The Metro Theatre, Sydney
July 29, 2006


The last time I saw Radio Birdman was the first and only time I ever walked away from seeing them play and being in a less than an exuberant mood. It was in at a crappy room in the Manly Fisho’s with horrible sound and a band going through the motions. Mr Tek was upset with Mark Sisto (in “fan” mode) early on in the gig after the
Marquis tried to strum Deniz’s iconic Crestwood from the front of the stage. Deniz’s mood seemed sour all night as a result. And the mosh was more about drunken local rugby players trying to belt each other than fans trying to enjoy the music and the band. Something had to give.
So what gives, what ya gonna do?
Regroup and record their first album in almost 30 years, that’s what. And they produced a bloody good one at that. "Zeno Beach" sits comfortably in the CD cabinet with "Radios Appear" and "Living Eyes". Or with the vinyl slabs of those timeless records, if you were around last millennium.
So with much anticipation I ventured to the Metro in Sydney on Saturday night to see my favourite band playing their only home game as the third gig of their ambitious renewed attempt at world domination. After a couple of warm up gigs in the warmer climes of Byron and Brisbane, they would be looking to score heavily here.
Early doors, I caught the very entertaining Pink Fits, but unfortunately managed to miss the much vaunted Bellrays. Keen judges let me know that I had made an ordinary call there. But the Fits were in very good form and won warm applause from the small crowd who got there early. A great drummer propels these guys along at warp speed, with serious assistance from a fashion challenged Johnny Ramone disciple on sonic guitar. If they are in your neck of the woods soon, I strongly suggest you do yourself a favour.
Closer to the pointy end of proceedings, the crowd was comfortably full, but not as packed as previous Birdman Metro gigs. As an unabashed fan of Mr Tek, I comfortably found the front at my usual spot in Crestwood Country. Still no Zimmer frames in sight. And after the usual Rolling Stones tunes hit the sound system, I was ready as I reflected that most of the room had indeed “come so far to be here today”.
Suddenly they were on and went straight into the Zeno opener. Rob instantly took control and looked like he’d done the hard yards in the gym in preparation for this tour. To my eye he had looked jaded and cynical at the Fisho’s debacle, but here he was svelte, full of energy and focussed from the first chord of this logical intro. The band was right in the groove with Rusty smashing his snare and Jim snaking the great bass line all over the place. It looked fleetingly like the ghosts of the Byron gig (as reported elsewhere) may have bitten Deniz’s rig again, but all was coolly and quickly restored. The groovy white Marshall head was a nice touch for tragics like me who are easily impressed by that sort of thing!
“Remorseless” - my favourite piece from Zeno - followed and Deniz and Chris shared the memorable verse riff with gusto. If there was going to be any trademark false starts tonight, this was it - but everyone counted to 14 in Rusty’s suspense building hi-hat breaks with flying colours! As I was in front of Deniz, I struggled to pick up some of Chris’ on stage Marshall output all night, but the Firebird was in good hands as usual. These two songs delivered a brutal opening platform and a decidedly clear letter of intent.
In case any pagans in the Metro hadn’t heard Zeno Beach yet, they played a smart card early and nailed the original energy of “Do The Pop”. A lot of smiles all round at the front. “You Just Make it Worse” kept up the assault, but the mood changed when Deniz launched into the opening chords of “Die Like April”. As I had strongly suspected, this song gives the band scope to change pace and showcase their range of dynamic abilities. This will no doubt be a tour favourite.
“Non Stop Girls” again lifted the pace and although I haven’t really warmed to “Hungry Cannibals” yet, I think it may be a better stage piece than it comes across on the record. It sure kept the Birdman V8 engine purring. The battered and tired donk from Manly had clearly been put up on the blocks and fully serviced, tuned, cleaned and refuelled with new Zeno high octane performance juice.
“Heyday” followed and allowed a downwards gear change again. This is a real favourite of mine from Zeno and like “April”, it allows the band to mix it up. They appeared to be revelling in the challenge of this song, which presents plenty of twists and turns and room for Pip and Chris to shine.
Deniz quickly pressed the pedal again and launched in to the lively and almost poppy “Subterfuge”, which is starting to nudge “Remorseless” as my Zeno favourite. It had a harder edge than it’s almost pop form on the record - and this too will become a tour staple. So we were now suddenly almost into the home straight, as a frantic “Endzone” followed, before Jim dished up the iconic elastic bass intro to “Hand Of Law”. Chris was in great form here and the punters were beaming - and finally moving.
“Found Dead” carried on the good work, with Deniz and Chris really in top form as they got their left hands around the tricky backward sounding guitar motif that punctuates the song. (I think of “I bury Paul” every time I hear the song on Zeno!).
OK, cue the frantic finish. They rocked manically through “Connected” and spat out a frantic “Anglo Girl Desire” for the true believers. But they saved the best energy for the final few minutes of normal time. “Locked Up” was probably the highlight of the night, with Deniz absolutely flaying the Crestwood through the Jeff Beck Yardbirds era-inspired rave up preamble to the song, with Rusty and Jim propelling things along like teenagers with new sonic toys at a mate’s garage. The crowd had been a bit subdued in my eyes, but they went off here and the calls for more action intensified as the guys exited stage right. This was the acceptance of the new Zeno-dominated set that they had no doubt hoped for.
“Aloha Steve and Danno” was the obvious choice to keep the momentum flowing when they came back on for the first encore and they played the song with almost the same conviction that I saw the last time they played here a few years back, which that night produced an incendiary rendition of a classic song. Chris’ very interesting “If You Say Please” kept the pot boiling - but then it all went a bit pear-shaped for me.
Deniz had previously taken the microphone mid-gig for a “Sermon on the Mount” to formally announce that the “classic hits” Birdman was a thing consigned to the past. New ideas and new horizons beckoned. Hey, enjoy the ride. This inspired much applause and approval from the faithful.
So why drag out the tired teen anthem of “New Race” at his stage of proceedings? The “yeah hups” get more clichéd with every gig, so I found this choice extremely puzzling. “Descent Into The Maelstrom” would have worked for me as the ultimate climax to the gig right here. A
10 out of 10 no brainer - and leave them baying for more. But wait; there was more after a second break. The need to play the whole of Zeno was obviously a prime driver tonight. But to finish with the two songs on the new record that are lightweight and sound like afterthoughts, delivered a poor ending here.
I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing Pip. I am a great admirer of the man, his music and his ongoing contribution to the band and their legacy. But “Brotherhood” and the title track of Zeno don’t do a lot for me. They don’t explore new landscapes or successfully rework old ones. Maybe Pip is sick to death of playing the same solo in “Man with Golden Helmet”. That’s fair enough. But in my mind,
10 of the 13 tracks on Zeno can stand alone as either classic Birdman songs with their original inspirations intact, or brave and effective statements in a more mature musical direction. Pip’s couple are two that do not.
So the question that Rob asked at the front of the show was “will everything be enough”?
My verdict is that everything is “a tiny bit too much”.
But that said, this was a gig that showcased a superb rock band firmly back in control of their destiny, re-energised and playing with precision, flair and energy. The tour will be a great success on the vast body of evidence presented here.