Tumbleweed’s first sold-out gig was at the Tote in the early ’90s. You can still hear the thrill of it in drummer Stevie O’Brien’s voice today. It’s Saturday and I’ve bumped into him at Title record store on Gertrude Street. He’s roaming Fitzroy, hungover, in the wake of the previous night’s sold-out show and a session with the Tote’s rider that galloped through to 5am.
“Often we didn’t even bother with Sydney, back in the day,” says O’Brien, flipping through records. “We’d just come straight down to Melbourne.”
Those early highs are etched irreplaceably. Around 20 years later, Tumbleweed’s fond memory of that sold-out gig – and of appreciative Melbourne crowds in general – is why they decide to play two nights at the Tote (which spread to three) instead of one show at a larger, less nostalgic venue. Three consecutive dates on a small stage is a hard slog physically, admits O’Brien. But it’s sure got a ring to it.
I’ve never been to the Tote. Although I’m from Sydney, this confession still raises Melbournians’ eyebrows. “How?” they want to know. But I feel like I know the joint as soon as I walk in. The walls of the front bar close in around me like a hand forms a fist. A grubby, friendly fist, that punches me on the shoulder and asks how the fuck I am. I feel so at home I pony up to the bar and order a schooner. The barman super-sizes me a pint in return.
“Most people drink pots,” advises a friend. “Except the kids, they drink pints these days.” He’d know. As singer and bass player in Melbourne “grog rock” bands Lumber and Slocombe’s Pussy, he’s a card-carrying grog rocker. He introduces me to one of the Tote’s three newish owners, John.
“Do you come to all the Tote gigs?” I ask John.
“Just the special ones,” he replies, twinkle-eyed.
It’s band room time. I assess the perilous steps leading down to the pit and note Agonhymn’s Dav Byrne doing sound. What a comforting sight. The sonic extremes Byrne wrings from his own guitar in doom duo Agonhymn surely equip him splendidly for the job.
Kaleidoscope is a youthful three-piece that personify Wollongong in name (the first one they thought of that sounded trippy enough), sound (distortion) and spectacle (dreads). These are no stumpy little salon jobs either. All three Kaleidoscope members sprout impressively long, thick and sandy-coloured dreads, which almost distract from the fact that their guitars are slung about knee-high. They must have long arms, I figure. A couple of songs in, I realise these cavemen from the coast sling their straps low to allow for maximum axe-slinging leverage. When the guitarist slaps his foot on the distortion pedal – which he does joyfully and often – it’s the cue for “Go bananas guys!” Upwards of 60 dreads whirl in smelly-looking circles with the guitarist and bass player nearly breaking each other’s noses with their guitar heads in the abandon of their rock-piggery. Rock-piggery, which, ultimately, makes their pretty simple grunge look like a lot more effort than it actually is. Their best song sounds like a Kyuss song from Welcome to Sky Valley.
Sons of the Ionian Sea have a monstrously fat bluesy stoner sound and, in between expletive-strewn vocals, simmer up some monstrously fat bluesy stoner jams. I’m reminded of Fu Manchu, first by the sound and second, by the mysterious energy swap that is transacted between band (waxing) and crowd (waning) as the set progresses. While Sons of the Ionian Sea’s chemistry is clearly a highly productive force for the band, for the crowd it comes shrink-wrapped: it’s really hard to get our claws into. By the end of their set – which, admittedly, scorches – I feel like Scrooge peering in the window onto the happy Crachit family feast. Brothers Nick and Gerasimos Grammenos face each other from stage left and stage right, polishing off the overall effect that Sons of the Ionian Sea is an invite-only family affair.
The energy floods back into the room in anticipation of the ‘Weed. A “full house” sign is slapped above the band room entrance; a bunch of enterprising kids leap-frog the concept of both pots and pints and start drinking beer directly from the jug; the Tote doorbitch gets a drink thrown on her and the smell of pot wafts through the room. I realise it’s the same “leery, beery air” I experienced at Tumbleweed’s “secret show” at The Annandale in 2010.
When Richie cruises out from the wings and the band riffs off into ‘Sundial’, I barely recognise him – he’s gone all Warren Ellis with long hair and a bushy beard. But he’s the same ol’ Richie, with that voice that’s so wrong yet so right, endearingly awkward stage banter, and a way of grooving while the band rocks that makes him look like the young man he was last time Tumbleweed played here.
The sane and the sober soon melt away from front section, which decomposes into the usual bunch of dudes shoving each other for kicks. Barring the new songs, sound-wise and set-wise, this gig is no different to any I’ve seen since Tumbleweed reformed. It’s dense, tight, heavy and loud, crammed with their signature songwriting smarts. After this original line-up split in ’96, all five members continued playing and, as a result, have all matured as musicians. Each time I see them, a different song grabs me by the throat. Tonight, the outro to ‘The Sky Is High’ time-warps me back to one of the breath-takingly heavy instrumental interludes from bygone Sydney thrash-rockers, Massappeal. I’m jolted out of my reverie by a guy next to me.
“Play a song I know!” yells a fan. “Play ‘Mr Pharmacist’!”
It’s about mid-set and maybe Richie intuits his hard-working bandmates need a breather. “Make it green,” he instructs the lighting guy. The lights go green but the shade is not to Richie’s taste. The lights go dark purple, dark red, then green again but Richie isn’t having any of it. To his credit, they do all look pretty dreadful. “Does anyone want a job as a lighting guy?” he asks. “We’re taking applications. We’ll pay you 25 cents a year.” They play a song with no lights at all after which guitarist Paul Hausmeister stages a grinning protest. “I can’t see my frets man!”
While Tumbleweed’s successful comeback makes you take a hearty slug of beer in celebration, three years deep into the reformation it’s only a matter of time before they run out of legendary gigs and thwarted aspirations of yore to triangulate in new, commemorative ways. They’ve already ticked off Waves, Homebake, Meredith, the “secret” show and the pub rock redux. How much longer will it befit a bunch of guys in their 40s to play songs like ‘Hang Around’ (“I do nothing else but hang around”) and ‘Stoned’ (“Why don’t they all get stoned?”). Not much longer without some new songs stirred into the mix.
While it’s true the new songs are an expression of Tumbleweed’s re-fuelled song-writing chemistry, the stakes are higher than that. New songs in a live set help them neutralise accusations of unauthenticity, leaving the coast clear for all of us to enjoy songs like Hang Around and Stoned – full of a spirit the band may recall but can’t possibly identify with anymore. New songs are about not becoming a Tumbleweed tribute band. There’s no grunge zeitgeist to surf in on anymore. This time around Tumbleweed is treading water amid a fickle grunge revival, with unforseen currents, derivative ’90s acts half their age circling like sharks, and plenty of rocks to wash up on.
The most notable new number tonight is long, heavy, “changey” and nothing like the awkward balladry of ‘Acid Rain’ or even the approachable slow-mo stoner riffs of ‘Daddy Long Legs’ (the breakthrough hits that still get the biggest crowd response at gigs). According to Steve O’Brien, the band is getting along better than ever before. It shows. But will songs like this appeal to the bulk of punters when the time comes to slap down cold hard cash? I’d hazard their interest lies more in reliving their favourite triple j Hottest 100 disc and the chance they’ll buy new material is slim. Richie must agree.
“We’ve got a new record coming out this year so can you do something for me and buy it?” he asks. “Hopefully it’ll be good – it will be good. And we’re putting our own money into it so – just buy it OK. So can I hear you say you’re gonna buy it?”
“Yeah!” yell the crowd. “Play ‘Mr Pharmacist’!”
The band downs tools and traipses off –except Stevie who waits out the encore in sweaty dishevelment at his kit. As a result, people don’t really yell the house down. Clearly, ‘Mr Pharmacist’ will be played. After which even Stevie bails. Gig is over.
Related: Icons – Tumbleweed
Mess+Noise version here.