The Drones w/Joel Silbersher
'My Pal' (GOD cover)
The Tote Hotel's "Last Drinks"
Monday 18th January 2010

What is the point of live music? The initial point, I mean? The fan would say to be able to see their heroes in the flesh. The artist would say to make a connection with fans, that when they play live they're "in their element". "Expressing themselves". Which, while true to an extent, maybe lops off the underlying belief that they should also be remunerated handsomely for it.

It's this last element that has permeated mid-level music in Australia during the last eight years or so. (When I say mid-level, I mean bands not big enough to sell out headline tours across the country, but still think that if they play their cards right they might make a hash of The Metro/SXSW/Wembley etc etc.) "Post-Jet", essentially. Before Jet, that idea of success - to independent bands - was laughable. So you focused on your craft, scene, label, whatever. But Australian bands can do it now, and across the board it's lead to a finessing of sorts. A grooming. Of being industry aware, of making events on Facebook and having your hair sit just so and kicking your leg out that same time you always kick your leg when you hit the bridge of that song that's on the CD on this months Rolling Stone. Which, y'know, for some is fine. They like that. These moments of control. 

But the best moments in live music happen when the script is highjacked. When control of the situation falls out of the band's hands and levitates somewhere between it and the crowd. This can be sparked by a situation at the gig itself, but more often than not it's linked to an absurd occasion. Nirvana hitting the Big Day Out as Nevermind ushered in a global revolution; Gillian Welch's slow-burning groundswell of support on her first Australian tour that led to additional shows selling out on top of additional shows; The Dirty Three playing Meredith just as that lightning storm hit. Sound Relief. Though it doesn't have to be on such a grand scale. Legends of Motorsport taking their guitar out the stage door of the Empress and running over it in their car...while it's still plugged in. Kinda thing. Folklore.

Such a defining moment wasn't expected at the Tote on Monday. The overarching feeling seemed to be that of commiserations for Bruce Milne and his/our pub, as well as witnessing a perfect storm of incredible bands play quick sets to reflect their love and thoughts. As the singer from Digger and the Pussycats surmised "I used to love coming to the Tote and seeing the Australian support just wipe the floor with the international headliner". Or as Doug Wallen wrote of Linda Johnston from the Dacios in our upcoming review of the day, "The hurt in her eyes was clear as she sang ‘Monkeys Blood’, written for someone she met at the Tote". Or any other numerous shout outs from every band. It wasn't so much that The Tote itself was closing, it was being faced with its absence. 

Ten hours after The Tote's "Last Drinks" began with an impromptu set from Eddy Current Suppression Ring (and just 24 hours after the sale of tickets crashed The Corner Hotel's website) it was maybe only during the Drones set that the idea of somehow capping off this extraordinary event seemed approachable - to somehow span where we are now with where we were then. How do you correctly knock up a 20 year history without a slide projector and a weeks worth of lecturing? Be convincingly satisfied of the occasion as much as speak to its inhabitants breaking hearts?

After a towering, monumental set riddled with feedback, sweat, slurred speeches and glistening eyes, it seemed to dawn on us what was happening here. I don't think it's out of line to say that The Drones are the benchmark for bands of all stripes at the moment. That they're the band, years hence, people will ask if you saw. (I've heard of bands questioning in the rehearsal room if they could go on stage and 'play this song after the Drones', as shorthand for whether it's any good or not). While the Drones were sizzling tonight, as always, there was something pensive lurking in the fringes. As if they were questioning themselves, sizing up the task of the occasion. Despite the room contracting as it filled with every available attendee, their set got off to a bit of a shaky start. There were mic problems. Feedback. It seemed they were figuring out what to play on the fly. They were energised but also seemed tired from a huge day's drinking, socialising and having to encapsulate the complex emotions of the situation. All of a sudden there was no next band to look forward to, which meant no next band to look forward to at the Tote - ever. They had the pulpit.  

After a frenzied set of some of their best known and most vicious songs, Drones guitarist Dan Luscombe called for Joel Silbersher to come to the stage. Silbersher's teenage band GOD have become a mythological entity in Australian rock n' roll. While the AC/DCs of the nation went and conquered...those guys own boats now. In 1987 GOD released their debut single 'My Pal' on Au Go Go records, the then fledgling label for - serendipitously - today's besieged Tote nominee Bruce Milne. After GOD split in 1989, Silbersher went on to front Hoss (who played earlier in the day today), while Tim Hemensley went on to form the equally revered Powder Monkeys. The ashes of GOD band member Sean Greenaway, who died in 2001 from a heroin overdose, were scattered on the floor of the Tote earlier today. Hemensley would also die of a heroin overdose, passing away in 2003 - his wake was held here at the Tote. Silbersher (and Matthew Whittle via Yes Men and Sauce) is, by default, the survivor. So too 'My Pal', which over time has become the legendary bastard child to 'Back in Black' or 'Khe Sanh' or 'Friday on My Mind' or whatever "quintesential" Oz Rock track is sitting on top of some list in the back of Qantas Magazine. To this day the myth of GOD survives via 'My Pal', with its instantly recognisable riff, its sentiment that perfectly sums up the blues of the hard drinking, cigarette-huffing, loyal, royal denizens of rock and the Tote and those of us beholden to the big shitty romance of it all.

I was standing about eight feet from the stage at the Tote, nearly exactly to the right of where this video was taken. On the floor down there, with steps providing a raised ring around the pit on two sides, benches bowing behind us and the stage in our face...I don't quite know how to explain it. Like holding your breath in an undersea Coliseum, choked with arms and heads and human hair swaying in the invisible current. Blinding lights, bug-eyes, sheets of sound - 'end of days' type stuff. As Luscombe called through the distortion for him, Silbersher slowly pushed past us through the crowd. He seemed calm, though wobbling a little, hood-eyed. He clambered on stage up by the side-door, and appeared behind Luscombe before the guitarist noticed enough to stop calling. The crowd clicking to what was coming next, the band looking like they didn't know if they could stay in control long enough to pull it off, while knowing they had to. As the band and building shook around him, Silbersher sparked up, momentarily adrenalised, surprisingly composed. Unseen to maybe everyone, arrived the perfect, desperately hopeful thing to yell at a place and time that was leaving us all behind...

"I don't love no one / Except for you / You're my only friend / You don't even like me".

Marcus Teague


Review of the full days proceedings and photo gallery coming next.

(Pics: Tim O'Connor)