on rock bands and puppy dogs and phd’s…

I didn’t see this coming. At 50 years of age I find myself suddenly hanging out in pubs and clubs and live music venues around Brisbane. I’ve even been seen in the Valley after midnight. Truth is I didn’t even do these things when I was 18, so to be there at 50…it’s all a bit strange.

The reason, of course, is one of my children. He’s in a band and as a dutiful dad, I’m there to transport him and encourage him and his band-mates.Yes, at times, to be a roadie-dad. We hang out up the back with the other parents, shoot a little video, enjoy watching the band perform and the 20-somethings in the crowd dance and sing and love life like there is no tomorrow.

The band, well, they’re something else. A bunch of 18 and 19 year olds that combine genuine musical talent, ambition, unbridled joy with a huge dose of irony and irreverence. They’ve named their five-piece band the Rutherford Jazz Trio. There are five of them, none are named Rutherford, and they don’t (usually) play jazz. Go figure.

Forming at high school a couple of years ago, their initial experiences involved things like private parties, open-stage street festivals and a season of 6-hour busking sessions on Saturday mornings at the Rocklea Markets. Now that they’re all 18+ they’re playing pubs and live music venues across Brisbane and entering the live-music scene, earning their chops.

Of course we, the parents, are following along. Ridiculously proud. Busting out embarrassing dance moves. Wondering where it will all end up.

The privilege of my viewpoint from up the back has been to see the astonishing improvement that has been (and still is) occurring. I’m sworn to not ever revealing video from those early days, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

They’ve gone from a band of talented school-age musicians tentatively sharing their gifts, with a lead singer (my lad) who at times used to have the song lyrics on his phone so he could remember them, to a group that can rock the house down with energy, passion and a performance style that is irresistible (recognising, of course, my obvious bias). Everything is improving – musicianship, performance, songwriting. Everything. Such has been their improvement that they most recently won an 80-entrant Battle of the Bands competition (here’s their performance).

The music is fun, engaging, funk-rock. The lyrics are at times completely irreverent (like the delightful “Fish Hat” or my current favourite “One Dollar”). Somehow they’re treading a line that hovers between honouring and skewering different parts of the society we have built for ourselves over this last 50 years. Consumerism, fashion, tourism, music – everything is fair game.

Watching them grow and learn has been an absolute delight.

And then…this week our family has just been joined by a 10-week old puppy. It’s a tiny, impossibly cute ball of energy and fury. In the style of puppies everywhere, it goes 100 miles an hour until it just can’t stay awake any longer and collapses. Even as I type he’s madly (and successfully) trying to climb all the way up my legs to get in a good bout of face-licking.

The thing about a new puppy, somewhat like a new human baby, or a fledgling band, is the astonishing speed at which they learn. Every day Harley the wonder-pup learns or does something new. Sometimes it’s something we don’t want, like learning to climb and jump, but other times it’s useful skills like sleeping and toileting and responding to his new human family. He’s incredible.

And then (there’s almost always an “and then”) my beloved is about to graduate from a 4-year PhD journey. Next Tuesday she’ll walk across the stage, hat and gown and all, accept a certificate and officially become “Dr”. The journey has been difficult, combining full-time study with nearly full-time work with being a mum to a house-hold full of teenagers. But she’s smashed it, disciplined when I wouldn’t have been, committed to the countless hours of reading and writing and researching and making it all make sense. Committed to learning.

Learning is a wonderful, extraordinary thing.

That’s true whether it comes from the unavoidable learning that’s part of new life, or the rapid, dedicated improvement that comes with serious practice and exposure to new experiences, or the slow, gradual improvement the comes as a result of discipline, hard work, and the accumulation of life’s experiences.

I find myself, as I delight in the journey of Rutherford Jazz Trio, and as I am equally smitten and frustrated by a new puppy, as I watch in amazement at my wife’s studies (again, ridiculously proud) wondering what is my own commitment to learning? Is it in my professional world, or my hobbies, or in my family and friendship roles? What can I improve? How can I grow? What new experiences can I open myself up to?

Because thing thing is, I’m pretty sure that learning is something that should be lifelong. It doesn’t belong to babies and children and puppies and new employees and PhD students and rock bands on the first step of a journey to change the world. Learning is for all of us, all the time. Would it be going too far, I wonder, to say that to stop learning is to lose something precious about what it is to be human?

So I’ll keep doing the dad-shuffle up the back at pubs and clubs, enjoying the band, delighting in their improvement. I’ll keep marveling at the puppy (while quietly raging as it chews everything in sight), and I’ll sit in the audience at next week’s graduation ceremony and probably shed a tear of pride and joy.

And I’ll keep quietly asking….what can I learn? Where can I grow? What new thing can I experience? Or at least…I’ll try.

music, memories and midnight oil

Memories are a funny thing, particularly as you get a little older. Sometimes you have to dig around to find that lost one just out of reach somewhere in the dim dark recesses of the extraordinary thing we call the human brain. Other times though, they come flooding out, unbidden, unexpected and impossible to resist. And music has a way of drawing out memories more than just about anything else, transporting us in an instant to another time and place.

Last night I had just such an experience.

I was standing in a crowd of 8000 at Brisbane’s Riverstage, singing and dancing (yes, true, I did dance) along with the incomparable Midnight Oil. They’re in the middle of what is billed as their final tour after thrilling crowds for more than 40 years. As a lifelong fan, I had to be there, there was no option.

And as we stood, sang, danced (ok, I confess, it was what might be charitably described as “dad-dancing”), the memories came pouring forth.

Memories of sneaking an under-aged brother into a licenced venue gig in the early 90s. Of Boondall Entertainment Centre absolutely packed to the rafters for Crowded House and Hunters and Collectors…but clearly most of the punters there mainly for Midnight Oil. Of gig, after gig, after gig.

Perhaps most memorable, an insane Saturday night at the Alexandra Headlands Hotel, the room heaving with sweaty, singing, dancing bodies, the atmosphere so intense the room practically had its own weather system (and eventually it did as Peter Garrett threw jugs of water over the crowd from the stage, and the lads up the back started doing the same with jugs of beer).

At most of those shows I shared the joy with Sheri, and in recent years had the opportunity to take my then 14 year old son, and last night my now 14 year old daughter for not only their first big rock concert, but their first (and probably last) Oils gig.

These memories and more came flooding back as we rocked away the night. I wasn’t exactly sad, though I’ll definitely miss seeing this band live. More that the band and the music took me on a tour through some of the key moments of my own life as they played through a phenomenal back-catalogue interspersed some belters from their latest (trust me, it’s worth a few listens to the new album Resist).

I sometimes wonder what it is about Midnight Oil that I find inescapable. Why I have a full set of their albums; why I still send spotify playing an Oils playlist; why my most prized possession is a signed postcard from the band on the occasion of my 30th birthday (thanks Tracey…still don’t know how you organised it!).

Perhaps it’s that the band and the music has been something of a soundtrack for my life. With each album they’ve grown and matured and changed, as my own life has done likewise. There are songs from the band that line up with some of the big moments of my own story.

Perhaps it’s the message within the music, a powerful call to justice, to indigenous reconciliation, to an environmental consciousness – my own political views and interests do echo those of the band after all. And a band that has done its best to live out the protest that infuses the lyrics, not just sing about it.

Or perhaps it’s just that as a live music act, there is nothing quite like Midnight Oil. The power and the passion is a much over-used and hackneyed phrase when describing them…but like so many cliches it works precisely because it is true. You couldn’t watch last night and not be blown away by the raw fury of classics like Stand in Line and Back on the Borderline, or the joy with which the crowd joined in the much-loved Beds are Burning, King of the Mountain and Read About It. Then there’s the song after which the cliche is named. There’s maybe nothing quite so incredible, quite so riotous, quite so oddly joyful as seeing drummer Rob Hirst cut loose in the epic drum solo in Power and the Passion. Everybody knows it’s coming, that he’s about to add some more dents and dings to the corrugated iron water tank that is the oh-so-Australian addition to his drum kit, and that he’s about to destroy yet another set of drumsticks in the process. It still never fails to live up to expectations.

Far from just phoning in some old-timey classics though, the band threw in a few of the latest. Resist is a powerful call to arms, At the Time of Writing might just have been the song of the night (for me at least), and then there was eight thousand voices belting out what may be destined to become one of the band’s most famed lyrics of all time…”who left the bag of idiots open?” in the three-part epic Barka-Darling River.

They’re an interesting band to watch too. Garrett is of course unmistakable. Even if the phrenetic fury of “those” dance moves has calmed down (just a little), the voice, face and physical presence dominate. Martin Rotsey wails away on guitar, while Jim Mogine brings a musical genius to the outfit that is astonishing. With the passing of long-term bassist Bones Hillman, newcomer Adam Ventoura steps in, accompanied on this tour by the extra (and welcome) vocal talents of Liz Stringer and Leah Flanagan (her duet with Garret on First Nation yet another highlight). For me though, it seems obvious that drummer and singer Rob Hirst is the heart and soul of the band. He writes a lot of the music along with Moginie, and is one of those people you just can’t look away from. And from the outside at least, it looks like he is having a flat-out blast from start to finish. I don’t reckon the smile left his face once all night. Fittingly, he is last to walk off stage, last to wave.

Before you know it, the show is done. Another memory locked away to emerge unexpectedly somewhere down the track

Of course by now you’ve realised I’m no independent music critic. And to be honest I don’t have the musical knowledge to really analyse the show, the band or the songs. I’m a fan. Always have been, and always will be. And I was delighted to have just one more chance to be taken on a trip by this band that has meant so much to so many for so long.

Music has a way of drawing memories, and so many of mine are connected to this exceptional band. If this is to be the last show I see, it’s a fitting end. Long live the memories.

who’s in the band?

Just about every job I can think of has elements of repetition in it.

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Whether you’re a tax accountant, a bus driver, a school teacher, a professional athlete or a nurse…some days must feel like groundhog day. The same tasks, over and over again.

Recently I got to thinking about bands and musicians in this light.  How, I wondered, does a band play the same song over, and over, and over. Every night in front of a new audience, in a new city, but the same song.  And if it’s a big hit song, they might play it hundreds, or thousands of times over decades. Over and over and over.

Somehow the challenge must be to find a way for it to be fresh every night. Every audience wants to feel like the band are loving the song. Every night there has to be passion, excitement, enthusiasm for that same song.

How do they sing the same song night after night, after night?

I was pondering this in light of a work project that I’m involved in. We’ve been at it for a couple of years, with a couple more to go – and part of my job is the storytelling. So I often find myself sharing the same story, or giving the same presentation. How, I wondered, will I stay motivated and fresh for the years to come?

I was pondering this question with a wise friend who responded like this:

“Scott”, he said, “I think it’s not always about the song.”

“It’s not even about the audience, not always”.

“Mostly, it’s about the band.  The band that are committed to each other, that love making music together, that draw their energy from one another, that believe in something together.”

“If you want to stay fresh, and keep your energy for this project, then it’s about the band. Who is in your band? Who are you making music with? What do you believe in together?”

It struck me as a profound insight, and a really good question.

Later that same night, Australian television presenter Waleed Ali interviewed Dave Grohl of the band Foo Fighters. At one point in the interview, the conversation turned to what it’s like for a band to play in front of small audiences in a post-COVID environment, rather than the stadiums full of raving fans that Foo Fighters are more used to.

While acknowledging they love playing in front of people, Grohl’s response struck me. He said:

“When the six of us get together with instruments in our laps, I don’t really care how many people are there, it just feels good to be with my guys, making music.”

And there it is. The audience does matter, and the music matters, but in a profound and important way, it’s about the band.

So when I think about my work project, I’m left with this question…who’s in the band with me? What’s the music we are driven to play together? I think perhaps the band is where my motivation might come from.

And I suspect that might be true for many of us, no matter the job. So…how about you? Who’s in your band?

the power of every place….and no place

I’ve been listening to Stu Larsen’s new EP Ryeford, and I want to tell you about it. Before I do, there are two things you need to know.

Firstly, I’m not a music reviewer, or a music professional, or even a musician. And this is a not a place you would normally read about music. The fact that I can’t help writing about Ryeford might tell you something about it.

The second is that the artist I’m going to write about, Stu Larsen, is my cousin. We’re related. I may be biased. You can judge. The truth is, that I listened to the music because Stu is my cousin. But I listened again (and again, and again) because I was captured by it. Continue reading