Since I write about gigs most weeks, you might think I’m some voracious gig-hopper, diving capriciously into pubs to soak up whatever’s happening. Not so, usually. I’ll be at home, distracted, then deliberate; count pennies, drink wine, start tinkering with ableton or getting lost in a Wikipedia labyrinth and then eventually be coaxed out per a cat from under a parked car. Tonight is the exception, whereupon I slide down to the Tote, barely thinking, like a wet sardine on a mirror.
This is my first time at the Collingwood venue since I returned to Victoria. It smells even worse than I remember. If you’re not familiar, the Tote is quintessentially Melbourne and evokes the Inner-Northern suburbs’ rock underground in very particular ways. Wipers will tag team Eddy Current on the jukebox while the Bulldogs play the Giants on a shitty old TV; deftly curated haircuts mingle with ratty mullets over a beer-spattered pool table and cigarettes glow like firefly swarms in the kinda-claustrophobic courtyard. Entering the downstairs bandroom, you pass through a sort of inverse portico and end up in a dark, tiered space, where people play guitars.
The first group of people to play guitars tonight is THE STROPPIES, which is a new-ish band involving:
-Steph Hughes (Dick Diver, Boomgates etc)
-Gus Lord (Twerps, Boomgates, The Stephens)
-Rory Heane (White Walls),
-Claudia Sefarty (Blank Statements) and
-Adam Hewitt (I don’t know which-bands but we can assume they’re pretty good)
The Stroppies sound a bit like a Frankenstein’s monster of the members’ other projects, but it’s a lean and often enigmatic monster: the sound’s not easy to place. Less warmly melodic than Dick Diver, more intricately wrought than Twerps, and full of surprises, The Stroppies have definitely got their own thing going and it’s a thing which might appeal to fans of Young Marble Giants and Silver Jews. Tonight they zig-zag happily through songs from their self-titled cassette, pausingly only to wish Woolen Kits’ Tom Hardisty a happy birthday (Hardisty, by the way, has organised this show to celebrate his 30th).
Second, QWERTY come in sideways and continue sidewise, sputtering out an asymettrical set of instrument changes, awkward pauses, skateboard giveaways and – mingled within it all – some pretty great songs. Qwerty comprises members from Waterfall Person, Pool Spy (is this a music act or just a twitter account?), and ___korean bbq (once again, not sure). They’re fun and totally baffling despite their fidelity to a guitar-bass-drums, verse/chorus format. At their worst, they’re a shambles, albeit an interesting sounding shambles; a totally singular kind of warped rock band tonality, as is the case with iconic outsider group The Shaggs. At their best, or at least most approachable, Qwerty are a quality pop band: their final song, with its airy dual-vocal hook, is a bona fide gem.
Third, PAPPY arrive in full costume – tomato-red jumpers and wayfarers to honour the birthday boy and his standard uniform. Like Qwerty, Pappy exploit their own gaps in traditional musical proficiency to create something joyously irreverent. Pappy’s methodology is more down-the-line punk, though: crude riffs and bellowed couplets, which aligns neatly with their original intention to create a riot grrrl band out of thin air. Lyrical themes range from the outright silly (“Snacks”) to the wryly cynical and uncanny (“Subiaco”), and a goofy tongue-in-cheek stage move or Tom Hardisty joke is never far away (“Can I get more Ray Bans in the foldback?” – Andrew Murray).
Fourth: contrary to Qwerty and Pappy’s respective takes on gleeful nonsense, PRIMO hand-deliver a half hour of businesslike rock music. Which is not to say it’s joyless – the tunes are buoyant and electric and everyone is stoked. I typically struggle with trios who use two guitars and no bass (what’s the rationale? terrible HR decision!) so it’s a testament to Primo’s quality songwriting and delivery that I’m OK with the top-heavy sound. The blend of fuzzy and not so fuzzy guitar riffs, whistle-clean vocals and emphatic drumming provides plenty of oomph and interest, rendering Primo a compelling – if somewhat monochromatic – prospect for the ears.
Fifth, TERRY are that special kind of band that manages to sound raucously loose while actually being super tight; musicians who exude a sense of humour while being Seriously well-honed, and Serious about what they’re putting across. In this way Terry combine a lot of the great elements of tonight’s lineup, and inflect their songs with incisive political bite, lambasting politicans, hypocrites, neo-colonialists and other scumbags at every turn. In launching these country-glam-punk polemics, it helps that Xanthe Waite (guitar, and also of Primo), Zephyr Pavey (drums), Al Montfort (guitar) and Amy Hill (bass) are all sharpshooters on their instruments. What’s more, the group operates hive-mindedly after two albums, two EPS and tours around the world. All this being the case, you can’t help but feel there’s an element of serendipity at play, four deeply compatible music-minds that luckily collided in a room.
A giant monstrous mash-up band of Constant Mongrel and Woolen Kits (with Montford on sax) ends the night, and though I have to shoot through before getting deep in their set, what I do hear is a beautiful and extravagant love-in with palpable appreciation for Mr. Hardisty.
And it’s this sense of community and larrikin love that ultimately makes the night so great, and which validates my fond associations surrounding the venue. While many Tote-orbiting bands that I was initially drawn to have now disbanded or else rarely perform, it remains a home for that kind of attitude and mutual support. Long live birthday party gigs and weird, stinky rock and roll.