All Tomorrow’s Parties @ Riverstage, Brisbane (15/01/2009)

The Riverstage is bathed in sunlight as the gates open for the first Brisbane edition of the famed All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, and though I’m absent from the proceedings, I’m told that American blues legend James ‘Blood’ Ulmer and Australian improv-instrumentalist trio The Necks are each captivating as the flow of attendees gradually increase. The first Australian ATP event took place at Mount Buller just days ago, and it’s with thoughts of that excellent weekend in mind that I begin taking in the sights and sounds of this Thursday afternoon.

Smiling while facing direct sunlight isn’t easy, but the uncomplicated pop of Robert Forster and his charismatic bandmates inspires subconscious smirking. Although arriving mid-set, I’m told that the band elected to begin early in order to treat the hometown crowd to a few extra songs. The sound of Grant McLennan’s Quiet Heart booms over the rim of the Riverstage, thanks largely to an overzealous drum technician micing Matthew Harrison’s kick a little too closely. The over-pronounced thumping detracts from the frail melodies for which Forster is renowned: Pandanus and Demon Days from his 2008 release The Evangelist, and upbeat duo Surfing Magazines and German Farmhouse from the 2000 Go-Betweens release The Friends Of Rachel Worth are notable inclusions.

Forster passes a beer to a security guard, who reluctantly crumbles to playful audience jeers and relays the glass vessel to a jubilant front row fan. The band manage to squeeze in three additions to their Mount Buller set, two of which are taken from the brilliant final Go-Betweens record, 2005’s Oceans Apart: Darlinghurst Nights – which took place in “Sydney, 1983, mid-June” – and Here Comes A City, which rockets along at a brilliant pace and is complemented by chilling back-up vocals courtesy of bassist Adele Pickvance and guitarist Glenn Thompson. The set fittingly ends with a throw-back to 1979: Pickvance handles the keyboard motif of People Say, while Forster and Thompson share vocal duties. As a defining figure of the Brisbane music scene, Forster’s late afternoon appearance is wholly appreciated.

From lean fillets of guitar-based pop, to Spritualized’s weighty offering of grandiose rock compositions: amid a set that enthralls for forty-five – too few – minutes, personal revelations are occurring en masse among those closest to stage. As their Mount Buller set featured a highly impressive lighting rig, I’m apprehensive of witnessing such a night-time band during daylight. My preconceptions are soon forgotten as the seven-piece slide easily into a ten-minute reading of Shine A Light from 1992’s Lazer Guided Melodies.

Sunglass-clad singer/guitarist Jason Pierce is the group’s central nervous system: he’s assisted on this tour by four fellow musicians and the powerful pipes of two female vocalists, who fill out the band’s inimitable sound in spectacular fashion. Their voices overlap with Pierce’s throughout the title track from 1997 landmark Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space: the final few a capella lines borrow from Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling In Love, and we stand in rapt silence. Pierce and lead guitarist Doggen elicit squalling noise during Come Together; the smooth bassline and call-and-response vocals of I Think I’m In Love are sensational, while Soul On Fire is the sole contribution from 2008’s Songs In A&E. The band were engaging from a distance at Buller, but up close – when you can see Pierce’s neck veins pulsating and his skinny body tense with exertion as he wrings chords – it’s a transcendent experience. A rollicking, extended version of 1987 Spacemen 3 track Take Me To The Other Side caps off a remarkable set: Pierce applauds us generously, without a strobe light in sight.

In what is hopefully a final act of rebellion, The Saints opt to disappoint a hometown crowd by ignoring expectations and figuratively flipping-off thousands of excited witnesses. Though marketed as a complete performance of their seminal debut (I’m) Stranded, the reformed core line-up – gun guitarist Ed Kuepper, clearly past-it drummer Ivor Hay and perennially insufferable vocalist Chris Bailey – are instead found to be pushing the same envelope of middle-of-the-road, stadium-rock mediocrity for which they were initially conceived to rage against. The angsty punk-rock ethos remains instilled within Kuepper alone, as he pummels strings during This Perfect Day and coaxes controlled chaos throughout the impressive set closer Nights In Venice. His bandmates barely limp over the line: Hay’s youth and energy is long gone, and his inability to match Kuepper’s pace is central to their set’s disappointment.

While their Mount Buller performance was augmented by a brass section to add tonal depth to the band’s later compositions, they’ve spared the extra expensive for the Brisbane leg. Which makes sense, since they’re playing their debut album, right? Wrong. Wallflower bassist Archie Larizza is shrouded by Bailey’s all-consuming ego as Erotic Neurotic, Kissin’ Cousins and One Way Street are extended further than any simple punk song should ever be; we could certainly do with less of Bailey’s disinterested drawl and more of Kuepper’s bleeding axe, which is mixed so poorly as to be muddier than the bottom of the nearby river. Even the classic Messin’ With The Kid is far too Bailey-affected to be enjoyable. The set’s crowning failure, however, is their decision to neglect the album’s title track: you know, the song that a British Sounds magazine writer described in 1976 as “the single of this and every week”? Sure, they headlined the Pig City festival at the University of Queensland in July 2007 and rose admirably to the task – this reviewer’s infantile critique of the event can be found here – but to deny a Brisbane crowd a song with which they identified so strongly is absolutely unforgivable. They leave the stage post-_Venice_ and it takes a few moments to realise that there’ll be no encore. A half-hearted “Stranded!” chant gives way to disbelief, anger, and finally realisation that it only takes forty-five minutes to irreversibly taint a punk-rock legacy. Here’s hoping that Kuepper has realised that The Saints are best left buried, and that his time would be much better spent in company with his brilliant Laughing Clowns.

To introduce the revered Bad Seeds with such amateur tripe as System Of A Down’s Chop Suey is nothing short of criminal, but this rude choice is cast aside once six band members stroll onto stage and precisely assume their respective positions. Orator and head festival curator Nick Cave and his impeccable moustache greet us moments later with a smirk, as the hypnotic chug of Night Of The Lotus Eaters envelopes the amphitheatre. Across ninety thrilling minutes that claw at the entrails of love, desperation, loss and aggression, Cave and his band run the gamut of a high-quality career that continues to impress. Songs from their acclaimed fourteenth album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!Midnight Man, the title track, and set highlight We Call Upon The Author To Explain, which finds Cave at his commandeering best – stand strongly beside such established canon as The Ship Song, Tupelo and The Weeping Song. Warren Ellis is the most watchable man in Australian rock, regardless of whether slinging a Mandocaster, violin or shaking a maraca; his role as Cave’s foil is imperative to the band’s dynamic, as the five others are content to keep to the shadows and concentrate on their parts.

Although an undeniably eloquent lyricist, Cave’s between-song banter consists solely of thanking the crowd and vaguely responding to their good-natured heckling: “No, I can’t play that song, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because it’s by another band. Probably Hunters And Collectors or something.” His sole solo venture is a brief piano-led performance of Love Letter from No More Shall We Part, which is sandwiched between Red Right Hand and a characteristically stunning Mercy Seat. Cave cuts a striking figure on stage: tonight, he paces constantly, gestures toward the crowd and his bandmates, and is just as affected by the timeless, masculine groove of his Bad Seeds as the rest of the seething hillside. Papa Won’t Leave You Henry and crowd favourite Deanna point toward the captivating set closer More News From Nowhere. But this is the Bad Seeds’ party – hell, they’re the festival curators – and damned if they’re not demanded to play an encore. Cave and his men reappear and encourage crowd participation during The Lyre Of Orpheus, before asking for requests. They share laugh among themselves for pulling such an obvious ploy – as 25-year rock veterans – before tearing through Get Ready For Love. Something outlandish is required to complete a towering collection of cathartic rock songs: the wickedly vulgar Stagger Lee fits this description, and the band bid us farewell.

An evening of unrelated, high-quality acts dictated an impressive turnout for the first Brisbane leg of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. As with the Buller event, the crowd largely consisted of older music fans who sought to revisit past acts, and perhaps discover something new. While The Saints destroyed their hometown credibility, the combination of two exceptional performances in Spiritualized and The Bad Seeds ensured that attendees received value for money. See you next year, ATP.