We're all Happy Men and Women
In days to come, when rock and roll has finally been relegated to the cultural nursing home to be read its last rites. It'll be a nice room with dappled sun, shared with other old cogders like Jazz and Rolling Stone magazine.
People will reflect that some of its best times were in Sydney in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. They’ll also realise how good things were, and how easily they slipped away.
This wasn’t going to be one of those high faultin’ essays on the fragility of cultural scenes and the futility of trying to recapture them (because, you know, things can never be like they were.) About how you can’t put your arms around a memory. Telling you: Don’t Look Back. But a story "angle" can just happen.
Sometimes we try to bury nostalgia or pretend it’s not a valid thing. It’s so easy to hope you die before you get old when you’re in the full flourish of indestructible youth…and then you want to take it all back when you realise that the future's not so much uncertain and the end is increasingly near.
So let’s make the observation that if nostalgia isn’t so much the elephant in the room at the Enmore Theatre tonight then it’s taking up much of the available space in the foyer. And that's fine. More than ever, with so many people who were influential in rock and roll dropping off the twig. We all crap on about how bad 2016 was for that sort of thing but of course it's only going to get worse.
Right: Sluggo from Flaming Hands under the Enmore lights. Shona Ross photo
The Flaming Hands
Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Saturday, February 4, 2017
Photos by Shona Ross unless otherwise credited
Anyway, this bill is nothing about mortality. It gathers three of the best and brightest from Sydney’s live music salad days and the anticipation is so thick in the air that you can cut it with a Zimmer frame. Of which, there are a couple in this audience.
A good few people (me included) never got to see Shy Impostors in their brief lifespan (September ‘79-June ‘80) but most of those who did are drawn to the dance floor at the ungodly hour of 7.15pm to catch their 30-minute set.
And they slay ‘em. No two ways about it. Vocalist Penny Ward, relocated to Australia after a lengthy stay in the USA, is stunningly on-song and sounds even more like Patti Smith than on the band’s posthumous single. Not Earth Mother Patti, either. The Rock Patti.
There was some concern from the band that a slight tweaking of tonigh't s times would leave a few of the faithful unaware and arriving late. It does look like the online news did catch their attention because the band's greeted by an almost half-full Enmore Theatre when they come on. The man who put out the band's first and only 45, Jules Normington, is right up front, dancing his arse off.
They're probably a one-off aggregation, given that their guitarist lives in Canada, but the band's tight and confident and revelling in the moment. Richard Burgman seizes the chance to play the one-guitar role and fills out the songs with creative chording and razor sharp leads. The favoured hat’s been left backstage until he returns with the headliners, and he’s wearing an ensemble of ripped knees jeans and leather jacket that was de rigeur from his time with The Joeys.
It's stating the obvious to say that fellow Shy Impostors Peter Oxley (bass) and Michael Charles (drums) are neither shy nor impostors. Oxley's pedigree is well-known and he's put a lot of recent gig time under his belt, not only with the Sunnyboys but also with Ed Kuepper. Charles' own history (notably, the Lipstick Killers and Screaming Tribesmen) is equally impressive and he's been keeping his chops sharp lately by gigging with the mighty Mick Medew and The Mezmerizers, so nobody's coming in cold.
Much of the material is unknown to these ears but easily caught up with thanks to a CD issue of their recorded versions on Citadel, released to coincide with the show. Shy Impostors had a reputation for being exponents of that tough, no-nonsense strain of rock and roll that grew to wear the “Australian Detroit” tag. As annoying as the label might be to some people (mainly because it's self-limiting) a song like “Seein’ Double”, which is both the closer and a highlight, shows that it works.
Flaming Hands had the benefit of a warm-up show on Thursday night (and it was more than a little bit amazing, I can tell you.) Regular sharers of stages with the Sunnyboys back in the ‘80s, their story is a tale of the industry getting its hooks into a band and trying hard to hijack its essence – a scenario that would be increasingly familiar when things got serious in Australian music in the decade that followed.
In many respects, that’s what happened to the Sunnyboys, too, so the matching of both bands on the bill is a little ironic - if you appreciate historical connections. The good news is that the people involved emerged at the other end and they’re all seemingly enjoying life.
Flaming Hands had a unique niche in the Sydney live scene, opening ears to the sounds of soul music while retaining a tough veneer. Julie Mostyn’s voice was one of the best to be heard in inner-city bolt-holes and suburban beer barns alike. There was no mistaking the emotional investment in Jeff Sullivan’s songs, and their early 45s were incredible.
Flaming Hands in full flight. Murray Bennett photo
Thursday’s night’s warm up afforded the Hands some breathing room and an opportunity to stretch out. Saturday’s show required them to cut back the set and keep it focused. Which they did to a tee.
Julie Mostyn is so ageless it’s ridiculous. It’s like time stopped for her at 30. Her voice is resonant and clear, no cigarettes and whiskey edge yet still compelling. She sounds like she knows of what she sings – which is lost love, half the time. But of course her husband’s on stage with her all night, playing bass, and they even manage a peck, mid-set.
There’s some mixed feedback about the front of house sound they pulled but it was pretty good where I stood. Yes, Jeff Sullivan’s guitar sound is very street-level but the mix sounded full and punchy with Warwick Gilbert’s fill-the-gaps bass sounding enormous. Peter Bull’s keys took a little time to find themselves in the mix.
The band's come together from all over to be here; it could have been ragged around the edges. It was not. Barton Price was the consummate pro on drums. Then there’s Sluggo’s saxophone, punching in and out of the songs and adding expressive solos at all the critical points. A lot of bands talk light and shade but most don’t achieve it. Here’s where the Flaming Hands win, hands down. The sax and keys add enormous colour to their songs.
The Flaiming Hands: Barton Price, Warwick Gilbert, Julie Mostyn, Jeff Sullivan, Peter Bull and Sluggo.
Speaking of, we get all the expected ones plus the odd newie. “The Edge” opens and it breathes more than the single version, which came across all New Wave. “Sacrifice” (only recorded for a radio live-to-air, I recall) and so many other killers like “See and Go”, “It’s Just That I Miss You” and “Sweet Revenge” make it hard to pick a highlight. So I won’t.
Being the nice people that they are, Julie makes the point on behalf of the band mid-set that all three acts on the bill had their beginnings with the Phantom label and that its original principals, Jules Normington and Dare Jennings, are owed a debt. It was a cool touch.
There’s nothing that hasn’t been said about the Sunnyboys’ resurgence that hasn’t appeared here or elsewhere already but I’m not going to let that stop me. If there’s a better example of a reformed act delivering with such genuine respect for their own legacy and the expectations of their fans, please point it out. They deliver the goods with barely diminished energy and infectious fun.
The concept of playing a landmark album as it was released is well ventilated but in this case, it's also well deserved. There’s a procedure called tracking involved in putting out an album. It's a fancy name for deciding the order of the songs. At least it used to be - this was before individual MP3 downloads. The accepted rule is that it’s important to make an impact at the start, put a hit in the middle, and make sure the song that opens side two is just as strong – because that’s where you have to get up and turn it over.
Dunno who tracked “Sunnyboys” back in the day (I should ask) but it’s one of the reasons it’s such a strong record. That, the quality of the songs, and the impassioned vulnerability with which they were delivered. Songs with depth and bathos.
Sunnyboys did play “Sunnyboys” from go to whoa and it was every shade of wonderful. “I Can’t Talk To You” shone and, of course, got its reprise, just like on the album. They even pulled their one-time standard “Why Do I Cry” from the past and placed it in the encore. "The Seeker" is as much a signature song as any in their kit bag and it left people wringing out their shirts.
Reunion shows run the risk of becoming a slave to the ritual, of succumbing to the obvious with bands merely going through the motions and doing enough to keep their fans happy. While there's nothing startlingly new about tonight, there were no such signs in evidence. Each Sunnyboys show brims with the band members' joy of performing.
Richard Burgman doing the first half of his double duty with Michael Charles on drums.