look up thereThe On and Ons Glenn Morris and Jon Roberts with guest guitarist Murray Cook . Shona Ross photo

At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, this was a night of three contrasting but not dissimilar bands when The Smart Folk, Loose Pills and The On and Ons weaved their guitar pop web over Marrickville Bowling Club. It was also the album launch for The On and Ons' wonderful CD "Welcome Aboard".

These sorts of night are infrequent in Sydney these days. Ones where the bands on the bill complement each other and the venue doesn't turn people off, so they turn out in good numbers.

You’re here to read a live music review? Hang in there. There's a bit of preaching to go through, first...

loose pills bowloLoose Pills 

The On and Ons
Loose Pills + The Smart Folk
Marrickville Bowling Club
Saturday, August 26, 2017
Photos: Shona Ross

There are two things wrong with the Sydney "underground" music scene. I’m talking the ageing demographic segment here – not the warehouse or terrace house parties one, which is thriving comfortably even further underground, by all accounts. There are too few venues and too few people willing to go out. Both problems are inextricably tied to each other.

You can’t have lots of live music venues unless they’re financially sustainable, and that won’t be the case unless you have enough regular bums on seats. Melbourne has a culture like that. Sydney used to, but no longer does.

It has very little to do with lock-out laws – they hammered dance clubs and sleazy shit-hole night clubs in a centralised inner-city zone, but you’d be hard pressed to name a genuine live band venue that closed its doors in response. Any that did were probably already going out the door backwards.

Fire regulations, poker machines, noise laws and random breath testing each did much more significant damage since Sydney's live scene heyday. They all linger in the background, but the current climate is down to ageing demographics and shifting tastes. 

What to do?

Team up. If you're in a band, play with like-minded acts on thoughtfully constructed bills. That doesn’t mean open with kids that you’ve never heard of but someone says are cool because you think they'll play for a pittance. Don't get me wrong.

It's OK to give bands down the ladder (a relative term) a start. But if you’re a “heritage act” asking $30 a head, the fans of young bands in an opening slot won’t fork out that sort of cash when they can usually see their mates for free. In short, don't expect the kids to prop you up. 

There should be more bills like last Saturday night when each of the bands brought something different to the party while sharing a common (pop-rock) thread.

But first, the venue: Marrickville Bowlo is earning a reputation as one of the best rooms in this city in which to see a band. Forget about Midnight Oil playing an un-announced gig there. It has a lot more going for it.

Like a spruced-up PA with front-of-house from one of the best live music ears in the business in Richard Ball, friendly staff, cheap-ish drinks and nearby trains. There’s parking and there's food. There are no goon squad security hoons. And it has a Copperart ceiling straight out of a museum.  

The Smart Folk warmed up the early crowd with their mod-influenced beat pop. The set didn’t seem as brash as their EP launch a couple of months ago, but that may have down to a reliance on more minor key songs. Someone nearby (OK, it was The Celebrity Roadie, Peter Ross) did make a Church comparison. At the time, I was having trouble disentangling myself from the Sharks-Roosters NRL match on the TV to do anything but nod.

When I did pay more attention (the Sharks lost) I saw The Smart Folk finish with a sail-full of a stiff breeze and pick up a few new fans, judging by the crowd reaction. A re-arrangement of “Lazy Sunday Afternoon” showed a band keen not to stick to the script. You don’t like bands that mess with the iconic? Fortune favours the brave.

ryan and stuRyan Ellsmore and Stuart Wilson harmonise

Loose Pills have been playing extensively since the I-94 Bar booked them for their first show on a Sando Sunday night many moons ago. They have one album, the artfully titled “Rx”, under their belt and a new one in various states of recording. Tonight’s their first hit out in a while and it shows – in a good way – as they play a mix of old and new.

The less familiar material is pop but flavoured with a rockier edge. Drummer Stu Wilson gets to sing two of his own tunes (both keepers), while Matt Galvin’s always effervescent guitar-work is in sharper relief. It’s the contrast between him and Ryan Ellsmore’s plaintive vocal that’s at the heart of most of their songs.

Sydney really needs a re-write of “Get Drunk, Play Records” along the lines of “…get drunk, leave the records at home and see live music”. A lot of people appear to have that tonight.

The people are fairly crammed in up-front for the arrival of The On and Ons and why not? The new record they’re launching tonight “Welcome Aboard…” is full of powerpop goodness that’s as timeless as it is out of place with pap-orientated FBi/Triple J radio audiences.

brian and glenn bowloGlenn Morris with brother Brian bringing up the rear.

For the record, members of The On and Ons played in Hoodoo Gurus, Barbarellas, Kings of the Sun and Screaming Tribesmen plus a few other name acts. Reputations aside, they also have that “thing” that makes you take notice. It’s apparent in the obvious level of comfort among the band members, both with the songs and each other.

Punchier in the live context, new album songs like the title track, the beguiling “Mystic Eyes”, the sugary “Sugar Anne” and “The Things I Love” spark wonderfully. The mate I dragged along only leaves his spot at front-of-stage momentarily to snap up both albums at the merch table before they sell out. And to buy a jug of beer. A man’s not a camel…

brian morris bowloBrian Morris

Special props to Brian Morris behind the kit. Brian is a veteran.He’s probably forgotten how long ago he qualified for seniors’ car insurance, but he’s driving that engine room with equal measures of precision and feel.

Dwelling on the ageism angle (it's been a re-occuring theme form the start, if you hadn't noticed), bassist Clyde Bramley – filling the role of rock god in mirror shades – has also been around the block a few times. More importantly, his melodic tone is perfectly suited to these songs. 

clyde and glennClyde and Glenn

But the centrepiece is Glenn Morris, guitarist and vocalist.  They’re his songs and his guitar playing is a treat to hear. Not overly flashy but fiery in all the right places, Glenn’s a master of “less is more”. Jon Roberts’ rock solid rhythm work is the mortar between the bricks. Like the Apple computer operating system for which he has disdain, it just works.  

The On and Ons get a wiggle on in more ways than one (ouch) as guest guitarist Murray Cook (aka Original Red Wiggle) takes to the stage, brandishing a jaw-dropping vintage Fender 12-string, for the last part of the set. Murray recently beat Bill Gibson for the trophy of “Most Sydney Bands Played In” and looks so at home tonight that he could well stay on - if the Soul Movers didn’t have an iron-clad contract over his services.  

If you missed this gig you weren’t there. Don’t make the same mistake twice. Sydney needs you.