Pretty Great

Died Pretty
with the Blackeyed Susans
Friday, September 13, 2002
@ the Prince of Wales Hotel, Melbourne

WORDS AND PICTURES: JOHN McPHARLIN

It's Friday the 13th and tonight Died Pretty are playing the first of two shows down in Melbourne. Meanwhile I'm in Sydney, but not for long, though if the cabbie who takes me out to the airport had had his way, I might not have been anywhere ever again. During a brief but constantly heart stopping/adrenalin pumping journey, he manages to clip the side mirror of a car in the lane next to him (the passenger in the other car just reaches out, wrenches the mirror back into the right position, then gives the cabbie the finger as the car speeds away), while in other, separate incidents he nearly rams an ancient Kombi van at a set of traffic lights and only narrowly avoids side-swiping two cars on my side, one of which is a police car.

Since my plane ticket is non-amendable and non-refundable, I am shitting myself - at the thought of missing my flight and having to pay again, at the possibility of missing Died Pretty completely through winding up in hospital and, last and in fact least, at the prospect of my imminent and abrupt demise, which pales into insignificance in comparison to the other two.

Having miraculously made it to the airport in one piece and (surprise, surprise) with plenty of time in hand, I decide to kill a bit of it in the food hall, where once again I am reminded that if Ned Kelly was alive today he'd be running a food stand at Sydney airport. While no one would be likely to be making up any folk ballads about him, he'd still be making out like a bandit. For the equivalent of the gross national product of a small Pacific nation, I reluctantly settle for a ham and cheese croissant and a glass of pineapple juice, before making my way to the departure lounge.

Although the airlines all like to deny this, there are clearly several rows of extra seats crammed into the aircraft over and above what the original design provided for, which miraculous feat of engineering they've achieved simply by jamming all the rows up closer together. Unfortunately they never bother to adjust the fittings in the roof to align them to the new seat positions, at least not down at the back of the plane in steerage they don't. Since I plan to spend most of the flight reading, I turn on my reading light, which does me no good but immediately lights up the bald patch on the back of the head of the guy sitting in front of me.

Making the most of the light filtering in through the partially occluded window, more translucent than transparent, I proceed to read through the usual pre-recorded safety announcements and accompanying half-hearted demo by a bunch of hosties even more bored with the whole procedure than the passengers. On another recent flight, one hostie had the nerve to chide me for not paying attention during a similar demo. I assured her that if plane crashed and we didn't all die then I'd happily apologise to her for not having paid attention when I had my chance. That did not go down at all well and since we didn't crash, my offer couldn't be put to the test, so the only result was that when I finally got my lunch it was cold. Those lunches may be cheap and nasty, but at least they come sealed so I didn't have to worry whether she'd spat in it as well. Nevertheless I'm still dying to use that line again, but this time no one gives me an opening.

Since the flight from Sydney to Melbourne is relatively short, all we get in the way of in flight entertainment is a repackaged news report. Glancing occasionally over the top of my book, I recognize most of the footage from what I'd seen on TV the night before, so there is nothing much of interest to me now (and there is even a f#$%in' ad break in the middle of it!). However it is heartening to realise that nothing of any consequence has happened in the world since I went to bed last night.

My book ("The Business" by Iain Banks, an excellent Scottish writer best known for his first novel, "The Wasp Factory", though his rock'n'roll novel "Espedair Street" is also pretty good) sees me through the other highlight of the flight (apparently I could have seen part of the Snowy Mountains if I'd looked out of the window at the right moment) and we are descending into Melbourne in what seems like no time at all.

I won't bore you with the minutiae of my afternoon around Melbourne, aside from noting that it did seem that I spent a good deal of the time emptying the contents of my pockets into the cash registers of assorted record stores (with Augogo, being the closest to the hotel, copping the lion's share). No need to look in the Ds for Died Pretty though, because according to the band's web site I've already got everything so far and as we all know, there isn't going to be any more from now on...

This trawl through the byways of popular culture is followed by drinks and pizzas with a few Melbourne mates, none of whom are the slightest bit interested in coming to see Died Pretty, more fool them. However, despite this incomprehensible attitude and all round shameful display of ignorance, I am still prepared to let them buy me a few beers.

Getting to the Prince Of Wales at around 9:30, I find that the Blackeyed Susans have already commenced their set, although they don't seem to be too far into it and the audience is sparse and still keeping a respectful distance. I can't say I've ever been a great fan of their music, not enough to buy any of their albums anyway, though I don't mind listening to it when the occasion arises. "Smokin' Johnny Cash" is the number you'd probably know them by, if you know them at all. However we are all really only here for one thing.

Between sets, former Died Pretty keyboard player Frank Brunetti acts as DJ and that just adds fuel to the fire. The crowd swells considerably and all around me people are talking about the favourite songs they are hoping to hear, which is usually a fatal mistake since you leave yourself doubly open to disappointment, first because you often don't hear what you'd had your heart set on and then secondly because you're too busy fretting over what you didn't hear to enjoy what you did hear. I try to keep an open mind and hope that the band will do the right thing. As it turns out, they do.

Right from the opening notes of "Doused", it feels like the evening is going to be a good 'un. They then follow it up with an earnest and assured "Crawls Away". In contrast, "Stops 'n' Starts" doesn't have quite the same imposing, pounding presence that it has sometimes had in other outings over the last couple of years. Others have occasionally expressed indifference to this song, which I find inexplicable. When the band all get right behind it, crank the volume up and then push hard, it transforms into a real monster. However they choose not to do that tonight. Perhaps they should have left it until later in the set, as they really build up a head of steam as things progress.

The bulk of the set is a divided between a parade of oldies, with some real archeological treasures in amongst them, like "Round And Round" and "Ambergris" (shit, when was the last time you heard them played?), and the usual highlights from "Doughboy Hollow" (not that I'm complaining) like "D.C.", "Sweetheart", "Godbless" and "Satisfied" (which comes over sounding positively majestic this evening).

Collectively, Died Pretty are a band that has not been afraid to hang out over the edge of the cliff and hope for a strong updraft to keep them up. Tonight they seem to be running on a heady combination of electricity, nervous energy and sheer bravado. This leads to some interesting moments. If there's going to be a stuff up, then it might as well be a biggie and there are a couple tonight that are truly great and glorious.

For example, going into "Whitlam Square", Brett messes up the intro comprehensively. I think he might even have lost his place in the set list and taken off on the wrong song. He seems a trifle fazed, but the audience love every second of it. "How long have we been playing together?", Ron asks with a combination of mock indignation and a teacher's patient chiding of a recalcitrant school boy. It's a moment we are all able to share with band and at the back of everyone's mind must be the knowledge that there aren't going to be too many more like it.

The band takes a couple of seconds to regroup, then launches into it again and bloody nails it fair and square this time round. In fact, it sounds even better for having been preceded by that little unplanned er... overture. With some manufactured boy band, the closest you could come to a moment like that would be when the backing tape breaks, but that just doesn't have the same frisson, does it?

Meanwhile, Ron Peno is throwing himself into everything, dancing up on his toes, doing that shuffle where it looks like he's walking on his ankles, getting down onto his knees, all the time carrying on a relationship with the microphone that blows alternatively hot and passionate then cold and distant and generally pulling out more than enough polished rock moves to indicate that his Iggy Pop fixation has never left him completely.

However he too is touched by the fuck up fairy late in the set. During "Harness Up" he manages to get completely lost in one of the verses, stumbles to the end of it by chucking in bits of every line from the song that he can think of and then, once he's been safely beached on the shore of an instrumental passage, mimes to the audience an appalled but relieved "Faark", looking like a cross between Albert Steptoe caught doing something he shouldn't with Harold's prized china and the shell shocked mayor of Hiroshima plaintively asking, "What the fuck was that?". He even apologizes to the rest of the band when the song is over.

Once again, the audience loves it and loves him for it too. I realise that in saying this I might be making the atmosphere sound like some smarmy Las Vegas cabaret show (Wayne Newton come on down. "Oh, I can just feel the love in the room tonight"), but compared with the crowd at the Radio Birdman show here a few months ago, there is a dramatic difference. Then it seemed like a lot of the punters (the more annoying ones anyway) had come to relive some idealized moment from the lost and only dimly remembered past; tonight everyone seems to be here in the present to share this moment, with the band and with each other.

At the risk of sounding like one of those late night K-Tel ads, but wait there's more. We are into the encores now and what better way to wind up the first encore than with a transcendent "Springenfall". By this stage Ron isn't being left to sing on his own; a substantial portion of the audience is joyfully joining in.

You want more encores? Good, 'coz the band's got a few more up their collective sleeve. How about "Everybody Moves" and "Final Twist", sounding so jubilant and triumphant that it's easy to overlook for a moment that they're both farewells.

The band departs for the third time, but the audience doesn't; uh uh, no way Jose. There's a longer delay, but eventually they come back one last time, this time with "Slipaway" and "Towers Of Strength". By my watch it is now twenty past one as they leave the stage for the fourth and final time, so it's no surprise that this really is the end, at least for tonight.

As the crowd thins out I bump into Penny Ikinger (always a pleasant experience), who tells me that recording of her new album is complete at long last, but now mastering is proving to be an unexpected trial with the first three attempts having to be rejected. She was promised the results of a fourth attempt today, but nothing has been forthcoming and she's understandably frustrated at the whole process. No prospects for any shows in Sydney in the near future though.

Afterwards I manage to corner John Hoey for a brief chat during which he mentions that part of the reason for the long delay between the second and third encores was that the band were debating whether or not to have a go at "Mirror Blues", but discretion ultimately won out over enthusiasm. Even so, I'm still more than pleased with what I've seen and heard tonight and with that, I slink off to bed to sleep the sleep of the just and contented; well, the self-satisfied anyway.

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