece of sarcasm:

“I think this really could be Melbourne’s year”. To which I replied, in a similar vein: “Mark Neeld has really got the boys playing an exciting brand of footy”.

Last year, both our clubs sacked their coaches mid-season. Melbourne dumped Dean Bailey after the 30-goal annihilation at Geelong, and Neil Craig finally resigned when Adelaide played St Kilda back into form to the tune of 103 points. He’s now the Manager of Elite Performance at Melbourne. On a day like today, it feels like a bad joke.

I ended my post on Round 1 with the classic footy cliché that a week’s a long time in footy. Usually this refers to the possibility of bouncing back from a bad defeat with a win the following weekend, but in this case it took on a different meaning. Melbourne has endured what some journalists are describing as the worst week in AFL memory.

First came the deflating loss to Brisbane, then a media scandal over the coach’s alleged handling of indigenous players. Just when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse, the CEO of the club’s major sponsor, Energy Watch, was revealed as a total bigot. The Board dumped Energy Watch (a principled decision that will cost the club around $2 million), and the players ran out yesterday with duct tape covering the company’s logo.

I watched the game at Bar Centrale on Lygon St. Years ago it was Sabatini’s, and Socialist Alternative comrades would wander up there from Trades Hall to drink and play pool after Thursday night branch meetings. Now it’s very much a sports bar, and yesterday a few abashed-looking Melbourne fans gathered to see how bad the carnage might me.

It was pretty bad, a classic belting. The Dees fought hard, especially early on, but looked completely inept. At times we seemed to bring the Eagles down to our level, but as the first half wore on they shifted up a few gears and ran away with the game. I left at half-time, when the margin was 48 points, and predicted a 100-point loss. In the end, it was 108.

The only consolation is that our next two games are at the MCG, and we play two other winless teams: Richmond and the Bulldogs.

The main problem I have with all this is not even that my team is losing. Its that, having committed to following them closely this season, I have the awful feeling I’m not going to see many good games of footy. And I’m not a one-eyed supporter, it’s the game I love.

I guess I’ll just have to watch a bit of Hawthorn vs Geelong tomorrow – or get Mum to send over the VHS of Norwood beating Port in the 1984 SANFL Grand Final.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Steve Earle @ the Corner, 29/3/12

It’s a full Corner Hotel tonight– even the front bar is packed with Tigers fans undergoing the traditional Round One disappointment. Meanwhile in the band room, the Jess Ribeiro Duo battle sound issues to showcase a set of mellow originals that merit more than polite indifference.

But there’s only one man the crowd have come to hear – and that’s just as well, because there’s no one else on stage with him.

On reflection, this intimate solo show is a fitting way for Steve Earle to present his new album I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Earle may have bested heroin – and been rewarded with remarkable, sustained vitality over the last two decades – but he is clearly feeling his own mortality. He recently moved from Nashville to Greenwich Village to ensure he retains a community of fellow artists well into his later years.

So far so gloomy, you might think. But staring death in the face gives Earle an undeniable power which at times borders on the holy. This is a man who lives his values, and tonight he shares them not just through music, but also the meandering introductions that flesh out the philosophy behind his songs.

Early in the piece he introduces his bazouki (which he later swaps for a guitar and then a banjo) as an “immigrant instrument”, one that washed up on the shores of Ireland to be reclaimed by a new musical tradition. “Immigration is our past” he declares, “it’s our present – and if we have a fucking future it’s our future as well.”

Before playing “Jerusalem”, Earle talks of his unshakeable belief in a peaceful future in the Middle East and around the world. When he says “I am a recovering heroin addict and I cannot afford to believe in a lost cause or a hopeless case”, it’s hard not to be swept up in the moment.

Not everyone is feeling the love, though – there’s a core of drunk revellers wanting a more toe-tapping set. As early as the spine-tingling acapella intro to second number “Gulf of Mexico”, a lone voice responds to shooshers by hollering “I don’t want to be in church!”

It’s an oddly apt complaint, but the majority are clearly rapt to be in the house of Earle tonight. Even new numbers “God Is God” and “Every Part of Me” are greeted with reverence, while“Copperhead Road” and “Devil’s Right Hand” close the set on a note of jubilation.

Troubador, preacher, activist and prodigal son: Steve Earle stands in all these traditions, and his voice is as vital as ever.

(published in Inpress, 4/4/12)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Rd 1: Melbourne vs Brisbane @ the MCG

I had a rush of blood to the head this week, and did something I’ve never done before: I became a member of my football club.

I grew up in Adelaide with an SANFL “Footy’s Best In The Flesh” sticker on my bunk bed. Norwood was our team, and I ran around Under 7s training with Gary McIntosh’s number 14 on my back. Whenever State of Origin footy came to Footy Park, a parent would take a bunch of boys along and we’d chant “S-A” and “We hate you ‘cos you’re Victorian” all night long.

All the same, even in the 1980s it was hard to ignore the game across the border. On winter Sunday mornings my brother and I would leap out of bed to watch Drew Morphett present an hour of VFL highlights on the ABC. It was the era of the great Essendon teams, and in the backyard he’d be Leon Baker and I a diminutive Billy Duckworth.

1987 was the year I became a Melbourne supporter. The Demons had a graceful, ageing champion in Robbie Flower; a South Australian gun named Steven Stretch on the wing; and the young Irishman Jim Stynes, whose famous blunder in the 1987 Preliminary Final was the kind of tragedy that weds a young fan to the team. I’ve been waiting for redemption ever since.

I’ve written elsewhere about my existential angst as a Melbourne fan. Being an interstater, and politically of the Left, it can feel rather odd to support the MCC team. A few years ago I flirted with the Crows and the Bulldogs, but neither ever took. I think the turning point was when Liam Jurrah burst onto the scene - but it might just as easily have been when Jimmy came back to save the club from extinction. Here were some people I could care about, and a story worth telling.

I was eleven years old and jumping around the living room when Jimmy won the Brownlow in 1991. Last week I was moved to tears when he died. It’s a funny thing, crying at the death of someone you’ve never met. I guess I cried for myself really, for the dead man I will be and the child I’ll never be again; but also for my family and friends, and for Jimmy and his, and because reading all the obituaries I felt happy and sad at the same time.

So Jimmy’s gone - and Liam Jurrah is out indefinitely with a bad wrist, a family feud and a pending court case. But this week I joined the Melbourne Football Club anyway. I chose the eleven home games membership, general admission seating, for $195. I don’t like Etihad Stadium. I’ll probably make a game or two there, but really I want to be at the MCG.

I’ve never had many mates who actually barrack for Melbourne. One of the few who spring to mind is a lovely bloke named Dave Lafferty, a Queenslander mate from the student activist days. One night at the New International Bookshop I had an unusual rush of customers - there was a big event on upstairs - and Dave appeared out of nowhere and started making coffees. I hadn’t seen him for years. We both lived in Footscray for a while, and went to a few games but then he disappeared again. Are you out there, Dave? The ‘G misses you, and so do I.

For Round 1, 2012 my fellow Dee is Pete Coles. Pete’s a brother from a men’s circle we both sat in a few years ago. That’s a story in itself, but suffice to say that while we’re not best mates, we’ve been through some real bonding experiences together. He’s a big, gentle man with flowing red-brown hair, a muso and youth worker and a bit of a hippie. In fact, as we head into the ground I joke we’re the hippie faction of the Melbourne supporters, both in our sandals, Pete with his prayer beads and me with my sushi.

Less of a hippie is Jerome Small. I hope I’ll go to many games with Pete this year - perhaps even find a few more Dees who want to join our faction - but I also want to sit with friends who support the opposition. Today, that’s Jerome. He’s a Lions man from back when they called Fitzroy home, and his story is a bit like mine. He gave up on the footy altogether when Fitzroy folded, then wore an Essendon scarf to a 2001 Grand Final barbecue - but found himself jumping instinctively to his feet when Alastair Lynch marked on the lead in the first quarter that day.

Fast forward a decade and Jerome’s back in his old Fitzroy scarf. He’s a big, gentle man too - a construction worker and one of the most authentic socialists I’ve ever known. As we take our seats in the Ponsford Stand, up in Level 3 so we get an overview of the action, I wonder if he and Pete will find a political argument today.

After a minute of applause for Jim Stynes, a fitting variation on the minute’s silence, the ground announcer invites us to remain standing for the national anthem. Jerome sits down in disgust, declaring “I’m not going to stand up for a song that’s full of lies!” I wish I had his gumption, and resolve not to stand next time myself. As the song plays we discuss the increasing proliferation of national anthems and calls to patriotism in AFL footy, on Anzac Day and beyond. An Irish ballad would have been much more meaningful today I reckon.

Before the first bounce, I knick Jerome's record to perform an impromptu quiz on both clubs’ history. The players have their pre-game rituals, I have mine. I ask for a tip, and Jerome prevaricates while Pete plumps for Melbourne by 40. Inspired by his confidence, I tip Melbourne by four goals.

We lose by 41 points.

It’s a scrappy game. Neither team looks great in the first half, but in the third quarter the Brisbane rucks are well on top and Simon Black and any number of young midfielders are carving us up. Given the Lions won just four games last year, it’s a disastrous start to our season.

I still enjoy it though. There’s a masochist frame of mind that comes naturally to any long-suffering supporter. I’m not one for bagging my team, but I repeatedly wonder aloud what Jack Watts is doing in the centre bounces so often - Pete reckons the coach is trying to toughen him up, and we have a not entirely generous chuckle when young Jack comes off with the blood rule. We both acknowledge that the team has not a single star, perhaps not even a genuine A-grade player. It’s a depressing thought.

Even when we do kick a goal it seems more the result of persistence than skill. At one point we seem certain to score as two players close in on goal with the ball at their feet; Aaron Davey attempts to soccer it through but only succeeds in falling over, and thankfully the ball lands in Brad Green’s hands for a goal he seems embarrassed to celebrate in the usual manner. “A comedy of errors” I suggest. “!” shoots back Jerome.

The real highlight of the day - and keep in mind here we are the hippie faction - is that Jerome gets to see his team win. “GO LI-ONS!” he bellows with increasing regularity as the realisation dawns that a victory is on the cards. I particularly like how he looks up the young players in the Record, then shouts their names for all to hear: “We LOVE you Pearce Hanley!” “Mitch Golby you are a STAR!”

When the final siren blows Pete looks pretty keen to get moving, but we stick around so Jerome can enjoy the song, and the celebration continues as the players and staff salute the fans up our end. Jerome’s not too keen on coach Michael Voss, whom he calls “son of a cop”, but when Jonathan Brown shows his face – recently reconstructed for the third time – Jerome reckons he looks in pretty good nick. In fact we can hardly see the man, but it’s an optimistic moment.

As we leave the ground, Pete and I plan to reconvene for Round 3 against the Tigers, and I tell Jerome I’ll probably see him at the Marxism conference at Easter. It’s been a good day out with mates I haven’t seen much for a while.

If Melbourne don’t improve dramatically, that might be the story of my year as a club member. We all know a week’s a long time in footy, but Perth is also a bloody long way away – and we’ve got the Eagles over there next weekend. Things might just get worse before they get better.