Saturday, 8 August 2015

Light of Day Australia 'Winter Gigs', Ocean Grove VIC, 24 July 2015

It's been two weeks since I hit the road for Ocean Grove, Victoria and night one of the 2nd annual Light Of Day Austalia 'Winter Gigs'. That’s the same Parkinson’s Disease-fighting Light of Day Foundation born in 1998 with a birthday party for founder Bob Benjamin in Red Bank, NJ. LOD gained international recognition in 2000 after a benefit at the Stone Pony closed with a roaring set from Bruce Springsteen and Joe Grushecky. It briefly moved to the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ for a couple of years before returning to multiple venues in Asbury Park, and has now played shows beneath the Light of Day banner in a remarkable 13 countries.

My home in Balaclava to Ocean Grove is a 90-minute haul that skirts Melbourne's ports and dissects its western sprawl before opening up to flatlands northwest of the city. Ancient volcanoes dot the eastern horizon (top) but it's all pretty dull (bottom) until you veer south, drive through the beleaguered heart of post-industrial Geelong ...

... and enter the Bellarine Peninsula, known as the gateway to the Great Ocean Road that snakes along Victoria's southern coast. As someone who spent summers staking beach-towel-sized claims of sand on NJ beaches it's still incomprehensible just how much of Australia's coastline remains pristine and practically unoccupied. This is the eastern view from a bluff in Ocean Grove ...

... and this is the western view towards Barwon Heads. The Great Ocean Road continues along the coast for roughly 240 kms (150 miles). Inconceivably, the views only get better.

Homebase for LOD Australia is a popular Ocean Grove hangout with rock & roll memorabilia exploding from the walls and ceiling called Piping Hot Chicken Shop. It sits along a pedestrian friendly road called The Terrace.

Piping Hot's owned by this guy, Ben Chudoschnik, who greets strangers with a warm smile, makes the best damn chicken in the Bellarine Peninsula and is a committee member of LOD Australia. I arrived early to check out Ocean Grove and Ben kindly gave me a few moments of his time while the shop was transformed into a live music venue, tents were constructed outside for merchandise and a VIP area for musicians, all while customers came and went for takeaway chicken.

I've long known that an Ocean Grove existed along the Victorian coast but this was my first visit since moving to Melbourne nearly eight years ago. My mom's family is from Neptune Twp, NJ, of which the 'unincorporated community' of Ocean Grove, NJ is a part. I'd wondered if its Aussie namesake was connected to the seaside Methodist camp meeting place established just south of Asbury Park in 1869. Ben was keen on directing me to a certain road a few blocks from the chicken shop to prove this connection. The name of that road? Asbury Street. Turns out the same American Methodists who set up a permanent religious camp community in NJ collaborated with Victorian Methodist counterparts to establish one on the Bellarine Peninsula in the late 19th century.

Even if you’ve never strolled Ocean Grove, NJ's quaint Main Street, stayed in one of its Victorian bed and breakfasts or smelled the ocean from the boardwalk on a sultry summer’s eve, the tiny hamlet wouldn’t surprise. Familiarity and constancy have been hallmarks since its founding. In my lifetime I’ve seen it take a battering in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when its formerly grand hotels became boarding houses for the de-institutionalised and its neighbour to the north slid into destitution. No matter the magnitude of Asbury Park’s decline, however, Ocean Grove stood tall, a well-maintained authority figure to AP’s self-destructive wild child.

That authority was helped by Methodist-enforced austerity of remaining dry and family friendly -- two terms not normally associated with the Jersey Shore. For some the town will always be ‘Ocean Grave’, not surprising when a popular draw is a 19th-century ‘Great Auditorium’ and old-timers can recall a Sabbath driving ban enforced by shackled gates on Sundays. But Ocean Grove is like a chipped tchotchke still beloved by locals. Since my mom went to Neptune High and my grandfather drove a New York - Asbury Park Transit bus, being a local runs in my blood.

For my cousins and I in the early ‘70s, walking through the Casino into Ocean Grove along the boardwalk was a ritual part of a visit to Palace Amusements. One of my first-ever jobs was bussing tables at the Perkins Restaurant that hung over the ocean at high tide. When I moved back to the area from Nashville in the late ‘90s Ocean Grove was exactly as remembered. The Casino was collapsing into the sea and the gay community was sparking Asbury Park’s renaissance but the Grove was the Grove. Change is usually good but sometimes no change at all is the key to longevity. As a resident of a slowly evolving Asbury Park in the early 2000s Ocean Grove was a glass of warm milk to AP’s volatile cocktail.

Across The Terrace from the chicken shop is the Driftwood Cafe, which along with a business called the Olive Pit hosted performances throughout the night. All in all, with a cold winter wind kicking up and tiny lights coming to life in landscaped trees, it felt like Christmas Eve along The Terrace. (It only felt like Christmas Eve to ME, of course. Aussies associate Christmas Eve with summer heat. Something I’ll never get my Northern Hemisphere-oriented head around.)

Dave Wright of Dave Wright and the Midnight Electric discussing details with LOD Australia committee member Tony Armstrong-Carrigg.

After a blues duo called Jon Willard & Back River kicked things off at Piping Hot and a Melbourne duo called Mischievous ThoM was halfway through their set, one of two Lindas working the merch tent told me a talented 19-year-old was killing it at the Driftwood. I crossed the street and found Linda was right -- a woman named Evangeline was charming a slightly more sophisticated (wine, not beer) crowd with skill and bravado behind an electric piano. After she left to fierce applause I had a quick chat with Ty Simons, the Driftwood’s owner. Good-natured and generous, he was clearly charged by the crowd packing his place and he and his staff worked their asses off to keep everyone happy.

A quirky collective called Treehouse followed Evangeline to Driftwood's stage and proved four ukuleles is four too many ukuleles for my taste. So I crossed back over to Piping Hot ...

... where a woman named Andrea Robertson and two sidekicks were playing country-tinged rock that was perfect for a Friday night at the pub (or chicken/rock & roll shop).

What happened next at Piping Hot is most appropriately filed under ‘Only at a Benefit Concert’. Before a crowd that skewed well, well over 30 a band called Dangerous Curves roared to life in full Motley Crue-circa-1986-glory with a song called (cough cough) ‘Blow My Whistle’. Half the crowd literally covered their ears while the other went slack-jawed. The four-piece from Geelong may have harked back to an era of spandex and hair spray but they did it well, and they knew it. Still, the lead singer’s inability to make eye contact with anyone but a shredding guitarist revealed his chagrin over playing to a mismatched demographic. He howled with abandon but also shrugged continuously, as if pantomiming a wiseguy’s ‘What am I ‘sposed to do?’ A few undaunted souls danced and the band’s spot-on version of Poison’s ‘Nothin’ But a Good Time’ made the ear-coverers smile, proving either nostalgia can trump volume or the beers were kicking in.

Last year’s inaugural LOD Australia was a one-night affair at Piping Hot -- this year saw that expanded to two nights and three venues and brought the first international act: Anthony D’Amato of NYC by way of northwest NJ. Anthony can rightfully claim title of LOD’s most-travelled ambassador, Australia being his 13th country visited on behalf of LOD. Anthony’s released his first album with stellar label New West Records last September. It's called The Shipwreck from the Shore and he’s spent 2015 ping-ponging the US headlining shows both solo and with a band and opening for the likes of Ben Folds and Mumford & Sons.

I crossed back over to the Driftwood in time to catch the second half of Anthony’s first of three sets on the night. Immediately obvious was a quiet swagger gained from playing alone before large crowds in the States. I watched from the rear of the cafe as a palpable wave of respect swept from front to back to front again. It left everyone silent but for a handful of yappers who were quickly shushed. Professionalism is rarely acknowledged but it’s obvious when you witness it and the young singer/songwriter’s got it in spades. While introducing his final song before heading to Piping Hot a pair of women yelled "Stay here!" -- the ultimate compliment on this night of musical chairs.

While Light of Day's mission to fight and raise awareness about a disease that affects an estimated 10 million individuals worldwide is deadly serious, a certain karmic sweetness brought LOD to Ocean Grove, Victoria. Alan Barber (left) and Richard Grimmett (right) are local businessmen and friends. Through a fondness for Springsteen and bands of the Jersey shore Alan developed a friendship with a journalist named Jean Mikle, who lives in Ocean Grove, NJ. Soon afterwards Richard was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Alan then learned Jean was a director in the LOD Foundation. While in the States to run the NYC marathon (and raise money for Parkinson’s) Alan met with Jean and fellow LOD board member Tony Pallagrosi to discuss the formation of LOD Australia.

And it was on.

On this night of revelry, and before Anthony played his set at Piping Hot, the mini-tornado of bands and venues was tamed by a mirthless reality: Richard’s everyday battle with Parkinson’s disease. After Alan spoke about the origins of LOD Australia and thanked everyone for joining the fight Richard came to the mic and read a list of heartbreaking questions that confront him and other Parkinson’s sufferers daily: "Why does my handwriting shrink? Why do I have difficulty doing buttons? Why do I blink less?" to list only a few. Much of it was hard to hear but none of it was presented for pity. Richard stressed the importance of frankly addressing how a disease that "makes everything hard" affects him, for it’s a "designer disease -- everyone has their own". At the same time, Richard’s work with Alan to expand LOD Australia proves it’s possible to do great things even when an incurable disease is wreaking havoc on your nervous system, a point driven home when Alan informed me later that he and Richard had run seven kms together that morning.

Can’t say for certain but I probably took a long pull on my beer at that. Bloody role models.

Anthony followed and I got the chance to watch him dazzle for a full set. During ‘Ludlow’ the line ‘I’ve been a stranger in my own damn home’ cast one of many spells over the crowd. Being from NJ he’d then break said spell with self-deprecating humor, e.g. referring to his Amish-looking black Stetson as "one out of a possible five on the sex and lust scale". He also coined a euphemism -- "we’re gonna rock this chicken shop" -- that was no doubt repeated the following night and will echo for as long as Ben’s running the joint.

By 10:30 night one of LOD Australia’s ‘Winter Gigs’ was down to its final performances. Anthony had moved over to the Olive Pit and Mischievous ThoM was at Driftwood, leaving Dave Wright and the Midnight Electric as the last act to debut on this celebratory evening. The seven-piece band spilled over Piping Hot’s stage area, a not uncommon phenomenon for DWME at many of Melbourne’s live venues. ‘Widescreen rock and roll’ is a tag Dave uses to describe his music and that doesn’t just go for the band’s sprawl -- the eleven songs on their first full-length album The Lucky Country are a cinematic joyride.

Dave admires the technique of lead guitarist Rob Barber.

The band opened with a slow-boiler called ‘Take Me Out’ that erupted with horns a la late-‘60s Stax and a guitar break that rattled chicken carcasses both cooked and raw. ‘Streets of This Town’ revealed Dave’s cagy songwriting in the everyday tragedy of a suburban Melbourne streetscape bookended by a chorus catchier than a supermarket jingle. A love song as mad as a cut snake called ‘Blacktown’ chugged and soared to a refrain for the ages: ‘There’s no dark clouds on my horizon now / Just a wide open road leading out of Blacktown.’ If Steven Van Zandt had carried his mandolin into Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ may have sounded a lot like DWME’s ‘Father’, a broken-family tale that could bring Tennessee Williams to tears.

Yes, I’m a fan of DWME, and have seen them live a half-dozen times since The Lucky Country’s launch last November. Before Springsteen came to Australia in 2013 I’d purposefully stopped listening to music that reminded me of Asbury Park. Homesickness can be bad enough without a soundtrack, but meeting Springsteen fans across Australia during the 2013-14 tours and discovering the narrative rock and roll of DWME have kicked off a righteous reclamation of the songs I grew up with and a passion for honest rock and roll that, happily, lives and breathes and shakes floorboards right here in Oz.

A few more rockers later – including one to cherish wherever highways beckon and airwaves crackle with six-string salvation called ‘Happiness’ -- Dave invited Anthony onstage to sing a DWME set staple. Dave’s intro practically wrote itself: "As we’re playing at a chicken shop, it’s only fitting to close with ‘Atlantic City’." The crowd roared and everyone onstage did their best to blow up the chicken man in Ocean Grove. Ben, thankfully, lived to tell the tale, and was last seen joyfully singing along in back.

I was lucky to have attended the first Light of Day show at the Stone Pony fifteen years ago. Was there to see Marah, in fact, and lucked into the rest of the night’s now legendary exploits. There’s no comparing that night to the one on The Terrace, of course, just like there’s no comparing Ocean Grove, NJ to the one in Australia. The thread that matters most is the courage of people like Bob Benjamin and Richard Grimmett. Their unwillingness to let a bullshit disease run rampant without a fight brings people from around the globe together to play music for the most right of reasons. The people I met from LOD Australia are the kind you want to see again, and I look forward to taking that 90-minute ride back to Ocean Grove with my wife. The same way I pined for that ride down the Parkway to Ocean Grove, NJ in my old man’s car as a kid.

Sometimes, the way behind is the way ahead.


3 comments:

Richard Grimmett said...

Joe, thanks so much for your thorough, colourful and at times moving wrap of the Light of Day Winter Gig's Friday night. We are energised by such coverage which not only helps us to grow in years ahead, but reminds us of what we have created when seen through the eyes and perspective of others. It reminds me that our team is amazing! It reminds me that all things are possible when people with heart give freely of their time, talent and money to unite for one purpose - to find a cure for Parkinson's Disease.
Thanks for saying hi and for your encouraging words on the night.
Richard Grimmett, chairman, Light of Day Australia Inc.

Andrea Robertson said...

What a great summary of a terrific night here in Ocean Grove, Australia. I almost feel as though I've re-lived the event again, and have even had some gaps filled in on what I missed out on while my own performances were happening at LOD. It really was wonderful being able to play a part in supporting Light of Day, and I can't wait to see how future events shape up following the success of 2016. Well done again to you Richard Grimmett - you are a very inspirational human being - as well as the LOD Committee. And thanks also to you, Joe, for the great read.
Andrea Robertson
Singer/Songwriter
Ocean Grove, Vic, Australia

Anonymous said...

What a great experience the LIGHT OF DAY event was for dangerous curves. From the ladies out in the cold looking after merchandise for the artists, the crew that ran outside because of how outrageously loud we were in the shop (haha may have to invest in a box of earplugs for similar future events) to the staff behind the bar making sure everybody was looked after (and the man cans flasher...hats off to you sir). Dangerous curves would like to say thanks to everyone who was involved in the event for letting us be part of this great cause for the fight of parkinson's disease.
Would like to thank you also Joe Wall for that undaunting piece of blog for me and the boys.
you're kind words have lifted our spirits more than ever to keep bringing the fun and smiles to all ages in the years to come.