Excelsior Hotel, Surry Hills, Sydney
Saturday, May 7 2011


ShareIt was problematic coming up with an angle for this piece. You can only write the same review so many times over ("the New Christs kicked our collective arse") and the risk was that this would turn into a lengthy dissertation on the sad state of the Sydney live scene. Which it partly will be.

The reason is that it's closing night for the Excelsior Hotel, a little venue (capacity: 150) in the heart of Surry Hills, a suburb that used to be central Sydney's musical district. Postcode 2010. For a while, anyone with a rock and roll musical heartbeat lived around here - as well as quite a few people whose heartbeat needed the assistance of Narcan, the responsive ambulance officer's drug of choice for O.D. cases. The suburb had character and creativity in large doses.

The Excelsior is on Foveaux Street, which you can still gaze across through misty eyes to see the shell of the former Sydney Trade Union Club, onetime 1980s Sydney underground epicentre. Up the road is The Hopetoun Hotel, which went out of business a few years ago after years of holding sway as a musical rallying point (before regulations and its own silly booking policies did it in.)

The Ex is famously where Radio Birdman played their first public gig (on a pool table - to seven people) in 1974. Live music petered out for a while. The back room became a bistro, but a re-vamp with sound-proofing in the early '90s put it back on the map, running seven nights a week.

It wasn't just a place for rock and roll. As well as jazz and acoustic music, the Ex hosted some downright eclectic nights. Some act whose name I can't remember played a Saturday support and a naked-but-for-a-jockstrap "singer" (term used with reservations) spent the set chasing people around the furniture while the on-stage combo vamped on a ragged punk raga. Sometimes you couldn't move in here. Other nights, there'd inexplicably be no-one in the place. For that you can blame fickle Sydneysiders.

For most of the last decade, the room's been booked by Sue Telfer, an astute judge of musical worth and one of the nicest people on the scene. Sue's endured mystifyingly empty houses, tardy starters, late finishers and Ian Rilen flip-outs with equanimity and grace. She's been a den mother and a doorkeeper, and has done more than most to foster live rock and roll in a Sydney scene fighting to stay alive. Sue will re-surface somewhere else.

But this is The End. The Ex has been bought by yuppie family fortune heir Justin Hemmes, an acquisitive nightclub owner and serial self-promoter whose self-satisfied visage beams out of the society pages each weekend. From his press, Hemmes seems to relish fresh real-estate wins – that's when his premier nightspot, The Ivy, isn't fighting reputational battles around allegations of toilet rapes or being named on violent venue police lists.

That's not such a cheap shot. I've never seen a serious fight at The Ex. For all I know Hemmes is a great bloke. It's certainly not his fault he's well off, but I figure we'd have fuck-all to talk about given his shitty taste in music (he has more than a finger in the Ministry of Sound DJ label pie.) His interest lies in DJs and remixes, not original music.

What is apparent is that The Ex is about to become an ex-venue. It's going to re-open as an up-market Texmex eatery, swapping $4.50 beers for $45 mains, and as Barbarellas guitarist Jon Roberts points out over beers on the footpath, the last live rock and roll venue in historic Surry Hills will be gone. There's talk that such a move is doomed to fail, that another Hemmes-owned room will soon replace it as a music venue or the Ex will be revived. I'm dubious but we shall see.

It's been a lengthy farewell day with the likes of Steve Lucas (X) and Terry Serio (actor-cum-soulman) holding court. I couldn't make it during waking hours it so I joined the nightshift to clock on about 6pm. By the time I punch my card and order a schooner of Coopers Pale Ale, there's a sizeable throng in the house. But if it had been like this every night...

First on are the Cool Charmers and I only caught parts of their set. I know, I know, but it was hectic out on the footpath and they had started unfeasibly early. The Charmers are sounding better than ever with new drummer Arch Law (ex-Huxton Creepers) adding fresh dynamics. Steve Lucas even shrugs off his diabolically painful back condition and gets up for a couple of X songs so that should tell you it was worth being there. About time these guys recorded properly.

Due to reasons of my own making, it's my first live sighting of this line-up of Leadfinger and unsurprisingly they're exceptionally good. They're promoting a hot new album, "We Make The Music", and its their best to date. You should buy it, They played the shit out of it tonight. A great set.

The strength of the songs is one thing, the self-assuredness of the band is another. Stew Cunningham (Leadfinger, the man) runs a tight ship and has assembled a talented bunch of players who have worked up these songs live, as opposed to just in the studio. Tonight, their drummer Dillon Hicks is unavailable, so Neil from Hytest sits in. He does a mighty job.

"The Price You Pay" and the title track are stingingly delivered. "Rock And Roll Heart" gets an airing from Stew's Challenger 7 days and there's a fair selection of primo material from more recent records. "Rich Kids (Can't Play Rock and Roll)" is appropriately dedicated to Justin Hemmes. We could have done with a heap more music from Leadfinger but the New Christs await.

The New Christs are also insanely good tonight, firing for the best part of two hours. This line-up has played together so often that they can turn on a 20 cent piece. Tonight they are focussed and supremely in control. Rob's on-mic and the engine room locks in behind him. Dave and Brent on guitars and occasional keys add the fireworks and texture.

The typical New Christs set digs almost all the way back into the history of the band – as far as "Like A Curse." There's a sprinkling of "We Got This" and "Lower Yourself" tracks but the "Gloria" numbers are understandably the backbone of the set. No "Born Out Of Time" but "No Way On Earth" will do nicely, thanks.

The band is off to Europe in June with Paul Larsen (Celibate Rifles) deputising for an unavailable Stu Wilson and there'll be a vinyl single on French label Pitshark Records to mark the visit.

Their Excelsior set was recorded. We live in hope but Rob's not a fan of live recordings – especially his own. If it's released, don't hesitate for a second. In this form, the New Christs are untouchable.

And of course they kicked our collective arse.



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