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 ...
Barwon Heads. The Great Ocean Road continues along the coast for roughly 240 kms (150 miles). Inconceivably, the views only get better.
Piping Hot Chicken Shop. It sits along a pedestrian friendly road called The Terrace.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.