Notes’ cabaret seating arrangement bequeaths the best seats to those who buy the pricier dinner/show combo. The food is fine; the pre-show music is not. Two arcs of speaker stacks are suspended from the ceiling on either side of the stage like unsightly elephant tusks. They’re trumpeting music that’s simply horrible. “Isn’t this the chick who sung Black Velvet?” a diner hazards, miserably. It’s a relief when The Mess Hall singer/guitarist Jed Kurzel lopes onstage to put an end to it.
Kurzel has a profile to swoon and die for, and his set dips into some sweetly-delivered stories from his youth. But supporting The Drones’ frontman Gareth Liddiard must carry a weight like that which Frodo shoulders as he shuffles closer to Mordor. Kurzel’s more stripped-back, strumming numbers – the kind of tunes that rely on an intuitive sense of pace – seem a bit hurried.
In his customary worn-out blacks, Liddiard folds himself onto the centre-stage stool like a wiry black spider: all sharp angles and limbs. For newcomers to Liddiard’s show his oscillation between a light and a dark demeanour can be quite a head-fuck. Between songs he’s a mischievous shit-stirrer: unpretentious, funny and frank. Then, he launches into ‘Jezebel’, ‘Locust’ or ‘Oh My’ and the smile is ripped forcibly from your face to hang there unattended throughout the horror. Gripped by an urge to see how people are faring, I glance around during ‘Jezebel’ to see tears inching down a girl’s cheek. People are frozen in spectacle: no-one talks, drinks, or moves. We’re utter putty in his hands yet Liddiard extends us no recovery time. Just more friendly banter as balm to sooth the wounds he’s opened.
Through him surface stories about dysfunctional country towns simmering with racial tension, war wounds, suicide, and alcoholism, like ‘Locust’ (“They built a prison and it tempered in the sun / it rose up off a plateau like the last tooth in a gum”) and ‘I Don’t Want to Change’ (“I lived in the country where the dead wood aches / In a house made of stone and a thousand mistakes / Where the glory of morning got crushed by the burden of day”). He offers himself up as the conduit for characters overlooked by colonial history books, like the executioner of famous cannibal convict, Alexander Pearce. His is a savage vision and one that’s often based in the past, but somehow it still feels more relevant than a thousand columnists in The Weekend Australian trying to give utterance to similar themes.
But just when you pigeonhole him as a modern-day Henry Lawson, out comes ‘The Drifting Housewife’, a song about the universal anguish of marital woe. (“I was more worried about taxes / When my lovely red-eyed bride / Became a hair-splitting believer / That I should be vilified / My hopes were razed like three-day growth / Then raked by nervous ticks / Was I the bulls-eye or the launch-pad? / I could never find the switch”).
Only one new track from his forthcoming solo album is played called ‘Blondin Makes an Omelette’, about French tight-rope walker, Jean Blondin.
“It’s a metaphor and you’ve gotta work it out until I’m confident enough to tell you,” he challenges.
“But you’re bewwwdiful Gareth!” yells someone smitten.
“On the inside I mean,” he counters.
Aside from Blondin, it’s the afore-mentioned Drones standards plus ‘Sharkfin Blues’, ’16 Straws’ and a rare roll-out of ‘Another Rousing Chorus You Idiots!’ There’s zero intensity depreciation at Liddiard’s solo shows. The nakedness of an acoustic setting displays the songs’ incandescent bleakness even more starkly as Liddiard unloads with all the fire and brimstone ferocity of The Drones without them.