By PATRICK EMERY
There was a time when dusk transformed the Melbourne CBD into a ghost town. A famous painting (I can neither remember the name of the painting, nor the artist) depicted suited businessmen rushing quickly from Collins Street to the trams, trains and buses that would transport them to the safety and benign sanctity of the suburbs. These days, however, the night time CBD is a focus of entertainment and culinary activity, with bars, pubs, restaurants and cafes popping up on a regular basis.
It was into this bustling nocturnal metropolis that we rode into on Friday night, in search of the elusive Roxanne Parlour, apparently located just off Little Bourke Street, in the heart of Melbourne’s Chinatown. We locked up our bikes and set off toward where I thought – based on some increasingly distant memories – Roxanne was situated. The first attempt was down a narrow lane toward the lights of a dodgy strip club (if that’s not a tautology) – I remembered that Roxanne was opposite such an establishment, but the only thing opposite this particular haven of filth and perversion was a blank concrete wall. So we exited this stench-laden laneway and, after receiving directions from a local record store, headed further up Little Bourke Street.
Thankfully we found the venue shortly after – and, as I’d remembered correctly – it was opposite (another – we noticed two more in our travels) a strip club. Roxanne is the name of a club (sorry, ‘parlour’) located on the third floor of a disused warehouse, and hosts bands occasionally, and who knows what else at other times. The bouncer confirmed the identity of our destination, and then directed us to an elevator, and a line of prospective punters at least twenty long. There was no sign of stairs, and I wondered what the fire inspection authorities would have to say about the matter – quite a lot, and in triplicate, I imagine.
The elevator arrived after a few minutes, and we ascended the three floors to Roxanne (via a brief stop at a bar where we saw the blonde hostess doing her best Kerri-Anne Kennelly impression). Frowning Clouds were already half way through their set, and having an excitable time as usual. Despite being barely eighteen (if that), the members of the band seemed to have swallowed a dose of Yardbirds, Them and Sonics records and found their chosen path on earth. The licks are tighter than I remember from my last encounter with them, and the only thing that’s lacking is some depth to the lead singer’s vocals – which is an issue of vocal maturity and a matter of practice.
Towards the end the waist coated singer/guitarist (after doing a particularly silly impression of a monkey – but highly amusing) runs into the crowd, much to amusement of the punters crowded close to the stage. This is rock’n’roll in its most juvenile guise – and it’s very, very enjoyable.
The Ooga Boogas followed next, as enigmatic as ever. Comprising Mikey from Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Vernon/Leon from the much missed Sailors, Richard Stanley from the Onyas and the fanatical and moddish Per (also the man behind the Gimme Shelter and Primitive club/pub events), the Ooga Boogas are a little bit like a garage band, but not – if that makes any sense.
Vernon is wearing a beard that reminds of the time shortly after the Australian Republican referendum when Malcolm Turnbull grew a beard to disguise his identity, Mikey stands facing his amp for most of the night and Rich and Per are working in tandem like a couple of Siamese twins raised on a musical diet of obscure stomping garage punk. Apart from the "Octopus is Back" (available on 7” at various enterprising independent record stores), I can’t remember any of the song titles – but each time we see these guys, it’s better. Someone once compared them to The Fall, which is an intriguing, and not inappropriate reference point – there’s a watertight beat that won’t go away, and Mikey does some wicked stadium rock guitar jams (I’ve still got a riff from the night running through my head that will not go away – and I’m not complaining). Without the expectations that hang off Eddy Current’s neck, the Ooga Boogas have the freedom to jam, to indulge their individual and collective interests and return rock’n’roll to its primitive origins.
With absolutely no interest whatsoever in watching The Vasco Era (unlike someone else whose review of the show made it to electronic print, I don’t ‘heart’ Sid O’Neill – though he is apparently a nice guy), we departed promptly, jumped on our bikes and headed to Fitzroy, in the hope of catching a song or two of Spencer P Jones’ set at the Spanish Club.
The Spanish Club closed its doors to independent music (and comedy as well) sometime last year, in response to club members’ concerns that the venue was losing its cultural character. For reasons that remain nebulous, the club management has decided to allow bands in again – hence, the appearance of the illustrious Mr Jones tonight.
In fact, we get much more than a couple of songs – almost three-quarters of a set, in fact. Spencer is showing no signs of the excessive lifestyle he’s said to have rediscovered in recent months (and seems 200% more sober than anytime we’ve seen him over the last five years).
Former Powder Monkeys guitarist (and fellow survivor) John Nolan is in good form, and seems to have found his niche in concert with Spencer. Helen Cattanach is as sultry and impressive as ever. The bloke on drums is – we find out later – a ring-in from one of the support bands, and seems to be doing very well despite such late notice.
Later on we commandeer the setlist and discovered it bears only passing resemblance to what’s played – most of the tracks are from Spencer’s last album, Fugitive Songs, with a few other gems thrown in (including the Beasts’ "The Hate Inside").
Contrary to our pre-gig concerns, Spencer doesn’t fall off the stage, abuse anyone – or, indeed, drop off this mortal coil. He’s a picture of professionalism and apparently happy to be back in Melbourne in front of his loyal local crowd (Beasts’ bassist Brian Hooper is spotted in the crowd, and a friend remarks wryly that Hooper and Nolan have been comparing walking sticks).
The set finishes, Spencer waves (or mutters – it’s probably the same thing in effect) goodbye and it’s well past 1am – and we’re quickly herded out the door by the bouncer, onto the bike and into the night, our faith in the quality of the local rock’n’roll culture affirmed yet again.