Mess+Noise - October 29, 2009

Rowland S Howard

The glory days when The Prince Of Wales hotel in St Kilda was the mecca of Melbourne's rock'n'roll scene are long gone. Now backpackers, yuppies and bogans fight it out for control of Fitzroy Street and what remains of its bohemian culture. Escaping the ugliness and potential violence of the street and stepping into the Prince Bandroom resembles one of those uncanny dreams where everything is changed, yet somehow remains the same. Under the unattractive veneer of its nightclub sophistication, complete with disco ball and over-priced beverages, still lurk the grimy ghosts of rock'n'roll past, patiently waiting to be called forth by Rowland S Howard's voodoo ritual of a gig.

As the faithful slowly filter in, The Dacios do their absolute best to ignite proceedings with a thunderous set of muscular, pile-driving riffs. Combined with Linda J's forceful stage presence and husky bellow of a voice, they cannot be denied and hold the crowd's attention, eliciting enthusiastic rounds of applause with a set that seems way too short.

The three-piece Kes band has an uphill battle on their hands to hold the rapidly filling room's attention. Their intricate and less linear tunes, combined with Karl Scullin's idiosyncratic vocal style, fail to engage most people's imagination tonight. Unfortunately, a muddy mix doesn't help to endear them either. It's a pity, but the band doesn't seem to mind too much, steadfastly believing in the worth of their art.

Then it's time for Rowland. He steps into the spotlight, rake-thin and ravaged looking, yet immaculately attired in his customary suit. He makes light of his illness by apologising in advance for any potential on-stage vomiting. “I feel a bit queasy,” he quips, before launching straight into the rollicking ‘Pop Crimes'. Behind Rowland, Mick Harvey demonstrates why he was right to abandon the sinking ship that is The Bad Seeds, relishing the opportunity to display his unique skills on the drums and play with a friend who appreciates his musical contribution.

Brian Hooper may be shaky on his legs, the legacy of an accident some years ago, but his bass playing remains inimitable in its sturdiness and repetitious groove. Most of the songs tonight are driven by Hooper's pulse-like riffs, none more so than the band's re-invention of Talk Talk's ‘Life's What You Make It', which turns into a steam-rolling juggernaut and something of an life-affirming mantra for Howard. It's fun watching people attempt to dance to the song's lurching rhythm.

With JP Shilo fleshing out the sound with subtly deployed violin and guitar, Rowland is freed up to play his trademark coruscating lead lines. Having invented his own playing style and guitar sound, he revels in the sheet-lightning noise he can conjure from his instrument. Ignoring persistent feedback issues throughout his set, Rowland moves across the stage in his habitual stiff-legged stumble, approaching his amp like a matador teasing a bull.

In between songs, he responds to marriage proposals and declarations of love from the audience with a wry cackle. Clearly, the man is enjoying the appreciation coming from the packed venue, a vindication of years spent in the musical wilderness that at times saw him play solo to less than 20 people. “I'm bringing it to ya,” he smirks as requests come from the crowd, and indeed he does. He plays songs from both his solo albums, building the intensity before abruptly departing the stage after a staggering reading of ‘The Golden Age Of Bloodshed'.

The band's farewell is premature, and as Rowland and his cohorts re-emerge from the band room, he apologies for forgetting the last song on the setlist. ‘Exit Everything' meets with rapturous applause and it's clear he's putting everything into this performance. Even a bloodied lip can't diminish Rowland's exuberance. His request for a tissue is met with a hail of packages from the front rows, in an oddly endearing twist on the knicker throwing that used to greet Tom Jones.

Rowland ups the energy one more notch for the final encore of ‘Sleep Alone'. “This is the journey to the edge of the night,” he sings, referencing Louis Ferdinand Celine. “Shut me up, shut me down, stop me if you can. My love, I'll tell you nothing, I'm a misanthropic man.” It's a statement of bloody-minded defiance, and he snarls the words while releasing ever more violent guitar noises. One final swing towards his squealing, tortured amplifier and then he's gone.

- René Schaefer