Friday, 8 May 2015

Dave Wright and the Midnight Electric @ the LuWOW, Fitzroy, 30 April 2015

The title song off Dave Wright and the Midnight Electric’s 2014 The Lucky Country album ends with its farmer protagonist confessing to, in effect, treason:
Now there’s rain on the streets, and the country’s heartbeat
It flickers and dies with the stench of deceit.
Now I work for the bank, and I knock ‘em back
If you can’t beat them join them, ain’t that a fact, Jack.

Last week, at an incongruous locale before a paltry crowd, Dave spat out these lines as if he was an unrepentant death row inmate desperately justifying his sins. Or worse: as if he was a singer/songwriter in a rock and roll band considering the treasonous act of laying down his guitar, waving a white flag and conceding to the music industry’s merciless current, one that punishes bands that write and arrange their own songs; an industry that rewards the fatuous and fashionable, worships the fast buck – basically, digs its own grave.

Actually, I’m sure that was the last thing on Dave’s mind as he and Rob Barber's guitars tore into the song’s chorus:
If we had our time again
Would our hardest work
Pick up all those pieces and
Make this the lucky country again?
But as I write this, pondering DWME’s show at a tiki bar last week in Fitzroy, I can’t keep that thought at bay: without support a day will come when Dave will mimic his defeated farmer and call it a day.

And what a motherfuckin’ shame that would be.

An important disclaimer: This post includes snarky remarks about a ‘temple of Tahitian tackiness’ that are not meant to disparages the venue itself. The LuWOW (yes, the 'WOW' is capitalised) is an unabashed tiki bar, and as such succeeds spectacularly, with cheap tropical drinks, tropical shirt-wearing staff, Hawaiian LP sleeves on the walls of the restrooms, etc. Unfortunately it's a travesty as a setting for the music of DWME. A paper umbrella in a shot of mescal, if you will. I'll attempt to recreate the mismatch in this post by populating it not with photos of Dave and the band but of LuWOW’s intentionally garish interior.

[A series of mostly black & white shots of the LuWOW show taken by band photographer extraordinaire Jim Kyriakidis may be viewed here.]

Again -- if you've got a social engagement with someone you'd prefer not to look at or listen to, head to Fitzroy and grab a booth at LuWOW. The place is a concentration-free zone, aided and abetted by buckets of fruity booze and grating, shrieking in-house audio. It's a theme park for the ADD-afflicted.

A gig's a gig, of course, and all a band can do is suck it up and make the most of it. To their credit, despite the environs and disappointing crowd (size-wise, not enthusiasm), Dave and his seven bandmates squeezed onto the LuWOW's crap-encrusted stage and blasted like a cyclone laying waste to a South Pacific atoll. Two sets of ten songs each, all originals but for a brooding cover of The Church's 'Under the Milky Way' and simmering take on Springsteen's 'Atlantic City'. Dave introduced songs when necessary, explaining their inspiration like any good songwriter should.

Except nothing Dave says actually prepares you for the depth and variety of each song. There's no pretense, no preening, no stalling for time, no ass-kissing, no false modesty. Dave carries himself like a gunslinger who knows YOU know he's got the goods to blow you to kingdom come. And then he and his gang do just that.

Set one kicked off with 'Take Me Out', a song screaming for the shadowy confines of a packed arena that recalls the texture and mood of Joshua Tree-era U2. With earned self-assurance the Midnight Electric took the stage one-by-one, led by keyboardist Daryl Johnson and new drummer Aled Templeton, building the song like blue-collar craftsmen -- or, in the case of bassist Tim Cavanagh, polka-dotted-collar craftsman. DWME's dexterity was plain with the second song, 'Trains' from their 2012 Suicide Season EP, which would make a fitting addition to the playlist of any alt-country radio station.

Seriously ... what the fuck?
If you'd wandered into LuWOW expecting lounge music and go-go girls (small stages bookend the stage for that purpose), 'Coming Home' would have had you crying in your Mai Tai. Prefaced with an anecdote about a brother who drove a truck, the song slammed through its gears like a semi flying downhill, the 'Electric Horns' (John Bryant, Jason Semple & Anthony Foon) blaring a warning to the sleepy town below that its brakes were gone. 'I've got ... 100 ... miles to go ...'

Dave introduced 'Blacktown' as something he wrote eight years ago after now-wife Effie helped him evolve from the "prick" he once was. Chronicling a man 'raging like a tornado' and 'blowing like a hurricane', the song burst into its chorus like a firework, concluding with a celebratory 'And there are no dark clouds on my horizon now / Just a wide-open road leading out of Blacktown', all on the back of a Texas truckstop guitar riff from the fingers of Rob Barber.

And then came 'Spitting Image', a setlist highlight for me and a song that recalls the best of 1970s FM radio out of NYC that I grew up with. 'Spitting Image' starts with piano, introduces the story of a family devastated by the Vietnam War, adds gentle horns and builds to a soaring guitar solo. Derivative? Of course. The fundamentals of rock and roll were scribbled on cocktail napkins by Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson 60 years ago, earlier than that by Mississippi bluesmen. But who carries that guitar/bass/piano/drums torch today? Who honours those who've come before by using those tools to create unique joys like 'Spitting Image'? On stage at LuWOW Dave looked like Springsteen regaling in the sounds of his own E Street Band, which to me always looked like a guy with grease beneath his fingernails leaning behind the wheel and opening up his car on an empty stretch of highway. Soothing, cinematic, dramatic -- a '65 Shelby flies off a cliff face, for fuck's sake -- 'Spitting Image' takes me to a time when songwriting and musicianship went hand-in-hand, albeit hands covered by fingerless leather gloves, and my overgrown modular speakers radiated warmth rather than digital precision.

A better time, believe me. Now get off my lawn you goddamned kids.

Dave admitted to tapping into his archives for 'Save It For a Rainy Day', as he and Effie became parents of twins last year and he's finding it difficult to write. (Dave and Effie also own and operate Jimmy the Saint, a South Melbourne cafe.) 'Man of the House', off the bands' 2013 For King and Country EP, was time-appropriate, being four days after Anzac Day. A groove-driven 'Under the Milky Way' set up the first set's final two songs: the Aussie hootenanny that is 'Life In a Northern Town' and back-alley switchblade 'Streets of This Town'.

Set two began with the 'Thunder Road'-referencing 'Happiness', and it was then I put down my notebook and left my lonely perch. Dave and the band don't need me advocating for them but there comes a point in a show that's blowing the doors off a place that a certain indignation kicks in when said band isn't being supported. I sat beside friends and stalwart DWME fans Mary, Piera and Rita and blew off steam between songs that can be boiled down to, basically, "This is amazing. Why isn't this place packed?" Yes, it was a Thursday night and yes, a cool wind was blowing. But there's guys are good. Not 'Dave and the boys are nice so let's give 'em a push' good but 'Goddamn, it's three days later and I can't get their songs out of my head' good.

So my notepad jumps to 11:40 pm and the penultimate song of the night. The band was tearing through 'Drinking Days' and this is what I wrote: "20 fucking people here ... 20 fucking people having a great fucking time." As you can see alcohol raises my profanity quota, but the sentiment was accurate. Earlier in the night Dave had told me he imagined the face of the song's sad, drunken protagonist to be bug-eyed Steve Buscemi's. With Daryl Johnson tickling heaps of ivories and John Bryant wrestling his trombone I conjured an image of skinny-ass Buscemi dancing beside Dave, whiskey bottle in hand, slurring madly, smiling like a simp, before his wife appears with a kitchen knife and guts him like a fish ('That's the end of your drinking days / that's the end of your wicked ways / your low down wicked drinking days ...'). The back of DWME's newest t-shirt reads 'Widescreen Rock & Roll' and 'Drinking Days' is a song that projects 1940s film noir right before your eyes. And Jesus it beckons a bottle of Tullamore Dew.

Dave dedicated 'Classic Cars', the night's final number, to a friend named Alex who's been following the band since day one. The song flexed typical DWME muscle -- Daryl's piano, Rob's guitar, the vocal harmonies of Dave and Tim -- but especially showcased the recent addition of Jason Semple's saxophone. References to 'driving all night' and 'backstreets' were vocal tips of the cap to Springsteen but Dave knows how to have fun with a lyric ('She's glamorous, she's rock and roll and / everything in between I need for my soul / but most of all she's got that get up and go') while his band keeps the car between the white lines. As the song ended around midnight the LuWOW's in-house music roared up like a demon's revenge and the spell was broken. We weren't cruising on a highway beneath a sea of stars, awash in soulful rock and roll. We were in Fitzroy at a tiki bar at closing time.

Until their next gig at the Brunswick Hotel on Saturday 16 May ..... and what I pray is a much larger crowd.

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