Last Thursday night, punters crowded in the secluded band room of the famed Workers Club to escape the cold winter’s night and gather to witness some quality live music. First on the bill was Brooke Russell. With a soft blue backlit light illuminating her shadow, she launched into her first song. A mixture of country, blues and folk was evident in her softly sung unique brand of folk. At this point the band room was comprised of scattered groups of attendees, all of which who immediately roused and stood to attention at the sound of Russell’s voice.
A sweet, pure yet unbridled tone inhabited her voice when she sang and she spoke with ease to the crowd in between songs, explaining the backstory of each to the attentive crowd. Her second song ‘Tell Me Darling’ was about learning to let go and appreciating what you have when you have it, she explained. With the lights low, she launched into a sweet song of lost love and lamenting, with specific geographical references to Melbourne, which was something that resonated with the intimate crowd well.
There was a sense of familiarity in the way that Brooke bantered with her audience, displaying an air of experience and maturity well beyond her years. After a healthy bout of applause and a substantially increased number of attendees now present in the room, Brooke successfully warmed up the crowd and made way for the next act, Brisbane-born Steve Grady. Penning expertly crafted alt-country songs for over a decade, Grady is well versed (aha!) in the art of the acoustic singer-songwriter domain. Initially he appeared slightly tentative in front of the large audience, constantly adjusting the tuning of his guitar and berating the sound engineer for drenching his guitar in sparkly reverb. But this soon changed as Grady adjusted to the audience and stage and eased up a little. Although nowhere near as chatty with the punters as the previous act, Grady exuded an enigmatic presence and an intriguing charm that belied his humble stage persona. He quietly announced ‘Struggle Street’, his first song of the set, and immediately launched into a slow-burning folk song with tightly molded harmonies floating gently over slowly strung suspended chords.
Drawing on the experiences of his recently completed EP A Year’s Gone By, the influence of solitary time spent in a hired heritage community hall in Kallista, regional Victoria was evident in his performance. ‘See The Good’ was next; an unabashed narrative love song that I’m sure hit home with every member of the audience. Grady seems to possess that age-old skill that only the best singer-songwriters hold; an innate ability to communicate a message to the audience. Whatever your story is, Grady somehow manages to somehow needle his way into your conscious and evoke memories that have been for a long time disconnected and distilled. Even if the connection in his songs may not seem at first blindingly evident, the strength of his narrative style, poeticism and coherent structure of the songs is to be applauded.
It’s unsurprising then that his live performance was so polished, given he has garnered so much attention from highly regarded figures in the alternative country pop scene, as well as the Australian music industry more broadly. Having had the pleasure of listening to Grady’s aforementioned EP several times over the course of the past week, I would highly recommend giving it a listen upon finishing reading this article. Each song on the EP has a pleasingly different feel to how it was performed live. The result is a refreshingly well-produced offering.
Next was ‘Launceston’, written recently on his tour to Tasmania with Dan Parsons (his fellow headliner, producer and longtime collaborator). Grady explained the story behind the lyrics – another pensive tale of lost love and the thrill of reveling in loneliness. He closed the EP launch set with a cover of The Replacements classic ‘I Can’t Hardly Wait’ to the tune of the entire crowd’s applause.
After a short break the final act of the night emerged, joined by a six-piece band comprised of live drums, organs, backup harmonies, bass and supplementary guitars. Clad in a well-tailored two-piece suit that possessed echoes of Tim Rogers’ sharp, starched collars and thin lapel style, Dan Parsons waltzed onto stage. With no delay, the band immediately launched into the Parsons original ‘Once You Know My Name’ with exceptionally tight instrumentation that displayed the high level of musicianship of each of the members.
‘Travelling Salesman’ was another beautiful yet gentle assault on the heartstrings. Preceding the song with a background on the song’s lyrics, Parsons soon quieted the slightly rowdy room with a sobering story of the loss of his good friend to a cult. His voice eluded a crisp, deep tone that reminds me of a young James Taylor; although Parsons possesses much more versatility, at points reaching a simmering falsetto reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens on Seven Swans.
Another highlight was the Mike Garris cover and collaboration with Steve Grady, ‘I Had That Dream Again Last Night’. This upbeat Americana style country hit was given life with the by this time eight-piece band (additions included a mandolin player and powerful backup singer Tracy McNeill). The connectedness of the collaboration between Parsons and Grady was fascinating to watch. Although vastly different in many ways, the two songwriters share just as many similarities and their camaraderie was invested within the hearts of the audience as they watched.