hugo at the wheaty

Hugo Race makes a point

Adelaide's Wheatsheaf Hotel (aka the Wheaty) is one of those modernised, forgotten pubs with pricey but excellent wines and beers. Local families bring their kids and they run amuck.

There is a beer garden, but few people smoke (which I can’t understand). Coffee and hot chocolates are available at the bar. There are no pokies and no ATM (you withdraw at the bar). They have exhibitions of art, photography, hairdressing and whisky tasting.

The back room (where bands play) is essentially a newish tin shed with a ceiling, lights, formica tables and period chairs, and everyone squashes in somehow.

The Wheatsheaf Hotel, Adelaide
May 2, 2015
Alison Lea photos

Battle of Flowers are a two-piece, with a talented, inspired drummer and a guitar player/vocalist. The the drums aren’t hammered and the guitar is stylised and cuts through well. I didn’t like most of the songs (in contrast to most of the audience, it seems) nor the lyrics, nor a bunch of other things. People hurried to buy the CD.

Unaccountably, like Brillig, Battle of Flowers are one of Adelaide’s popular underground acts. I can see why, but you’ll have to make your own mind up.

‘… a modern knight … in search of a hidden truth … down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean … he must be the complete man, and a common man, and yet an unusual man … he is a lonely man.’ 

- from The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler

Hugo Race is the troubadour knight of old, the serenading stranger in our midst, even though we’re all both strangers and friends these days, and worse. Race brings a wealth of hard-earned experience ("My chequered past," he quips), a swag of songs and tonight dispensed with the set list, deciding that the intimacy of the Wheaty required a different approach.

There’s no band, just a travelling man in a shirt and jacket with a gorgeous cherry-red Gretsch, and a pair of pedal-boards. Really, the man has a knack of stopping time. But you need to focus, not natter, listen and not bump about. Race’s hot wet silk sandpaper voice and his Gretsch’s glossy, blade-sharp tone bore us away like children straying into a dark forest.

Some songs he accompanied himself with a percussive foot pad, like a bass drum; about four others he used a backing track, sometimes one, sometimes two tracks. The simple effect (I first saw something like this thirty years ago with Violinda) emphasises the old saw: less can sometimes be so much more.

Especially intimate in his expression, the way he drew himself into the heart of his songs - and though several were covers (such as Springsteen’s "I’m On Fire" and Marilyn Monroe’s "River of No Return") Race lives in them like an elf inhabits a tree. Would you believe "The Ballad of Easy Rider"..? Two new, unheard songs were seized upon and revealed, bringing tears to our eyes as we are reminded of ourselves. We are captivated in a deeply spiritual world we only recall we are part of when we encounter Hugo Race.

hugo wheaty2

Hugo went fishing while he was in Adelaide. Here, he describes his catch. Alison Lea photo

If there’s one song from Dylan’s first LP which points to Dylan’s future, and Race’s breadth, "It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)" would be it. Race has a knack of discovering the soul of a song, breathing in its original breath, and when he exhales, it is as if the song has once more sprung to original life. Other songs in the set included "The Other Side" (from "Dirt Music", which I will also have to grab), Too Many Zeroes, a magnificent rendition of Stereotype (with a basic, powerful bass figure), Backwards … but you can’t keep up. At least I can’t.

All too quickly the troubadour is finished, and abruptly he has departed, leaving us alone with only ourselves for company, and we discover … it ain’t enough. We need troubadours if for nothing else, as an aide de memoir to the reality of what we are, what we were, and what we might have been.

Real life descends like a dark slap upon a child.

Why major labels do not circle this man like hopeful carrion birds around a wayfarer, I cannot understand.

Hugo Race’s new, very limited single, "Elevate your Love", will be available shortly. A handful of copies of his previous CDs are also available.

Hugo Race on the Web