Bootleg Sessions @ The Phoenix, Monday 4th June, 2005

Some may think I’ve already done enough reviews of the Bootleg Sessions at the Phoenix, or just written enough about the Phoenix full stop. Of course in some respects the criticism is valid, because there’s a wide world out there and to concentrate so much energy and attention on such a little and ostensibly non-descript microcosm within it is to ignore some of the wonderful, bizarre and truly tragic things that occur outside thereof.

But as I remarked to one of the barmen at the Phoenix this afternoon just gone, a man who I have watched live a ridiculous proportion of his life over the last seven or so years within the Phoenix’ grimy walls, seen play his funky bass guitar with such luminaries of the local band scene as The Way Hip Antelopes and Pete and Fiete on its modest stage, shared many a pint with and mused over the vagaries of life as a musician in this benighted town on its commodious bar stools, I say I said to this man, after he had advised me that he had once again spent the previous evening there that it’s amazing just how much of said establishment that an ordinary mortal person can take without getting bored.

One could say the same of the Bootleg Sessions, for tonight, after perhaps more than ten but less than twenty excursions to that same bar to see that same session, I was at turns enthralled, captivated, irritated, enlivened, confused and horrified but never, never bored. Partly this is due simply to the nature of the ‘variety’ night, where a series of artists do short sets one after the other. Partly it is due to the quality of talent that is drawn to this show because it offers a good and friendly, if not always attentive, audience and they actually pay the performers (a negligible pittance but it’s something). And partly it is due to the Phoenix itself, which attracts a crowd that suits my taste in people (freaks, artists, the mentally ill, students, the general bohemian symphony) who will entertain me when the music fails to do so.

So, enough rambling, and to last night’s show, which began, so I believe, with my friend Heya (sorry mate, not sure how to spell that) who I missed entirely. My apologies. I also missed most of Tom Woodward who followed, but I’ve seen Tom, filmed him and written about him before. Next up were Cam and Ryan who I’ve never seen before at all.

Cam is a burly fellow in a greatcoat (as in an army seconds coat, not a really good coat) with long shaggy hair, a beard and a mouth that opens wide like a tawny frogmouth when he lets loose an awesome heartfelt vowel. He bangs the Maton hard with his fingers (my own battered fingers winced at the sight), and has acoustic rhythm guitar mastered in the sense that the beat is strong and regular, with lots of good stops and flourishes. The sound of it was at times a little brittle and sharp, but that is what is required sometimes to penetrate the Phoenixian din, and there was not much evidence of dynamics beyond off and full-on, but those are the only minor criticisms on that score.


Cam and Ryan

Ryan is a tall handsome dude with a fiery Mohawk, a reasonably well tended goatee and a facility for banging out a decent rhythm on a hand drum. He sings occasional harmonies (and occasional unisons) loud and strong, not too often but maybe too seldom. He also sings his own songs and has a fine voice and a very engaging manner.

Together they present an appealing visual spectacle, if you like that sort of thing, and what they lack in musical prowess (if anything) is more than made up for by standing up tall and strong and thrashing out a boisterous rhythm. Their version of Psycho Killer was the shit, their original songs, some written by friends in the audience, are not that memorable to me now, but there was one about their mother turning into a spider that made me think they have a refreshing lack of seriousness about themselves.

Having said all those nice things about Cam and Ryan, it is now my unfortunate duty to give them, or more specifically Cam, a bit of a roasting. We were short of guests for Tuesday’s recording of Insatiable Banalities, so after their set, I approached both of them and asked if they wanted to be involved. I took special care to make certain they understood the commitment they were making and they both assured me they would come and both seemed very keen.

I SMS’d them the next day and in the afternoon Ryan called me and said they were coming but would be a little bit late because Cam was attending a martial arts class. Then 20 minutes before the agreed later time, Ryan again called and apologised because Cam had decided not to do it. Full marks to Ryan for being polite enough to call and for accepting my abuse with good grace. To Cam I merely say, this town is too small a place to behave like that for long if you want to have any sort of ongoing musical career. Anyhow, I digress…

The memory gets a bit hazy now, but I think Dan Banks was up next. Stripped down from their normal seven pieces, the Dan Banks trio, comprising Dan on electric guitar and vocals, Damien on keys and name unknown on drums, were way too professional and slick for the Phoenix.


Dan Banks

There was abundant evidence from the set of the influence of Canberra’s School of Music, something which gives great credit to said school that it so regularly churns out extremely talented and professional players. The other great feature of CSM graduates is sadly a little wooden-ness in the playing and stage presence, something fortunately not to be said of this combo.

Dan is not so schooled, while Damien definitely is and the drummer I presume is also. Damien’s excursions around the keyboard showed an ease of playing earned by thousands of hours of tinkling through the modes. My only minor criticism was some slightly questionable accidentals here and there, but that might just be a matter of taste.

The drummer did more with a kick, snare and hi-hat than many a drummer can produce out of those god-awful drum-frame contraptions with double kick, 17 toms and innumerable cymbals. The CSM rule must be hit the fucker hard and at the right time and the rest will follow, because there has never (well OK, rarely) been heard a steadier, snappier back-beat. There were flourishes as well, but a good drummer knows his job and he knows why he sits at the back of the stage rather than the front.

And then there’s Dan the common man. He’s not flashy in appearance or stage manner, nor really with his guitar. It’s a laid back rocker of the smooth and saintly variety that he presents. You’d take him home to meet your mother if your mother wanted you to marry a good boy, a nice boy, a boy who would call her ‘Ma’am’ and treat her daughter with respect. That’s not to say that he’s boring, because he’s not. He’s just comfortable with himself and his abilities and doesn’t need to rely on the more superficial tricks of the trade to earn the respect of anyone.

He’s got the guitar chops down, does a sensitive lead break beyond competently, and sings confidently and in tune, with just a hint of growl when the song calls for it. And he’s got a lovely smile. So” for what else could you ask?

For me it would be song-writing that rises more above the pedestrian. I didn’t analyse every chord progression of every song, nor were the lyrics intelligible enough for me to ascertain whether he’s got anything to say, but the over-all impression (and admittedly an impression made on a slightly inebriated mind) was of a more than competent band playing some material that while tightly constructed and arranged, explored no new musical territory or even unfamiliar territory, or even copied anything that was new and unfamiliar.

It’s another one of my vexed questions whether the artist should strive for originality. Is it even possible to do anything new? For some, the answer is simply Bjork, or Phillip Glass. But besides these and a few other true geniuses, whose approach to music is entirely original, the world has left behind the Modern Age, the thrill of the new, the Avant Garde, and settled comfortably for clever pastiche, appropriation and the reinvention of some very good wheels.

Fair enough, and it was a very good wheel that Dan Banks reinvented time and again last night, but for me, it’s a tired old wheel and if I don’t feel that a composer is struggling to explore the outer bounds of his own imagination, or at least of his peregrinations throughout music history, then the dude is just not trying hard enough.

I would console myself with a slightly less than challenging compositional effort if the guy would dig deep into his aching heart (if he has one, and if he says he doesn’t he’s a liar) and pull out a gleaming truth lyrically every now and then, but if that were the case (and it may well be so) then let me hear the words. Anyhow, it’s a harsh criticism but well meant, and we will shortly have them up for a podcast, so if the footage below isn’t enough for you, you can hear more soon and make up your own minds.

Download link

Next up were Beth and Phoebe, two young women, one (Beth) with a guitar and a voice, the other (Phoebe) with a drum or two. They had very cleverly managed to fill the entire back room with chums, and even Beth’s Dad was in attendance, so I’m not going to mention how the room fairly shook with roars of appreciation every time a song finished because it would be unfair to the other acts who must be slightly less personable or manipulative.


Beth and Phoebe

Beth and Phoebe, are good, but not that good. To be honest it is Beth who makes the difference. Phoebe does well enough on the drums, but doesn’t really add enough to the show to justify equal billing. She could do worse than look to Ryan mentioned above who was nearer the equal of his guitar toting buddy Cam. Huddled near the stage floor, her presence, besides the artful drumming, was more of an absence, leaving Beth to carry the weight of entertaining the clamorous audience. This she did well, with a clear voice and some clever songs well played. B&P too, if they forgive this review, will be appearing on an upcoming podcast so the opportunity to make your own appraisal awaits. Or you could just watch this video taken on the night.

Download link

The last act, and the most difficult to write about, was Plug.
I don’t know them, didn’t speak to them and knew nothing about
them before than that a band of that name existed somewhere in
Canberra. The lead singer, a woman of indeterminate age, had been
standing beyond the stage all night, glaring balefully at the
crowd (and occasionally me) with an inscrutable but never pleasant
emotion written on her, how shall I say, less than model-like
features.


Plug

Why would I even mention how she looks? Because performing music
is not just an aural medium. You don’t just listen to bands, you
also watch them, and read probably as much from how they look
and how they act as from how they sing and play. But I mostly
mention it because, in her looks, and in her facial expressions,
in her posture and in her music, this woman expressed a courageous
disdain for everything superficial and Dolly Magazine-like in
this stupid facile world.

Three cheers to her for that, for it’s a brave woman who gives
a flying-fuck-you to a world obsessed with appearance, who says,
‘well if I’m never going to be loved for my looks, then I just
couldn’t give a shit’, and then has the guts to get up in a daggy
beanie and a frumpy jacket in front of a hundred people and play
music that expresses from her soul the torment of being undervalued
because no-one ever bothered to peer into her heart and see the
throbbing beauty within.

And the music, when it began, was, as I inferred, as challenged
sonically as the singer was visually. Said singer strums an electric
guitar confidently. The bass player knows how to play a bass and
bobs around like a boxer with the groove. The drummer played in
time and knew when to start and stop. And over that lay a vocal
that was sometimes in tune, sometimes somewhat less than, but
which, in its quality, eschewed prettiness in the same way her
clothing eschewed shapeliness and the effect was total.

It was also rather brutal at first, and I must admit to succumbing
to a dumbed-down reverse disdain of this person’s art, feeling
that the sonic assault of the music and occasional tunelessness
of the vocals was somewhat of an affront to my refined sensibities.
But then it all started to gel. Did it gel inside me, or did they
do the gelling? It wasn’t just me because the audience, those
who hadn’t made a bee-line for the exit, who had collectively
adopted an attitude of ‘if we studiously ignore these people they’ll
go away soon enough’, suddenly started to pay attention and even
applaud.

Some people even felt the spirit of Patti Smith (I know she’s
still alive) enter the room, tap her foot a couple of times, give
the singer an approving nod and a big smiling thumbs up, and fly
off laughing maniacally.

So is this an example of the anti-aesthetic consciously employed?
I think so. Is there hope for Pod in a world more attuned to pretty
and fake than honest and real? I think so too. Should they change
and develop their act to knock off some of the rougher edges?
Maybe, but probably not. Am I now a fan of Plug? Yes, though with
reservations, because my tired old ears can only take so much.

Besides enjoying the music I had a great night, had a grown man cry on my shoulder, married (in my little known role as a Methodist Minister) Tom Woodward to the most beautiful girl in the world (Hi Alexis) and made a similarly beautiful other girl smile the sweetest smile I’ve seen in years (yes it’s you I’m talking about Alex).

UPDATE: My apologies to Plug (and Pod) for calling Plug Pod.

UPDATE #2: Dan Banks has thoughtfully and graciously offered
the following corrections and comments re: the above review of
his band.

–Not stripped down from a 7 piece but a 5 piece

–Drummer -Alex Ruiz- is not a CSM graduate (he left
school, in new york, 19 years ago)

–“Hit the fucker hard and at the right time and the rest
will follow”? This would have to be the antithesis of csm
teaching.

–I also had a lot of laughs at being described as a “good
boy”…

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