Annandale Hotel
Thursday March 6, 2003

Can you believe it - I didn't get to a single gig during February? Caught the Breeders at the Metro on Monday, but that was mainly because I'd bought the ticket back in December and I wasn't going to waste the 40 bucks, no matter how stressed out I was at work. Same with the Bats (stress I mean, not tickets). Frankly I thought they must have broken up years ago, it's been so long since I last heard any reports of them, but there they were playing at the Annandale and I wasn't about to miss them either, even if I had missed all three support bands (including Minisnap, which apparently is actually just the Bats minus Robert Scott) by the time I eventually managed to escape from work (The secret? When all else fails, just run screaming from the building!).

For me, interest in the whole "Kiwi/Flying Nun" sound really rests on three inter-related bands - the Clean, the Chills and the Bats. The Bats still have the same line up they started with twenty years ago and while they sounded a little bit ragged at a couple of points in their performance, there were never going to be too many defects with that amount of combined experience working for them and they delivered everything you could hope for.

Well, almost everything anyway. My favourite Bats song is "Make It Clear" (as deft and dainty a jingly pop song as you could ever hope for), which the band apparently considers one of its lesser achievements since they buried it away on the "Spill The Beans" EP. It didn't make it onto their "best of" ("Thousands Of Tiny Luminous Spheres") a couple of years ago, so I knew it was unlikely to get a run during the show, but I cherished a faint hope anyway... Of course my hope was in vain, as it turned out, but there were more than enough highlights in their performance to stave off anything approaching disappointment.

Given that it's almost a decade since they were last here and there's no current album to promote (though rumour has it that finally "Thousands Of Tiny Luminous Spheres" is about to be released here by a local record company), I'm not sure what prompted them to do this mini tour - just a gig each in Sydney and Melbourne - but I'm not complaining. Tonight's set could almost have been sold as "Thousands Of Tiny Luminous Spheres, the Stage Show", since they played great slabs of it. However they did play a couple of new songs as well, so apparently they don't consider themselves a spent force just yet, even if side projects and Clean reunions do keep distracting them.

Kiwi Pop is not power pop, but it's not just your standard indie strum'n'hum either. When the Bats get their teeth into it, it can range anywhere from light, diaphanous guitar based psychedelica to rousing, bittersweet hymns for the hard pressed parishioners of a brutal machine age, from melancholy chorales for the disenfranchised to electric sea shanties full of foreboding, from up beat amplified folk music for belligerent morris dancers to light "progressive rock" (with maybe some of the artiness, but definitely none of the pretensions which that label usually implies) and the full range was on display tonight.

Starting with "Block of Wood" and "Spill the Beans", the set was an incessant rising tide of passion, making its inevitable way to an epic finale like a Chaucer pilgrimage to Canterbury, passing along the way some important historical landmarks, including a truly haunting version of "Smoking Her Wings".

As the set progressed, the band were continually able to breathe new life into their repertoire. "Boogey Man" in particular was far more menacing and malevolent than the poppy recorded version of a decade ago, while the closing "North By North" was positively anthemic. More importantly though, the new songs fitted right in with the old ones, which is always a good indication that a band has still got something left in the bank and isn't about to be relegated to the nostalgia circuit just yet.

Their final, parting gesture was a promise not wait ten years before returning next time. Here's hoping that they stay as true to their word as they appear to have stayed to their origins. - John McPharlin