The computer screen, the television, the radio were aflurry with the shockwaves of the Labor Party’s leadership spill. It’s an interesting word for it, “spill” – making me imagine Rudd and Gillard melting into a tea cup which rattles around, oozing bits of the Parliamentary liquid onto the tablecloth. That’s kind of what it feels like, too. But there are only so many articles about such things that you can read in one night, and soon enough I found I needed to escape my house. I set out into the dark chill air – seeking not a spill, but a splash.
The Big Splash is a new live music competition. I am eternally ambivalent about music competitions; much like parliament, I’m not sure the music scene ever needs to be reconfigured into any sort of sports field or battleground. Meanwhile, though: the motivation a little rivalry and urgency provides can work wonders on a band’s musical progression; the prospect of being judged and assessed can spur much-needed self-reflection; and the prizes and opportunities offered by competitions such as these frequently do have real significance for musicians (the only time my band ever won a competition, it gave us the opportunity to produce 200 7” vinyl singles – something we’d long wanted to do, but never would have been able to fund with our non-existent budget). And as I enter the (freshly refurbished) Rosemount Hotel, I’m met with a mood that feels homely, wholesome and cheery – in other words, like any good local gig – rather than the sterile and corporate vibe that sometimes accompanies competitive music outings. So that’s a good start.
Another good start is the prompt appearance of MC TOMAS FORD – the loud, erudite, ostentatious cabaret-dandy-punk who seems to spent a fair chunk of his time MCing events, and somehow his shtick never loses its sheen. As the first band sets up, Tomas barks profound inanities at the audience before a loud, distorted laptop noise groans out the PA. Ever the quick-draw, Tomas narrates the recurring sound as if it were an experimental noise piece he’d composed. While the gag would have floundered in lesser hands, Tomas’ turn of phrase makes it one of the most hilarious things I’ve heard in months.
Eventually, however, the band is set up and they slide briskly into their set. They’re called DOUBLE RAINBOW, comprising singer/guitarist/brains-of-the-operation Brian Mitra (of Sugarpuss), vocalist Isabelle Moore, and a guy named David Jones on beats/electronics. Having been told (somewhere along the line) that Double Rainbow was kind of an exercise in hypersaturated, dancey, psuedo-commerical pop, I’m a little taken aback when they chime in with a sort of minimal electric folk song, fingerpicked guitar and harmonies sitting in a pleasantly incongruous fashion alongside fat, sparse, erratic beats. This first song sort of ends where it began, in a woodland of nondescript niceness; next is a pulsating bit of high-quality synthpop that could quite happily become a radio hit, but remains shy of any overt cheese-factor. Mitra and Moore’s dual vocals distill the appeal of melodies sung one octave apart, and Mitra’s ebullient compositions recall the likes of Blur and Empire of the Sun and Chairlift, though evading any particularly direct comparison. The set’s short – presumably truncated by earlier technical woes – but for a first gig, it’s a beauty.
Enter APACHE, another relatively fresh-faced band who deliver a precocious dose of hard-rock craftsmanship, swagger, intensity and semi-telepathic jigsaw tightness. The emphatic quintet’s first tune is a cracker, equal parts Warpaint-esque guitar chime, post-punk layering and stoner-chug of the Josh Homme variety. Homme’s projects form a pretty good reference point for Apache generally, though there’s plenty of Sabbath, Strokes and Black Keys bleeding into the melange. Their third song, “Wine,” is a theatrical bit of slow swampy blues with a sort of rock-cabaret vocal laid over; it’s borderline hammy but it totally works, aligning cleanly with singer Tim Gordon’s already gusto-filled performance ethic. The sweaty set eventually peaks in a fit of riff-driven chaos, before slowing down into one final string of doomy wallops. While they could benefit from embracing a more eclectic palette, and steering away from classic rock cliche, Apache slam out a deeply satisfying set, and could well prove worthy victors this evening.
I meet some old buddies, am introduced to some new ones, sip some lager and then up jump UPNUP. Last time I saw this live hip-hop/funk/jazz ensemble was when they supported Blu in April and I fear I was too dismissive with what I wrote about them at the time; while they didn’t make an impression on me that night, the intimate confines of the Rosemount and the relatively peacefulness of the evening hone my attention now. Beyond this, they seem to have improved unto themselves: the arrangements seem sparer, more considered; perhaps the stage sound is better – they’re playing with more subtlety. What I notice this evening is an evident training in not only textbook funk/soul/whatever, but also an understanding of how these genres have been reworked through the lens of hip-hop and beat production. In the way the arrangements sway, stutter, drop layers in and out and interpolate samples, I’m at times reminded of Flying Lotus and Bonobo. And while emcees Marksman and Coin don’t blow my mind, their rap styles rely on complexity and charisma (rather than brute force) to connect with the audience. There are also some legitimately sweet sax solos in there. When the guitarist loses the cringey American accent on his admittedly impressive falsetto, I will have little to complain about.
Finally we hear from WE MOVE WALLS, which is the sort of band name you might normally see in a clip-art speech bubble on the side of a truck as you drive through Osborne Park. That’s not really the imagery they evoke with their songs, luckily, and what we hear from these guys is a fairly intriguing mish-mash of well-trod rock genres. There’s a bluesy warble to the vocals of Reef Selleck (what a name!) which recall Jim Morrisson; instrumentally, everything seems to see-saw between the tropes of grunge, guitar-driven psych-rock and punk. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about We Move Walls is the unexpected confluences between these sounds which they expose: they’ll be playing a 70’s jam-rock type groove, incrementally speed it up, and suddenly it sounds like a hardcore riff. Or they’ll be screeching along Sunset Boulevard, then slow it down, and now we’re staggering through a Blue Cheer sort of stomp. As an experiment in fusing ideas, I like it – but as set of memorable songs with emotional impact; well, it isn’t one. That’s not to say We Move Walls are without potential. The seeming lack of focus or vision that keeps their tunes at arm’s length is also part of their interest. With refinement (both in the performance and songwriting), this band could move up in the world.
And so the music dwindles; Tomas Ford returns one last time to round out his intermittent, grin-inducing banter. After a significant wait, the winner of the heat is announced to be UPnUP – admittedly the slickest band of the night. I roll home in a taxi – an uneventful journey, apart from the driver stopping to buy some “cheap wine for later” – and splash into a pot of coffee and J-Gill’s concession speech before writing this thing you’re now reading, which brings us up to date. It was a night of pleasant surprises and curiosities, devoid of any “competitive” unpleasantry. With numerous bands yet to play whom I’ve never encountered, it’s going to be plenty of fun watching this Big Splash thing unfold.
Funny thing about Lyndon saying Apache could have won the night … After much consideration The Big Splash decided Apache were able to go thru to the 1st Semi Final, July 4 at the Bakery as the wild card from the 1st four heats. – Ed