Gig: ‘The Middle East’, ‘Dragging Pianos’ & ‘Oliver Mann’
The night was cold for September; early-morning drizzle had blanketed the sky in a haze of grey and white, ominously perched high above the cityscape. By then, the sun had set, a distant, glowing orb, whose face was cloaked before in cloud.
Awake, it rises only to sleep again.
Sundays are the laziest of days, where people often sit and lie comatose, white-faced and sober from some reminiscent Saturday-binge. They lie strewn about the place, idle figures of permanence in an impermanent world. Tonight, all is dark and wearisome, week anew.
Heidelberg Station has never felt so empty, even with some company, conversation remains confined to three syllables or less:
“… So, tell me about the party last night?” I wonder.
A distant memory ebbs in and out of focus, albeit uneventful. His face tells all, grey and tired.
“… Everyone was out by eight,” Michael Hodder sighs, hand drawn across his stubble, “but by then, she was already out cold.”
“So much for the birthday girl’s eighteenth, then, eh?”
A glance, a nod.
The train arrives.
The city is strangely alive, the hustle-and-bustle of commuters evident. Flinders Street becomes an immaculate stage full of dancing shadows and their human partners. Students linger here and there, eyes cast above or below. Some stragglers wander aimlessly about, hands buried deep between their pockets. Largely, the station is amiss, traffic of any kind languid, uncongested. Trains pull in and out of platforms; passengers trudge in between each other, single file. By now, the rays of light are bent between the metal pickets of the cityscape, enveloped in the eerie orange-haze of artificiality. Lights blink on and off, the buildings suddenly have eyes.
I feel cold underneath my jacket, the tips of my fingers ache slightly as they nestle themselves comfortably beside my body. We loiter by the sidelines, surrounded by the general hum of mindless banter. A couple complain ahead of us, unsettlingly close and vulgar.
We strike up the usual topics, football and the likes, to kill some time before the next train – but it’s empty, and our hearts are set on The Middle East.
Some months before, Michael Hodder had mentioned their tour of Melbourne. All the way from Townsville, they were here to play as leads at a shady little joint called The Corner Hotel; evidently sited on a corner, burrowed beside an overpass and a stretch of commercial-buildings with only a few ordinary ones amidst the usual Melbourne-architecture. The gig was set to start at 7:30, with the first of two side-acts. But by then, we were already late by half an hour.
We had imagined a long cue tailing from one side of the street to some distant, half-kilometre-away corner. I’d seen a few before, lined up against the panes of shop windows, up and over the curb, like snakes, making only exceptions for diligent drivers and other followers to join its lengthening tale. That was at Brunswick, though, other side of town.
To our surprise, we arrived to only a few groups huddled by the front, eagerly through the door without a fuss. We cued – but the door itself remained in clear sight.
Nothing like my wild imagination.
A fleeting glimpse from face to ID, and the bouncer – no more the stereotype than expected – thrust the card back into my hands and let me pass. With the gatekeeper satisfied, it was a clumsy movement in between juggling my wallet and getting my wrist stamped before I was immersed in the dark, surrealistic environment that was The Corner Hotel.
The place itself was utterly dead.
“I thought you said the tickets were sold out?”
“… I did, that’s what it said on the site,” Michael Hodder replied.
“Oh, hey Tom.”
By the bar, we met Tom Clare, another fellow whom we had decided to invite along.
A somewhat small, yet unusually acoustic hall-like room, with a stage less than an eighth of its size, barely consisted of the joint. Inside, we found mostly empty walls, a stage with half-prepared instruments, chiefly percussion, with a band-less audience of perhaps twenty or thirty, and half a bar in operation. Speakers two-thirds my size sat mounted at either side of the stage, and quietly, music emanated from the forward region. A few drinks lay about, half-empty: beer, I supposed, not much room for cocktails.
The belly growled – hungry, I suspected. Not a scrap of food in sight, though.
“… But they only just went on sale, didn’t they?” I asked childishly.
“Yeah, all the Big Day Out Tickets have been sold-out in Melbourne,” Tom Clare rushed.
“Yeah – they should have put a lower limit on ticket-sales,” Michael Hodder spoke, somewhat disappointedly, “four was obviously too high.”
By then, Tom Clare’s plans had become apparent: Big Day Out – Adelaide, some side-acts, a few mains perhaps, with hopefully enough money to spare for transportation, the “camp-site”, and some other bare-necessities. Three-hundred-dollars sounded optimistic.
Backs against the side-exit door, we found ourselves comfortably ahead the stage, with the crowd slowly mounting. By eight, a few backstage movements, a couple of member’s finetuning instruments and the likes, acoustic, electric, among others, sounded someone’s imminent arrival. These haphazard, cautionary movements continued for some while, before the first side-act appeared. With the house half-full by now, partners sat cross-legged, childlike in gaze.
Dragging Pianos, the opening act, appeared sluggishly. As was usual, the band proceeded towards their instruments of choice, and four fellows appeared. A tall, lanky man, jeans and a turtle-neck, with a faded complexion, headed out with an acoustic.
Obviously their lead.
A long, fair-haired woman followed and delicately placed herself in front of a keyboard. I remember quite vividly, the subtle movement of her wrist, the unveiling of four long, nimble fingers sprawl across the keyboard; adroit in these movements, her playing was much the same – elegant and purposeful, yet faraway. All of them, in fact, eyes fixated on their finger movements, rehearsing: the plucking of strings, the tapping of bells, the shifting of notes, or the strumming of chords.
Their bassist moved in and out of the sidelines, and finally assumed a relaxed and half-enthusiastic posture, while the percussionist quickly darted to-and-fro from various electric/acoustic apparatus’. Though unbeknownst to me, these members would intermingle with The Middle East in the following hours to come.
Headlining their self-produced EP, “The Food Chain”, uncannily deceptive with a homey-touch, border-lining on some elements of ‘elegant simplicity’, the music itself was of some strikingly wonderful quality. Five-to-six songs in total, their appearance was an ice breaker. A mix of acoustic and electric, a fresh perspective on relatively overused musical principles.
And a fantastically original set of wine bottles which would feature predominantly in their finale. Crescendos born and bred with a mixture of acoustic/electric instrumentation, with soft-spoken vocals, and deep, heart-felt lyrics. Despite the somewhat overly loud quality of the music itself, it managed to captivate the growing audience for some forty-five minutes or so, mellow in the mists of spirits and likewise. Like kids abated in a sea of expectation, some seemed satisfied, whilst others shrugged them off, pre-occupied with face-munching.
“… Do you do gin-and-tonics?” I had to ask.
“Of course we do gin-and-tonics!” the tender replied happily, a smile on her face, “you ‘round from these parts?”
I looked at her awkwardly, “sure, I’m local.”
“Oh, it’s just the way you say ‘gin’, like, ‘g-g-hin’, very French. You’ve got a really interesting accent.”
I laughed it off and smiled – damn American television, “oh, no, no, I’m local – I’m from Melbourne.”
Dah – idiot…
She blushes behind the faded light, throws her head and hair back as the other tender jokes fondly, and cackles wildly beneath the bar for a moment. My drink is mixed, eyes meet briefly – I walk off, glass in hand, less-so embarrassed, more-so intrigued. The gin is dry, the tonic bitter. The night wears off slowly, I relax a little, chat a bit, and we wait.
It’s now about nine.
Oliver Mann features as the second act, but by now, we’re all unreachable. The drinks make us lighter, bouncier, people flock from side to side, conversation now a must.
A soloist, Mann himself struggles to maintain the previous raptness his predecessors marvelled in. A quiet, almost unheard voice appears, the titles of some inaudible songs float about the room. I remember he asks for silence, but the innumerable crowd by now is lost in a wave of fantasy brought on by excitement. Much the same, his lyrics are swallowed up in a monstrous cloud of un-enthusiasm.
Quite rudely, the act continues despite any change, mired in a hundred voices. The louder the music, the softer the Mann, the louder the Mann, the louder the voices. By now people are screaming, throats are sore, eyes strain to see anything in the disco-light. I keep my words to myself, but the music is lost forever, and unfortunately, we are left with an empty stage unknowingly as he finishes.
It is now about ten.
The eyes are heavy, my thoughts linger on the Monday following – nothing special, just some study, just some essays, I tell myself. Exams are nearing, but it’s alright. Everything’s going to be fine.
[Ignorance is bliss]
By now, the gin is long gone, we’re finished drinking, and I’m starving. People motion closer towards the stage; we’re caught up in a current of isolated bodies positioned evenly away from one and other. Closer and closer still, towards the speakers which hang just in front, I can see everything and everyone so clearly, now.
We’ve stood most of the night already. It’s only now that we begin to feel the burning in our feet, the warmth so alien to us in the cold and rainy atmosphere outside. We are sheathed in people, we are lost so suddenly, slowly but surely assimilated until only our eyes can see the beaming lights which fix themselves upon the stage.
We stand motionless.
We stand so quiet, now.
They have arrived.
It is now half-past-ten. We are eager, so very eager. Seven, perhaps eight band members appear, mostly from the original opening acts, besides Mann. They pile on the cramped and bursting stage, intermingling with wire, with machine, until they too are merely instruments waiting to be played.
A final tune.
Everything appears to be in order, more hush follows, the silence has become deafening. And when the first strum of guitar explodes from just beyond, my ears begin ringing. The sound, so piercingly loud, booms in all directions, and the music itself is lost in an excess of decibels. These songs become unintelligible, all quality, all distinction, lost in the opening minutes as I adjust from sombre, softer sounds to blaringly incessant overtures. Instruments disappear for brief interludes, but residual sounds still layer over wave after wave of musical ambience. Nothing is lost, everything and everyone is trapped inside this perfect bubble of timelessness – it is just you, and the sound, there are no bodies and there are no minds.
We are one.
Empty claps and wolf-whistles sound distantly with the finish of the opening song, and with the arrival of “The Darkest Side”, more follow, the crowd already exceedingly happy. When the opening tickle of acoustic guitar flows on emotionally from wielder to speaker, we are entranced.
They have us eating out of the palms of their hands.
Stranger still, they know it too!
A few new tracks follow, but they are lost in a daze of confusion.
With the arrival of “Blood”, the band indirectly signals their finale, some gasps exhale loudly, wide-eyed and fearful. The pitter-patter of xylophone is demolished, the voices so emphatic, so hypnotic. We haven’t blinked, either. One hopelessly whistles in the solo, but even then, percussion now reigns supreme. With the approach of the final chorus, all instruments rally together to reach octaves I thought were physically impossible.
People start humming, heads start moving, and when the song comes to an end, we are utterly shattered.
The crowd screams, claps, a few disgruntled voices beg for more. Minutes stretch on; we are unsettled, restless, demanding. Now only three members return on stage. Reluctantly, they smile.
We’ve won, we think.
Again, this is their last song.
And as they finish, we demand more.
“… First of all, I’d like to thank all of you, tonight,” he motions, the crowd grins ecstatically, “you’ve all been a really great audience.”
He screws up once.
The crowd giggles mawkishly.
He screws up twice.
The crowd giggles playfully.
He screws up thrice.
The crowd giggles persistently.
Finally, we are witness to a fine, adamant solo. It is hauntingly deep; we are lulled to sleep, we are content, we are blissful, and with its end, somewhat sad. The final song is full of soulful lyrics and Bobby-reminiscent harmonica.
We leave in a commotion, people huddle together, bottled by the door. We three fellows sit by the curb; it is now about half-past-eleven. Cabs rock-up idly, people line the sidewalks and the streets.
“Hey guys, how’s it going? How are you?” a brash, young man asks us as we sit patiently.
“Yeah, we’re good.”
“Not too bad.”
“Fuck it’s cold, it’s really fucking cold in Melbourne,” he points to his chest, “I come from Brisbane, and it’s bloody cold down here.”
We look at each other gleefully, “not really – it’s actually kind of nice. It’s been colder,’ Tom Clare replies.
The young, brash man seems distracted.
“Yeah, and it’s only Spring here, you should have seen it in Winter,” I add jokingly.
His eyes wander helplessly behind us – he comments on another person’s attire acceptingly, curses to himself, and walks by, under the overpass and into a cab.
I notice: it is cold.
[Special thanks to Tom Clare for all the photos – albeit small, they are much appreciated. Michael Hodder, without him I wouldn’t have know about the gig itself or come into possession of a ticket. The bands, most especially, for such a great night out. Would have loved to hear more, but such is life!]
The Enantiomorphic God