Jets Sports Club, Tempe, NSW
Saturday, November 13, 2010


It's hard work being Johnny Kannis. After a dreadful car accident which could've, would've, should've killed him, crippled him, left him pissing in a wheelchair for the rest of his natural, he was - eventually - persuaded he was well enough to perform again. His first solo album should be out next year.

Who the fuck is...? Johnny Kannis is currently one of Australia's most charismatic, effortlessly engaging frontman. And that definition includes the likes of Barnsey, Farnsey, Garrett, Hutchence, Cave, Regurgitator, The Living End, Children Collide and Poofinger.

See, despite Australia having been gripped with a profusion of excellent bands and new music for the last seven or eight years, Kannis still radiates a vital, loving, mischievous energy most performers haven't a clue about.

Tonight he's fronting The Hitmen at the Jets Club in Tempe (just down the road from Newtown). The Hitmen, an outfit which has been around so long many of their original fans are grandparents, are farewelling their ex-Radio Birdman (sorry about  the 'ex- so-and-so'; after a while, r'n'r becomes a bit too much like a history lession) guitarist Chris 'Klondike' Masuak.

Forty years ago girls would be screaming their lungs out for a band like this, and although I'm glad those days are gone (and the likes of Bieber an anachronism) I can't help but wonder whatever happened to everyone's enthusiasm. These days no-one screams, but everyone seems to be taking iPhotos.

The Hitmen never really fit into the established r'n'r hierarchy. They pulled enough people to their shows, rivalling the Hoodoo Gurus for some years, but they never translated to radio. Well, actually that's crap. Radio just didn't (and don't) tend to play much in the way of cool stuff, figuring their advertisers would get all upset. They have the songs, despite moving carefully because of all the broken bones) Kannis still outstrips most of Australia's top performers. Recently, their albums have all been rereleased as double CDs with a large quantity of quality extras.

First thing: they're a tight, tight outfit. Second thing: they're not a bunch of arrogant pop stars. They're not up themselves, full of the weight of past mythological accomplishments. Not for nothing is one of their favourite songs 'The War Against The Jive'. Third: they're fun to watch, partly because the band are having fun, the audience gets it and throws it back.

There's no stupid stage-diving or slamming. We all know that's for dickheads who don't want to see the band. Kannis comes on dancing, challenging us, loving the sensation of being onstage once again. Most of us don't dance cause the band are so much fun to watch. Me, I'm wedged up against the speaker and crash bars, my legs bending the wrong way and buffetted in and out of the explosively huge speakers to my right. My right ear feels like there's a haystack in there.

Tony Robertson, Murray Shepherd, Johnny Kannis, Brad Shepherd on guest guitar and Klondike.

The bass player, Tony Robertson, is deceptively powerful. Stuck with the band through thick and thin, over thirty years now, sticks his head down, locks in with Muzz Shepherd (sigh.. ex-Fun Things, the band before the Hoodoo Gurus. See? Fuckin' history lesson) with barely a glance up. They all know their places in these songs, but they're not tired. Like the best classical musicians who practise until they perform in their sleep, the Hitmen are tighter than Pauline Hanson's bumhole. Meanwhile Muzz drives the band forward in torrential thunder of precision. He's one of the best drummers in Australia, takes what might be an ordinary rock song and shoves it gleefully into the stratosphere.

Like the other original Hitmen, Tony Jukic is a real r'n'r soldier, handles his guitar like some sort of machine, sometimes works with Tony and Muzz, sometimes works off Chris. Rather lovely seeing them glance at each other; 'right, you sod, see this?'; then, 'you bugger, this'll fix you'.

Restless, despite performing to a peak most of us would tire of quickly, Kannis is drawn to the crowd like a bee to a Krispy Kreme. Grasping someone's hand, they haul him up onto the crash barrier, or onto the speakers. As a song finishes, he hands out a lyric-sheet. Ridiculous, but sweet. After a while, he plunges into the crowd - no, not surfing, walking. He dances up to people, grinning, singing. They embrace him, he kisses them, he jitterbugs off. Sometimes he's on the floor, playfully nipping at our ankles. Sometimes he seranades a woman. At one point I saw him happily rolling around on the ground at his manager's feet.

But Chris Masuak is the reason the gig is on tonight. He's in fine form, his rather spartan rig ramming out a crisp, clean guitar sound. It tells me a lot that for some songs he actually needs to look at where his fingers are on the neck; he's not played them for a while. The rest of the time he's blisteringly good, the band slotting themselves into each other seamlessly. Well, alright, there were actually a couple of mistakes, but only the sort of mistake a musician or a dweeb would notice (I was looking at their faces, that's my excuse).

Klondike gets on the good foot.

The side-sheets of black hessian start falling down. People crowd the sides of the stage for a better view. The gig is less a gig than theatre in the round, powerfully intimate. They do encores. Brad Shepherd comes on for a few songs (he used ta be a Hitman, ya know) and plays well, poses brilliantly in a pair of red denim flares (something most of us can't pull off). Mick Blood from the Lime Spiders comes on for backing vox and, The Unknown, one of the Psychotic Turnbuckles, also plugs in and a fine old time is had.

It's all a bit emotional. The band hug and there's not, as the saying goes, a dry eye in the house (except for the two drunk chicks who keep hollering 'hurry up', clearly they stumbled in without a clue). Despite this, I particularly enjoyed the song which coulda woulda shoulda been a number one: "Don't Hit Girls". They close with "Suspicious Minds" which, shorn of Elvis and his orchestra, comes to mean so much more.

Chris holds his guitar up, talismanic in the glittering light, his face happy and joyous.

The Hitmen now live successful professional lives outside of a band, and live in real homes like everyone else. That's the point, to some extent; they've not become stars or thought they were stars (although it has to be said, a star in Australia is just another wannabe everywhere else). Outwardly, they're much the same as they always were. The band, and their solo cds, are not a hobby; it's far more than that. Prove it? Well, it'd be interesting to see the Hitmen 'support' either Barnesy, Regurgitator or even Podgefinger.

(By the by, nothing against the blokes in Powderfinger, or any of the others I've just thumbed my nose at, but by gawsh their music's dull, ain't it?)

Shepherd, the Younger.

Shepherd, the Elder.

Mick Blood of the Lime Spiders rides the waves.

Mick Blood departs, his work here is done. Tony "Juke" Jukic loves his work.



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