Stew Cunningham back in the saddle in Sydney with the Leadfinger band.

Hopetoun Hotel, Darlinghurst


Primary interest tonight for me rests on the launch of the Bang! Records album "The Floating Life" for trio Leadfinger, who'd played only a handful of shows before this.

But first things first and it's too long since I took in a four-band bill at the Hoey, the small but comfortably rock and roll room at the top of the Slurry Hills hill. Opening band The Disbelievers are a two-guitar-drums-and-vocalist outfit with a-versed line in Cramps and '60s punk indulgence. Their opening cover of Roky and the Elevators' "You're Going To Miss Me" is way too meek and polite but things pick up from there. I'm going to cut them some slack as they haven't been playing that long but i think they'd benefit from un-learning how to play and getting down and dirtier, as superficial as that sounds.

Melbourne-based James McCann is a revelation for me. Where I live (under a rock, obviously) I'd always thought he was a pure country rock act and a recent blow-in to the East Coast from when the Drones were briefly Sydney residents. Bill Gibson, who's a bit of a font of info on such subjects, tells me he goes back way further and was once a prospective New Christ. Of course James has written with the Drones and he and that band's principal Gareth Liddiard remain in each other's working axiks

James McCann ambles onstage with band in tow, including a female guitarist who was spied tuning the drums earlier in the evening; Steve Lucas was at the bar and remarked that she shared a liking for playing with a tuning key in her mouth like the late Steve Cafeiro, but was much easier on the eye. Fair call.

McCann cuts a swathe. Crowd shows rapt attention.

It's a (far too) short set but McCann and Co and rip out some rumbling, ragged rock and roll. There is a country influence but this on balance it's the sort of blues-rock with strong dynamics and expansive sound that wouldn't be out of place on a Drones double bill. Skewiff, jagged tunes with McCann's soaring, feedback-drenched guitar-work a centrepiece. I make sure I pick up a copy of "Last Night I Met The Devil" (another Bang! release, although largely a re-issue of his first long-player) and so should you.

As well as being the name of the band, Leadfinger is the personal nom de plume for Stewart Cunningham, who shouldn't need an introducton around these parts after playing guitar with Brother Brick, The Proton Energy Pills, Asteroid B612, Yes Men and Challenger 7. "The Floating Life" is like none of them, drawing a line through solo Ed Kuepper and Bob Dylan, to name a couple of influences. It's a cool piece of lo-fi musical intimacy but you can't take the rock out of the boy etc. Time to crank it up a bit louder and take it to the people.

Leadfinger's Steve O'Brien pauses to remember which band he's playing for tonight.

It's a pretty good band Stew's assembled. The many-times-retired-always-in-demand, ex-Tumbleeder Stevie O'Brien is on drums, a position he occupies for five other bands right now. Don't know as much about the musical antecedents of bass player Wayne Stokes apart from the fact he played in Thumlock but he apparently goes back a long way with the others and has a nice fluid style.

With the benefit of perfect recall (not really - I forgot to pinch a set list but have a contact in the business who filled in the gaps) I can tell you that "Thin Lizzy" opens proceedings. Now, Phil Lynott may not be every old punk/Detroit rocker's reference point but he's a big one for Stew and he's fashioned a tribute tune built on that most concrete of foundations; a killer riff.

Wayne Stokes on bass for Leadfinger.

Brother Brick's "See You Tonight" - a smash hit in any other parallel universe, patently ignored by radio when it came out in this one - is delivered in impassioned, energetic style. "I Went Looking" and "Edge of Suburbia" don't suffer from full-band arrangements. "Rich Kids Can't Play Rock 'n' Roll" is a newish song, available on a giveaway EP that's on hand tonight, and mixes social commentary with teak-tough musical accompaniment.

It might be uncool to like the Kuepper-less Saints line-ups but there's no doubting the melodic quality of Bailey's mid-'80s hit, "Ghost Ships". No Celtic strings on this one as it closes Leadfinger's set and it's played a bit faster than the original, but it blazes with enough electricity to light up the wintry Sydney night. Great to hear the warm tones of Leadfinger's amplified guitar and experience his lyrical playing live again, especially those stunning lead breaks. Let's hope it's a less rare sight and sound.

I like The Holy Soul's recordings with their rough-hewn take on garage blues. Maybe it's the strength of what went before or it's just an off night, but they didn't seem to get out of second gear at the Hoey. There's no doubting their sincerity.

Quite a few seem to agree with me and the place is minus many of the punters by the time their take on swampy blues peters out. I wouldn't write them off but it's the middle two acts that are ringing most distinctly in my ears as I take my leave and stagger off into the night.