Posted January 19, 2009

Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour
Sunday, January 18, 2009


Welcome to Hispter Heaven, kids. My name's The Barman (you can call me "The") and I'll be your guide on this warm and clear Sydney Sunday.

This was Day Two of ATP in Sydney, the Mt Buller execution having been pulled off to rave reviews from anyone who went, albeit probably at a loss for promoters with crowds down because of a shortage of onsite accommodation.

If you didn't already know, ATP is an English invention whereby a band "curates" a program. So they pick who plays. And it's usually in in an exotic location. Ahem. Like a Pommy holiday camp or - in the Australian setting - a snow-less ski resort (Mt Buller.) Or an abandoned shipwright island and onetime jail. Which brings us to Cockatoo Island.

ATP has the reputation for being the thinking man's (and woman's) festival with left-field bands, food that's not run-of-the-mill and an ambience of relaxed espirit de corps.

This was a two-day program with the same line-up performing each day of the weekend.

On the face of it, the Sydney end of ATP was very well organised. It has to be when you're transporting up to 6000 people on and off an island in the middle of Sydney Harbour. Sunday's crowd was supposedly well down on the day before, so if that was the case, the second-day logistics were probably easier. The ferry isn't packed on the way over although the lines for the return trip were starting to build as we eventually beat a retreat.

On the downside, a $1.50 Sunday hike on the price of beers, pushing them up to $7.50, was less palatable. Bend over, the fun starts here.

As to the hipster content, it actually wasn't bad. Good vibes abounded and there was no quotient of zoned-out fuckheads with zero interest in the music (i.e. your run-of-the-mill festival attendees.) So be thankful.

I should have paid closer attention to both Beaches and The Stabs who were playing within a few minutes and a couple of hundred metres of each other on arrival, but I spent the early time easing into this festival thing over a couple of overpriced beers.

The Stabs play that angsty strain of sprawling noise-punk that Melbourne bands do best while Beaches seem to attract attention for being female and eclectic. I didn't hear enough to gauge whether they were heroic or hyped. Maybe next time.

I'm not a fan of Bridezilla and people who sit in that category usually refer to bands like them as "being good at what they do". Theatrically-clad like a bunch of Goths who crossed paths with Trinni and Suzanne and were persuaded to dump their dark clothes for a colourful makeover, these youngsters gather quite a crowd for their set and sound older than their tender years. Time will tell if they crack the big league, once they're old enough to have a drinks rider to call their own.

Hoss was a late inclusion on the bill and a welcome surprise. This is the first time I've clapped eyes on them for a month of Sundays and I'm still of the opinion that they should be bigger than a hooker's handbag after the US Pacific Fleet's been through town. Unassuming but full of fire and pretension-free, they're two guitar, bluesy rock and roll, pure and simple.

As well as their originals, there's a song that could have been a Sabbath cover ("Too Much Sugar") and a version of the Dead Boys' "I Need Lunch" that would have singed the grass if we hadn't been standing on concrete. They're the (final) link between today and the Dog Meat bands of the '90s.

Jimmy and Joel.

That the Sydney Morning Herald's reviewer couldn't tell Hoss apart from US band Dead Meadow just shows he needs to get out more or stop trying so hard.

Lead guitarist Jimmy is wearing a T-shirt that spruiks fantastic femme band The Killer Birds. I initially misread it as declaring that the wearer kills birds, which makes me think it might have been something the pilot in the Hudson River Airbus crash could have put on.

Joel plays his rock and roll and has the best mutton chops in town.

American band Dead Meadow comes across as a dirtier version of Cream with extended psychedelic jams sending tracer-lines of guitar spiraling over the Harbour waters. This I like. A lot.

I'd been anticipating the return of the Laughing Clowns more than the Saints, to be frank. (And I'm not Frank - although he was in my shout.) Not a fan back in the day, my appreciation for their multi-layered, stunning dynamism has grown in leaps and bounds since then.

Clowns re-assemble.

Their performance isn't a letdown and his line-up's as close to definitive as you could hope. Ed Kuepper's clearly steering the ship. On this bill, the vessel doesn't quite seem as strange as when it was navigating the punk and pub rock scenes of the 1980s. Needless to say, it has a mighty swing in the bottom end with the consummate Jeffrey Wegener on drums.

Stand-up bassist Biff Miller (introduced as "the man who brought back the biff") is a revelation. Keyboardist (and Geoffrey Rush doppleganger) Alistair Spence didn't seem quite integrated into some of the songs spending large chunks of time waiting pensively to insert his sounds, but that'll no doubt be covered off as the band moves into recording new material. Perhaps the warmest welcome is for saxophonist Louise Elliott who turns in an amazing showing.

There's audience participation with Ed asking us if we'd prefer "Everything That Flies" or "There From 'Mad Flies...Mad Flies'". The latter wins. A superbly tensile "Collapse Board" is introduced as "the world's most depressing song" and everyone cheers for a re-vamped "Eternally Yours".

Sing-a-long with Mitch, er, Ed.

Jeffrey Wegener on the Collapse Board.

Alistair looks pensive. And looks like Geoffrey Rush.

The return of the Clowns was something special and hopefully it sustains. Keep an eye out for Australian shows in May and those new recordings.

I would have liked to have liked to have spied James Blood Ulmer and Rowland S. Howard on sidestages but programming doesn't allow that to happen without clashes. Japanese band Afrirampo has a buzz on, but they're another victim of timetabling and inertia.

On the main stage, Spiritualized probably have a point with their glam-gospel but i miss it. I watch their set from the shadows in search of some respite from the sun. Maybe i wasn't in the mood but it seems a bit overblown.

So onto the really important questions:

Did the Saints really play a set advertised as reprising their classic "I'm Stranded" album for their Brisbane fans and not do the title track?

Did Chris Bailey show up a minute before stage-time for their Melbourne Forum gig for soundcheck, compromising support band X's six-camera video shoot of their gig? And who hijacked the support's rider and guest list?

Did the singer really call the guitarist a "twat" on stage?

Does Ivor Hay really design and make cardboard coffins in his adopted home-town Adelaide?

These and other questions are running through at least one small mind before I clap eyes on "the real Saints" together again on the same stage for the first and last time (I'm discounting that 1980s "Saints" tour where Kuepper filled in on bass and Ivor Hay was nowhere to be seen.)

The Saints stroll on and saunter into their set. A three-piece horns section fills things out for songs like "Swing For the Crime". Kuepper's changed shirts. And Chris Bailey is still Chris Bailey.

Happy Together?

"My people..."

Bailey cracks a string of gay jokes that no-one except him seems to get. Maybe it's an ironic comment from someone wearing pyjama pants and an All Access laminate that's flapping from his right wrist like a man-bag. There's lots more annoying banter before the set's done and if ever there was a prospective customer for one of Ivor Hay's environmentally-friendly, biodegradable coffins, he's standing centre-stage.

Is that a cucumber down your pyjamas or are you happy to see us?

"Stranded" suffers terribly at the hands of the singer. It seems there was enough ham on-stage to stock a hundred butcher shops at Xmas. "Know Your Product" and "This Perfect Day" fire but at times it feels like Kuepper's pulling the band along with him and they're not sure that they want to go along for the ride.

"Messin' With the Kid" and "Nights in Venice" approach greatness but today was a case of Too Much Bailey, Not Enough Saints.

The Memphis Horns add their bit.


Arch Larizza on bass. He didn't crack a smile all day.

Sunday was supposedly much improved on Saturday's performance. Did I expect a rote performance of their songs, a la a cover band? Nope. i just thought that, collectively, the band might look back on its catalogue with a degree of mild respect. And therein lies the problem; one party has no respect and that feeds into all things.

There are no such energy problems with headliners Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Nick Cave is the Elvis Presley of the 00's, a cleaned-up Vegas singer with charisma and tunes. There are enough celebrity followers present (if you count the Federal Opposition Leader, a bevy of State Government Members of Parliament and the Lord Mayor, as ever resplendent in dog collar) to fill a Sunday paper's social pages. Don't they love the Black Prince?

Fortunately, there's still enough dark lyrical vision running through Cave's head to ensure his sets aren't sanitised for the masses, but it's also valid to say the Bad Seeds of today are a world removed from the fucked-up, noisemaking bands of the 1980s who had that anarchic edge. Blixa moved on and so did a lot of ingrained grime in their sound. The band still sounds monstrous, but there's a little more happening on the fringes with sampling/keyboard doodling. A friend who called the day after reckoned the Bad Seeds are becoming Grinderman, the pared-down band that nestles inside this one, and that seems a fair call.

Anyway, the Entertainer mixes it up with selections from his current album "Dig Lazarus Dig" with old classics. Of the new stuff, the title tune and "We Call Upon The Author" hold up well but"The Mercy Seat" is re-arranged in a major way and suffers seriously from its emasculation. "Red Right Hand" comes into play, sans the creepy tension of its original version. "Tupelo" is the obligatory spooky moment, "Deana" the rocker.

It's a festival set, predictable but solid. I can't really begrudge them re-working those old songs (how else could they play them night after night?) The staging is great, Cave works the bandshell like a man only slightly less possessed than he was 20 years ago. Or possessed by a work ethic.

An admirable show from a bunch of old pro's.