Question: what level of arrogance does it take for a band with a name as untraveled as Wagons to book one of Melbourne’s premier venues, the 1500 capacity Forum Theatre? Sure, the band have released five albums, toured extensively, and have been all over the music media in the last six months, but the question was could they fill it?
At 8:30PM, the floor section contained only a few scattered groups holding $8 beers and an ensemble of press photographers hovering around the barricade, as the night’s first act, Teeth and Tongue, took to the stage. Having recently released their second album, Tambourine, and completed their own headline tour, the Melbourne three-piece consisting of bandleader/singer/songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist/drum-machinist Jess Cornelius, guitarist Marc Regueiro-McKelvie and bass player/percussionist Damien Sullivan, were in top form. In contrast to last month’s album launch at The Toff in Town, the band’s sound was much larger in the mostly empty theatre; every note, every chunky snare hit from Cornelius’ drum machine coming through loud and clear through the large stack of array speakers. To their credit, Teeth and Tongue did not appear perturbed by their surroundings in the least and delivered a fantastic set made completely of songs from the new album.
Cornelius managed to ride the line and appear natural and down to earth whilst maintaining the drama of her performance, her arms flailing like an underwater dancer; her costume, a floral unitard (a leotard bodysuit). Indeed, high drama is an important part of Teeth and Tongue’s music. Not in a soppy confessional sense, but in a theatrical Kate Bush sort of way, which Cornelius uses to transform herself into one of the most exciting front women currently performing in Australia. This theatricality would be a theme for all the acts performing tonight, although they would all use it in different ways.
In keeping with the theme of theatre, on either side of Teeth and Tongue’s set an MC, comedian/musician Peter Escott, from Tasmanian band Native Cats, attempted to bridge the gap and keep the crowd entertained. While the idea of having a compere to further the idea of the night being a neatly packaged spectacular was commendable, the result was far from the kind of slick master of ceremonies who might have hyped a crowd before introducing James Brown. Instead, Escott’s rambling, unfunny introductions, coupled with his casual t-shirt and jeans, only helped to give the impression of an open mic night, and what’s more pressed the patience of the audience until he was finally booed off.
Up next was Melbourne’s favourite Mexican-styled three piece band, the Puta Madre Brothers. For those who have yet to be initiated into a Puta Madre gig, the basic idea is that all three protagonists, Anto Macaroni, Pikkle Henning and Renato Vacirca, wear matching uniforms complete with grease-streaked faces and dishevelled greasy hair, while each playing a kick drum and guitar. Musically there are Spanish influences to their sound, but they do not by any means play mariachi, flamenco or Mexican music. Instead they are best described as a garage band who employ vintage surf guitar tones; heavy tremolo and harsh transistor amplifiers, with big lazy bass lines and even lazier rhythms.
The vocals, where there were any, were mostly delivered by Macaroni, who appeared to be the frontman of sorts, or at least the one most committed to the band’s concept. Throughout the set he contorted his face into gruesome shapes, yelped out disconnected words in broken Spanish and more or less hammed it up while his band mates remained comparatively stoic. One suspects that this might not have been the best setting to see the Puta Madre Brothers, that at a festival, for instance, they would have the opportunity to really go wild. Nevertheless, they performed well and got the crowd, which by this point had managed to mostly fill the dance floor, warmed up and ready for the main act.
It was obvious at this point that any doubts as to whether the audacity of booking such a big room would pay off could now be disregarded. As the Puta Madre Brothers bowed off stage right and Peter Escott again emerged, the inevitable push forward for a front and centre position began. By golly they’d done it. But first, Escott announced, there would be a secret musical guest, and sure enough The DC3, a new three piece (yes another one) group fronted by Damien Cowell, aka DC Root from ROOT!, aka Humphrey B. Flaubert from TISM walked on to perform a song from their debut album, and the reason for their invitation tonight. The song, titled Henry Fucking Wagons, true to the spirit of TISM, was as funny as it was bizarre, and was a fantastic way to introduce the main act.
The first thing one should say about Wagons is that, similar to the two preceding acts, they have taken the idea of theatricality and run with it even further, to the point that each member of the band has become a character in Henry Wagons’ musical comedy; none more so than Wagons himself. If the singer was nervous in his grand surrounds, he didn’t show it, strutting onstage in a cowboy shirt, fur vest and a 1980’s style headband. Donning an acoustic guitar, Wagons dived into a set heavy with songs from the group’s new album Rumble, Shake and Tumble and their 2009 breakthrough, The Rise and Fall of Goodtown.
In their current incarnation of Chad Mason, Mark ‘Tuckerbag’ Dawson, Si the Philanthopist, Richard Blaze and Matt ‘Soft Moods’ Hassett, most of whom swapped instruments throughout the night, the band managed to remain extremely focused, with not a discernible note out of place, while delivering a high energy performance that would have been difficult not to enjoy.
Everything about the show was over the top, in a glorious and bombastic sort of way. From the venue’s size and grand and tacky décor, through to the huge rock sing-a-long choruses that could make Bon Jovi jealous – this was not an occasion for subtlety.
Henry Wagons is the ultimate showman: he is self assured, manically energetic and wildly enthusiastic. He bounced around the stage, posing, yelling, and crooning like a Chihuahua on amphetamines, making it his personal mission to ensure everybody in attendance was having fun. During crowd favourite Willie Nelson, Wagons, with the help of a wireless microphone, jumped down to run amongst the crowd, so he could personally ensure that each individual sang along.
Musically, the band trade in country rock, encompassing not only the classic country balladeering of Nelson, the dangerous Sun Records shuffle of Johnny Cash but also the glittery-Las Vegas side of the genre, such as Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, mixed in with a smattering of 1980s bogan rock; hence the sweatband. While Henry Wagons may do everything with his tongue firmly in his cheek, as witnessed on the huge sing-a-long during their cover of Three Dog Night’s Never Been to Spain, tonight he proved that if you do it with the right amount of sincerity, no matter how uncool the genre is, that much passion is bound to rub off.
The band started off in their basic formation and throughout the course of their set gathered more guest musicians, including ex-bassist Steve ‘Harmony’ Hassett, their producer Cornel Wilczek (aka Qua), and Biddy Connor from Laura Jean on the bowed saw, each of whom remained onstage after their initial introduction. By the end of the night, there would be five guitars playing mostly simultaneously, in keeping with the overblown extravagance that is Wagons.
Tonight was surely a watershed moment in this band’s career to date; an infectious performance that had the entire Forum Theatre grinning from ear to ear, dancing when possible, clapping, cheering and singing along. All of which stands as testament to that self mythologised god of Australian country music, Henry ‘Fucking’ Wagons.
Originally published on FasterLouder on 20/07/2011. View original article.