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Never one to trouble himself with being up to date, on the ball, fingering pulses or any such thing, Bruce has fallen in love several aeons after the fact. Driving through town listening to the RRR signupathon yesterday, patiently waiting for the presenters to shut up and play some tunes, he was rewarded with a truly sublime track – a remix of Noiseworks “classic”* Reach Out (Touch Someone) by RRR presenter Faux Pas. Some follow up enquiries were in order and now Bruce awaits with baited breath the announcement of a live show or two.

Until then…

* Yes, those are fingers in the air speech marks

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While you face accusations of disloyalty – of being a plastic fan – when leaving a stadium early when your team is being hammered with only minutes to go there are faintly justifiable excuses: the result isn’t going to change; avoiding the traffic; getting back to the baby-sitter.

But is there any justification for leaving a gig early? Bruce couldn’t think of one on Friday night:

“That’s right, guys. He’s saved all his worst songs for last,” he suggested to the trickle of people abandoning ship midway through the encore.

Still, it was a mere bagatelle for in those previous two hours the Aussie Bob Dylan had delivered a masterful run through his back catalogue. Initial fears that the $80 tickets had bought an evening of muffled sound in the Palais’ upper deck proved unfounded once the fug of Nothing On My Mind cleared and the band’s sound crystallised.

Set among the opulence of the old theatre, Paul Kelly’s restrained set up – the only nod to extravagance the rug on which he alternately meandered, swung his guitar and indulged in bouts of dad-dancing – allowed the music to take centre stage.

“We’re going all over the place tonight,” he annouced early on.

With a canon that switched from some of Australia’s best loved pop songs to moments of tender country heartbreak, it’s a promise he can easily keep. Dumb Things is dropped early in the set, encouraging the first audience roar of the night and much foot-tapping, before the pace slows for When I First Met Your Ma.

What is soon apparent is not just the quality of the songwriting, but the strength of his voice; often employed simply as a spoken word tool, it’s in a live arena – especially one of this scale – that his power to soar is revealed. Complemented by a tight band and his impeccable harmonica skills the music switches from gentle picking through blues and gospel to iconic singles such as Before Too Long and To Her Door. His innate humility even allows Kelly to get away with the likes of You’re 39, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine, a song one could easily imagine being sung – and massacred – by Chris De Burgh.

There are two moments of pure spine-tingling magic, when the stage is cleared to allow perfect, stripped down renditions of If I Could Start Today Again and, in particular, They Thought I Was Asleep. Not a sound was heard from the spellbound sellout crowd through either.

Running them close was Everything’s Turned To White, the story of the fishermen and the dead woman’s body. Written from a woman’s perspective, here it was also sung by a woman, with Kelly’s co-vocalist’s powerful rendition allowing Bruce to overlook the fact it looked like she had just wandered in from an early 80s aerobics class for roly-polys.

There was no room for From Little Things, Big Things Grow (so thanks to Kev Carmody for performing it at the Corner two weeks earlier) but Leaps and Bounds made an unexpected appearance in the first encore before Winter Coat brought the second encore to an epic close. Throughout there was a feeling of timelessness; by never following, mimicking or succumbing to trends he remains always outside of them.

All that remained was for the final encore and From St Kilda To King’s Cross. Bruce, Fran and friends had even braved the cold for a bottle of wine outside on the (finally constructed) promenade before heading to the Palais purely in preparation for this moment. But it never came. The lights went up, Kelly was gone and it was up to Fran to perform the song herself as she left the theatre.

It was a shame, but it’s OK: he probably wanted to avoid the traffic or had a babysitter on overtime.

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So, in their first 15 months Down Under Bruce and Fran have done their best to assimilate into Aussie culture:

  • stung by jelly fish (Fran)
  • bitten by a white tail (Bruce – does anyone know when or if the hairs start growing back on the affected patch?)
  • lived in a weatherboard cottage (next door to famous Aussie musicians and across the road from an Aussie cult)
  • become Pies fans (and recently received a formal apology from a man who was instrumental in that decision)
  • embarked on a road trip to Broken Hill
  • played Keno
  • met Nick Cave
  • obsessed over footy tipping (and, in Bruce’s case, got angry at the TV when results went the wrong way)
  • bought a massive bbq and cooked mountains of snags
  • used words like snags
  • eaten vanilla slice in Ouyen
  • said: “It’s good – we need the rain”, something no Pom would ever imagine saying
  • begun referring to themselves as Poms

and so it goes. They’ve also tried to hurry along their citizenship, not least by catching a mugger and rescuing young drunks collapsed in the road and returning them home.

Fran St Kilda pier

Awaiting Paul's arrival?

Tonight’s a biggy, though: Paul Kelly in concert. At the Palais in St Kilda, too, which should add an extra whoop of delight from the crowd when St Kilda To King’s Cross starts up. (Hopefully the venue will prove more suitable for this gig than it did for the Arctic Monkeys).

Fran was the first to fall for his iconic Aussie charms. And boy did she fall. One afternoon she started crying while walking along Smith Street just thinking about How To Make Gravy. That’s right: thinking about it… When Bruce surprised her with tickets for the show it was like watching a five-year-old susceptible to sugar rushes being force fed half a kilo of Redskins washed down with a gallon of Coke and a couple of sherbert fountains then let loose on a bouncy castle. When she later got hold of Songs From The South vol. 2 and realised he penned Every Fucking City – the tune she rewrote into an Ancient Mariner-type odyssey with her road sisters while travelling the States in pre-Bruce days – it’s a miracle she didn’t shift a couple of tectonic plates.

Bruce, on the other hand, has been pretty 50/50 about the guy: Leaps and Bounds yes, Bradman (which reminds him of his attempt aged 10 to write a stat-heavy biography of Ian Botham) no. However, he just heard If I Could Start Again for the first time while listening to the hits collection on repeat shuffle and reading this fantastic Robert Forster article and found his emotions stirred and his anticipation for tonight growing.

Well, as some wise man whose name escapes me once wrote: “From little things, big things grow…”

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Quite why Bruce and Fran hadn’t ventured inside the Birmingham earlier is hard to fathom considering the new owners placed a sign in the street declaring proudly:

NOT SHIT ANY MORE

around the time they moved to Collingwood. Perhaps it had something to do with the Eddie Izzard supermarket theory that shoppers are always guided into the fresh fruit section first rather than toiletries so your initial thought is “Everything here is fresh, I will do well here” as opposed to “Everything here is made of poo”. (Interestingly, when you enter the Safeway / Woolworths in Smith Street you walk into a wall of toilet paper and baskets of tuna – poo and smelly fish – hmmmm….).

Still, spotting a review of a band called The Parking Lot Experiments on Mess and Noise Bruce decided to break his poo pub duck on the strength that their name is taken from one of the Flaming Lips weirder moments. And, despite the fact the only non-crap tap beer (Cooper’s Pale) ran out after his first drink, it did appear to be quite NOT SHIT: comfy sofas; pool table; big slabs of art featuring legends of music; decent jukebox; handy outdoor area; lights turned down low enough to make a detailed judgement of NON SHIT-ness slighty trickier.

The band room certainly had character; coming so soon after the dining room at the Edinburgh Castle helped prepare Bruce: the old sofas, tatty wooden walls, kids sat expectantly on the floor and lack of a stage made it reminiscent of the back room at your grandparents’ – you know, the one they’ve never got round to decorating since the 60s.

The kids did eventually stand up once the band were playing (some even stood on the sofas – IN THEIR SHOES – which the grandparents would never have stood for, no matter how much they liked spoiling you) and revealed Bruce to be the oldest in the room by an aeon. Still, he was there wasn’t he, generation terrorists? So many appeared to be friends of the band that at times it felt like he’d gatecrashed a private party in a school common room.

ParkingLot

But what of the Experiments? Ramshackle in setup (the aforementioned lack of stage, amp stacked on milkcrates, drums sat on possibly more milk crates) and often also in sound (in particular the vocal harmonies that occasionally bordered on caterwauling).

Yet what tunes: from wistful freaky folk to pounding electro-indie that recall anything from the Lips to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, fellow Melburnians Kes and beyond. Impressive drumming on a sparse, unusual set up, entertaining playoff between the keyboard / organ and guitars, otherwordly lead vocals, odd lyrics, moments of yelping lunacy and boundless imagination. Exciting, weird, wonderful and bursting with potential.

Well worth heading there armed with five bucks for the final night of their residency next Tuesday (26/5). Might even try one of the Birmingham’s NOT SHIT $6 pizzas.

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Dave McCormack (r) and friend

Dave McCormack (r) and friends

Custard never made it in the UK (at least they never made it into Bruce or Fran’s headspace) but apparently there was a time when Dave McCormack played venues somewhat bigger and busier than the dining room of the Edinburgh Castle, in Brunswick. Apparently, he had a number of hits in the 90s and was a regular on radios across the land come Australia Day. Not anymore.

Instead, he wanders onstage in front of a few dozen people, a red velvet curtain, some wallpaper that’s seen off more appropriate decades and the sort of fake candle / chandelier-type light fittings your parents once thought added class to their family home back in the day.

At first, his uncontainable sense of humour – introducing and outtroducing his guitar solos, pausing midsong for comment, layering self-deprecation on self-deprecation – threatens to descend into end-of-the-pier parody. Thankfully, his joie de vivre, knack for a jaunty melody and witty way with words soon overrides any early misconceptions.

“Imagine how much better these songs would sound if he had a full band,” says Bruce’s companion – shortly after McCormack’s finished singing a number about sacking his band – revelling in a chance to see a performer he’d last watched as a 17-year-old.

Lo and behold, he invites a drummer and a couple of bassists from the audience onstage (consecutively, not concurrently) and they muddle their way through a few of Custard’s hits. Crowd participation ensues in the form of singing and clapping; one chap seated at a table in front of the stage is barely able to contain himself and spends much of the latter part of the gig on his feet punching the air as a one man moshpit.

McCormack, meanwhile, seems to be having a ball, even if an air of ruefulness punctuates everything – lyrics, demeanour, the acclaim – profusely thanking a friend for arranging the gig, which appears to have been set up at the last minute as he was passing through town (one can’t discount the possibility it was to raise the funds to get back to Brisbane).

But there’s something glorious about watching faded stars trying to keep their faint glow burning, fighting with humour and a reluctant acceptance against a dying of the light; not in the “Let’s reform a load of shit 80s bands and go on an arena tour for blue rinses and pot bellies” manner but in the “I’ll play any two bob hole just to keep on playing” sense (it’s working for Tim Rogers, after all, with people splurging $120 on this).

Talking of two bob holes, Bruce is rather enamoured with the Edinburgh Castle. On their first visit on Melbourne Cup Day, Fran won $77 on the sweepstake and they did their best to drink the pub dry of Little Creatures Pale. They failed (majestically) although were helped by the fact the staff had underestimated the thirst of their regulars over that weekend, which meant most of their interesting beers (3 Ravens, Buckley’s, Mountain Goat) had sold out by the big race day. They’ve now got far less interesting beers since doing a deal with the devil and replacing several with the likes of Carlton Premium Blonde (involuntary shudders again) although, to make Bruce feel at home, the Mountain Goat almost ran out.

With a large front bar where bands often play, a nice, big beer garden, the dining room-cum-venue for fallen 90s Triple J stars and auxilliary dining room where cards were being played – not to mention a table tennis table as well as a clientele that mixes the grungy with an element of Melbourne hipsterism, but without the “Look at me!” attitude found in many of the northern suburbs close to the city, it’s a great reason to head to the top end of Sydney Road (well, for those few for whom the Hustler strip club or the Lebanese pizzas aren’t reason enough already).

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The Tote Hotel was the venue for Bruce and Fran’s first ever gig after moving Down Under: the fantastic Mistletone showcase that introduced them to the likes of the eerily wonderful Kes Band and Beaches’ psychedelic riffs.

They’ve been back many a time since – and never left sober. What’s more, friends have just signed up to the Toters’ footy team and helped them to a huge victory over Old Bar – vengeance for a heavy defeat the year before – in the Renegade Footy League, one by playing, the other by pouring beer.

Dedication to a (lost?) cause

Dedication to a (lost?) cause

Yet, two weeks on from displaying a dedication to the Tote Hotel some might say was beyond the call of duty, the owners announced that as of Monday, one of Melbourne’s most iconic music venues was to close. A licensing issue was at the heart of it, leaving the venue closed from May 6 until today, which resulted in more than 30 bands being cancelled and a loss in takings of several thousand dollars. The cause – some minor paperwork issue involving the hotel’s last change of ownership – had been resolved a fortnight ago but the State Government’s licensing folks hadn’t signed off the approval to reopen, apparently. Hence, as of yesterday, it was closing from Monday, all future gigs had been cancelled and staff were told they would no longer be needed.

This morning everything changed: the Tote is open for business once more and bands are being rebooked.

It means that the owners, staff, bands and patrons of this unique piece of Melbourne’s musical heritage – with its awesome jukebox, the mankiest carpet in town, free bbqs for the inner suburbs’ waifs and wastrels, bands every night of the week and a crap TV in the main bar – survives to fight another day… at least until the current lease is up in November.

Thank God for that. After all, where else is this guy going to find a footy coaching job?

Toters2

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a3blog

Awaiting the arrival of their favourite country and western acid house freaks, Bruce and Fran were reassured that even 10,500 miles from their spiritual home in Brixton the 3 still attracted a motley crowd: grizzled men; grizzlier women; grey-haired dads bringing their sons along for enlightenment; fresh-faced (comparatively speaking, of course) newcomers unaware of their imminent conversion.

There was Rock Freebase chatting up a couple of young girls. Through the mob weaved The Spirit of Love, then back again. And then, hang on, if that isn’t Chopper Read… It is. With his wife and kid, the latter covering his ears as the Gun Street Girls tear through their warm up set. Should have expected it, what with harmonica player Nick “Harpo Strangelove” Reynolds having made a bronze “death mask” of him on the band’s last visit to Melbourne. But still, a welcome surprise.

Shortly afterwards, he reappears from backstage to take centre stage, resplendent in a pair of mirrored specs.

“Get ready to welcome the best fuckin’ band to have come out of the UK since the Rolling Stones,” he says, once the techies remember to turn the sound on. “Well, who else has there been? The fuckin’ Rolling Stones and these guys, the fuckin’ Alabama 3.”

The former standover man, more commonly seen these days wandering the streets of Collingwood with an ice lolly in hand or playing footy with his boy in the streets, thereby joins the likes of members of the Birmingham Six and Howard Marks as an A3 MC. As he leaves, the first bars of a souped up Monday Don’t Mean Anything To Me start up. And we’re off.

chopblog

Since the end of The Sopranos, the band seem to have got a second wind, whether judging by the quality of their last album M.O.R. or the almost constant touring, including appearances at every festival known to man; amazing what the loss of a steady income can do…

It’s paid off. The last time Bruce and Fran saw them in their white rhinestone suits at the end of the M.O.R. tour in the UK they were good but, at times, it felt formulaic. From the outset here, the spark seems to have returned. Throwing Hypo Full Of Love in second up is ballsy, but they back it up. Even Mao, surely the best acid house revolutionary anthem yet penned, is dispensed with early. Ain’t Goin’ To Goa doesn’t even get a look in.

With some of the songs reworked and every attempt to get the crowd singing choruses coming off, it’s a triumphant first Melbourne show for the full lineup. Jake is chipper – and audible, Devlin as soulful as ever, Orlando still the embodiment of the living dead but now with an added dash of ghoulish burlesque about him. He even takes his sparkly gold jacket and leather dog collar for a wander across the stage at one point continuing to look, without luck, for “Jane and Eddie”.

“Calm down,” chides Jake. “Get back in your corner.”

Now that Larry’s allowed his hair and beard to go the same way as his outfits in recent times there are moments, such as when he and Rock fight over a beer, where they look like the kind of rowdy geriatric drunks who would fit into Smith Street seamlessly – something to be encouraged in the world of popular music, surely.

By the time Chopper returns to introduce the encore, conversions are happening across the floor. That Peace In The Valley then makes an all too rare appearance is the ice on the cake before Larry, ever the charmer, thanks every member of staff in the building and launches into Sweet Joy.

As the crowd reluctantly departs, Bruce and Fran chat to folks who’ve travelled hundreds of miles to be there and hope Melbourne had put on enough of a show for a return trip to be planned sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, Rock returns to take his girls from earlier backstage and The Spirit’s apparently fruitless search for Jane and Eddie continues…

*  *  *

A quick rant, if you will:

The Guardian (in particular Duncan Campbell) apart, Alabama 3 have been criminally ignored by the mainstream UK media for years. OK, there’s been the odd album review and some coverage of Nick’s death mask project, but little else. Yet here is a band whose biography (please be writing one, Orlando) could fill several volumes, who live the rock n roll lifestyle and support all manner of fantastic causes, such as the Miscarriages Of Justice Organisation.

Prior to this Australian tour, they received no coverage – not in the mainstream media, not in the street press – and efforts were made. OK, so the Age ran a piece on Chopper being shown his bronze mask at the Toff in Town before Tuesday’s acoustic show but it ran today – the day after their second and final gig – yet still included the line (later corrected online) “Read will introduce the band tonight when it plays at Richmond’s Corner Hotel”.

They don’t have major backing, are impossible to pigeonhole and are in all probability challenging to manage, but they remain unique, retain their passion despite adversity and put on the best parties going, whether stumbling incoherent through an acoustic set or playing to thousands at Glastonbury. If only the myopic could see it.

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