Jumpin’ In The Night #8: SuperHappyFunTimes/Beetle Bar
In the final installment of Jumpin’ In The Night, ANDREW STAFFORD takes inspiration from Paul Williams’ ‘The Map’ and sees two contrasting gigs in one weekend, and also sings the praises of Sabrina Lawrie and her Beetle Bar.
It’s an up-late Friday session in the hall of Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (“up late” in this case being the positively witchy hour of 8.30pm), and I’m thinking that Mick Harvey – the former Boy Next Door-turned-Bad Seed – would make a great school principal. He’s in his best Mr Grumpy mode; telling off the kids talking at the back of the class. I look around and there’s a lot of people in the room I haven’t seen in a while, and maybe it’s the same for many others, because the gathering seems keener on a chinwag than the music.
Which is a shame, because it’s a good gig. I love seeing shows at GoMA. It’s not a typical venue, and the sound can vary depending on where you happen to be standing (early on it’s a muddy mess, with JP Shilo’s violin inaudible, but it improves steadily). But it’s almost always good stuff, albeit veering naturally to the artier side of the music spectrum. Harvey fits in to this milieu perfectly and it’s a discerning, if way too noisy audience. Robert Forster is here with his family, looking suitably regal. Forster and Harvey go back a long way.
It’s all very highbrow. Red wine is the order of the night; a request for water is knocked back with the suggestion that only the sparkling variety is available for purchase from the bar, while still or tap water can be found in a downstairs café. There’s been a great surrealist exhibition on at GoMA since June, and Harvey, enjoying the theatre of the occasion, occasionally reads snatches of Andre Breton – deliberately out of context, grabbing at random lines while flicking backwards through a book.
As a frontman, it’s safe to say Harvey wouldn’t be seen dead perched over a foldback. After three decades alongside Nick Cave, he’s perfectly comfortable playing the straight guy. To one side of him, Rosie Westbrook on double bass provides the glamour and thudding heartbeat; on the other, Shilo’s violin and guitar brings the noise. By contrast, Harvey’s performance – other than his occasional rebukes of the audience for not paying attention – is as muted as his ice-blue stare; his tendency towards wry understatement and subtle melodies making for an engaging experience, more than an immediate one.
Still, it’s a classy, at times imperious set. In between, he pushes songs from his first solo album of all-original material, Sketches from the Book of the Dead. I haven’t yet got the album, and I’m guessing it’s probably a grower, but for now I have to be honest and say his covers stand out more, in particular a hair-raising version of the Gun Club’s ‘Mother of Earth’, which casts a molten glow over proceedings. He closes with Guy Clark’s ‘Hank Williams Said It Best’, the ostensible title track of 2005’s One Man’s Treasure, and draws ironic attention to the line “one man’s art is another man’s scrawl”.
That was last Friday. In the first column of this series, I referred to the original inspiration of Paul Williams’ book The Map, and now I’m reminded of it again. In the book, written in the mid 1980s, Williams gives an account of seeing two wildly contrasting bands in the space of a weekend – Lone Justice one night, Black Flag the next. Last weekend was a bit like that for me.
So, to Saturday. My girlfriend and I are wedged into the booming confines of a sold-out Hi-Fi Bar. It’s probably my least favourite venue in Brisbane, but tonight it’s absolutely rammed, and the excitement level is palpable. The excitement isn’t for some new wunderkinds or English buzz band, either: it’s for Regurgitator. Clearly, after years of comparative indifference towards this most interesting of groups, the wheel has turned. And I don’t think it’s just about the novelty of them releasing their new album in the form of a push-button badge.
After the sombre proceedings of the previous night, this couldn’t be a better follow-up, a reminder of the instant thrills of great pop music. And it’s heartening that, for a band that over a decade ago led off its second album with a song called ‘I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff’ – for mine, the best pre-emptive strike ever recorded – the crowd seems as curious about the new stuff as the old. I look around and there’s a real mix of Xs and Ys here. The Ys are closer to the front.
So we get a mix of both new and old music. *SuperHappyFunTimesFriends recalls the spirit of the band’s best album Unit, in a way that’s both unabashed and affectionate. There’s brash hip-hop (‘All Fake Everything’) in a language and accent that I instantly understand and recognise as my own, and I wonder if this band ever got its critical due for being among the real pioneers of the genre in Australia. There’s retro-futurist ’80s synth-pop, too: ‘Into The Night’ is my newest favourite song of 2011, as perfect a pastiche as ‘The Song Formerly Known As’, which predictably but joyously rounds out the encores.
“I look around and there’s a real mix of Xs and Ys here. The Ys are closer to the front.”
There’s also some silly but fun rock’n’roll, with Quan Yeomans paying loving tribute to his ‘Punk Mum’, and Ben Ely’s ‘Uncontactable’ – an update of the Ramones’ ‘I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You’ in an age of ubiquitous social media. SuperHappyFunTimesFriends is Regurgitator’s perfectly pitched album for the Facebook generation, and it’s a hoot to see many punters recording and uploading the set on their iPhones on the night. The crowd is ecstatic, the band beaming, and early hits like ‘Kong Foo Sing’ get everyone singing.
The whole thing was a huge shot of energy, coming after a quiet few months where I’d needed to save my pennies, and staying home for a variety of reasons seemed more attractive anyway. But the contrast of performers, styles and settings across the two shows was the most invigorating part. The intimate evening GoMA promised with Mick Harvey didn’t quite eventuate – there were too many people too interested in talking about their own lives for that. I won’t make a judgment about that.
It’s the Regurgitator show that, to my surprise, has the greater feel of everyone being present and on the same page at the same time. It reminds me that a stadium rock show filled to the rafters can be just as exciting as one in a small club, just as special, and possibly even as intimate and communal. The Hi-Fi’s no stadium, of course, but it makes me think it’s time to catch a really big show again. Just for fun.
Sabrina Lawrie stands five foot one, but she has a voice that would level Tokyo. Earlier this century, she played in an energetic Brisbane outfit with the quirky handle of Little Vegas and the Fuzz Parade. They were good, too, but the scale and volume of her singing left her band sounding a little puny by comparison.
Now she has a new band with a rotating cast called The Hunting Party, and she’s found a sound and approach that’s better suited to her talents. Her songs have expanded to suit her talents: there’s less punky power pop, more lengthy, winding set pieces like ‘Spoke Another Language’, with polyrhythmic drumming by producer Skritch. A CD of demos features droning, Middle Eastern sounds and a lengthy, dubby take on the Police’s ‘The Bed’s Too Big Without You’.
Lawrie also has a passion for straight-up rock, as anyone who’s seen her lay waste to classics like Springsteen’s ‘Mr State Trooper’ and Patti Smith’s ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Nigger’. Watching Lawrie on stage, I can’t work out why she’s not a star: great songs, a voice that’s not of this world, and charisma that you can’t get close enough to. She’s a magnetic performer.
There’s an obvious reason, though, why Lawrie’s talents aren’t known the length and breadth of the country and beyond. For the last couple of years, she’s poured most of her considerable energies into running a venue, Brisbane’s Beetle Bar on the backpacker strip of Upper Roma Street. (If the location sounds unappealing, at least it’s a safe distance from the “entertainment precinct” of the Godforsaken Valley of Fortitude – a major attraction of the venue when it first opened doors.)
It’s an odd-shaped room: long and narrow with a low ceiling as you enter, but opening out with a balcony and high ceiling above the stage. It makes for variable sound quality, depending on where you’re standing, and regardless of the skills of the person behind the mixing desk. What the Beetle Bar does have is character, atmosphere and diversity in the acts presented.
Since the demise of the much-loved Troubadour, it’s been at the heart of the Brisbane scene, becoming something of a rallying point. When the venue started, Lawrie says, “There were a lot of cliquey little scenes that were difficult to penetrate, and they were actually creating competition rather than community, and it really upset me … There’s enough venues in Brisbane and people in Brisbane for it to be a community, not a competition.”
Lawrie has bloodlines when it comes to running venues. For eight years, she worked with her father running The Indie Temple on Wickham Street, and was there when Prince played one of Brisbane’s most celebrated gigs of recent years, with the Purple One and his band playing until dawn in the small basement club after finishing an earlier set at the Entertainment Centre.
When Little Vegas broke up in 2008, she began booking the small front room at The Step Inn. Then came the opportunity to transform the Beetle Bar – which had been closed for months – from a backpacker haven to a music venue. A friend, Aisha Dixon (who was alerted to the opportunity while she was living next door to the best friend of the bar’s owner) suggested to Lawrie that they take the job on together.
Lawrie was reluctant. “I knew how much time and energy it takes to make it work, and I didn’t want to do something half-arsed, because at that time I was thinking about my music career too,” she says. It’s this apparent self-sacrifice that I’m most interested in, but Lawrie is quick to add that she’s not complaining now: the job has helped her to forge alliances with booking agents, media and other musicians, all of which has been beneficial on a personal level.
There’s no question, though, that running the venue sucks up an enormous amount of time and energy, and Lawrie compensates by being formidably organised. Again, this has flow-on benefits for others, especially in the local scene.
“In the early days of the bar we were working predominantly with younger, less experienced acts,” she says. “So if you can not only send them all the information that they need to know [and] also help educate them at the same time in terms of giving them contacts in the media, and giving them little hints and tips in how to promote themselves, that also helps them and helps us.”
“Watching Lawrie on stage, I can’t work out why she’s not a star: great songs, a voice that’s not of this world, and charisma that you can’t get close enough to.”
When the Troubadour closed its doors, the venue’s importance was magnified, and it began to put on bigger shows. Still, there’s no small element of risk, and there are down days. “It’s hard because there’s no consistency,” she says. “It’s difficult to have consistency when you’re working with venues that have original, unknown bands.
“I’ve got to think to myself if I wasn’t doing this I’d be doing a day job somewhere. So whenever I think my time is strained, and I’m not focusing on my music, I weigh it up and go, this is worthy and something I’m passionate about and care about. It’s worth it; I just need to rearrange my time a little bit.”
In the meantime, there’s an album on the way with The Hunting Party. A single will be released in December, followed by an album in February 2012, with recording sessions being squeezed in between commitments to the bar. Hopefully when it appears Lawrie’s music will receive more of the attention it deserves – depending, presumably on her ability to leave the bar long enough to promote it. Without people like Lawrie, there’d barely be a music scene here at all.
Andrew Stafford is a Brisbane-based writer and the author of 'Pig City'. He’s currently working on his second book for University of Queensland Press.
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JUMPIN’ IN THE NIGHT #6: Retro fetishism and Geelong’s Frowning Clouds.
JUMPIN’ IN THE NIGHT #5: Some sobering thoughts on Spencer P Jones.
JUMPIN’ IN THE NIGHT #4: Notes from underwater.
JUMPIN’ IN THE NIGHT #3: Dancing to the beat of the living dead.
JUMPIN’ IN THE NIGHT #2: How not to be a feisty rock critic.
JUMPIN’ IN THE NIGHT #1: A rock’n’roll epiphany.