rob factory
Rob Younger at The Factory Theatre. Shona Ross photo.

Radio Birdman
+ Mick Medew & The Mesmerisers
+ East Coast Low
Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle, NSW
Friday, June 21, 2019

Radio Birdman
+ Mick Medew & The Mesmerisers
+ The Dark Clouds
Factory Theatre, Marrickville, NSW
Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Aints!
+ Colonel Kramer & The Eamon Dilworth One Man Brass Ensemble
Factory Theatre, Marrickville, NSW
Friday, June 28, 2019

Your own legacy is a hard act to follow. This is a tale of two bands.

On one hand you have Radio Birdman, a thoroughly re-tooled and different beast to its previous incarnations and still carrying a substantial reputation. They’re a prime reason why The I-94 Bar exists.

On the other, you have The Aints!, who are led by foundation Saints member Ed Kuepper and armed with a setlist partly planted in that band’s past, with the balance comprising songs that were written for the old band but never recorded.

Radio Birdman and the Saints have been conveniently written into the history books as the yin and yang of the nascent Australian proto-punk scene. Different yet similar.

Each took root in disparate cities, oblivious to the other’s existence initially and unacknowledged or ignored by the mainstream. Neither welcomed the “punk” label accidentally bestowed. Each entered each other’s orbit briefly. Both forged a path overseas and fell apart in the process, with members subsequently making their own marks in off-shoots.

You’re supposed to pick sides. You must choose one over the other. After all, one band’s singer slagged the other group at a famous gig back in the day. How either band ended up where they are today isn’t as important as where they came from. Neither can shake off their past and they deal with it in their own ways.

I declare an interest: I work with the most recently Radio Birdman departed member, Chris Masuak, who is also a mate, so my unconscious bias is lurking. On the other hand, I consider his replacement, Dave Kettley, a friend too, so I’ll try and be dispassionate.

The current Radio Birdman is a lot less jagged than the last. It’s smoothed out, with fewer sharp licks and less jostling for space between the guitars. Some people like it like that. The vast majority wouldn’t notice much difference. On some songs it works. On others it does not.

Radio Birdman hasn’t been the same band since Ron Keeley was punted. Those rolling feels and undulating fills underneath stabbing/lava flow guitars, made them sound like nobody else. Warwick Gilbert played bass guitar like a six-string guitarist, with fluid runs and a sound that permeated the spaces. It was a squeeze for Pip Hoyle’s keys to fit into all that but somehow they did. Rob Younger’s bark - and malevolent electro-shock presence - gave them aggression to burn.

If you want to hear the band at its all-time peak, dip into “Live at Paddington Town Hall”. There’s been a little post-production surgery (as is the case with almost all live recordings) but it’s a killer recording.

rb rob and guitarsShona Ross photo.

Having seen many post-reunion shows, Birdman seemed to be a band that needed to shake the lead out at the start of a tour. There were never any great mis-firings, just the occasional splutter. Even at the start of a show, it often took a few songs for all the elements to mesh rather than mash. So it remains.

What was it going to be like seeing them for the first time in nine years? I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the news that had broken a few hours earlier that a good friend, Sydney booker Sue Telfer, had passed away did not cast a pall over the night. 

Friday night (June 21) at Newcastle’s Cambridge Hotel was familiar and yet surreal. Rob Younger dedicates the set to Sue Telfer and so it begins.

My vantage point wasn’t great (at one of the merch stands to the side of the room where you cop all the stage sound) and Jim Dickson’s bass seemed to overpower the mix. Pip and Deniz were each very loud. The opening “TV Eye” lacked something as the band got into gear but the set rapidly gathered steam.

The “Zeno Beach” songs are restricted to a handful (the title track, “You Just Make It Worse” and “We’ve Come So Far To Be Here Today”.) I couldn’t care if I never heard “Aloha” again and the free-form intro of “Monday Morning Gunk” I can also take or leave. It’s fair to say the band came home with a head full of steam and were at their best on older songs like “What Gives?” and “Burn My Eye”.

Unsurprisingly, some songs are being re-worked (the extended church organ opening of “Dark Surprise” seems extraneous before the tune itself stutters into life but, hey, ya gotta try something) and “Hand of Law” detours neatly into The Ventures. “Kick Out the Jams” is played straight and spat out with genuine venom.

I’ve always liked Nik Reith’s drumming and he’s right on the money. He’s not Russell Hopkinson (and thankfully doesn’t play as fast as he did in his tenure) and he’s not Ron Keeley. Change the drummer and you change the band is a truism. It all feels vastly different. Using that yardstick, you could comfortably classify this as the third line-up.

Rob Younger’s vocal seems to have renewed power. He’s most comfortable singing his own New Christs songs but attacks the Birdman catalogue with vigour. Dave Kettley’s role on guitar is to be the unobtrusive glue. He’s not Masuak – although a whole bunch of online correspondents who didn’t get the memo persist in thinking he is – and he does his job, allowing Deniz to embark on his spiralling, lead-break flights of fancy.

Local band East Coast Low opens the night with a set that’s measurably sharper than the last (and only) time I saw them. There’s fire in the engine room and the guitars. Al Creed’s recruitment has given them an extra writer and an ace player. They go down well.

Main support was Mick Medew and The Mesmerisers and the reason I’m at the show. (I have to declare another interest here as their record company.) Their set of self-penned powerpop and iconic covers (“20th Century Boy,” Another Girl, Another Planet” among them) contrasted nicely to the rest of the heavier line-up.

There’s a legacy element at play for them, too – one punter was convinced he was seeing the Screaming Tribesmen circa 1986 but admitted he’d had a lot of head knocks in his football career. Covers of “Igloo” and “Date With a Vampire” jolted a few memories, but for most people, they were a new experience. 

The following night at The Factory Theatre in Sydney - with a set again dedicated to Sue - was a step up in intensity for Radio Birdman.

Let's be real: They weren't raging against any machiine. Any version of a band 40 years after they began will always be more about professionalism than desperation. Birdman circa 2019 do surly well, audience hostility not so much. There are no bouncers being faced off with mic stands or venues pulling the power. Just a band seeking to maintain a standard and entertain.

Birdman might still be on the outside, figuratively speaking, but they’re also widely and deservedly feted for changing things in a time when people gave a fuck about music. Still hated by some, worshipped by others. Apart but not so mysterious or threatening. The alternative Prime Minister even pops by tonight to press the flesh, post-gig.

“You Just Make It Worse” is dropped from the set and there’s a full-throated cover of “Dominance and Submission”. “Zeno Beach” continues the surf tradition, appropriately bracketed with “Hand of Law” and “Pipeline”.For the most part, however, the new songs are shuffled to the bottom of the deck. There was a tour (with the BellRays) when the band played a set that included all the "Zeno Beach" songs. A brave step when the album had scarcely been released. These days they're giving the people what they want and that's the tried and tested oldies.   

TV Eye/Smith & Wesson Blues/Do The Pop/Non Stop Girls/Alone In The Endzone/Descent Into The Maelstrom/Man With Golden Helmet/Burn My Eye/Zeno Beach/Hand of Law /Pipeline/Hanging On/I-94/Dark Surprise/We've Come So Far (To Be Here Today)/Anglo Girl Desire/Aloha Steve & Danno/You're Gonna Miss Me

Encore: Monday Morning Gunk/Dominance and Submission/What Gives?/Kick Out the Jams/New Race

Judged on its merits, it’s a crowd-pleasing set to a sold-out venue full of happy punters. It’s still vastly different sounding to me but I’m in the minority.

It is hard to escape the thought that Birdman are trapped in a framework of their own creation. They always have been. Those of us who wanted new music to represent the band moving forward got the “Zeno Beach” record. Despite best intentions and a significant push, it stiffed as far as sales were concerned. Doom-laden power chords and songs about ice and snow will always be their domain, but fans who aren't afficinados get tetchy when you get too creative.

Openers Dark Clouds acquitted themselves really well, overcoming a string break at the end and making people not previously exposed to them take notice. They're largely the Dean and Tezza show (lead vocals and guitar respectively) but their entertainlng and high-energy set prompts a mini run on the merch stand. Main support Mick Medew and The Mesmerisers again fired, despite drummer Michael Charles labouring with a knee injury.

m m factory
Mick Medew (centre) and Brian Mann of Mick Medew & The Mesmerisers. Shona Ross photo.

terry and deanThe Dark Clouds. Shona Ross photo.

Fast-forward six days and The Aints! are headlining the same room. The circumstances are very different.

While Radio Birdman’s brief two-show run is more a matter of convenience (they were originally slated to headline a festival that was cancelled but decided to play anyway) while The Aints! are at the back-end of a national run to promote a live album, which makes the modest attendance a surprise.

Tonight’s sole support is Colonel Kramer & The Eamon Dilworth One Man Brass Ensemble - which is not-so-secret code for Ed and his brass section mastermind playing Kuepper songs – and of course I miss them because I’m too busy bullshitting at the bar downstairs.

This is not exactly a band unfamiliar with itself. Ed Kuepper is the sole Saint in The Aints! but bassist Peter Oxley (Sunnyboys) and keyboardist Alister Spence are regular tour bus companions. Drummer Paul Larsen is one of those players who would fit like a finger in a glove in almost any line-up. A pro who was under consideration to be in Birdman, at one stage.

The first of two sets is heavy with old material (the first three songs replicating tracking on the recent live album.) The second bracket relies more on “newer” stuff.

aints factory theatre crThe Aints! and two-thirds of the brass section.

The line between new and old blurs. It’s been said here before that Ed Kuepper is a master of re-invention. “Laughing Clowns”, for example, was written for the “classic” Saints, passed over and then aired in the Laughing Clowns. It’s been re-recorded by The Aints! as has “Hang Jean Lee”, a song from the “Jean Lee and the Yellow Dog” concept album from 12 years ago.

There’s a lot of weight resting on the sound of Kuepper’s guitar in the The Aints! and it ably fills the room - which is two-thirds-full compared to Birdman’s full-house. Alister Spence’s keys add a sonic layer and some classy embellishments but it’s the brass re-arrangements for “old” Saints songs that breathe vitality into the material.

And the crowd again digs it, breaking into pockets of dancing in the way that middle-aged people do by mysteriously applying a degree of physical separation not apparent when they were in their youth.

And Albo was in the house (again) and tweeted from the dance floor.

Set One: Swing for the Crime/Story of Love/Orstralia/Country Song in G/Hang Jean Lee/Brisbane (Security City)/Descended into Blue/This Perfect Day/You'll Always Walk Alone

Set Two: Goodnight Ladies (I Hear a Sound Without)/S-O-S '75/Red Aces/The Church of Simultaneous Existence/Memories Are Made of This/It's the Futurological Congress and I'm feelin' fine!/You Got the Answer/Messin' With the Kid/The Laughing Clowns/Know Your Product/Nights in Venice

Encore: River Deep, Mountain High/(I'm) Stranded

Yes, new songs. Ed tells the crowd that they will be on a new album (improbably titled “I Did But See Her Passing By and Yet I Love Her Till I Die”) but it may, or may not, be recorded by the current band. Colour me surprised on that score. To my mind, if you’re on a good thing you stick to it. On the other hand, Kuepper’s not for standing still and, pragmatically speaking, touring The Aints! isn’t cheap.

So, you’re waiting for the wrap. The part where a head-to-head comparison pits one act against the other. You’re going to be disappointed. Each night had ups and downs. Both headliners dealt with the past and present in different ways. The Radios revelled in it. The Aints! pushed the boat out without cutting it adrift. Birdman is said to be thinking about recording and will be back on the Australian live circuit in November. Ed Kuepper is rarely off it, although in which configuration you never can tell too far in advance.

I am on an Aints! jag and love how they’re rifling through Ed’s sock drawer to come up with a direction. Radio Birdman's music is in my DNA, and I enjoyed them more than I thought I would, especially on the second night. Score it a draw.