Lunda's Southport report - revised:
I had been told that RSLs attract many retired people, so when I walked up to the building (a very large multi-story and multi-purpose facility) and saw a few dozen elderly men and women standing outside, that sight sent an eyebrow skyward as I wondered if this could possibly be a lineup for the show, doubtful as that seemed given it was still a few hours before show time. Then a bus pulled up and all of those outside made their slow and deliberate way into it, and that theory quickly bit the dust. Time to go into my very first RSL.
As I said, I'm still not sure about how RSLs function in terms of licensing and gambling laws and private-club restrictions. It seems you have to live at least 15 kilometers away in order to qualify as a guest at any given RSL; the fellow who gave me my ticket and filled out my guest pass told me that my Seattle-area address "just barely" qualified as far enough away to get by that distance rule. I was told the show would be upstairs, but that no one was being allowed up yet. Looking over at the red velvet rope that was blocking the stairway and the several burly black-garbed security fellows creating an even more noticeable barrier to upward mobility, it looked like a good time to wander about and try to get a handle on what goes on in an RSL.
It was hard not to notice the banks of poker machines, or not to realize that gambling is apparently one big reason to come to an RSL. As soon as he found out I was from the States, the fellow at the desk had asked me if I had ever been to Vegas, and when I told him I had been there dozens of times, he wanted to know where the best casinos could be found; I tried to convince him to take in some of the non-gambling sites around Vegas when he was there, but he looked less than convinced. I'm still not sure what kinds of gambling games are legal here - it's on my list of things to ask, but so far I keep getting diverted onto other topics - but if it is the case that all the gambling allowed here is those pokies, I can understand why Vegas might be so alluring to those with a gambler's heart and hope.
But since those who want to gamble will make do with whatever games of chance they have at hand, there were plenty of folks playing those pokies, that characteristically abstracted look on their faces as they deposited their money, pressed the button, and watched the "wheels" spin (I miss the old slot-style machines with the pull handles and the real spinning wheels - I can remember my dad holding me up high in the air when I was about three or four so I could pull those handles, not having a clue or a care about such things as jackpots, just enjoying how everything lit up and started spinning when the handle went down). Watching that intense absorption in the attempt to turn hope into reality, I wondered what kind of audience might be there on this night to see this show.
I wondered that even more when I wandered over into the "bistro" (more a small cafeteria-style counter) seating area, where there were quite a few long tables, around which several dozen people, mostly elderly singles mixed together with young mothers with small children, ate and chatted and paid a little bit of attention to the lone fellow up on a tiny stage, playing a electric guitar and singing Neil Diamond songs in a slightly quavering voice. One couple was dancing in front of the stage, and there were a few parents out there letting their children dance them across the floor too. It felt homey and relaxed, casual and comfortable. It felt about as far from a rock-show atmosphere as you could get. But I could see The Preacher feeling right at home there, Saturday night bingo, Sunday afternoon church supper, and Wednesday evening Bible study all rolled into one.
After a while, a group of men strode into the room. No, that's not right. The man in the lead strode; the men who where with him followed along behind with a bit of self-consciously studied casualness that made me smile for how sweet and charming it looked, more like a Mouse Pack than a Rat Pack, their body language telegraphing "We're with that guy, the one up front". "That guy up front" moved with a completely un-self-conscious ease, looking for all the world like a night out at the RSL is a regular on his schedule as he headed for the bistro-as-such to get a bit of supper, his Mouse Pack keeping pace with him. I looked around, but it seemed no one else had noticed yet that Russell Crowe and The Ordinary Fear Of God had entered the room.
What followed after was both enlightening and endearing. The fellows all ordered and most stood around waiting for their food to come up. They found a table, and some waited there. By now, people were beginning to notice Russell, but still no one was approaching, just watching and whispering to one another. The fellow with the guitar was still singing some half-remembered song from the '70s and the couple was still dancing. Still waiting for their food to come up, Alan wandered over to one of the pokies and tried his hand at gambling for the third time in his life. The group wound up together at one of the tables near the centre of the room, and gradually people overcame their initial bashfulness and started to come up to Russell. He chatted and signed autographs and posed for photos. Even hours later, after the show had come and gone, people there were still talking about having walked up to Russell Crowe, shaking his hand and exchanging a few words with him. He was generous, with his time and with his attention, and that generosity did not go unnoticed or unadmired.
At long last the opener finished his sound check and all of the other technical details got settled. The velvet rope was unhooked and the burly security guards let us pass by and go upstairs. The venue was a large room with a bar at the back and a few scattered tables near the middle. For once, they would have an expansive stage, high and wide enough for them to be able to move about while they played. The room could have probably held 600 or 700 (that's an estimate - I never got around to asking at this show), and by the time everyone had made their way upstairs, there may have been as many as 400 there (another estimate), with about half of them winding up clustered near the stage and the rest scattered back around near the middle and the back. I'm not sure if this is a function of the RSL atmosphere or not, but I saw more couples there than at the pub shows, even more than at the Vanguard dinner-table shows. CGee was there, as were the sweet Perch lurker (who has been seeing Russell play his music since 1997) and her sister who had been at both of the Buderim shows, and a pair of fellow Americans - both from the Bay Area, I think, though I have forgotten their names - were there too.
A woman next to me who is about the same height I am (which is not much height at all) was trying to persuade her reluctant (and quite tall) fellow to come up front with her; he hung back at first, but I noticed that from the end of the first number, he was right there behind her for the rest of the show. One of the nicest side effects of all of those couples being present was that there was some real dancing being done at this show. So many times, people say "I danced all during the show," but what they really did was jump up and down all during the show (no criticism implied - I have two left feet myself and can barely get through a basic two-step). Seeing a few couples dancing with such skill and grace together up front (and I heard that there were even more of them dancing farther back where there was more open space) was a treat to see.
The opener was interesting - again, I never got around to finding out their names...it was not one of my better nights when it comes to attention to detail - a guitarist and a fellow who "played" a console about the size of a music stand, maybe a little smaller. Out of this contraption, he was creating a full range of percussion sounds, from bass to snare to tom-tom, even a perfectly played cymbal. They sounded good, and they had some of their own local fans there for the evening. I always feel for the opener - it is not an easy job to do - and make myself pay attention to them no matter how they sound or how impatient I might be for the headliner to come on. Some of the people who are dearest to my heart have done their own time as the opening act, so I assume that the openers I see are equally dear to someone else's heart and I try my best to be kind, but it is so much easier when that opener is genuinely interesting, and these two fellows were that.
But it's the rare opener who leaves those who are there to see the headliner hoping for an encore. By the time we got to the break before time for TOFOG Evolved to take the stage, there was a definite feeling of excitement and anticipation building. I was curious to see how Russell would do in his fourth show in four consecutive nights, and what I thought at the time was his fourth show in a schedule of five shows in five nights (though it turned out to be six shows in five nights, since I knew nothing about the Company B fundraiser show that would take place before the next evening's Vanguard gig), since that's a challenging enough schedule even for a seasoned stage performer.
To quote a phrase I hear at least several times a day here, "No worries." Russell came out looking relaxed and confident, becoming even more so when he discovered what an attentive crowd he and his band would have for the evening. They seem to have two set list versions, the "Club Set" which starts out with Weight Of A Man, and the "Pub Set" that switches the order of Weight with One Good Year. There are still more variations: in the Pub Set in Buderim, Alan had a chance to do his incendiary Keep Your Hands To Yourself, but in the Southport version of the Pub Set (and I think this is right - this is the only show I haven't gotten a set list for and, as I said, it wasn't one of my best nights for details at some moments), they started with One Good Year, but let the Georgia Satellites sit this one out.
With an attentive but somewhat low-key crowd (proof enough that to be a standing GA crowd is not necessarily to be an impassioned crowd), the band played this one the most relaxed I've seen them do it so far, and playing it that way was a very good fit with both venue and crowd. There were some moments that were sublimely touching. When doing his Memorial Day intro, Russell went into an extended story about his grandfather, describing how, when Russell was barely getting by on a few dollars a day and his grandfather came for a visit, his grandfather said he would take Russell to the restaurant of his choice. Since Russell lived next to a Japanese restaurant whose delicious-smelling but completely unaffordable food Russell had been longing to taste, that was where he asked to go, and as he told the story, he was too young and too foolish to even notice that his choice disturbed his grandfather, or that his grandfather did not eat anything while they where there, so busy was Russell enjoying that which had been beyond his reach. It wasn't until much later that Russell found out his grandfather had come to him that day to try to tell him that he had cancer, and that he was dying. When Russell found this out so long after that day, he realised how miserable his grandfather, who had seen and endured so much that was painful as a cinematographer in World War II, had been in that Japanese restaurant, and also realised that he had never had a chance to tell Russell what he wanted to tell him because all during that meal Russell had "never shut the fuck up."
As he got to that point, he paused for a moment, gazing out into the hushed crowd, one hand on the mic, the other hand poised in mid-motion, looking as if he were caught for a moment between the past and the present, reaching out for someone or something now gone beyond recall or remedy, a look of thoughtful reflection on his face. And then he said, quietly and firmly, "So I wrote this song for my grandfather." All during the song I was still thinking of that moment and how it seemed to reveal something essential about the heart and soul of Russell's power as a songwriter and performer. "Honesty mediated by artifice" is the closest I've come so far to describing it. All music is artifice to some extent - you have to work with verses, choruses, bridges, syllable counts, rhyme schemes, time signatures. key changes, and all of the other structural elements that go into creating a song. Sometimes the artifice is smooth and polished, other times it can be ragged and awkward, but it is still artifice, with the most skillful artifice being that which is the least noticeable as such, that which sounds the most natural. The amount of emotional honesty in any given song varies across a wide spectrum too. When it comes to combining those qualities, some songs have an abundance of the one, but a paucity of the other; it's the rare song that manages to combine both the polish and the honesty into something that sounds and feels like a seamless whole.
The same is true with performers, at least the way I see performers. Some are technically superb but their work lacks passion and they seem to dread the vulnerability that necessarily comes with emotional honesty, others burn like a torch but lack sufficient control over that intensity. Passion and discipline can be as difficult a combination in performance as are honesty and polish in songwriting. Whenever a songwriter/performer shows the potential to combine all of these elements together, that catches my attention. I've believed from the start that Alan has all that it takes to be that kind of artist, and I am thinking more and more that Russell may have a similar potential, so much so that I keep forgetting about his "day job". I really do forget for long stretches during shows that he is Russell Crowe, The Actor; when I finally do remember that somewhat pertinent fact, I find myself hoping again that The Actor finds a way to continue to be the Songwriter and the Singer and the Guitar Player for as long as he wants to do these things. Potential should always be explored to its outermost reaches.
There was another delightful Mickey story this night. Mickey is becoming so real in my mind that my eyes are expecting to see him to take shape on stage one of these nights, Russell's words made flesh. This time it was about a conversation he and Russell had about speaking Italian. Mickey was lamenting (and Russell expressed those lamentations in Mickey's voice) about not being able to speak his own native language, and when Russell told him that he too would like to learn to speak Italian, Mickey thought that was a grand idea and said he would get some recorded instructional material from an actor friend of his. A few days later, Mickey brought the album to Russell and the two of them sat down together, resolved to start learning how to speak Italian. They put the album on, and listened attentively as the instructor started speaking in a thickly accented voice: "Eet's a nice-a day." Russell-as-Mickey dutifully repeated, "Eet's a nice-a day." Again, that perfectly timed pause from Russell, a whimsical look on his face. "What Mickey had was an actor's accent instructions, how to sound like you have an Italian accent," he explained, shaking his head in wonder at the fundamental naivete of a man who has done most everything. "Eet's a nice-a day," Russell said one more time, an affectionate smile on a face that looked lost for a moment in a warm memory.
The wide stage made it possible for the first time to get a good look at all of the band members as they played. At most of the other shows, Bones and Stuart and Dave have been tucked back behind Stewart, Russell, Alan, and Dean, though the configurations have differed in accordance with the varying sizes and shapes of the stages. It was especially nice to see Dave, who seems to be as nice a person as he is a good drummer, and now that they have gotten their sound balanced out so well, it's easier to hear just how good a drummer he really is. He does two other things I appreciate seeing a drummer do: He sings (all of them except Dean sing in this incarnation of TOFOG, and they are sounding wonderful together on some gorgeous harmony parts that I can recognise beyond a doubt as originating in Alan's head, same with many of the instrumental arrangements) and he smiles. The latter may not sound like such a big deal, but when you have seen too many instances of Glum Drummer Syndrome, it is so refreshing to watch someone who actually seems to enjoy what he is doing. That goes for almost all of the rest of them to; for the most part, they make their interaction of smiles shared among each other an integral part of the show, and that interaction strengthens the show because it parallels how well they play together.
Stuart is the other one who has been difficult to see, but pure pleasure to hear. This show was good for being able to see his hands a little as he played; he's got a wonderful touch on the keyboards, able to play in different styles, sometimes sounding gospel, other times more classically inclined. I keep wishing I could hear him cut loose on some boogie-woogie playing. I have a feeling he's the kind of musician who can play most anything well. But then, I love keyboards and have hoped to hear them played by my favourite band for a long time, so I'm not all that objective when it comes to that instrument. Same with horns, and I agree with what CGee said about how skillfully Stewart's playing has been incorporated into the songs, sometimes up front and sometimes in a more subtle way. Stewart also seems to be the target of much of Russell's teasing, and this night he wound up with a half-full drink glass balanced on his head while playing the closing horn part on How Did We Get From Saying I Love You. He neither missed a note nor spilled a drop.
Watching Bones play bass is like watching poetry in sound and motion. I may not be the most well-versed person when it comes to learned instrumental discourse, but even the least knowledgeable neophytes can recognise greatness when they see it. At one of the other shows, a local fellow I had been talking to about Great Big Sea and other bands put a hand on my shoulder and said in a very serious voice, "There will be a legend on that stage tonight, and that legend is not Russell Crowe. That legend is Bones Hillman." Watching Bones play, hearing him play, I'm not going to give that fellow any arguments on this count\.
It has been pointed out to me that I've had quite a lot to say about Alan already, so I will limit my comments for this one show: It's hard to imagine how Alan could have supported Russell any better than he did in Southport, harder still to express how impressed I am with what he's accomplished here with this band. He deserves to be proud of what he's done, and I hope he has the sense to feel that way.
I'm not sure what to say about Dean, since I know enough to be aware that there's a history there, but not enough to know what that history is. Not knowing as much as I don't know, all I can do is give a newcomer's impression and say that while I think Dean does good work on his lead solos, to me he seems a little distanced during the rest of the songs of the set. Maybe this is simply his usual performance demeanour (one of the most distanced lead guitarists I have ever seen live is Clapton, who was distanced to the point of not seeming to be in the same country as the crowd, let alone in the same building), but given how much interaction is taking place among all other band members as the show progresses, that distance comes across to me as being a little distracting. The best moments are the ones where he winds up getting drawn into that interaction, the way he was in Southport during Folsom, when Russell was bent nearly double over that big orange Gretsch of his, shaking his head and stomping his foot as he played; and Alan was bent backward, his head leaning back and a fierce look on his face, his hand a blur as he took the Fender apart, and then Dean turned toward Russell and Alan, and with his own look of intense concentration, he started to play to them, not just along with them. Watching the three of them share that moment of guitar a trois was one of the highlights of the whole show.
The best "warm fuzzies" moment of this show was the same as it's been at the other shows, when they all group together around a few mics and sing Easy And Free along with the crowd, followed by more of the same with that "greatest pub song of all time," Molly Malone. Because this had been such a relaxed show, that made the moment feel a even a little warmer and fuzzier than at the other shows. There were couples slow dancing together as these songs were sung, and people swaying in time. As they wrapped up this show it occurred to me that they had played it perfectly for this place, giving the RSL crowd just the kind of show that would make them happy. It was a far different show from the balls-to-the-wall performances put on for those two raucous Buderim Tavern crowds, different again from the smoothly sophisticated power of the Vanguard shows. Being able to adjust the show to the crowd is something I've seen even the most experienced bands fail (or refuse) to do; that this band is savvy enough, and flexible enough, to be able to make these kinds of adjustments so early in their tenure together comes close to being as impressive as are the quality of the songs and the precision of their playing.
Then again, as I said before, this is a good place for being flexible.