Nothern Star Hotel
Friday, December 9, 2005

Words & Pictures THE BARMAN

Let's begin with a nerdy fact: 26 years, three months and 29 days since they last trod Australian boards at Sydney's (long gone) Stagedoor Tavern, the Visitors were re-animated in a crowded, sweaty room in a faux irish Newcastle pub, two-and-a-half hours drive north of Sydney. No, I didn't manually count the elapsed days (there's software to do that) but you get the idea that it's been a seriously long time between drinks for this band.

"Not an exact replica," frontman Mark Sisto cautions the crowd - but a nonetheless fully functioning variation, boasting a new and very different rhythm section. The newcomers are Art and Steve Godoy, heavily-tattooed, straight edge identical twins and former professional skateboard riders from California, who concede nearly two decades in age to their new bandmates.
The twins are Deniz Tek's US touring band, both seriously seasoned musical players and seriously nice blokes to boot. They're here for a week only, and specifically to play a pair of Visitors shows. All five band members (keyboardist Pip Hoyle being the other) have been hunkered down in Camp Visitors, an intense Coffs Harbour-based training program where the set is nailed down between the Godoys' daily surfing sessions and Deniz's fulltime medical commitments.

The more things change the more they stay the same: The Visitors were a "strictly-limited season" project spanning 1978-79 where then-medical interns Hoyle and Tek slotted a dozen shows around 100-hour working weeks. Ironically, both were based in Newcastle and all but one of their gigs was in Sydney.

At first appearance, tonight's venue is a little weird. "The Vistors", as they're billed on the chalkboard alongside presumably acoustic unknowns like "Xanders" and "Dean Kyrkwood". "Dennis Tek" shares star billing with a Bob Dylan tribute show on the audiovisual screen of upcoming shows, and the bands have to wait until the diners have evacuated the stage alcove before they can lug in and crank up the steam-powered vocal PA. The room's actually bigger than it looks once the tables are shifted and its cosy confines are softened by wood and, uh, Irish 2000 Olympics team gear. In the end, the PA struggles only a little and it all sounds OK.

The Survivors fill the stage a few minutes late but brimming with enthusiasm. The term "fill the stage" is used under advisement; there are only three of them and the stage is bloody small. The language spoken is Kinks, dialect derived from the Pretty Things and the 'Oo.
Part of the early Brisbane scene in the late 1970s who peddled a brand of guttural Pommy pop, it's self evident they can play. Jim Dickson's his usual self on bass but showcases a credible set of pipes and sings almost the entire set, ceding vocal duties to guitarist Greg Williamson for one song.

Bruce Anthon's one of the best drummers I've ever seen with more swing than a Pakistani quick bowler with a heavily doctored six-stitcher and an incentive clause. His consummate command of his traps is what lifts these '60s Brit covers onto a new plane. The guy was almost a Saint once and briefly sat in with the nascent Go Betweens. Either band would have benefitted from longer associations.
Not least of all, Williamson overlays jutting chords and a consistently dirty tone that undoubtedly gave the Brizzy punks something to cling to back in the day. Where Have All the Good Times Gone? Have a look around the room during the Survivors set.

Mid-set, Jim Dickson assures the crowd that tonight's happening is very much in the spirit of what both bands went through in the '70s: Set up and play in a room built for others things and blast away. He has a point if your memory stretches back to the early and mid-80s when every second Sydney pub, at least, put on live music and the punters flocked.

It's close to midnight when the Visitors assemble and a small crush builds up front. Pip intro's the opening to "Disperse" before the band changes direction and launches into a shaky "Lifespill". They take a while to find their feet, but once they do it's quite a sight. Sisto arms himself with a wooden staff and wields it within a whisker of the faces of dancers up front. All but the singer sport black jackets with gaudy military regalia (shades of Bill Childish) and the re-designed band logo (a stylised eagle of doom).

There's a surprising number of Sydney people in, including a sprinkling of '70s musical luminaries. I spy a Passenger, a Flaming Hand/Passenger, an Other Side/Hoodoo Guru - and that's without trying. All accommodation in the pub is booked out - indicative there are plenty of out-of-towners.

Surprise Number One: "Persecution Smith". It was Bob Seger's first single under his own name, dating from 1966, and its wordy presence sits well.

Surprise Number two: "It's Over" (by The Big O) and it's meant to be a slow respite mid-set, but seems to drag.

Surprise Number Three (not really because i'd heard it was in there): Zager and Evans' one-hit wonder "The Year 2525", which rocks royally and leads the way into the show-stopping "Disperse", a haunting slice of sci-fi schlock made for ad lib. Mark Sisto makes himself right at home with this one and a handful of others, substituting words here and there and even incorporating the ANZAC Ode of Remembrance ("lest we forget") into "Journey By Sledge". And Pip told someone earlier in the night that HE was the token Aussie in this band!

Every Visitors album track is played, plus the mentioned covers. If a few of the subtleties of the Keeley-Harris rhythm section are missing, then it's nowhere as heavy-handed as might have been imagined. Art and Steve might have grown up in the Cali hardcore but they're adept players. The twins cop a warm embrace and grins of congratulations from bandmates as they grow into their roles. Wish this was more than a two show run 'cos with more time to work, could get seriously out there.

The Visitors deployed a similar line-up and vocalist to the Doors but direct comparisons are superficial. Jimbo and Co had darkness, a sense of drama and poetic sensibility "up the ass", but lacked a real rock and roll spirit to be on the same block as these guys. Pip's keys are placed in sharp relief in this context - and that's the major reason the Visitors sound unique.

Deniz whips out some stunning pieces of guitar razzle-dazzle, momentarily dropping to his knees and looking he's about to do a Jimi with some lighter fluid and six strings. It was a can of WD-40 spray lubricant, subbing for a butter-knife that was earmarked for some slide guitar action but goes MIA.

"Skimp the Pimp" is the obvious encore (re-dubbed "Pip the Pimp" by a few in the front row - much to the Professor's amusement) and gives licence to Mark to give a wrestling-style intro to each bandmate.

In the end, it triumphs over (or maybe because of) the transient nature of what's being attempted. Veteran Visitors watchers are happy (Andy Newman, for one, saw every gig they played but the out-of-town show and reckons this configuration is amazingly close to what the band was 26 years ago.) You wouldn't miss the second show for quids, would you?