Heading Down The Right Road: Yamba and Coff's 1 & 2
It's a grey, sticky, rainy day in Sydney today. It's writing weather.
I know others have written about the last few shows - from Vanguard 7, through Yamba, to the two Coff's Harbour shows. I'll try my best not to be repetitious and to try to focus a little more on different aspects of the shows. No, not a lot of specific detail about each show this time, because to include a slew of specific details about several shows at once would make for a report even I might think is too long. For those who enjoy the details (especially those who can't make it to any of the shows), those details will likely be back by the next report, Vanguard 8.
For now, I've been thinking about these shows more in terms of themes, with the chief theme being the growth of this band in how they are learning to adjust their performance to the expectations of their crowds and the configurations of their venues. That may sound like a simple enough task, but it's a lesson some bands never seem to bother learning, and one that other bands - by virtue of their almost always playing in the same kind of venue for the same kind of audience - never need to learn. The latter has not been the case for The Ordinary Fear Of God: The crowd at the Vanguard is considerably different from the crowd at the Buderim Tavern, which is considerably different from the crowd at the Southport RSL, which is considerably different from the crowd at the Coff's Harbour Hotel, and so on. Even the Vanguard crowd changed abruptly on them from one week to the next, going from being almost entirely a crowd of the curious who knew next to nothing about the music to being largely a crowd of people with enough attachment to and history with the band-that-was to be willing to travel halfway around the world to be there to see and hear the band-that-is.
Along with the Curious and the Faithful, add in those who come to laugh and those who come to gawk, those who come to be able to tell their neighbours and family members tomorrow that they saw the Gladiator singing last night, as well as those who come thinking that spending an evening with Russell Crowe is a fun way to spend one evening of their vacation, and what you wind up with is a complicated mixture of disparate individuals, all having their own expectations of the evening. Splash a liberal serving of alcohol into that complicated mixture, and the result is a challenge to the most seasoned of performers.
Being able to watch someone show the dedication and perseverance necessary for becoming one of those seasoned performers, to watch him learning how to make the adjustments he must make to get his music heard by as many people as possible, has not only been fascinating, it's also increased my respect for Russell Crowe, and for all of the rest of the men on those stages with him. It is one thing - a very admirable thing, but still only one thing - to write excellent, intelligent, honest songs; it is quite another thing to do whatever you have to do, including change your preferred performance parameters, to accommodate people who are themselves sometimes behaving less than commendably, all because you have sufficient faith in your music to let that music speak for itself when you are in a place where the majority will listen to nothing else. And to do that in the face of a myriad of other distractions - tiny stages, odd floor plans, awful acoustics, and the ever-present hecklers, twits, and other assorted attention-seekers - makes what the men in this band are accomplishing together at these shows all the more impressive.
I don't know if Russell realises how challenging his show is for many audiences - challenging emotionally, intellectually, and artistically. There's a very good reason why so many performers turn out "one-note" performances that stick to one predominant mood and, for the most part, one predominant musical style/tempo: It's what many people prefer from a show; it's easy, it's predictable, and it does not challenge them to switch gears mentally or emotionally over the course of the evening. Happy bands, angst bands, party bands, romantic bands, dance bands, pub bands, whiny bands, angry bands: People know what to expect when they go; no challenges anticipated, no threats expected. Russell and this band are doing something very different, especially when they are in a place that has the right kind of atmosphere to allow for the full performance.
The mood of their show ranges across a full and varied spectrum from carefree to thoughtful to touching to bawdy to tender to outrageous to wistful to celebratory to introspective to hilarious to sophisticated to gleefully wicked - and the changes in the music follow suit, tempo and mood and style varying widely, from choral requiems to heartfelt ballads to poppy danceables to flat-out rockers, from complicated instrumentation to a capella harmonies. Then there are the stories, which give the songs more depth and breadth (now when I hear the line "That car got him a job," in Land of the Second Chance, a whole world opens up in my mind, Mario's world, as told by Russell), and the characterisations, which give the whole show a "just try to figure that one out" cross between thought-provoking context and impudent practical joke, two more of the fundamental elements of the human condition. In its fullest aspect, it is a show that can make you laugh and cry, a show that can inspire you to dance one moment and to be moved the next moment, a show that has an equal chance of leaving you filled with a sense of wonder as it does with a sense of outrage.
It is a show that asks a great deal of its audience, and on those nights when the audience is up to the challenge, it has been glorious. On those nights when the audience comes in expecting something a bit less challenging, something more consistent and something to which they are more accustomed, what has been equally glorious is watching how Russell is learning how to make the adjustment; even though that means it will not be the show it could have been, to make it be as much as the crowd of the evening will allow it to be is something that takes great skill on the part of the performer, something that is quite the challenge to pull off successfully and Russell has been rising to the challenge, each night with a little more proficiency and poise. To me, it looks as if he is learning to trust the music more and more, as it is written and as it is played, to be able speak for itself on those nights where the crowd will listen to nothing else, and so far, the music has not failed to live up to that trust.
I fell a little bit in love with Yamba: beautiful beaches, friendly people, good food and better wine. I did get laughed at by almost everyone for "coming all the way from Seattle to see Russell Crowe sing," but I am getting used to that by now (it's not like I haven't had plenty of practise being laughed at by the many who do not exactly take Great Big Sea seriously), laughed at by hotel clerks and taxi drivers and fellow passengers on trains and by almost everyone else I talk to. To give the Yambites (Yambonians?) due credit, they were more than willing to talk music once they realised that I did give a shit about such things, and even more so once I uttered the two magic words I have found that make many Australians who also give a shit about music willing to listen to what I have to say about how good this band's music is: Bones Hillman. It is a name that gets instant respect, and when I follow it with mentions of Stuart and Silverchair and then tell them about Alan's being part of a million-CD-selling band in Canada, most start to get that thoughtful look on their faces, the folks in Yamba most of all of any group of people so far.
Not that any of that talk helped with the show. If Russell had been thrown a bit off his pace with the abrupt change in the Vanguard crowd from one week to the next, then that could be seen as warmup for a bigger change from the crowds he's been getting that was going to take place at the Yamba Bowling Club. The show was held in a big room that had a good-sized dance floor right in front of the stage and quite a few long tables with chairs set up in the back half of the room. At the time the doors opened, the people working at the club told me they had sold somewhere around 300 tickets, not capacity for this room, but not at all a small crowd, either. It was the way the crowd distributed itself that was the odd part. Except for maybe a dozen or so of the "regular" fans - all of whom were not locals - who were right up at the front at the edge of the stage, at the outset everyone else was sitting back at the tables, chatting amiably (and noisily) among themselves, leaving a huge expanse of empty dance floor between what was not only the front row, but also the only row and the seated remainder of the audience.
It was a tough row to hoe for the opening act, a fellow whose first name I caught (not surprisingly, since that name is Alan), but not his last name. He sang and played his guitar very well but seemed nervous and a little unnerved by it all (at one point he said, "Only 20 minutes more to go," poor fellow). Even Darren Percival seemed at a bit of a loss for what to do with this two-tiered crowd, especially tricky for him since he has been doing much of his Vanguard show while sitting down, which works perfectly with the seated-main-floor Vanguard audience but not well at all with a crowd where there is one line of people standing right in front of him, completely blocking his view of the rest of those seated crowd members, as well as blocking their view of him. He solved that one by asking the ones in the middle of that front-row line to please move to the sides for the duration of his performance, but he never really solved the problem of getting those in the back half of the room involved in the performance, though not for lack of trying his hardest.
By the time Russell and the band came on stage, a few more people had wandered into that empty no-fan's-land on the dance floor, and some of those lingering on the sides had moved in more toward the middle, but the back was still packed solid with the chatty and the unconcerned and there was still a clear demarcation between the two groups. It was a matter of there being essentially two different audiences in the room, and that is never an easy kind of show for any performer to have to play. They made a good call in the attempt to capture the attention of all with moving Barry Kable up to the opening number, though I think they could have gone for an even more dramatic change and moved an even punchier number up for the opener, maybe Worst In The World or even What You Want Me To Forget. There are times you have to blast people out of their seats.
But Barry did get some up and closer, and there would be more drawn forward as the set progressed, even though that constant buzz of yammering conversation never died down. Russell tried at the first to give them a chance to experience the fullness of the show, but while he was trying to talk during the intro to Mickey, he suddenly shrugged, tapped his earpiece, and said, "All I can hear is a buzz...there's too much talking for telling stories." That was it, and it was exactly the right call to make; it was time to play the music as well as they could and let the crowd decide whether or not it was going to listen to that music. What the men on stage started to do was to play the songs with energy and a sense of fun with one another and personal enjoyment of the music itself, setting a pace and a mood and letting those who wanted to take part in it all make that choice for themselves. They still did their full show - even including yet another oral rendition of the Happy Holidays Dirty Dittie that's been done at every single show now since the December 20th Vanguard show, and I would have given much to be at those tables at the back to see how that chorus was going down back there - all of the songs done with their customary precision and passion, but they let the music speak for itself to all who had the ears and the desire to listen to what it had to say.
From what I could tell at the show and what I heard after the show, it worked with quite a few of them. There were more people coming closer to the stage with each song, even if it never did get packed on the dance floor (and being in a packed crowd is no guarantee of people being attentive, as that first Coff's Harbour show made quite clear), and there were many positive comments heard and overheard afterward. Best of all was the conversation I had with the fellow who owns the hotel I stayed in, the same fellow who had teased me mercilessly about being in Yamba to see Russell Crowe do music, let alone being in Australia for the same reason, two days earlier:
Him: So you saw Russ last night?
Him: Yeah, my brother went to the show.
Him: He said it wasn't bad. Not like he'd thought it would be. Not
a laugher, not bad.
Him: He said it didn't suck. He didn't know Russ was any good or his
band was good.
Him: Yeah, he said that. So are you off to see Russ again?
Him (laughing): Where to now?
Him: You won't like it there as much as Yamba, but you'll probably
like Russ as much.
Him (after a bit of a pause): So...where do you go to hear the Gladiator's
Him: You can't just buy it? Russ is always such a pain in the ass.
Him (laughing again): Yeah, at least he doesn't suck.
There are worse places to begin in gaining the respect your music deserves.
The first Coff's show felt a little like maneuvering through an obstacle course, or maybe like trying to run the hurdles. First you start with a venue that is hosting its inaugural show (first one since rebuilding after the fire) and all of the "minor" problems with such things as acoustics and comfort and sound leak from the adjacent bars have not yet been worked out. Then add in a crowd that is for the most part rude and inattentive (and also well on the way to being thoroughly pissed), many of whom also have that attitude of condescending possessiveness that you only run into with "hometown" crowds (as I was told at least a dozen times, "Oh, it's just Russ tonight, no big deal to get excited about"). Into that mix comes a solid front row of non-local fans who do think it's a big deal to get excited about (with many of the locals pressed up behind them, spending a good portion of the show trying to push their way up to "just Russ"). Just to round out the "I double dare you to enjoy this show" personal perspective, only a few hours before the show, someone stumbled and fell on me (metaphorically speaking), and I went into the show still reeling from the impact.
The show started and the opener was Felicity Urquhart, who has a very powerful and impressive voice and some good songs but whose guitar kept going so out of tune that it was getting painful to listen to her play and next to impossible to hear anything more of those songs except for that caterwauling guitar. I had three women behind me fighting for the right to be the one to elbow me out of the front row, and one of them had managed to spill most of her beer down the back of my shirt, a kind of warmup for what was to follow, I suppose. When Darren Percival came on (on his birthday, no less), some in that crowd were openly rude to him, though he still persisted and managed to get others to sing and clap along. By now the woman who had won the fight with her friends was concentrating her energy and her elbows on me, the sound was shitty (it would get worse when the disco got going full steam), the room was hot and sticky, the floor was as hard as concrete - which makes perfect sense because we were standing on a bare concrete floor. And I was still reeling from having been flattened. It was the perfect scenario in every respect for not enjoying one moment of the performance that was just about to begin.
But that's not at all what happened.
Not that the external circumstances changed. The room remained stuffy and the floor felt more unyielding with each passing minute, the sound stayed shitty and the elbowing and shoving did not let up, the disco noise was so pervasively irritating that Russell suggested we all "tell Marty" about it on our way out (the one amusing aspect of the disco noise was when only a short bit after they had finished Testify, which has a main riff in it that always reminds me of Blister In The Sun, that very same riff could be heard pounding over in the disco, which was indeed playing Blister). Add in a set of photo-happy fools shooting away outside, peering in and taking aim through the glass-walled side of the venue, where a pack of we-didn't-have-to-pay-to-see-the-show people were standing (and where they would not be standing for the next show, thanks to Russell's wise and timely donation of a large black theatre curtain, which would block off the free view as well as muffle much of the external noise) who would inspire Russell to ask the crowd to turn and give them the finger.
It was a good crowd for following a flip-the-bird request, even if they would prove incapable of following his request that they shut up and listen. At Yamba, Russell had made the decision on his own that the crowd wanted to talk more than it wanted to listen to him talk; at this first Coff's show, he gave this crowd a choice in the matter: "If you want to hear the stories about the songs, you need to stop talking. You need to ask the people around you to stop talking. Otherwise, you miss the subtleties of the stories." At this point, that most persuasive of all giggles began to surface. "And you know it's all about the fucking subtleties in the stories."
But when he tried to go on from there, the incessant buzz did not let up, and once again, he made the right call, realising what it was the majority wanted on this night. "You want to hear music, you paid your money to hear music, and that's what we'll give you." There was still room for fun, especially the fun they had with each other, Russell precariously balancing a glass on Stewart's head during How Did We Get and busting out laughing when Alan had to remind him of the lyrics on Things Have Got To Change (not like Alan has not been in the same position himself, though he usually just sings the preceding verse over again when it happens), and a hilariously silly game of "Who's Got Stewart's Mouthpiece." There was also a bit of that cutting edge of wit showing with a question or two about where it was people had come from, one moment asking if they had come from such local towns as Sawtell, the next moment asking once again about those who might have journeyed there from Equatorial Guinea.
But for the most part, they gave that crowd what it wanted: The music. They played it all so well. Dean's lead solos were blistering, and Stewart's horn was sweet. The Vicar's keyboards were blissful, especially on Testify, where I kept expecting to see little sparks start to shoot up from his fingers. One lovely advantage of that rock-hard concrete floor is that it didn't muffle Bones' bass runs and I could feel that bass coming up through the floor and vibrating my whole body. Dave's drumsticks were a blur, and Russell's moves while playing his Gretsch had an allure all their own. Alan seemed intent on dismantling his guitars, sacrificing his strings up in the cause, all with that delighted smile on his face; there are very few things I would not gladly put up with simply to be able to see him in that act of joyous dismantling.
They came, they played, they sang - it was a night for the music. And the music was what made the show enjoyable; it was right enough to be good enough even on a night when almost everything else was wrong, good enough for me and it looked to be good enough for many others as well. Even in spite of the distraction of all of those wrong things, I could hear some of the changes they are still making to the songs, changes that give the songs even more attention-grabbing power, especially in the midst of this kind of crowd. On Mr. Harris, Dave is now playing a regimental-drum-corps part on the snare, as well as that pounding beat he keeps on the tom-toms, The harmonies on Raewyn's chorus are getting more complex and stronger. Little changes, sometimes very subtle changes, but all of it a matter of not being complacent, of finding ways to make the songs stronger and the performance more rivetting, changes that all work toward helping the music to speak for itself on nights like this one. And it did. Even Raewyn, the song that fares the roughest with the disorderly and inattentive crowds, hushed nearly all of them at this show. Mr. Harris seemed to leave them a bit stunned.
In the kind of crowd that is most likely to at best ignore if not actively resist mid-tempo songs and to have outright scorn for anything but the most emotionally manipulative of weepy/cheesy ballads, the kind of crowd that has not come out that night to be introspective or even to think more than is absolutely necessary, for a band to be able to keep that crowd engaged and participating in intelligent and honest songs says a hell of a lot about both this band and their songs. It was still a difficult night - so much so that they skipped the final two encore songs of Easy and Free and Molly Malone - but on this difficult night, they showed themselves to have balls and poise and determination, and they managed to make me smile on my own difficult night, which also says a hell of a lot about both this band and their songs.
The second night in Coff's is about the show for me, but not only about the show; it's about the entire evening and all of the impressions that came from that evening. It wound up being an excellent show, with many of the wrinkles of the prior show worked out. Because the room was cooler, Felicity's guitar stayed in tune and she could be appreciated for the talented singer/songwriter (and guitarist) she is. Because the crowd was so much more good-natured, Darren's warm-up set really did get most everyone very well warmed up. The disco had been quietened, Russell had provided the curtain, there was a bit of cushioning on the floor, as well as more cool air to breathe, and since this second show was not a sell out, there was not the same crush of people as there had been the night before.
Behaviour overall seemed much better, with it feeling more like a night for friends and family than for those who more prone for taking it all for granted. There were still troubles with those who persisted in taking photos (this even with a "Be Kind To The Band" no-photo plea visible to all at the door) and this resulted in another one of those "let's all smile our most sincerely insincere smiles" posed Group Photo Moments, with the entire band standing on the equipment cases that lined the stagefront, first on one side and then the other side, with far too many being so clueless as to take it all at face value and to surge forward to make the most of this golden opportunity.
The expressions on their faces were priceless, with Russell affecting a village-idiot-style grin and Alan, who is challenged by the fact that even his most insincere smiles look sincere from such long practise, chose instead to adopt the kind of expression one might expect to find on the face of a surly dimwit. And, yes, both he and Russell still managed to look appealing, surly dimwit and village idiot alike. But as appealing and amusing as they looked, and as much as I wish everyone else could see that too, hell is going to freeze over and be populated by flying pigs before I ever so much as think about taking out my camera for one of these moments. The message they are sending is so bloody clear that it amazes me that there are so many who do not, or maybe who refuse to, get that message. Even after Russell ended the moment with, "Now put your fucking cameras away!" there were still people taking photos during the rest of the show.
But this night still saw twitdom in the minority, and there were many sweet and touching moments. For the first time in quite a while, they opened with Weight Of A Man, and it seemed the perfect pick for what did feel so much like a crowd of friends and family; Russell sang it with more even tenderness than usual, and even during the lines where he wasn't singing at the mic with Russell, Alan was singing along with each line with nearly as much sincerity and emotion apparent on his face as could be heard in Russell's voice. When Russell introduced Raewyn, he mentioned that his mother and father were both in the audience, "and this song is written for them." The realisation that the people who have endured the greatest grief over the incidents of the song, the people because of whom and for whom this song was written, were there listening to their son sing it on this night was something I found very moving; to be able to give such a gift of love to your parents seems such a remarkable thing to do; and that same realisation that Mom and Dad were in the audience to hear the nightly Dirty Dittie intro to Swept Away Bayou made me laugh out loud, as well as to think Russell very fortunate to have parents who give him the freedom to feel comfortable being himself with them.
It was a perfect night for Russell to "finally be allowed to make the announcement" that he and his wife are expecting another child - which gave him the perfect opportunity to add the words "especially now" with a giddy and gleeful grin to that part of his My Hand, My Heart intro description of how he finds his wife is more prone to telling him to fuck off since they've been married - and it was the look on his face while he was making that "finally able to" announcement that is going to linger a very long time in my memory. He looked like a little boy who has just come downstairs on Christmas morning and who has just seen the one gift that is nearest and dearest to his heart, the one gift he had the highest hopes and greatest desire of getting, waiting for him there beneath the tree.
That was what I call a Big Moment, one of the times when circumstances are significant enough that you get a clear glimpse into who and what a person really is. There are also the Small Moments, sometimes silly little things that also have the power to reveal their own measure of that which is true. One of those moment took place when the rest of the band came filing back onstage after Russell and Stuart had done the first encore song, My Hand My Heart, together. Alan had picked up on of those flat mask-like face shields that welders use (it probably has some sort of proper name, but not one that I know), and he walked back on stage holding it in front of his face, peering out through the visor-like opening. Russell raised one eyebrow and asked, "Did the rest of them put you up to this?" and of course they all shook their heads "No." Alan made some sort of comment - muffled by the silly mask thing - along the lines of being some kind of space alien, and it was what Russell said in response to Alan's space-alien claims that I found pricelessly perceptive: "No you're not; You are Alan Doyle." His inflection on "you" was a perfect summing up of the purely perfect truth that to be standing on that stage holding that silly mask in front of his face, smiling and giggling about it all and doing it for the purpose of making Russell laugh was an act that was fundamentally, quintessentially "Alan Doyle"; it was a Small Moment of both truth and affection, and it told me as much about what is fundamentally and quintessentially Russell Crowe as Russell was acknowledging about Alan.
There have been a series of such small moments over the past few weeks, some of them during shows, and some before and after. I don't usually talk much if at all about things that happen off stage, but sometimes those things really do merit some mention. For a while now, I've been thinking that it's past time to say that I think that for the most part, this is a band that has members in it who are very kind and generous with the fans, a kindness and generosity shown coming and going after shows, as well as in chance meetings on the street, and since I saw quite a bit of that kindness and generosity on the night of this show, this seems as good a time as any to say it.
I don't know how many of the "regular" fans have much experience being around the members of other bands, and if they do or don't know that it can be a very different set of circumstances with some of those other bands from what I've seen taking place with some members of this band. And to give due credit to what I've seen so far from most of the fans, I've also been impressed with the level of polite behaviour I've seen the majority of them show toward the band members too. That's something else that can also be quite different among fans, as I'm sure the band members already know full well. The whole dynamic is very different in many respects from what I'm used to, and I'm still thinking about how things were after that second show later on in the evening, though it all probably seemed perfectly normal to everyone else there.
I'd venture to guess that "kind" and "polite" are not words that come up all that often in descriptions of very many fan/band interactions; I'm impressed with what I've seen so far, most so with what I saw after this show. Almost as impressed as I was with yet another one of those Small Moments - seeing the fellow with the charming smile who was doing that inspired deejay stint that evening, the fellow the impeccable musical taste to pick Van Halen, Georgia Satellites, Annie Lennox, Cold Chisel, and, of course, Midnight Oil tunes/videos to dance to (and it was so cool seeing Bones in that Midnight Oil video). If there were more deejays like him around, I might take up dancing.
But even if such charming dance-tune spinners might be in sadly short supply, there is no similar short supply of well-played shows, even if each of those shows winds up differing from the others as the adjustments to place and persons continue to be made, and the growth of this band's performance skills continues. The physical distance from Newtown to Yamba to Coff's Harbour and back again to Newtown for the next show to come isn't all that great, but the distance they've come in terms of how well they deal with challenges and adapt to changing circumstances, and how they do that dealing and adapting together - is of a far more significant measure.
They had already shown that they have excellent music and the talent and skill to arrange and play that music well, and also that they have the dedication and the commitment to do all the work that needs to be done to be able to get it right each time they play it. They've shown they have the performance range to be able to bring off the most tender of ballads and the most ass-kicking of rockers, hitting all points between with equal power and flair. Now what they are showing is that they have the flexibility and adaptability to do whatever needs to be done to best achieve the primary goal: Getting the music heard. They have come a very long way in a very short time, and each one of those steps along the way looks to be headed in exactly the right direction. It's one thing to be on the road. It's something else altogether to be on a road that is heading toward your destination - that is a road trip worth the taking.
One last note: I've met quite a few Russell Crowe fans at shows so
far, and I wanted to say thanks to two of them for being so sweet and
so much fun to share these past four shows with. They lurk instead
of posting (I still think that since so many of the nicest people I
meet at shows are lurkers that the entire online world would be a much
more appealing place if more of those nice lurkers would post now and
again), so I won't use names, but I will say I am very glad to have
met the two ladies from, of all places, my own town of Seattle. I'm
looking forward to seeing both of them at the Seattle GBS show in February.
And I hope also at some Stateside TOFOG shows in the not-too-distant