Sydney Domain
December 7, 2002

"Pyrotechnics used in this performance" reads the sign on the side of the main stage. It was probably left over from the preceeding Machine Gun Fellatio's set. Some bands need gimmicks, but it might have been figuratively applied to Radio Birdman's appearance (in a musical sense, at least) at this, the annual Sydney festival of homegrown acts from all parts of the spectrum. But more on that later.

The irony of the situation hits about 4pm when I'm inside and heading for the Dome Stage to catch another dose of The D4. I'm late because I spent the bulk of the day at a children's Xmas party at Australia's Wonderland (a pissweak, Wallyworld amusement park out in Sydney's sweltering west) and now I'm at another kids' celebration.

While I'll not stoop to comparing some of the rap-infested, terminally insipid noise coming from the In the Mix Big Top to the fairy floss my offspring hooked into at Wallyworld, I'll be charitable and say that diversity at festivals is a good thing. Gets more people through the door. Some of the stuff here, though, just isn't my bag. I'm probably just a little festivalled out, having spent time in the trenches at numerous Big Day Outs before they also started trying to be everything to everyone. For that reason, I'll not be hanging around for the country-pop-confection of Kasey Chambers or the faceless Alex Lloyd (whose attraction will have to remain a mystery to this Barman) but then you're not hear for a blow-by-blow rundown of the majority of the acts. Suffice to say Birdman are the main attraction, though there's the odd act here and there that could catch a Barfly's ear.

Jimmy and Dion croon in unison

One of them are, of course, The D4 who go from strength-to-strength. Sitting out on The Dome stage in mid-ish afternoon, their task could have been uphill. The D4 make it clear form the outset that they're here to party and, fuck it, you WILL join them. They then lay waste to the progressively energised crowd with a set similar to that in Wollongong two nights before.

Dion gets edgy.

"Invader Ace" turns into an audience participation number with greater enhancement on the "oh yeah". "Party" is the monster it is on record but grows extra heads in the live context. "Ladies Man" is taken down low and the band stands around - and on - drummer Beaver's kit (Dion standing atop the bass drum, singer-guitarist Jimmy helping himself to the stool while bassist Vaughan holds his instrument above it all like some sort of boom mike). Devil Dogs cover (and recent single) "North Shore Bitch" steams.

On your feet or on your knees. Vaughan shows how it's done.

There's rarely a dull moment. Various band members fall around like nine pins. Dion ends up over the crash barrier and into the crowd as the set winds up. It's showy but, in my view, never forced and the songs are great. The crowd insists on more but it's not possible, the tight way festivals are run. The D4 depart, Dion's apparently signature closing guitar-as-machine-gun (a la Wayne Kramer on the "Get Some" single label) farewell a lasting image. They're around for a few more Oz shows then back to Kiwiland for Chrissie. Catch 'em before then or when they come back. They're true Rocknroll Motherfuckers (as the song goes).

The crowd gets a spray and a parting blast.

Melbourne's Rocket Science have been around for a couple of years but we haven't crossed paths live. No particular reason why as they've been to Sydney umpteen times. Verdicts vary, no doubt coloured in part by the fact that although band members had served time in numerous outfits, this one happened to be signed to a major label without a significant live track record. Not wanting to hold that against them, I approached this show with an open mind. The scads of stuff I'd heard from the records sounded promising. The idea of a keyboard-and-theremin-charged, psych-influenced four-piece is attractive, and by all accounts the band had gone in a darker, moodier direction of late.

Rocket Science's Roman Tucker strikes a pose.

Maybe it was the wrong song choice on the day or just the festival atmosphere, but for mine Rocket Science were a little disappointing. Too much sameness in the songs and although singer-keyboardist-thereminist (is that a real descriptor?) Roman Tucker has a good set of pipes, he just doesn't win me on the day. Sure it's his trademark to hover almost face down on his keyboards, and the handwaving involved in playing a theremin adds a showy touch (that's thankfully not overplayed), but something's not quite right. As Barfly Jelly (out for the week from the UK) sagely observes, these guys have heard the odd Hawkwind and Seeds album. Maybe they need to broaden that palate. Amazingly, they finished six minutes early.

And so to the main event and the vortex of crowd movements between stages is noticeable for the high number of youngsters moving away from the main arena as crew for the execrable Machine Gun Fellatio breaks down their gear. Thankfully I've missed them because I'm not in the mood for a bad university revue, even with its tits out. A few familiar faces begin massing halfway down the stage apron, with the trio of Ron Peno, Brett Myers (Died Pretty) and Dave Faulkner (Hoodoo Gurus/Persian Rugs) prominent. Ronnie's brought his six-year-old son along and he spends much of the set perched on the taller Faulkner's shoulders to gain a proper view of the stage. Speaking of Dave, this time last year he was about 50m away from the spot he's now occupying on centre stage, leading the Gurus through a greatest-hits set at the same festival. Like then, there'd been the odd youngster asking "Who the fuck are these old codgers?" Ignorance might be bliss but, like then, those who didn't stick around were the losers.

Jim Dickson lays down the Hand of Law.

It's not dark yet but "Smith & Wesson Blues" gets the innings off to a good start. It's destined to be only 50 minutes long and there had been discussions amongst band members whether to mix it up with fast rockers peppered with moodier pieces or go for the throat with a full-on assault. As it ends up, a sort of middle ground is forged with the staccato machine gun burst of "What Gives?" nestling with slower tunes. Of the latter, "Cold Turkey" is probably the one that does it best...Jim Dickson cranks out the bassline and the Tek-Masuak attack kicks in, a slow burn that heightens the intensity level beautifully two-thirds of the way through the set. The crowd is clearly stunned, bemused by the unfamiliarity of the John Lennon song or both, prompting Rob Younger to ask why it's so quiet.

The only new song in the set, "What It's For", is sung within an inch of its life and it sounds like many late-period Birdman tunes (with the bridge change of tempo yielding to another fast assault and more spiralling guitars). No chance of a perfunctory walk-through for the less-familiar material. "Alone in the Endzone" still rings with unabashed guitar crunch. "Do the Pop" is placed early and explodes with an amazing amount of spite and energy, Rob's "No!" intro nearly causes more than one off-guard punter to nearly shit their pants.

Big TV screen Eye.

Most surreal moment: Seeing the band thrown up on the big screen at stage left. If you'd been a callow-faced teenager in 1977, paying a buck to claw your way into a packed Oxford Funhouse, who would have thought they'd see that?

"Aloha Steve 'n' Danno" and "New Race" close out the set and the band's off to a tumultuous reception. There was scarcely a flawed moment, save for a botched intro to "What Gives?" but even that's accepted with good humour from the band members who sidle off with ear to ear grins and waves for faces they've spotted in the crush.

Me, I'm out of there (with apologies to You Am I, who were on my list, but finished by a short half-head to sobriety and weariness as I'd caught them a few times before). Birdman leave 'em breathless and, for the most part, impressed. Hopefully more than one kiddie in the playground that was The Domain was inspired to give their robot music the big kiss-off and go buy a guitar.- The Barman