The Empire Hotel, Annandale
July 1, 2006

Words & Pictures: THE BARMAN

"Where were you in '82?" the T-shirts on the Kelpies merch table ask - and you could pose a similar question to Sydney punters tonight. There's a healthy-sized crowd in early but it doesn't grow much as the evening goes on. Some would blame the Hoodoo Gurus gig (sold out weeks before) down the road at Annandale. It would have been great to be there, but this line-up sure as shit doesn't let anyone down either.

First to Hits, the latest vehicle for Evil Dick (ex-Strutter, ex-Aampirellas) and don't you hate those tags that deal in absolutes? If "Next Big Thing" is out of favour, it's been overtaken by "Best Unrecorded Band", the latter presuming that whoever's passing judgement has heard every act with 10 strings and a snare drum between them that doesn't have a record out. Better man than me, and you must get out a lot, but it doesn't begin to take into account all those desperadoes still slogging away in garages and rehearsaal studios. Let's just say Hits are among the best bands on this level that I, and most of the other retrobates gracing The Empire tonight, can come up with that doesn't have a CD on the shelves. Well, at least that's the verdict from me and Ashley from the Kelpies - and we're never wrong.


Hits could be an ironic band name, since they don't have any, or just a self-deprecating commentary on their own sense of worth with the 's' missing from the front, but it also subliminally says that Brisbane produces bands that the rest of the country ought to check out. Richard and his other half, Tamara (moonlighting from the very cool Gazoonga Attack), are the focal point on guitars.

Tamara totters around in school uniform and skyscraper high-heeled boots, flinging herself physically into her playing like she's slipped a disc. Richard plays the disheveled singer-guitarist/dirty old man who's hanging around the microphone like a hard-bitten little rum drinker at the door of an early opener. He looks like he can't wait to jump offstage and bum a cigarette (or something stronger).

There's nothing gimmicky about these guys - they're very accomplished players with a raw streak as wide as Storey Bridge - and they make a ragged noise that has deep undercurrents of pop, buried way underneath. Songs about drink and drugs (one about a crack pipe had a Top 40 ring to it, er, not) and a chunky yet pliable rhythm section with a good sense of dynamics. The drummer hits hard, too, forcing Ash Thomson to act as a human sandbag for a moment. Great songs, attitude to burn. What's not to like?

Tiger By The Tail is one funny name for a band but the music belies any suggestion it was swiped from a Wiggles stage routine. This is music for grown-ups and they'd better be wearing earplugs if they know what's good for them. TBTT saunter on like a bunch of scraggly, mature age commerce students slumming it in the Student Union bar inbetween tutorials. For a tick, I thought drummer Dan Dempster was going to play in his duffel coat and knitted vest but you can probably put it down to the flu that's seemingly gripping half the room. It's not exactly balmy outside, but TBTT warm up the inside of the pub with the pragmatically-titled "Instrumental" before kicking it up a gear with the more familiar "Get Set To Go" from their short-run self-titled album (now out on inch-thick vinyl on Spanish label Bang!)

Dave Thomas' pedigree should need no referencing (does Bored! sound familiar?) and probably isn't important in framing a picture of what they're like because TBTT is a move in a different direction. More Mudhoney than MC5, think big sheets of Dinosaur Jr-styled guitar, off-kilter vocals and a thick groove that borders on the monstrous when it locks in. And it does several times tonight.

There's the odd shaky moment between him and fellow guitarist James Saunders that elicits a head-shake from good-humored band-leader Thomas, but songs like the ritual bone-grinding of "Old Habits" and the downright spooky lament/howl "I Heard You Got Released" approach the transcendental. Their second album isn't far away and final confirmation of their European tour is pending, but grab a chance to see them in the flesh as soon as you can. I won't miss them when they make their third visit to Sydney.

The Kelpies escape from their kennel quite late in the night and unfurl a 22-song set that's long but otherwise well-paced and on the money. "World of Fear" is the obvious opener. The presence of new songs is a surprise (at least to me). "Just an Addict" is one that's retrospectively self-referential and catchy, but most of the set is (shouldabeen) hits from their Abberant releases/Headmiles re-release. "Dead Meat", "Beer Bottle", "Rich Man" and "My Wall" are stand-outs. A rippling, re-arranged cover of a Clash cover ("Brand New Cadillac") places the band, timewise, for anyone not familiar.

It's of course a re-jigged line-up as bassist Con Murphy died just before the last gig more than a year ago, but replacement Kenny Archbold (ex-Panadolls) is well up to the task, locking into Ashley Thomson's solid drum patterns and not needing the strategically-placed crib sheets.

Singer Jim Atkins stubs out a ciggie (proferred by Richard from Hits - who now looks like he's found that early opener) before he flicks it, remembering the extended smoking ban in Sydney pubs. He's made it all the way from tropical Darwin tonight, where his stage uniform of trenchcoat and wool beanie is as likely to have him arrested as a flasher as committed to an asylum. He still sings like your street variety, 1980s Sydney punk, and radiates a menacing, thug-like presence, even if those well-worn Docs have seen better days.

Another transplanted interstater, a be-hatted Mark Easton mugs and grins like he's enjoying himself and although his stage volume dwarves that of the other guitarist, Brian Connolly, it all works itself out in the mix. It's a solid little flying PA they have at The Empire (and markedly better than some of the boxes of shit that double for amplification at venues I could name).

What set(s) the Kelpies apart is the strong underlying melodies in the songs ("How Can I Tell You", anyone?) and the twangy, almost post punk edge to the guitars and it's still there. They were a fleeting prescence on a busy Sydney scene. Tick all the usual boxes as to why they didn't hang around long but Easton could (and probably still can) pen a good tune.

Brisbane gets these old dogs passing through next week (in something of an inspired pairing with Hits, at the Rev on Jujly 7), and if they can't be taught any new tricks, they can at least be humoured by a good turn-out.