Report: Dig It Up! Sydney
KATE HENNESSY and AARON CURRAN report on the inaugural Dig It Up!, which took over four venues in Sydney on April 22. The series commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Gurus’ watershed single ‘Leilani’. Photos by CHRIS TURNER.
KH: In his welcome message in the Dig it Up program, Hoodoo Gurus’ frontman Dave Faulkner says: “Dig it Up is NOT seeking to carve up the potential audience into marketing segments with a little bit of this for the ‘this’ people and a little bit of that for the ‘that’ people.”
It’s a neat summary of why it feels so good to be walking down Enmore Road on Sunday with a handful of “this people” friends. There are no “that people” to contend with; none of that jarring clash of devotees to different scenes and sounds that music festivals commonly elicit. It imbues the day with the same sense of camaraderie that makes many metal festivals so unexpectedly feel-good. As he continues his message, however, Faulkner loses his thread. The reason each band made the bill, he says, was because they were the “Grade A Good Stuff” – a subjective claim that cheapens the curatorial strength of a festival that features “now” bands (like Royal Headache) alongside “then” bands (like The Sonics) as a way to showcase the thriving continuum of garage rock n’ roll.
AC: It feels incongruous to be entering the Enmore Theatre in the grey light of early afternoon but there’s a fair-sized crowd already in place for the first band of the day. The Hard-Ons rip off their T-shirts and get bare-chested in unison before reliably thumping out their well-seasoned jumble of thrash metal and punk pop. Ray and Blackie welcome new drummer Murray to the band and keep the crowd chuckling with puerile, often self-deprecating, between-song banter that’s as much a part of a Hard-Ons show as the music itself. They play ‘Where Does She Come From?’, then a “cover” of ‘Roadrunner’ by Bo Diddley, which was utterly unrecognisable as the same song. As the set powers on, fun is had, a bass string is broken, cricket is discussed, and lots more noise is made. I had to laugh when they tease the younger members of the audience about whether their parents are cool and have great record collections.
KH: I miss the show but piece it together from three comments repeated by everyone who sees it.
“They all took their T-shirts off at the same time!”
“They were doing their metal thing.”
“They were fucking loud.”
KH: “Thanks for getting up early to come see us,” says Straight Arrows singer Owen Penglis. It’s 1.30pm. Wry smiles all round. The Arrows blister into ‘Haunted Out’ from debut album It’s Happening and have the crowd warmed up in five seconds flat. Their lo-fi sloppy surf-rock functions like a medicinal shot of tequila. Makes you feel a bit charged, a bit messy, a bit free.
Snug in the dark recesses of Notes, hand wrapped happily around my “breakfast” beer, I watch a group of middle-aged folk seat-bop to the shouty adolescent sneer and stomp of ‘Bad Temper’: “Get so mad, get so mad/Fuck you Mum. Fuck you Dad/Bad, bad, bad, bad temper!” I wonder if these mums and dads still think rebellion is cool? Or at some undetermined point did they switch to thinking it was sorta silly? Or does snotty rock’n’roll appeal to a demarcated zone of snotty adolescence preserved well into our antiquity? The response to Straight Arrows makes you place bets on the latter.
“You can all pretty much go home now,” says Pengilis when it’s over. “You’ve seen the best of the best.” He’s probably joking but I’m glad he said it anyway. The day is enough of a pageant to the past without the ankle-biter bands heaping praise on bands that no longer need it.
Already, those playing at Notes are competing for attention with the bigger acts due to two large screens onstage playing live footage from The Enmore. Watching the Straight Arrows do their darnedest to distract us from The Hard-Ons playing behind them, I’m reminded of a quote by ex-Strangler Hugh Cornwall. “I can’t imagine what it’s like being a young person trying to get a start in the music business – it must be a nightmare," he said. "Because none of the old fuckers like myself are giving up”.
KH: The Fleshtones sprint from the wings to their spots onstage in a display that’s athletic shorthand for “We’ve still got it man!” But with Straight Arrows’ hooks still jangling in my head, I can’t latch on. And compared to Notes the Enmore’s sound is echo and mud. “The Tones” are in black pants and bold-coloured shirts, grinning like maniacs with limbs akimbo, all high kicks and synchronised spins. Two songs in and the guitarist is soloing on a human pyramid built from the thighs of the bass player and singer. It’s pure showbiz yet oddly infantalising. I feel like I’m watching The Wiggles. We bail (leaving hundreds lapping it up by the ladleful) and commiserate out the front with some other refugees from the great Fleshtones pantomime. “Want a one-line review?” offers a friend. “Less camp on vinyl.”
The Gooch Palms
KH: Did The Sly Fox get the Dig it Up! memo? They don’t appear to be on board with the festival at all. The stage lights are murky while harsh white down-lights illuminate the meager audience here to see the band. As The Gooch Palms come onstage the screen behind them powers down into screensaver mode and the dreaded DVD icon begins richocheting from corner to corner of the screen. It’s the 21st century’s key signifier of "I can’t be fucked getting off the couch". Meanwhile, the crowd is still thin on the ground. I flip through my program and start to feel uncool for being here in the first place.
The Gooch Palms duo of Leroy and Kat are like the grown-up versions of the naughty kids with the hippy parents who never told them to behave. Kat sings and beats a couple of drums (sans cymbals) while Leroy sings and plays dubious guitar. “This is a song about hay!” announces Kat proudly, doing a good imitation of unsalvageably unhinged. “You know, the kind horses eat?!”
Leroy chimes in. “It’s time to introduce you to the third member of The Gooch Palms and a very special guest,” he says, ceremonially, before turning and mooning the crowd. To further make his point, he reaches around and delicately separates his ass cheeks. Nevertheless, more people swarm in and, as they do, a curious things occurs. The gig gets better. A couple of the Straight Arrows guys shuffle to the front and prod, elbow and otherwise cajole their friends to join them. Suddenly, the room has energy. Because it’s packed, more people try to pack in.
The Gooch Palms get more raucous, the crowd laughs louder and everyone moves more. The lead singer belts out an Elvis-like croon that’s pretty darn electrifying, followed by some doo-wop falsetto and an Axl Rose screech. Guy’s got talent! They blaze into some sort of crappy yet catchy-as-hell ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’/Ozzy Osbourne mash-up and the momentum of the moment breaks over the room, leaving me stranded on a bone-dry island some distance behind. Nevertheless, it’s captivating. I feel like I’m witnessing the genesis of an “it” band at accelerated speed and ferocity – from near-empty room to hipsters swinging from the chandeliers. Hell, my friends only bailed five minutes before I did and the suckers missed EVERYTHING.
Kids In Dust/The Sunnyboys
AC: Kids in Dust are, in fact, the Sunnyboys. Every person in the packed Enmore goes absolutely nuts as the original line-up of Bill Bilson (drums), Richard Burgman (guitar), Peter Oxley (bass) and Jeremy Oxley (lead vocals and guitar) step from the wings, where their families are packed in tight together to watch them play their first show in … too many years. The songs are mainly drawn from their classic self-titled debut – ‘Tunnel of Love’, ‘Happy Man’, ‘Let You Go’, ‘My Only Friend’, ‘I’m Shakin’ and more – and each is played with a damn sight more precision and vitality than we had any reason to expect. (Though Burgman’s quip to Bilson that the band “don’t sound bad considering we only had a 10 minute rehearsal” was a lighthearted step beyond credulity.)
Looking around, everyone is dancing and cheering, and some even look a little emotional, which is understandable given the health issues that Jeremy Oxley has faced in being able to sing these amazing songs for us, and the esteem in which they are still held. His voice is still strong and distinctive, while I’m astonished at the sheer fluidity of the guitarists’ interplay. The rhythm section is similarly solid; Burgman has a Cheshire cat grin and can’t stop beaming at them both. (He looks like we feel.)
‘Alone with You’, perhaps the best-loved Australian song of the post-punk period, is a fitting closer and Jeremy Oxley’s impassioned guitar solo bites hard, almost as loud as the applause of the crowd.
Belles Will Ring
KH: There’s few inroads to Belles Will Ring when it comes to the written word. Theirs is such a well-crafted amalgam of ’60s and ’70s influences– from Electric Prunes to The Mamas & The Papas – that it almost sounds like they imagined up the whole trip themselves. But it’s so tastefully delivered to a note and to a gesture that it makes the experience wonderful to partake of but difficult to report on. Perfect circles always are.
Percussionist, keyboardist, flutist and co-vocalist Lauren Crew is especially alluring today when juxtaposed against the backdrop of aged Sunnyboys. With a notable lack of women on the bill, the belle of the Belles copes with a roomful of lascivious eyes with her signature blank stare. “She’s a real snake-charmer,” says a friend in admiration. It’s true. Her moves are hypnotic. Her tambourine is firm and precise. Her stare is cool. Her voice is warm. They wrap up with ‘The River’: the soundtrack to a drug-addled spaghetti western, dumping you on your acid-fried ass deep in the desert badlands with just coyotes and cacti for company. Scorching on record, elevated to incendiary as a set-closer and the only time you hear vocalist Liam Judson really lose his lolly.
Spencer P Jones
AC: Up at the Sly Fox, Spencer P Jones performs to a full-house. I’m way up the back so can’t see much except for occasional glimpses of a white Stetson hat. His voice is too distant and the guitar is thin and trebly in the mix. ‘The Bogans (Are Having All the Fun)’ gets some audience members singing along, but I find myself straining to hear any lyrics at all. I give up during a song about Valentine’s Day.
Tek & Younger
AC: Radio Birdman’s Deniz Tek and Rob Younger are playing to a less-than-capacity room at the Enmore, undoubtedly the result of everyone needing a break from the place after The Sunnyboys. A handful of classics are tossed out in quick succession – ‘I-94’, ‘Alone in the Endzone’, ‘Hand of Law’ – but they lack the ferocity and edge that marks the finest performances I’ve seen by these guys. A version of ‘Hindu Gods of Love’ by the Lipstick Killers sounds fantastic though. It's a highlight of the set, along with frenetic closer ‘Aloha Steve and Danno’. (That’s what’s wrong with Australian music these days – not enough songs about TV cop shows.)
AC: There’s a timetable swap over at Notes and Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn comes on earlier than the schedule I had. Two of the guys from The Fleshtones are backing Wynn, along with a female drummer who plays with formidable drive. They sound fantastic in this small room, ending with a driving cover of ‘Who Do You Love’ (yet another Bo Diddley song and one which the Hoodoo Gurus have also covered). Wynn seems genuinely chuffed by the crowd’s response and leaves us with the promise of more shows soon.
KH: Barreling from side-to-side like an enraged, fuzzy-headed crab, Royal Headache frontman Shogun is the show. It’s impossible to overstate the impact of his voice and his furious delivery and how it elevates the band’s otherwise standard three-chord pop-rock to something worth witnessing … again and again. The band functions much like Shogun’s unruly limbs which don’t always do his bidding. A few seconds into ‘Down The Lane’ he hissy-fits centre stage.
AC: Geez, that Shogun fella is a fairly grumpy sort, isn’t he? He seems extremely uncomfortable as he paces the stage, making gruff demands to the soundie to change the foldback levels, and to the band themselves about what songs to play or what speed to play them at. (To be fair, he was right on that last point, making them stop during the first verse of ‘Down the Lane’ and rev it up by about 10 BPM.) Most of the best tracks from their debut LP are played, like ‘Never Again’, ‘Really in Love’ and ‘Psychotic Episode’, and they end on a furiously agreeable cover of ’80s pop-standard ‘Teardrops’ by Womack & Womack.
AC: Died Pretty take the stage to an intro tape of Os Mutantes’ ‘A Minha Menina’, with guitarist Brett Myers dressed simply in black polo and jeans while singer Ron Peno is rocking a waistcoat-and-tie combo. When Peno spoke to M+N recently, he’d promised Dig It Up! audiences a diverse set of mostly earlier material and the band stayed true to those words, with soaring takes on ‘Stops and Starts, ‘Lost’, ‘Sweetheart’, ‘Crawls Away’ and an especially-welcome ‘Landsakes’ from Free Dirt (1986). I’m tempted to go and hassle someone at the mixing desk though, as the sound that we’re hearing doesn’t seem commensurate to the effort of the musicians: the keyboards are too weak, the overall mix is too quiet, and when Myers hits a pedal and peels off one of his patented psych-fuelled solos, you can barely feel it.
KH: A rising ratio of meatheads in the audience doesn’t help. Guys are barging through the front section with tinnies, front-on, instead of sidling sideways as gig etiquette dictates. By sheer force of will, however, I enjoy the majestic ‘Godbless’ from Doughboy Hollow as much as the next DP devotee; a track that’s all the richer for the many here who wept over the Sunnyboys’ reportedly glorious set a few hours earlier: “So here I am, alone with you/The Sunnyboys, God bless them/And God bless you.”
‘Dig It Up R&A’
KH: In the Green Room Lounge, Laughing Outlaw label owner Stuart Coupe is interviewing Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate), Brad Shepherd (Hoodoo Gurus) and The Fleshtones singer Peter Zaremba. It’s an interesting chat full of frank and colourful details. Rock is eating itself, however. Coupe asks his “panel” about playing with Died Pretty back in the day. They all nod sagely and begin talking about a legendary gig at Paddington RSL. No one mentions that Died Pretty – the real Died Pretty that is, not the one resurrected from collective memory – is bashing it out as they speak, a few doors down.
AC: Back at the Enmore, the grandfathers of garage rock, The Sonics, walk out in matching black and silver outfits. They’re looking confident, as well they might, seeing as how they practically invented the music we’ve been hearing all day. If we had any reservations about seeing a bunch of grey-haired, paunchy guys in their ’60s and ’70s play greasy punk/R&B, that’s quickly dispelled when they punch out astonishingly-tight, fuzzed-up classics like ‘He’s Waitin’, ‘Have Love, Will Travel’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Boss Hoss’ and ‘Shotdown’, one after the other with barely a rest between them.
The voice of original frontman and Phil Spector-lookalike Gerry Roslie, has lost a little of its fearsome growl over the decades, so he shares duties with bassist Freddie Dennis, who is more than capable of offering up raw screams as required. The band sound better and better as the set progresses, ending with a crazy-good trio of ‘Strychnine’, ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Witch’. Most of us are dancing and cheering the Sonics’ inimitable sax-driven stomp, including Ronnie Yoshiko from The 126.96.36.199’s, who go-go dances feverishly side of stage.
The Hoodoo Gurus
AC: The Gurus can’t wipe the smiles off their faces. Dave Faulkner’s got on his old fringed jacket (y’know, the one he’s wearing on the back cover of the ‘Tojo’ single) and Brad Shepherd has dug up his trusty old Gretsch. They play Stoneage Romeos – an album that sent many Australian listeners down the garage rock path in the first place – in almost the original order, coming straight out of the gates with a tearaway ‘(Let’s All) Turn On’.
‘Leilani’ sounds fantastic, the crowd matching every one of Faulkner’s shouts of “ummgawah!”, and ‘I Was a Kamikaze Pilot’ is an unstoppable rave-up. For the encores we get a mixture of the much-loved and the biggest hits, kicking off with the anthemic b-side ‘Be My Guru’ and the triumphant ‘Bittersweet’. The Gurus throw in a more recent number, ‘Crackin’ Up’, which has the energy but little of the melody of their best material, closing the night with a raging version of ‘Television Addict’ from Faulkner’s early band The Victims and the ever-popular ‘Like Wow - Wipeout!’ Here’s to the next 30 years.
Dig It Up! concludes this week with shows in Adelaide (tonight at HQ), Melbourne (tomorrow at The Palace) and Perth (The Astor on April 28).
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