ROLL CAGE
SHIFTER
FREAK BROS
@ SFX (Sydney Excelsior Hotel)
October 19, 2002


Legend has it that Roll Cage’s earliest show ended in the band being turfed out of an inner-western Sydney pub, patrons and management decreeing that their brand of garage rock was too offensive/raw for mainstream ears. That being even half-true, there’s no chance of a repeat eviction tonight with the "Ex" and its motley audience having seen it all before.

Could I drag myself off the lounge on a fairly relaxed Saturday night to see them launch their album? Yes, actually. But first to the supports and don’t you hate those reviews where apologies are made to the earlier bands because of the writer’s tardiness and inability to catch their set? I hate those apologies too, so I won’t make one. (I said I was going; I didn't say I was gonna be on time). I lobbed for exactly one song of Shifter’s set and I know I’m the loser because I have one of their singles and it sounds fairly spiffing. Don't even mention the Freak Bros (who were Roll Cage's Ned in side project mode) and I won;t 'cos I missed 'em too.

Roll Cage’s embryonic days involved main man Ashley Thomson (ex-Panadolls, Kelpies) on guitar and vocals with Carl Ekman (ex-Hunchbacks, Pig Iron) filling out the sound. These days they’re a bigger deal, with Carl on bass, Scott Armstrong on drums and the enigmatically-named Ned Alphabet on keyboards. Firebrand guitarist Stew "Leadfinger" Cunningham has been coaxed out of retirement to play lead guitar after a lengthy layoff, which adds another dimension. Let's hope he stays.

Roll Cage open with a ballad – the engaging but low key "Blow Job Queen" – and if not launching an initial full-on assault throws the small crowd momentarily, that’s a wrong that’s soon righted with a string of more rockin’ songs reeled out. More's the pity it's only a modest crowd in tonight, there being stiff competition with The Datsuns playing Annandale. The presence of friends and family gives it a relaxed feel anyway.

You can read the album review elsewhere but "A Whole Summer of Pussy" is the disc we're here to hear done live and even if you hadn't heard it on the turntable most likely you would have taken a shine to the tunes. "Brisvegass" (an ode to leaving that town and its correctional centre behind) fairly swings tonight. "The Best Looking Girls on Williams Street Are men" contains more wry humour in its title than a whole album of Britney Spears songs

A couple of guest appearances later (thanks Nurse Gray) – and I never realised how much of a Bon Scott soundalike Kenny "Panadoll" Archbold could be until tonight’s Acca-Dacca cover – and it’s time to take it home. Ash does a bit of spruiking for the record and T-shirt from the stage (this is a rarity – a record launch where the band actually has the record!) "Rock and Roll Heart" (NOT the Lou Reed song) is tucked in before or during the encore, which sums it up really.

Roll Cage’s brand of offensive-but-tongue-in-cheek-rawk lives by its ability to involve and/or move the audience. The evidence is they can do just that, although they’re probably too seasoned to bother with the bottom-of-the-bill supports that agency bands hand out. The Cage are honest and rockin' and that would be enough to win our seal of approval even if Ash wasn't a mate. Go see 'em. - The Barman


 

We've heard a lot over the past decade about venues closing, bands giving up after years of thankless toil spent chipping away at the impenetrable walls of record company indifference and the consequent dearth of live entertainment on offer in this town. However as I looked through the Drum this afternoon, I found nothing but attractive alternatives to choose from: New Zealand's Datsuns at the Annandale, supported by the Casanovas (from Melbourne) and our own, ever dependable Wake Ups (formerly the Scruffs); the Persian Rugs at Cat & Fiddle; the Devoted Few at Manly Fishos (but only as a support for Speedstar); Damien Lovelock doing one of his spoken word performances at the Sando, with support from Kent Steedman and his side project with Jose Calarco and Gary Thomas... Yep, choice aplenty.

Since I already knew that Roll Cage were doing their album launch at the SHX ("Surrey Hills Excelsior", I guess to distinguish it from the "Excelsior of Glebe"; perhaps I've mentioned this before?), my choice was clear and I'll confess that my mind had been made up long before I even opened the Drum. When I subsequently heard that the Aampirellas had cancelled out of doing the support spot at the last minute, that fact did not cause me to reconsider my choice for an instant. No, it was a lock right from the moment Roll Cage leader Ashley Thomson announced the gig. And that's without taking into account the late breaking news that Stewart "Leadfinger" Cunningham would be stepping into the Cage for the evening as well, playing his first public performance in what, two years?

I wasn't running as late as usual this time, but that was only because I hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast, so I opted to miss the opening band's set (or at least what I hadn't missed of it already) and grab a quick (and cheap!) feed at the Thai noodle bar across the road. I guess I'll have to forever wonder who they were, because by the time I eased my way through the front door, Shifter were already well into their set. Ashley describes Shifter as a bunch of cavemen who "make you want to drag your sex partner around by the hair, eat raw meat, kill beasts and bang sticks on rocks in time!" and I can't improve on that (no matter how hard I try).

I've already covered the musical resume of self-confessed rock'n'roll nosebleed Ashley Thomson in some detail in previous Roll Cage reviews, so instead of repeating myself at length now, I'll just say this: Kelpies, Panadolls, Funeral Clowns, Brother Brick, Pig Iron; Oz Rock Fest promoter; Head Miles recording and distribution supremo; initiator of the FilmNoseBleeds group at eGroups; occasional cover designer for Citadel Records and even more sporadically, a sometime ABC TV media personality on late night rock shows... Get the picture?

Ashley is also capable of a pretty good impromptu impersonation of the barbarians at the gates of Rome when the mood takes him, but deep down there's clearly a strong and abiding commitment to the traditions and the heritage of rock'n'roll, even if it does not find expression in quite the same way that, say, someone like Johnny Casino would choose to express his own enthusiasm. Nevertheless, enthusiasm was certainly the keyword this evening as the band ripped through the entire "Whole Summer Of Pussy" album (which includes all of the previous "Now Hiring Losers" EP, though those songs were re-recorded for the album).

In keeping with Ashley's staunch traditionalist views, the album is available only on vinyl (though I understand he did all the cover work for it on an Apple Mac, so he's not a complete Luddite). I cannot deny the "tactile joy of the artifact" I get from holding the album and opening its fold out cover, plus you don't suffer from eye strain the way you do from trying to read the tiny print on CDs, but it's been years since my turntable went west, so I've had to rely on the Barman burning a copy for me on CDR to actually get to hear it.

A small note on the back of the album cover proudly states that the album was recorded in one day. It sounds like it too, both in the sense that there are one or two rough edges and in the sense that this is honest, high energy rock'n'roll that can stand proud in the spotlight at any live music venue and doesn't need to be tarted up in post-production, like an aging whore adding an extra layer of make up in the hope of turning a few final tricks anywhere that the lighting's dim enough (and the punters are drunk enough) to get away with it.

For inspiration, Ashley takes in everything from the Beatles to Iggy Pop to Lou Reed to Turbonegro to Zeke, though his muse is at least as visual as it is musical, with "Mad Max" (a.k.a "The Road Warrior"), "Twin Peaks" and "Good Morning Vietnam" contributing as much to the Roll Cage sound as any of those aforementioned giants of twentieth century music.

The rest of Roll Cage are Scott Armstrong, on drums (ex-Beard); Carl Ekman, bass (ex-Hunchbacks); Ned Matijasevic (a.k.a. Ned Alphabet), keyboard (ex-Funeral Clowns); plus Stew Cunningham, guitar (ex-Asteroid B612, Brother Brick, Challenger 7, Yesmen). Stew doesn't appear on the album, but on stage tonight he plays like he's always been a part of the Roll Cage organic gestalt. Rumour has it that he enjoyed the evening so much that his presence on stage with the band may not be just a one-off occurrence.

Prior to Roll Cage taking to the stage, Ashley pressed his digital camera onto me, telling me not to worry about running out of shots because it's got enough memory for about 500 pictures (what the fuck!?), so while I'm taking in the music, I'm also juggling three cameras, but I'm having great difficulty getting the digital to register anything in the extreme low light of the SHX's stage area (apparently the lighting guy thinks that darkness is a colour too, but I know I've gone over this ground before). Then an icon appears in the view screen, looking ominously like the low battery display on my automatic camera and sure enough all the lights and LEDs go dark after a couple more shots (not that I'm having much better luck with either of my own cameras, as it turns out).

Roll Cage rock on regardless, opening with "Blow Job Queen" and never looking back, Stew's guitar providing plenty of extra punch in the pants to such favourites as "Stolen Car Blues" (which started out years ago as more of a lament, but is now a fully fledged rockin' rager), "Beats Going Out" and Carl's "Wash It All Away" in particular.

The Roll Cage set also features two guest appearances, from someone (Sarah?) introduced only as "everyone's favourite rehab nurse", who weighs in with a keen, if slightly malevolent, cover of "Never Marry A Railroad Man", and former Panadoll Kenny Archibold (rumours of a Panadolls reunion persist and former Panadolls guitarists Phil Van Rooyen, Al Creed and Mick Poole were all in the audience this evening, though Al for one stressed that his retirement from the music scene, as part of his shift to a healthier lifestyle, remains steadfast and non-negotiable).

In semi-related news, Carl Ekman told me after the gig that his post-Hunchbacks project with several other refugees from, er former members of, the Hunchbacks has gotten as far as recording some demos, which they hope will help them pick up a few gigs around town, though sadly there's no intention of playing any of the songs off the Hunchbacks' previous albums.

For the benefit of those who missed out on this launch (and the subsequent laying waste of venues up and down the Australia's east coast) for reasons of geography, copies of the album, the souvenir tee shirt and other equally desirable merchandise (like the private pressing on CDR of the Thermals' "Rock Rock Rock World", which Ashley is selling on the band's behalf) can be had direct from the Head Miles web site. For those missing the chance to catch the band in the flesh for whatever other reason... I give up; you're beyond help. - John McPharlin

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