Phrase, The Preachers, The Owls @ Transit Bar, Canberra (13/10/11)

The Australian hip-hop scene is going from strength to strength, and Melbourne’s Phrase has been at the centre of it ever since his debut, Talk with Force in 2005.

However, times have changed and hip-hop artists are exploring new genres and new sounds. Melodies, instrumental bands and singing are not always qualities associated with hip-hop, but they are all present on Phrase’s third album Babylon.

On an album with such diverse collaborations as Jimmy Barnes, Sparkadia’s Alex Burnett and Jane Doe, it’s exciting to see the new direction that Phrase has taken.

Phrase’s Canberra gig took place last Thursday night, a lazy, spring night that was typical of the capital. Entering Transit Bar, fans immediately noticed the drum kit on stage. It quickly became evident that no MC’s or DJ’s would be needed, so instead the audience prepared themselves for the live-band treatment.

First support, The Owls, reign from Newcastle, but you’d be excused for thinking they came from 1970’s America. Long hair and moustaches were the order of the day as they delivered Stoner Rock-esque riffs and catchy melodies. A small crowd were on hand to hear this dirty, yet solid set that had heads bopping around the bar. Lead singer Joshua Bailey’s clean-cut appearance was misleading as he lustfully ripped through songs from their debut self-titled EP, which was happily handed around to the early arrivers following their entertaining set. Well worth checking out the next time they are in town.

Continuing the multi-instrumental theme for the night, a keyboard, 3 mics and a drum kit appeared on the tiny Transit stage for the next act. Hailing from ‘down the road’, Sydney-siders The Preachers took the stage with delight. Vocal duties are shared between the front-man, Gideon Bensen and keyboardist, Isabella Manfredi and this is accentuated by their change in song styles, from laid-back Patti Smith to rocking Rolling Stones inspired numbers. They played an inspired selection of tunes (all of which, the crowd was told, are available for free on their website), which made for a very fun set. It was a shame that the crowd was still so small, as The Preachers are the kind of band that needs to be playing to a raucous party audience. Hopefully, next time this will be the case.

The last time I saw Phrase, I was standing at the back of a packed tent at Homebake 2009. This was a drastic contrast to the 60 odd punters in Transit on a Thursday night in Canberra. During his set Phrase said that creating his new album has felt like starting all over again. That may well be how he feels, but the new tracks are some of the finest he has produced. The backing band for the night’s show was full of talent (including two members of Gypsy & the Cat) and they gave a solid base to Phrase’s lyrical prowess. He rolled through some of the songs from his new album Babylon, before taking us back to Clockwork with Skylight and the title track in which Jane Doe jumped onto stage to deliver the memorable refrain.

The crowd was quiet for most of the set, with the only patrons venturing to the stage the photographers keen for a few snaps. It was a standout track off the new album, The Book that finally tempted a small group of dancers to the front of the stage. This was the only real crowd participation of the night and although disappointing, the performance from Phrase was not. Being a weeknight, the music was to stop at 11:30, causing Phrase to cut some songs from his setlist, but not before rounding out the night with crowd favourite, Spaceship.

Phrase’s show was not diminished by the lack of fan participation. He delivered a quality set and displayed the diversity and new style that he has strived for with his latest release. He’s obviously keen to explore this new style and hopefully crowds will grow as he does. As he said during the set, he is keen to try something different, as proven by the choice of support acts. With the growing number of Aussie hip-hop acts around at the moment, this can only be a good thing.