The line at the Corner Hotel is barely a line, a queue that ends modestly just around the building. Inside, the early crowd is early: punters waiting for their mates with a pint and aimlessly scrolling through their Facebook, supporting band members roaming with friends, and a young, long-haired couple the only ones right at the barrier on an otherwise empty floor. It’s a strange sight for a sold out show, especially a gig by one of Australia’s national treasures, The Smith Street Band.
Tonight is just one stop on their huge national tour for new single ‘Death to the Lads’, penned on the road whilst the band were traversing through America. The song is the first taste of their upcoming album in 2017, but is also a celebratory medal for The Smith Street Band’s new record label, Pool House Records. It’s a considerable and well-deserved feat for the Footscray band.
Brisbane band Forevr start the night off with their roaring, dream pop sound. It’s loud, perhaps too loud, and the screeching guitars, although emblematic of the shoegaze genre, overpower everything else. The band’s pop and electronic sensibilities struggle to shine through layers of noise, and swelling synths go unnoticed with the guitar-focused live performance. Each band member also stands awkwardly disconnected and emotionally distant from one other, each person intensely determined with their individual roles. Even on shoegaze terms, the lack of connection with both the audience and each other makes for a frankly forgettable set.
The Phantom of the Opera theme marks the introduction of Grim Rhythm, but the scattered reception renders the aim defunct: in the end, it’s more comical than impressive. However, they do synchronisation better than their predecessors, and there’s clear camaraderie amongst the band and a desire to impress the audience; they grin to themselves and others, perform but not overtly, and passion pushes their strides. While admirable, their ambition unfortunately becomes their downfall. Their simple, beer-bashing tunes do not translate well to an explosive live show, but the band attempts it by travelling down long ‘epic’ jams that eventuate nowhere. There are endless time changes and new shredding guitar lines that aren’t creative enough to keep the crowd interested for longer than two to three minutes. The best example of this is when, after what feels like hours, the instrumentation dies down to meet applause from the tired audience, and Grim Rhythm suddenly lurch back into the same song for another jam. An adrenaline rush is only good for so long.
At this point, beers are splashing all over the floor, people are pouring into the venue, and bearded dudes knock Boags out of balance. The night gets rowdier by the minute, and when The Nation Blue take the stage, they don’t need a Phantom of the Opera theme. The way they start their set is pretty magnificent: frontman Tom Lyncoln grabs the microphone forcefully, and with a single stark light beating down on his face, he spits the strong, angry first lines of their opening song with conviction. But it’s dragged down by the band’s often gimmicky nature. It’s an easy trap for punk bands to fall into and Lyncoln persistently and consistently makes his forehead bleed, shreds the guitar with his teeth, swings it around his body like a hula-hoop, plays it backwards, and it comes off contrived and forced rather than impressive. However, it’s ultimately a powerfully paced set that sparks like dynamite when it needs to because of its innate, easy aggression, but which redundant or overdone parts are very obviously so.
The audience reaction to the supporting acts are mixed insofar, and the tension rises as The Smith Street Band‘s start time inches closer and closer. The Corner has even drawn those delectable red curtains closed in anticipation like a cabaret show, what goes behind the scenes shrouded in mystery. When the lights dim and the band finally takes the stage, the crowd soars with enthusiasm: arms go up in the air in unison, noise skyrockets, the mosh jumps. They dive into ‘Death to the Lads’.
The Smith Street Band play tight and passionately. They are modest in that they don’t bring in bravado and instead play, simply, as musicians who make music, rather than performers. They’re not up in one’s face or filled with contrived masculinity, and it amplifies the down-to-earth honesty of their songs. Even Wil Wagner himself, although playing an almost sold out national tour, is humble when he speaks to his crowd. “It feels so good to be fucking home,” he says, and later, he pants through an anecdote about seeing the Corner Hotel on his old train line and wanting to play at the iconic venue since his teen years. He thanks them graciously. Somewhere along the night Wagner dotes on the community he sees before his eyes and acknowledges “that’s what it’s all about”. The crowd swells.
And it’s exactly that which propels The Smith Street Band from a good live band to a damn good one: community. Their songs are made for the stage — sing-a-long, heart-beating, throat-straining anthems that require a whole score of people by your side to sing. It’s this communal strength that propels the live show. The moshpit writhes like a live animal, at climax hands throw beers, iPhones and rock symbols in the air simultaneously, and Wagner could probably halt at any moment only to have the fans fill in the blanks for him (which he does occasionally, and gold light backlighting his mane like Melbourne’s second coming of Jesus, he looks upon the pit in awe). There’s even a sense that those who have never heard of the band would likely feel the urge to headbang and yell along to their hearty, robust tunes. When Wagner comes right up to the barrier and launches himself into the audience, the fans reach to grasp their friend. Although their recordings have garnered much praise, it’s clear that the band’s live antics are a whole other story because of the vehement support behind them that pushes them into the spotlight.
Luckily, they themselves seem to be aware: The Smith Street Band is a band for the community.