The Roxy, Parramatta
Thursday, January 13 2005

Words & Pictures: THE BARMAN

This was a taut yet relaxed opening to the Dark Surprise tour, in front of a small but appreciative crowd in a converted movie theatre in western Sydney. ‘Taut and relaxed’ sounds a contradiction in terms, but bear with me…

There’s tension from a number of areas, not the least of which is that the band has a new drummer in Nik Rieth and a bunch of new songs to play. The first show of a tour always exposes frayed nerve endings anyway, no matter how minimal. There’s not a player alive in any band that won’t say it feels good to put Show Number One under the belt. I'd bet the B irdmen are no different.

On the other hand for a group of guys slightly on edge, there’s no shortage of relaxed onstage banter with audience members. Rob Younger is especially animated and accepts beers, a homemade T-shirt and song requests from the front row punters with patience, good humour and grace.

Let’s cut to what you really need to know.

The songs still mostly hit with the impact of a cosh on the back of the head on a dark and cold night. It's a musical mugging, not a massage, and the guitar interplay never bores.

New drummer Nik Rieth (ex Celibate Rifles, New Chrtists and Tumbleweed, among others) looks like he’s taken up residence in a health farm and spent his musical hiatus middle-distance running with Dr Tek. It’s not as if he doesn’t know the material, being a long-term Deniz Tek Group member.) There’s one glaring fuck up on “New Race” (where did that extra fill come from?) and a few rough edges, but we’ll take that in our stride.

No disrespect to Ron Keeley whose behind-the-beat touch was such an essential element of this band, but it’s a way different feel with Nik. In a way, there’s probably a Keeley influence at work in that the new incumbent rarely overplays his hand. The feels are more straight up. Where Ron was deceptively fast with great hand speed, Nik's brutally hard-hitting at times.

And the new songs? “What It’s For” will probably rates as one of them for most people, although it was aired on the “Hit ‘em Again” tour. It’s joined by three others. No names (I missed out on a set list) but one’s a bone-crunching, full-tilt effort that wouldn’t be out of place on “Radios Appear”, another a monster truck of a tune that recalls some of the doom-laden mid-tempo stuff by the “Lower Yourself” era New Christs. There’s a mass of surf guitar laid thickly over another. Net effect is that they’re killer songs that will only grow in stature with familiarity.

We get an hour-and-a-half, all originals and most of the faves figure. There was a pre-gig hint that the stage volume might be loud but that doesn’t translate to too great an exercise excess, come showtime. Deniz lays down some heady tremolo and Klondike’s clean, lean lines are mostly in nice relief in the mix. Great to hear Pip given due prominence too.

A word on the venue: The Roxy’s a beautiful building, all ornate carved ceilings and red curtains. The developers have left about 600 seats intact, installing a dance floor for 150 or so where the orchestra pit might have been. If it was in the US, they’d call it a ballroom. Its configuration leaves an unfenced gap between the edge of the dance floor and the first row of seats that, disconcertingly, would seem to present an occupational health and safety issue for the visually-impaired or outright intoxicated. Mind you, you might have problems becoming the latter, given that there’s only one tiny upstairs bar that manages to run out of draught beer three-quarters of the way into the show.

It’s a surreal setting in which to watch support Rocket Science because most of the punters glue themselves to the seats for the support band’s set. It’s good to see singer/keyboardist Roman Tucker and his theremin back in action after his near-death experience in 2004. Guitarist Paul Maybury (another accident-prone Rocket Scientist – he broke his leg at the same as his singer knocked himself out) reveals he’s a local who saw “Star Wars” as a kid in this very venue.

I can’t take you through the set in detail as I don’t know enough of their back catalogue but, along with You Am I, this band peddles the best-sounding bag of ‘60s derived garage skronk to get within a bull’s roar of Australian commercial airwaves in many a year. The stand-out is a jungle beat stomp that beat the crap out of me. I take more of a liking to their songs that highlight the keyboards, but I like Monmoman and the early Lyres too.

Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle
Friday, January 14, 2005

Words & Pictures: THE BARMAN

Newcastle is an unremarkable, mid-sized burgh, a couple of hours drive north of Sydney. Defiantly blue collar in the wake of its re-positioning from coal and steel town to tourism hotspot, you’ll do well to find any evidence of urban renewal in or around the Cambridge Hotel, the venue for tonight’s events.

The Cambridge is anything but a brass-and-polished-floorboards yuppie bar. In shiort, it’s a shithole. Its clientele, however, is mostly OK and as down-to-earth as the art-deco-gone-wrong paint scheme, or the handbill advertising forthcoming shows by Mental as Anything (washed-up hitmakers from the ‘80s, reduced to self parody) and “Australia’s best AC/DC tribute band” (‘nuff said.)

The punters are here in large numbers tonight, about half of them wearing Birdman shirts, streaming in on foot and by taxi, in many cases in spite of the Sold Out sign. In fact, tickets for tonight’s show are still being procured as Rocket Science fire up about 9pm. Strangely, that process involves people lining up through the middle of the public bar.

After an early perusal of the live music room, globetrotting Birdman fans Suree (Cleveland, Ohio) and Jelly (London, England) and myself prefer to sit out the support band’s set, sampling the culinary delights of the bistro and doing some people watching over a few drinks. It’s going to be hot and crowded enough later in the night. Best to preserve energy for the main event. As it turns out, Suree’s vegetarian lasagne rebounds within a few minutes, so maybe it was an ill-advised choice of fine dining. It’s probably going to take more than a dodgy deep fried schnitzel to knock my guts for six, but Jelly’s calamari rings look like tapeworms that’d kill a black dog at 20 paces.

The locals (who, noticeably, don’t frequent the bistro) are out to enjoy themselves. Not sure if the bucks’ party contingent made it into the show (the ball and chain they had in tow might have cleared the dance floor) but there’s a father-and-son combo, with Dad doing his best to educate the next generation. It’s really a bit of a time warp back to the early ‘80s, when live bands were de rigeur Friday night fare. Nobody dresses up and the percentage of mullets as a per capita of population seems slightly high.

The venue is known as The Glasshouse for good reason but the sound’s remarkably OK, considering all those hard surfaces. Filling the room with sweaty bodies was always going to make a difference. We move in as Rocket Science winds down with 550 punters present by now. The room’s packed but comfortably so, although if the glass doors hadn’t been opened so people could spill into a concrete courtyard at side-of-stage, things may have been different. It’s a big contrast to the last time Deniz, Jim Dickson and Rob were here, with Deep Reduction. The personnel involved must have been lost on the Novacastrians because that band failed to draw (most people not making the Birdman connection.)

The Radios appear about 10pm and churn out a similar set to the night before, the order of the new songs being switched about. The reception for the opening “What It’s For” doesn’t suffer through lack of familiarity so that’s a good indication of what the tune’slike (ie. recognisably Birdman.) Some of the unplayed newies are said to be a lot more eclectic, but they’ll have to wait for another day. The band’s gait seems a bit more measured this time out, new drummer Nik probably feeling a little more at home.

Who said the pogo was no more as a contemporary dance? It’s certainly alive and well in the form of the hapless idiot two rows back from the front of the stage. His insistence that the only way to enjoy the show was to hop up and down - entirely out of time and crushing the feet of anyone silly/unlucky enough to be in his vicinity - was proof that there’s one fuckwit in every crowd. If the pictures on this page are a bit blurry, you know why. Plus, coming to grips with a borrowed camera (thanks Ashley Oz Rock, but the weird light settings still suck.)

Crowd surfing is still big in Newcastle, too though there’s one worrying moment when the feet of one intrepid rider connect with a par 64 light can mounted on a bar on the venue ceiling. There's also a surreal moment when a punter persuades a bouncer, positioned in front of the crash barrier, to hand Deniz a framed photo of himself. It's the sort of thing you think could wait until after the show but the bouncer plants it within dangerously short range of Dr Tek's effects pedals. A roadie spirits it away but the bouncer spends most of the set applauding the faster songs. Gotta give him points for possessing a good sense of musical appreciation, even if he comes up short in the practicality stakes.

This time we get a slightly longer set, an Alice Cooper cover ("Caught in a Dream" - I had to vertify its identity later by digging out my copy of "Killer", which says more about my suitability as a potential Name That Tune contestant than the way it was played) thrown in for good measure in the second encore. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is restored to its fitting place right at the end, all soaring guitars and simulated jug rhythms. Sublime.

It’s hot in more ways than one and even Professor Hoyle discards the trademark tie.

Me, I’m driving home so I’m drinking water by night’s end. It must be some sort of breaking of the spirit of responsible service of alcohol laws, if not the letter, to only make tap H20 freely available in seven ounce glasses. (I’m not a tightarse and prefer any becerage in glass but it seems a travesty to pay a king’s ransom for the stuff in plastic bottles.) Fuck stupid venue operators.

The Metro Theatre, Sydney
Saturday, January 15, 2005

Words & Pictures: THE BARMAN

This is the show the Birdman tragics were looking forward to. Two warm-ups outside the traditional inner-city haunts in the lead-up to this gathering of the faithful at the best medium-to-large rock venue in this town.

OK, drink prices at The Metro are high but the sightlines are great and the queues usually not too bad. Pity that so many people were of the opinion that the sound mix sucked and onstage technical issues made it less than clear sailing for the band.

It probably depended on where you were but consensus was that the vocals were too low and the guitars either unbalanced or out of place. (Gotta say the sound wasn’t as abysmal where I stood as it apparently was for some others - but my hearing was a little dulled from the night before and I was hooking into the beers.) The band’s usual mixer isn’t on the program anymore and they’ve been working in a new crew. These things take time. Might be easier if the stage volume was consistently balanced.

Which isn’t to say that the crowd didn’t lap it all up anyway. Again, the new songs were prominent and very well-received. Two Coop covers (one I can't recall and “Caught in a Dream”) took their place in the encore, as did the almost obligatory take on “You’re Gonna Miss Me”that may have wound up a tad early but still did the job.

One seasoned follower reckoned “455SD” and “New Race” had never been played more dynamically. The latter in particular elicited the usual frenzied, fist-shaking response. And the more I hear the new tunes, the more I like ‘em.
Nik’s drumming is markedly different to that of his predecessor - more “rock”. He doesn’t spend half as much time on the hi-hat or cymbals.

I’m resolutely avoiding phrases like “better” as comparing drummers of contrasting styles is just plain silly. It’s different - but if having everyone based in the same country is more productive, then that’s good. Let’s just acknowledge Ron’s contributions. Like Warwick Gilbert on bass, he added something unique to this band.

Three shows down and three to go for this tour. I’m hardly objective but Parramatta was energetic, if not up to some band members’ expectations sonically, Newcastle spirited and loud, while the Metro was fiery with a good atmosphere. With any luck we’ll be dialled in to reviews of the other gigs, scheduled for northern New South Wales and Brisbane as the tour winds up. If you want to let us know what they were like, mail here.

Before you ask, latest intel has the new album tentatively scheduled to be recorded in April and out sometime after that. Now that’s something else to look forward to.