Oxford Tavern, Wollongong
May 12, 2006

Words & pictures: THE BARMAN

Five years after the demise of the last line-up there's a new configuration of the New Christs treading the boards. Tonight was their debut and if it's an exaggeration to say that all eyes were focussed on the Oxford Tavern in downtown Wollongong, it's accurate to say at least a few thoughts were cast in its general direction.

This show was originally the only scheduled Australian warm-up before a 17-date European tour in June and quite a few Sydneysiders were poised to make the 90-minute drive south. Most cried off after the announcement of a second gig closer to home - at Sydney's best small venue, the venerable Annandale Hotel on May 21- but a sprinkling of tourists were still rubbing shoulders with the usual Ox crowd this Friday night.

A word on the Ox: I've been coming here, off and on, since 1982 and am convinced that every city should have a rock venue like it. It's a little seedy (but much less so than 25 years ago), the PA's sort of adequate and the acoustics leave much to be desired. The decor is snack bar tables and wall-mounted TVs carrying live footy and races. It's a rallying point for every sub-culture you could poke a gig guide at and the music is often as varied. It's a friendly and very down-to-earth place. Bands run three nights a week, usually for free admission, which is the sort of grass roots base every music scene needs. The Gong would be a poorer place without it.

The gig was a fund-raiser for local musician Greg Harrison who had been badly injured in a car accident a few weeks earlier. All bands donated their fees and a cash tin was passed around for punters to liberate shrapnel (and notes, if they liked) from their pockets and purses.

Sydney band Bullitt was first up and to be brutally honest, weren't that memorable. Without judging a book by its cover, the singer's wallet chain, cut-off shorts and Acca Dacca T-shirt were a dead giveaway that Bullitt were going to unload a set of quasi-metal. Which they did.

The guitarist seemed a fine candidate for a spot in a Steve Vai tribute act with more flash than a gathering of bling-bling homeboys at Campbelltown Mall. He's a good player with more the speed runs than the waterslides at Jamberoo but sometimes it seemed he was playing with another band and his rhythm section didn't have much drive. He also suffered a few technical issues that weren't that apparent to most and ended the set ramming his Les Paul into his speaker cabinet. They played a Supersuckers song towards the end of the bracket but don't ask me which one.

By now it's getting on (Bullitt started late) but the room's filling nicely.

The Monstrous Blues are something of an institution in the Gong, with their wide-ranging mix of stoner-blues-meets-grunge. I remember being impressed by an album of theirs a few years back, but tonight leaves me a little flat. It could be those quirky time changes, the length of the songs, the late hour or all of the above, but 30 minutes later I was scratching to remember highlights. I was in the minority with the local crowd right into them.

The missing element, for me, was summed up by the closing tune which started with a monstrous riff and then changed tack and meandered on. I'm tempted to liken them to Giants of Science in that they mine a similar groove, but the former has more focus. An OK set but I'm sure they're capable of better, and also the last gig for drummer Steve O'Brien.

The thing about New Christs line-ups (and there have been about two-dozen of them) is that they never disappoint. Some haven't fired as well as others but most are somewhere between extremely hot and killer. Rob Younger doesn't go out with any old band. Half of this one needs no introduction, with the mercurial and energetic Stu Wilson behind the kit (from the last verison of the New Christs, as well as Rob's subsequent '60s covers outfit Nanker Phelge and Stu's own excellent Crisps), Bass player Jim Dickson's spent so much time hanging over Rob's left shoulder, you might mistake him for a very tall parrot if the vocalist wore an eye patch.

Two new hands are on guitar and like their singer, are local boys: Dave Kettley (ex-Shifter/Rifter) is in The Dead Set, whose Younger-produced album is about to be unleashed, and Brent Williams (ex-Zambian Goat Herders) who is a dab hand on keyboards as well. Nice blokes who don't seem fazed about stepping up to the plate.

It's well into Saturday morning when the newest New Christs pack onto the small Oxford stage and start making demands of the PA. With a limited preparation, this is going to be a Greatest Hits package with none of the new songs from the Younger canon. That's not going to worry too many Europeans, or the crew in tonight, some of whom look young enough to have been in primary school when the last line-up did a show here back in 1999.

As it's late, "Headin' South" is an exemplary wake-up call as the set opener. "We Have Landed" follows and the new line-up finds it hard to wind it up, so we're treated to an extended mix. "Circus of Sour" used to be one of the high points of the "Distemper" era New Christs and it's emphatically hammered out with the unhinged breakdown an opportunity for some vocal limbo dancing. I never thought I'd hear "Like a Curse" live again ("not yet dead"), but it's rolled out in fine style. Singer and crowd alike seem to get off on the brutal honesty of "Impreachment" ("what are you fucking him for?") and just about every song is recognised by a good proportion of the punters.

Needless to say, the engine room members seem at home with each other. There's an equitable division of spoils between the guitarists as to who plays what parts, and Brent Williams' keys on "Jenny", "Groovy Times" and "The Burning of Rome" add a new dimension live. The pairing has good presence too - Williams long-haired, Dave Kettley shaven-skulled with the right moves.

Rob's relaxed and animated, showing infinite patience as one particularly pissed punter makes it onstage three times to dance and, uh, sing. Someone ought tell people like this that (a.) Backlines and pedals are expensive and there's no room for a Fifth Beatle on a stage this small (b.) No-one designed posters appended with the words "with special guest Billy Joe Bogan" and (c.) Why don't you fuck off, maaaate, and form your own band. Bad karma it may be but it's moments like these that you wish the venue had a psychotic bouncer with a steroids problem and a springloaded right cross.

"Curse" might have been an unexpected surprise but it pales next to "Born Out of Time", whose presence in the set list faded towards the end of the last band's life after years of doggedly hanging in. This has always been a song for the flexing of musical limbs and although it doesn't quite get out there as far as it used when Charlie Owen used to dig his teeth into it, it's a high-point of the evening and a promising omen for gigs to come. "Coming Apart" shuts the bracket down just like it used to. Perfect placement and it screams to a jarring halt, just right.

Scattered calls for an encore are answered when "The Black Hole" surfaces out of the mists of time with some fine Brent Williams sustain. The song staggers and gallops just like it should. The crowd laps up the sole cover, the Weirdo's "Life of Crime", which to my knowledge has only ever been played by the two-gig US line-up of this band, assembled in San Francisco and Los Angeles a few years ago to promote the overseas release of "We Got This".

"Party Time" shuts things down. Thank you and goodnight.

A solid hit-out by a new line-up with versatility and style. It'll be interesting to hear them (properly) through Annandale's PA on May 21. Europe's going to be in for a fine old time.

New Christs European Tour
SPAIN - Madrid - May 25; Gijon - May 26; Vitoria - May 27; Coruna - May 29; Alicante - May 31; Castellon - June 1; Barcelona- June 2; Bergara - June 3; FRANCE - Tulle - June 4; GERMANY - Bielefeld - Jun 7; FRANCE - Beauvais - June 8; BELGIUM - Antwerp - June 9; FRANCE - Paris - June 10.