G’day again from the Top End. A week or two deep into my first Northern Territory immersion, it doesn’t feel any more mundane or predictable. Still seeing a new bird with a new kind of brightly-coloured dinosaur crest every day, or a new outrageous-looking lizard, or a curious establishment advertising rodeos and crocodile waterskiing. This seems like a place that reveals itself gradually, if at all.
The weekend arrives in Katherine town, so we scout out the nightlife. There’s Kirby’s, the corner pub, which local wisdom suggests is probably best avoided unless you like pokies and fights. There’s the “Golfy” (Golf Club) which rumour has it may be pretty raucous tonight (not sure why). But we settle on Mahogany’s, which boasts a courtyard dense with fronds, a brightly-lit buffet dining hall, $5 Toohey’s and a dingy billiards room with free jukebox. So the night evolves into a rolling playlist of INXS, Roxy Music, Australian Crawl et al, and we drink cheap lager and play pool against two young American soldiers with stern faces and haircuts you could slice carrots on. We almost win, too, but I sink the cue ball while shooting for the black, to the tune of Meat Loaf’s ‘I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).’ Possibly “that” is beating two burly GIs at pool who look like they’d be none too happy to lose.
The next day we visit Edith Falls, a forty-five minute drive out of Katherine. Paddling in the lower pool, a natural clear-watered swimming hole, I weave through languid frogs and large black-striped fish. I climb onto a rock teeming with bright green tree ants and survey the scene. A small cascade emerges from a green gully and streams into the reservoir. Two kilometres up the hill, in the top pool, a far larger waterfall tumbles into a shining surface ringed by red-earth crags. We swim past rocky islands to the torrent, and through the wall of thick, gushing water. On the other side is a tiny room: one wall is black rock, the other three are hissing white water, and the floor is all shadowy ripples. I recommend visiting this tiny room if you ever want to feel like you’re in a secret inside-pocket of the world’s great big coat.
The next morning I say goodbye to Dook the dog, and then we’re in a ute owned by a friendly accountant who’s hastening to Darwin to catch a flight. He tells us about his home town in North India and his cricket teams and how he’s going to visit a lavender farm and a potato chip factory in Tasmania. I offer him some potato chips. In Darwin we haul into the share house that’s putting us up, which is obscured by palms and all turquoise walls, wood and air. I walk to the NT Art Gallery and Museum, where classic Papunya Tula paintings (which in the 1970s established the now-ubiquitous dot painting style) sit alongside old fishing boats, stuffed snakes, political cartoons and an audio installation recreating the sound environment of Cyclone Tracy.
Tuesday crops up, which means nothing, until I notice that Perth band Methyl Ethel are playing a Darwin Festival show. After sunset we sip spiced rum and walk brisk down Smith Street mall, toward Festival Park, where several hundred light bulbs hang between the tamarind trees.
Scooching into the Lighthouse, which is actually less a house and more a circle of wooden fencing with a stage and a crown of more hanging lights, we hear Methyl Ethel’s first chord ring out. What simultaneously slaps and tickles your ear is the distinctive Jake Webb guitar sound, pseudo-orchestral, with the perfect smattering of delay and lush modulation. Add Thom Stewart’s decisive p-bass thump, and Chris Wright’s smooth and punctual drum talents, and you immediately recognise the tight, increasingly widely-loved Methyl Ethel sound. As far as far-flung appeal goes, how many Perth art rock bands could zip up to Darwin and pack out the main festival stage before the set even starts, on a Tuesday night? Not many I’d reckon, but this trio are worthy claimants to the honour.
They’ve long since got these tunes down pat, effortlessly locking in with synth, vocal and noise samples triggered from Webb’s Roland 404, or Wright’s SPD-S. Even without these additions, though, the band produces an astoundingly big sound: guitar chime and reverb, vocal echo and full-bodied rhythm section tones filling out the sonic space. This more or less consistent palette is repurposed for myriad purposes. There’s the persistent, sparse dream-funk of ‘Idée Fixe’; the UFO-abduction soft rock of ‘Rogues’; the 12/8 choral pump of ‘Unbalancing Act’ and the feel-good rollick of ‘Twilight Driving’ in which go-to Aussie sax guy (and Darwin resident) Gus Rigby jumps up and lets out a golden spiral of reedy strains.
All throughout the crowd is either still and transfixed, or dancing with smiling unruliness. Maybe the only negative response is when Webb announces he’s going to have a drink of water, to which one gruff punter bellows: “Drink beer!” On balance, I reckon Methyl Ethel would have to be pretty happy with their reception. Orrite, more from up here next week. Stay warm, sandgropers!