Chris Masuak & The North 40
Marrickville, Leichhardt and Rozelle, January 2014
Photos & video by Shona Ross
The problem with Australia is that we have so many actual legends that we can't keep up. This gives rise to an unpleasant result where many living legends fall through the cracks.
The increase in the cost of living has been so slow and steady for most of us since 1966 that we don't notice the differences - the length of time itself a disincentive to any significant protest we can muster in a society which praises all with the attention span and analytical ability of the average goldfish.
So when Chris 'Klondike' Masuak announced that he'd be coming back in December 2013 to see his kids and, possibly, play a few gigs (with Red and Ged), we were excited. It's not easy to go and do this; the three we did see were spread over ten days and that either means mate's couches or hotels as well as airfares and missing work and so on.
But, it's Chris Masuak, so somehow we managed to sort out the airfares without holding up a service station. Don't ask (although I'll never be able to look at rubber gloves in quite the same way again).
But another but: who sees the hardship? Famously, Chris would be located in the NSW Southern Highlands, quite a fuel bill for four gigs, there and back. How much would he have to make to break even? And in a climate of pokies, denied fiscal depression, and a dwindling Sydney 'hard rock' audience. And of course, let's not forget rubbish radio (Morrissey was never the most credible of social commentators but his “Hang The DJ” song was on the money). Does the man love his audience or what? It's not as if he has a point to prove or he's just starting out. Chris Masuak's solo cds are well and truly cross-overable, let no-one tell you otherwise. Radio friendly in the ears of all who have heard them, except, it seems, radio stations.
So, we stayed in the suburb formerly known as King's Cross, with its occasionally seedy night life (now coming to the attention of the public because the area's lengthy habit of senseless violence is finally getting a public airing) and thoroughly boring club scene (we lost count of the hopeless bleary 'couple' arguments on pavements discussing how much they loved each other - christ, bring back hanging: crime - boring us all in public). Bouquets of flowers were taped to a light-post outside our hotel's entrance - the tape so various baboons wouldn't nick them. Every day we'd walk out and think, 'poor bastard. The murderer won't get what the public want to see, of course, the rest of his worthless life in jail. It's too expensive.'
A bolt-gun is cheap, easy to clean and operate, and produces a quick, almost painless death.
Er, I seem to have wandered a tad off-course here.
These days in the Cross, inner-city fitness nerds and apartment-dog owners now mingle with trans-fat addicts and the afore-mentioned herds of gawky youf attempting to get find something or other. It's very tidy. There's certainly not the air you used to get, that you could - zip! - simply disappear off the streets and never be heard of again, except for a few fuzzy much-copied vhs tapes. While this is a good thing, I found it interesting that George Street seems to be utterly clogged with unremarked, not-especially-clandestine prostitution. Expect more brawls. Just one of those things, I guess.
As we walked up into Marrickville from the train, I explained to my adventurous travelling companion that this area looked a little like the now-chi-chi areas of Oxford Street and 'Potts Point' and Darlinghurst used to look like - but without the frisson of interlocking cultures.
January 11, 2014
Lazybones Lounge is a most sumptuous and eccentric bar in the Inner-Western Delta suburb of Marrickville, which violently contrasts with the drab streets below - the effect when you first walk in I will leave to you to discover, suffice to say that the artwork on the ceiling, the partially removed metal ceiling plates, the stuffed armchairs everywhere and the twisted dummy all provide an unmistakable atmos - and their range of taps state simply - if you don't like what we offer, what are you doing here? It took two years to get the place ready to open, and it's been worth the wait.
Early arrivals and assorted misfits were treated to a series of hypnotising jams as the band had fun with their own set and other people's, starting with one figure and tipping elsewhere, rolling down one hill and through little-explored alleys before emerging into sparkling sunshine. Not songs a rocker would recognise as songs, but that an old jazzhead would instantly dig the principle. Apparently the mixer was late arriving and this is how the band warm up, fooling about - start, flow, dance, return, dance away. Just toying with ya, punky. The band's musical proficiency is so great they blur and slide seamlessly together, apart then back again. It's a joy to witness. Not only should these sorts of things be recorded and released, I doubt it would take much to incorporate a few jams like this either as introductions or new endings to old songs, but the band have that effervescence which would allow a full tour on its own merit. Chris Masuak - beat poet.
By then we had to go and eat something so we went to the Hung Cheung Restaurant on Marrickville Road around the corner. The food was terrific - big portions, cheap and excellent. The service matched; if you're passing, go.
Now, if you were able to see your three favourite guitarists, wouldn't you go the extra mile or hundred bucks to see them? Of course. On that list should be Chris Masuak - put simply, he's worth seeing. Lately, there is a wonderful lightness of touch, a careless cleverness to his playing; anyone else would wear the mantle of rock legend like some sort of disobliging albatross, but Chris treats the Darlinghurst dragster with affection rather than (some 35 years later) a battle-weariness bordering on self-loathing. Name another rock legend who can do that.
To take it a little further, Chris is sparky, cheerful, potent and a fuckin' delight to behold; his songs are way beyond the equal of what passes for hip rock'n'roll today - in fact, if any twenty-something had released The Straight Path or Workhorse, I dare say radio would be earnestly plugging the man and pressing handfuls of cocaine into his orifices. After all, he has the punch, spit, bite'n'bile of a young man wrapped up in a uniquely intelligent world-view. When we win the lotto we'll drag the man across the USA, starting with the South by Southwest Conference.
But we'd have to also drag Gerard Presland (drums) and Red Porter (bass), easily the backing band surely designed for Chris. Gerry failed to keep his top on after two songs every time we saw him, and had a runaway mouth which in most of us would be annoying but in Gerry simply added to the occasion. But he has that important stuff, an incredible, fabulous power about him, married to an astonishing, fluid accuracy. He plays with what Don van Vliet described as 'fast'n'bulbous', sick'n'fine; Gerry hits everything like the kit is destroying him, like it's eating him alive in a titanic splattery spectacle of mutual consumption. We're not just seeing Gerry play with Red and Chris like it's just some band, we're witnessing this.
Gerry is the flipside of this most remarkable rhythm section: Red plays with an understated, relaxed confidence. Even his smiles are worth waiting for (they're rare but when they come...). Before clambering onto the stage, Red is just a quiet bloke in a corner; once upon it, he flicks an internal switch and, despite remaining largely undemonstrative, transforms into a noisy bloke who synchromeshes with Gerry and Chris with ease. This band have one of the most incredible, intuitive understandings of each other as musicians I've ever seen.
Gerry and Red are the perfect bestial contraption to back up Chris' light, rough, incisive, muscular guitar, which (as I'm sure you know) skips effortlessly between rhythm and lead, and his clear, bell-like voice to soar above the tight'n'loose cacophany.
Chris will have returned to Spain by the time you read this - if you're anywhere within 500 miles of the man, take the trip and sod the expense.
January 17, 2014
At the Bald Faced Stag, it's memory lane night as the headliners were the Sydney City Five, an MC5 cover band. None of us at this appallingly advanced age (which most of us never imagined we'd reach) are ever, short of the second coming, ever going to dance like we used to (a disabled man tossed down a laundry chute in my case) so we tend to watch and nod our heads, tap our foot and, out of breath, head for the bar again.
The question is, are the 5 good? Yes, of course they were (and the drummer, Peter Kelly, was bloody huge). If the 5 come to your town, turn off the aircon, the xbocks and get out the door. After all, they have the songs.
Just as no singer is going to match Rob Tyner's vocal delivery, no cover band is going to recapture the dizzy, insane period of pot, fanatical politics and sex which the MC5 belonged to. Seeing the SC5, we were struck by how enormous an influence they've been to modern music, like a rock dropped in a mountain pool. However, I confess that the bill of fare favoured the support acts. Chris Masuak, the reason we're here in the first place (so yes, I'm biased) has taken his origins and influences and is still constantly developing and expanding. Time can't stand still for this man, he's restless, energetic, creative. Even with the dragster covers his set seems original and new.
But it's the lowly first band on the bill who raised the bar tonight. The Four Stooges.
Any fan of Iggy and the Stooges will be utterly delighted by what the Four do on stage. You will be transfixed, you will laugh, you will scream. As someone who has seen far too many ropey (usually far too fast) Stooges covers in my time (including Adelaide's Raw Power, who were the first all-Stooges cover band in 1985, and Head On, who were Adelaide's first feedback-based band), I am honour-bound to say that the Four Stooges are the best I've ever seen. I'd say even Iggy would be impressed - particularly as this period - Funhouse - saw the distinct possibility that the band would not get through too many songs.
Here, the Four held us in their rather damp hands, Hood's ugly, arrogance and traumatising sexuality was captivating, you wanted to grab the man and force him into the crowd; their sloppy-seconds humour riveting. Without the self-conscious aping which mar almost any other singer attempting an Iggy impersonation, Hood is a natural successor to the Iguana. This ain't a fucking Elvis convention, Hood is the real deal.
Pissing sweat and apparently about to expire from sheer joy of playing, Bob Short (once upon a time, Sydney's only punk) plays his guitar the closest to Ron Asheton that I've ever seen or heard while, the rhythm section, Steve Lorkin (bass) and Celibate Rifle/New Christ Paul Larsen (drums) kill for pleasure. The Four Stooges hold the viscera, balance and deceptive power in their hands and they completely, completely scrape your face.
Highlights amid a set of highlights were the last few songs on the album; Rowland S. Howard's favourite Stooges song, Dirt, was particularly well-handled, nailing the tenderness without blundering elsewhere; their encore, which the band demanded, Anne was redolent with the honest pain of the original. The inspired addition of Steve 'Rudi' Thompson on sax lent that massive extra dimension jump from rock to some sort of brutal opera via free jazz. Consequently, the Four Stooges also sounded incredibly modern, because so few people who profess to love the original Stooges seem to actually get them. Real modern jazz still sounds both modern and timeless - to take one example, check out Thelonious Monk's Blue Note sessions if you don't believe me.
Which brings me back to what I was saying about the SC5 - the difference between them and their support bands on this night could not be more apparent. The 5 are a damn good rock'n'roll band, but the 4 and Chris Masuak are much more of a modern, and timeless experience.
Now, the saga continues... I notice that the Sydney rock'n'roll is in a shockingly reduced state. Wouldn't it be better for the bands - most of whom will have numerous expenses - to drop this door-list nonsense? Long-gone is the time when we're only talking about losing a few bucks. Money seems very tight amongst the rockers in Sydney, I was astonished to see what looked like over 20 on the guest list when the number of performers on stage came to over 10. Say a grand divided by 10, fuck, that's not much of a reward - and not much of an incentive to keep on going. [I expect a clever counter to this from the Barman to land about ... here. Barman: They didn’t have that many guests.]
The 5 and the 4 don't have websites. But you might like to visit www.chrismasuak.com and fork over wedges of used hundreds just for the hell of it.
January 19, 2014
Finally, on the Sunday, we found ourselves in Rozelle, which I'd never heard of, and is a sort of splodge just after the Anzac Bridge, blink and you miss it. Nice pub called Ruby's L'otel , which has recently changed its menu (and is currently stomping, cheap and damn tasty) ...
The stadium was the floor in the corner with the cars and buses whizzing past, the band room was non-existent and the atmosphere intent, poised, gleeful and intimate. Many bear-hugs were shared.
Three sets from Chris and the lads. All fabulous, but the third set, for whatever reason, was just fantastic. The crowd approval was joyous and sustained, the band loved doing this and there were smiles and happy faces at the end - including Chris himself, who looked as he should've done, happy and wreathed in the sweat of his accomplishment, surrounded by people who loved him, loved his talent and the way he puts together such a unique, powerful and elegiac experience. We're gonna miss him - until he comes back.