LIVE REVIEW: Radio Birdman @ The Factory Theatre, Sydney (03/06/16)

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The On & Ons (including ex-members of Hoodoo Gurus and The Stems) set the scene for a night of riffs and power chords with a muscular power pop sound that brought to mind Big Star and Red Kross. They know how to mix strong melodies with rock n roll dynamics but their stage presence fell flat. Melbourne’s

Magic Bones took things up a notch with an injection of energy and youthful enthusiasm. They swapped instruments constantly which mirrored their split personality approach to their music. One minute it was ramalama garage rock, the next they were chooglin’ on some 70s rock with a twist of madcap psychedelia. Their set was too long but they made a strong impression on the Birdman fans.

Radio Birdman always suffered from comparisons to The Stooges and MC5 yet they dug a hole deep and varied enough to call it their own. The core duo of Rob Younger and Deniz Tek commanded the centre of the stage like prowling ex-communicated preachers. Younger with his Iggy meets Jagger jerks and twisted body shapes while Tek crouched over his black guitar wringing out threatening riffs and slashing call-to-arms chords. The rhythm section was a highly efficient spine allowing the limbs of Younger, Tek and the others to thrash and dance wildly. Do The Pop got an early airing while their most recent album Zeno Beach (2006) was best represented by the tumbling We’ve Come So Far (To Be Here Today). Amid the Birdman catalogue they threw in fantastic covers of Magazine’s Shot By Both Sides and an intriguing take on The Beatles’ Hey Bulldog, an example of how they were never just a gonzo proto-punk band. Their definitive anthem New Race was left until the stroke of midnight, the crowning glory of a night of nostalgic yet still fiercely alive and kicking rock ’n’ roll.

Chris Familton

LIVE REVIEW: Built To Spill @ Manning Bar, Sydney (10/03/16)

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Built To Spill @ Manning Bar

This was a night for the guitars. Loud, textural and visceral six-string magic. Opener Ben Salter had a keyboardist in his live band who added some fine organ and synth sounds but the Gin Club head honcho showed that his solo material leans more towards rhythm-heavy, guitar-led rock songs. Not in a primitive sense though, Salter’s fine way with words and his voice, which only occasionally gets ragged and unhinged, ensure that the songs were the focus of an impressive set.

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Ben Salter

Built To Spill flew under the 90s alt-rock radar. They were never part of the A-league of grunge but they were highly respected and gathered devoted fans around them, much like Modest Mouse. Doug Martsch, the band’s mastermind and sole consistent member, was held up as a guitar hero and creative lyricist with his distinctive high-register vocals. Now, with a new rhythm section in tow they finally returned to Australia and delivered a workmanlike but thoroughly on-point trip through their back catalogue with a particular spotlight on their recent album Untethered Moon. That record provided some of the set highlights with the songs Never be The Same and On The Way.

Martsch was completely unassuming as a frontman, with little interaction with the crowd, gazing out across them like he was still processing where he was. That is no criticism of the man for he delivered in spades with his slashing chords and quirky riffs and that thin, wavering and soaring voice (think J Mascis and Neil Young) that defines his sound. With three guitarists, the effect was a widescreen montage of spiralling classic rock solos, contrasting psych textures and melodies that made for a wonderfully warm and captivating sound. The real (and unexpected) treat in the encore was a cover of The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now that was surprisingly faithful to the original and showed that in a strange way there was a similar seam of off-kilter guitar creativity going on in both 80s Manchester and 90s Boise, Idaho.

Chris Familton

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LIVE REVIEW: METZ, My Disco, Low Life @ OAF, Sydney (10/02/16)

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Low Life ambled on stage and lurched into a 30 minute set of songs that swung from Black Flag punk to Bauhaus goth dirges, often within the same song. You got the feeling the songs could fall apart at any time yet the rhythm section was solid – allowing the guitars to dispatch primitive punk bar chords, heavily chorused textures and squalls of feedback. Low Life created a curious and often strangely captivating collision of sounds.

My Disco swung the pendulum about as far to the other side of the spectrum as possible. As their career has progressed, their music has evolved into a minimalist experiment in texture and impact. They stood silent and still for minutes before the first doom-laden explosion tested the PA’s limits. Notes were sparse and an avant-garde aesthetic was omnipresent through their set as the guitar sounded more like a modem in wood-chipper than a traditional distorted rock instrument. It was a dramatic and intense set that maintained the audience’s attention and did serve to build the musical tension in the room before Metz arrived to release it – but ultimately My Disco felt like the artful ugly duckling and a mismatch on this particular bill.

METZ came on like a dropped match in a fireworks factory after the stark austerity that preceded them. They’re a perfectly balanced trio, the sum strength of its punk rock parts. Over an hour they barely let up, with sweat-soaked shirts, fogged-up glasses and neck veins bulging. They unleashed wave after wave of primal military grade rhythms that were pummelling yet still with a measure of groove, that had the more energetic punters engaged in a loose-limbed middle ground between dancing and moshing. Spit You Out, Headache, a new song Eraser and so many others surged and thrashed like a mutant Nirvana, Jesus Lizard and Big Black hybrid. METZ laid sonic waste to the mid week malaise and renewed faith in the power of raw and passionate rock ’n’ roll.

Chris Familton

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LIVE REVIEW: The Apartments @ The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival (24/01/16)

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This was a show that had a touch of ‘the artist returns’ about it due to Peter Milton Walsh’s rare live shows and that he is currently celebrating his first album in 18 years — No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal. The briefly one-time member of The Go-Betweens and the Laughing Clowns has carved out an intermittent yet critically acclaimed career as The Apartments and the Famous Spiegeltent proved to be the perfect venue to immerse oneself in the band’s emotive music.

With a band that included members of Knievel, Big Heavy Stuff and The Go-Betweens plus a drummer, pianist and horn player, Milton Walsh was able to conjure up a richly layered sound. You could hear the progression from his early jangly, indie pop songs — that melancholic 80s pop sound — to the songs on the new album that are built on a stronger soulful jazz-noir style where the bass guitar and drums shape the songs. In a musical sense, bands like Tindersticks, The Delines and Destroyer come to mind as comparisons.

Milton Walsh clearly enjoys a sense of the theatrical, from his Bad Seeds’ styled suit and sunglasses  to the melodramatic hand gestures and between-song stories that gave context to the songs and humour to amuse the audience. That same sense of artistic presentation mirrored his songs which detail breakups, loss, departure, love and regret. His ability to paint pictures of intimate moments with poetic clarity and then compose a chorus of only na-na-na’s is what positions his songs in the pop idiom. They are supremely catchy whilst retaining a depth of literary references and emotional gravitas.

Older songs like Mr. Somewhere, All You Wanted sounded sublime while the new album reinforced why it was so important that he released a new record. The title track opened the show and encapsulated all that followed over the next hour — the dark, majestic pop, aching, soaring vocal melodies and equally grand and eloquent music backing from The Apartments. Welcome back Peter Milton Walsh.

Chris Familton

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LIVE REVIEW: Dirty Three, Mirel Wagner @ State Theatre, Sydney Festival (15/01/16)

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I’d heard great things about Mirel Wagner and she played a good if slightly disconnected set that, for the types of songs she writes (acoustic gothic ballads), lacks an element of menace or otherworldly spookiness to match her visceral lyrics. The talkers in the lobby were a complete distraction too. I can never understand why people shell out close to $90 for a show and then loudly indulge in idle chatter in earshot of an audience trying to lose themselves in intimate music performed by a critically acclaimed songwriter who has travelled all the way from Finland to perform.

Dirty Three are a band that have never let me down with their live performances over the past two decades. Their recorded material on their last few records was very good but it lacked the brilliance of their earlier work. Particularly the classic duo of LPs Horse Stories and Ocean Songs. On stage it is a different story. Mick Turner, Jim White and Warren Ellis are the perfect trio where opposing tension, density and melodies collide and caress one another forming a magical and transportive listening experience. The way they create so much emotion out of a simple, lilting melody and sparse texture on a song like ‘Hope’ and then hurtle into the sonic abyss with the bullet train propulsion of ‘Indian Love Song’.

Warren was the usual madcap raconteur, gracing us with tales of delivering speed at festivals, travelling in semen-infested tour vans, impromptu and anonymous jams with Christy Moore and rejecting a role in Mad Max: Fury Road because he just doesn’t look good in a onesie. All those stories were folded into the introductions of songs, almost as essential a part of the Dirty Three experience as the music itself. It grounds them, connects the wild and febrile spirit of the band to the audience and most importantly it adds humour and irreverence to their performance.

Ellis’ playing is often, rightfully so, the focus of reviewer’s and the audience’s attention as he high-kicks accents within the songs, leaps onto a chair, hugs friends in the front row and throws his shoulders and greying hair back and bellows wordless howls into the lavish deco surrounds of the State Theatre. His violin is a pure extension of his personality… raw, unfettered and hopelessly romantic. He conjured up pain and loss, nihilism and wide-eyed optimism through dissonance, restraint and wild abandon. Without White and Turner by his side the effect would be distilled by two thirds. Their roles are equally as essential to the often overwhelming emotional impact the band creates.

Jim White was the effortless whirling dervish behind the kit, creating polyrhythmic travels through gypsy, jazz, avant-garde, Krautrock and post-rock worlds. The man just doesn’t stop playing – constantly adding tambourines, changing sticks, discarding parts of his kit and only really settling into anything resembling standard rock drumming in sections of ‘Indian Love Song’ and ‘Sue’s Last Ride’. Meanwhile, standing with shoulder to the seated audience, the near stationary Mick Turner is the calm at the centre of the storm, the musical anchor who fills the role of both rhythm guitarist and bassist. His droning chords hung in the staid theatre air, arpeggios were nonchalantly plucked. his majestically sombre playing sounding both ancient and mournful. Losing oneself in each of the player’s sound and styles is the key to full sensory immersion and the ultimate reward of a Dirty Three performance.

Ellis opened up the setlist to requests, paid tribute to Bowie with Ocean Songs’ ‘Authentic Celestial Being’, admitted his emotional feelings of playing with White and Turner again and with one last grand flourish left the stage to a standing ovation. Dirty Three continue to be one of the most honest, emotionally compelling and life-affirming bands I have and will probably ever see perform.

Chris Familton

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LIVE REVIEW: Moon Duo, Grinding Eyes, Glass Skies @ NSC, Sydney (10/12/15)

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MOON DUO

Opening this evening of psych rock was Glass Skies who whipped up a hard stoner/space rock barrage of riffs and grooves for the few early arrivals. The singer/guitarist overplayed his hand with teeth and behind-the-head solos but they nailed the ‘rock’ aspect of psychedelic music convincingly.

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GRINDING EYES (stage set up)

Grinding Eyes enhanced the tripped-out mood of the evening with a a sea of projected images flooding the band and stage as they dug out some dark and fine garage/drone nihilist rock sounds. Part Stooges, part Primal Scream, they possess a strong rhythm section led by drummer Cec Condon which allowed the guitar, Juno synth and Farfisa organ to carve out some visceral and hypnotic swirling melodies.

This tour sees Moon Duo touring Australia with their live drummer John Jeffrey for the first time and he made a real difference in adding a human element to the previous repetition and rigidity of their drum machine. With projections creating the effect of a swirling vortex the trio quickly laid down the template for the evening with their Krautrock meets Suicide rhythms, Ripley Johnson’s curling , hypnotic guitar phrasing and Sanae Yamada’s keyboards which provided the magical dreamy (and sometimes nightmarish) textures and melodies. To new ears it would have sounded like one extended set-piece but fans of their music know the subtleties and the reward of tension release when Moon Duo exit their long, head-nodding passages and hit rare and uplifting choruses. The songs from this year’s Shadow Of The Sun album stood out with their more precise and brighter sound. Wilding, Night Beat and Free The Skull sounded like T-Rex and Bo Diddley reconfigured into ghostly and psychedelic drone rock and a room full of closed eyes and trance-induced head nodding was testament to Moon Duo’s masterful use of endless simplicity in primal rock n roll.

Chris Familton