It’s a cool, gentle night in Mount Lawley: not a lot happening on the surface. The Scotto has its usual throng, shoes with people in them patter unhurriedly in and out of glowing cafes and restaurants. Upstairs in the old terracotta-n-turquoise Astor Theatre, though, a little storm is brewing.
The dark clouds rain down quick and hard and coalesce into Todd Pickett’s latest audio-baby, FLOODED PALACE, who’ve just lumbered intrepidly on stage. The set gets rolling like a big crusty boulder down a leafy hillside. It’s the heavy momentum of slow, country-infused, surging rock. Imagine the same ballpark as local favourites Kill Devil Hills, but a different corner of the field: the songs are more intricately choreographed, and take more unexpected turns. The quiet bits are quieter and the lyrics more oblique. Which is not to say it’s overly frilly or artsy: Pickett introduces one song as being “about smoking meth,” while almost every tune is laced with plenty of snarly vocals, walloping chords and gratuitous profanity. In some ways the prickly, jokey, foul-mouthed antics surrounding (and sometimes within) the songs feel like a shame, threatening to cheapen or mock the artistry that’s gone into them. On the other hand, you could argue it’s an interesting blend, and an unapologetic injection of personality. In any case it all sounds pretty bloody good. Luke Dux is stellar on lead guitar (as usual) providing a mix of blues-punky noise, aggressive interjections, and tasteful melodic layerings. Josef Grech and Chris Davis are unfaltering on bass and drums, and both shine when they swap to harmonies and guitar respectively. As we reach peak-prickle, Pickett announces that the next song is called “Fuck you and your fucking love songs, the world has broken my heart.” My dad, who happens to be in attendance, turns to me and asks: “Is that from Frozen?”
This excellent + gruff experience is soon chased by an excellent and cheerful/eccentric experience courtesy of AJ WIGWAMS. The project emerges from the brain of Andrew James Williams, and collects a layer of deft and spirited musicians along the way, who field saxophone and trumpet as well as yer classic rock-band assortment. Williams is at the heart of this project, and you can tell the project is close to his heart too: each song is lovingly put together, deeply considered melodies and lyrics weaving over buoyant, occasionally nostalgic progressions informed by jazz, calypso and pop. The set follows an intriguing dynamic curve, peaking with the raucous “Sharper than the Devil” and “Starved,” rounding out a denoument with “Recession Blues.” There are songs about Einstein worrying about the afterlife, and banter about napping and Stephen King. The arrangements are lush, the mood infectious and the band is tight (I’m biased – my own sister has just joined the ranks, on bass – but also it’s true). All up, AJ Wigwams makes for a continuously compelling and deeply cheering experience – definitely a band I’ll seek out again, nepotism notwithstanding.
Now it’s over to THE LAST FAIR DEAL who waste no time in stoking the blues/old-school RnB furnace. Lead by the inimitable Ofa Fotu aka Odette Mercy (I wrote about her Chaka Khan tribute set last week), and backed by a veritable all-star cast of local shredburgers (Jules Peet on guitar, Gordon Cant on keys, John Brown on bass/backing vox and Bryn Stanford on kit), there’s no way you could really go wrong. What’s perhaps most refreshing about this ensemble is their willingness to sink deep into an established sound, and play renditions of classic songs, without feeling the need to reinvent the wheel. The set is a celebration, I think, of a genre and a sound and a legacy and it revives these songs in the spirit that they were conceived. Which is not to say that these are just facsimile covers. There are plenty of splashes on contemporaneity, engrained in the playing styles of the players, and interludes of self-generated expression, often taking the form of solos or breakdowns or improvisations around a theme. But the fundamentals of these vintage bangers, including “Chain of Fools” and “Hound Dog” and a bunch of more obscure tracks, are in tact. And though the Astor Lounge encourages a sit-down-and-watch crowd rather than a dancefloor invasion, there’s no doubting the twitch of rhythm running through every body in the place. The band bows out with a modest grin and shrug. We all float back down the stairs and into the uncannily quiet streets, our little rock and roll secret still warm in our pockets.