Excelsior Hotel, Surry Hills
Sunday, July 24 2005


Sunday night isn’t usually the peak of the weekly entertainment experience in Sydney, but occasionally there’s a gig good enough to redress that perception. Tonight was one of those.

Penny Ikinger is Melbourne-based and appearances in her former hometown are few and far between so when she graces a stage in the Harbour City, it’s worth a look. This was even more the case at the Ex as she had an all-star band in tow, as well as the considerable presence of Louis Tillett on the bill.
Louis is an icon in Australian underground music circles when he should be a household name. His sonorous baritone, fluid piano playing and personal and emotionally engaging songs bring a dark majesty to a pub stage that few, if any, contemporaries can match. Most of tonight’s material comes from Louis’ lengthy back catalogue, but his brand new album “The Hanged Man” is a worthy addition to that body of work.

Tonight’s show is Louis’ first outing in a month since the album launch (a support to Roddy Ray’da) and it’s a good ‘un. The Ex was the site of a successful 2004 residency by Louis, with a host of interesting guests sitting in. The time seems right for a repeat run because there’s a good crowd in early to catch Louis. Tonight, however, Louis flies solo, accompanying hmself on piano, but there are band gigs in the offing.

Sadly, his trademark hat has bitten the dust, so if Akubra or similar companies want to strike a sponsorship deal, we can put them in touch. If they gave grades to graduates of the Citadel school of Australian music, Louis would have a PhD.

Which is a neat segue into the headlining band, all of whom have recorded for Citadel at some stage. Penny was, with Louis, a member of the Wet Taxis, bona fide ‘60s punk torchbearers whose fiery luminescence made them a stand-out Sydney act of the ‘80s. Their relatively slight discography (two singles for Hot and then Citadel and a posthumous album) belied their popularity.

Of course the guys manning the engine room for Penny are Jim Dickson and Nick Fisher, who should be prominent fixtures in your record collection, if only for the fact that they helped commit the New Christs’ “Distemper” to vinyl and CD for Citadel in the late ‘80s. Jim seems to play in every second band in Sydney these days, which speaks as much for his amenable persona as his bass playing. Nick’s musical profile is much more low key; he reveals he’s been dabbling in a little recording on his own of late, as well as teaching his offspring how to sit in the pocket. Every parent knows that children are walking petri dishes full of bacteria and, for his trouble, Nick’s copped a killer head cold in return. Penny’s also under the weather but her ‘flu is the imported variety (brought in from Melbourne) requiring the administration of brandy. Neither lets it bother them. Fortunately, there’s a medico in the house - a Dr Tek.

While the Fisher-Dickson axis is the regular backline for Penny when in Sydney, lead guitar foil Tek is a fresh addition. So recently off a plane from an overseas conference, in fact, that he still has his boarding pass in his top pocket. Accordingly, there’s no time for rehearsal, only a lengthy sound-check, before the band plugs in for real and launches into their work.

Most of the set, naturally enough, comes from Penny’s “Electra” album, her solo debut on Career Records, with “Poison Berries”, “Shipwrecked” and “Andalucian Man” the high points. The addition of a second guitarist - not to mention one of D. Tek’s calibre – grants a new dimension to the “Electra” tunes (which sounded pretty nifty in their studio incarnation to begin with). Deniz wrenches some sublime solos out of his guitar, spurring Penny to similarly mistreat her instrument.

Penny’s been slowly moving towards a second album, more than likely to come out on the Career label. There’s a new song, “From Montana to Mexico”, that sprang from her 2004 US mini-tour that reeks of promise. There’s still room for the folky, aching “Kathleen”, which dates from the four-year-old “Songs From the Deep” EP and is still a hit in the making, should the rest of the world ever catch up.

How do you classify this stuff? “Alluringly warm female vocals wrapped up in bittersweet melodies and layers of guitar feedback with wonderful use of harmonics” ain’t a bad start. It’s music that most definitely rocks, but with a psychedelic edge in its most adventurous moments. We’ve been saying “Electra” was one of 2003’s best albums since, well, 2003. US Rolling Stone’s resident Oz-phile David Fricke agrees to the extent that he gave it a glowing write-up in his column. Grab a copy and hear for yourself.

It being a Sunday night and most of the Excelsior crowd having homes to go to, the show winds up too soon - but not before Louis Tillett joins the band for a special encore.

Wet Taxis staples “Clock on the Wall” and (a pretty shaky) “C’mon” are cranked out, taking most of the room back to Sydney in the ‘80s. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” closes things down in killer style.

While Sydney circa 1984 was a great musical time and place to be, tonight was all about a reminder of rock and roll’s ability to look forward, too. As bound up in rock and roll’s traditional elements their music may be, neither Penny or Louis can be accused of letting grass grow beneath their feet.