Anyone who was anywhere that wasn’t a king-sized bed with three doonas and a hot water bottle knew that Melbourne was fecking cold on Saturday night. It’s for this reason that falling through the door at the Grace Darling was such a relief – the place is always guaranteed to be chockers and toasty warm. The bar area was true to form, and after engaging with the door list guard who was perched atop a dark staircase with little more than a Game of Thronesian candle, we were permitted a safe passage into the band room for the Joe McKee album launch.
The first support, modestly named Superstar, were occupying the stage with cool indifference as we requested wine from the unfeasibly attractive bar staff. The crowd was small but this felt appropriate for the calm, sweet sound that the two members were producing. With soft, high-pitched vocals and swelling keys it was the kind of stuff you wanted to flop onto a beanbag and vague-out to.
There were only two members of Superstar, but the stage was crowded with equipment, and after a short break and a rise in patron numbers, all forty members of Melodie Nelson piled onto the stage. Okay, so there are actually only six band members, but it seemed as though there were many more. The stage area was limited to begin with, but with most of the space taken up by the cello, keyboard and drum kit there was little room left for the three guitarists. The two ladies provided some lovely vocals for the sweet surf-inflected dream pop that they put on for us. Front woman Lia Tsamoglou paid gushing tribute to their headliner before a quick quip about CDs and their last song.
Formerly the frontman of Perth-born, London-based indie rock (what does that even mean?) band Snowman, Joe McKee has made the shift to a solo project. Given that Snowman covered a vast musical territory, the vagueness of the title “indie rock” is probably appropriate, and it’s not a surprise that the influences developed there are apparent in McKee’s debut solo effort Burning Boy
. Here, instead of the meaty reverb-sodden guitars and heavy drums of Snowman, he leaned on swelling strings and breathy, smooth vocals to bridge moments of silence and frenetic drum activity.
McKee joined the rest of his band on stage, which consisted of a drummer, a keyboard player and McKee on guitar. Decked out in a sharp suit of deep David Lynchian colours, the very handsome McKee set out on a very serious set. Unfortunately for him there were several elements working against him on this particular night.
The crowd was sizeable, but when it comes to intimate gigs it can often be the quality, not the quantity of the crowd that is important. Many musicians have some odd on-stage behaviours, an easy example being Peter Garrett, and Joe McKee has a similar tic with a permanently re-adjusting jaw. This is something that sections of the audience found beyond hilarious, which is beyond unfortunate in such a small venue. Thanks fucktards, it actually was impossible to ignore your consistently irritating giggle and infinitely rude and persistent conversation. Adding to the likelihood that we wouldn’t be lost in the mist of McKee’s music was the jovial pub noise that filled the pregnant pauses littering his songs. Someone, put this man in a theatre, please.
Despite these hindrances, McKee persisted in delivering a tight set featuring most of his debut record. Making free use of loops and pedals, McKee held the stage with little chatter and a soft weight, echoing the contradictions between delicateness and aggression that run through his album. Apparently not entirely comfortable on stage, McKee intermittently stepped down and stood playing his guitar with his back to the audience. During other segments of his songs that didn’t require vocals, he would wander down from the stage and drift through the crowd.
This music is simply begging for a film to run along with it, and it’s a pity that the launch wasn’t a more immersive experience. Not quite folk, not rock, not quite post-rock, not quite progressive, not really experimental, McKee’s music is definitely ambient, minimal and dark, despite it’s light piano inflections. It would be a real treat to see this in a dedicated music venue with some dramatic lighting or visual display to work with the music. We’re dreaming of a McKee audio onslaught at the tiny La Mama Theatre. Is that greedy? We don’t think so.
Joe McKee plays at Paddington Uniting Church in Sydney, on Thursday 16 August.
Check out our chat with the muso here