A queue snakes down the broad stairs and along Collins Street in the balmy heat. It’s not the usual mix of punters given the Melbourne Music Week setting, but soon we’re all brought together in pews facing a broad podium, littered with instruments, a lighting system desperately drawing attention to itself, fold-back wedges and religious paraphernalia that sits beneath a giant pipe organ and stained glass windows. It's a beautiful room, a sold out gig, and a very appreciative crowd is assembling.
James Wallace aka Wintercoats opens the evening’s proceedings, his gaunt blue-lit frame poised over a violin. Soon, layers of bowed notes build and percussive taps, flicks and jabs follow. As with most proponents of loop pedals, songs build gradually but unlike most, his technical mastery and pedal manipulations don't detract from the rich atmosphere. Wallace’s fantastically emotive voice is often subsumed beneath his ephemeral cascading violins, especially beautiful on the closing Working on a Dream; its unassuming majesty perfectly suited to the reverential surroundings.
Looking like kids still at school an hour after the last bell (a combination of nerds in the library and bad boys in detention), Montero is one of the finest bands 2011 has offered up. Though they hark back to whatever the least-referenced years of the 1970s and 80s are, they don't recall any act or era specifically. Swung beats and a Moog will always attract the terms ‘psychedelia’ or ‘prog’, but Montero have no time for labels; the charisma of Ben Montero, drumming of Cameron Potts and talent in their all-star lineup is too compelling. Songs like Clear Sailing and Rainman are highlights of a stellar show and hint at forthcoming releases bound to attract praise more gushing than this.
The gentle malevolence that lingers through the surprisingly celebratory songs of The Orbweavers is markedly offset by the sweet banter of birdlike singer Marita Dyson. Songs about Merri Creek, the Melbourne sewerage system and flash flooding are interspersed with illuminating factoids of local history, accidental insults directed at her pets and obsessive punctuality. The deft guitar of Stuart Flanagan and trumpet of Daniel Aulsebrook lets their dark country balladry soar and linger beautifully In their succession of quiet achievements, tonight is another win.
Ambling from the nearby bar, the restless crowd give a mixed response to the almighty riffage and power of Beaches as they ease into gear. With less vocals and more chug, the excellence of the sound system and bright acoustics of the room mean songs that roar like jet engines on record become sheets of fuzz with a buzzing lightness. Ebbs and surges are handled deftly and the occasional vocals from singer Ali McCann come as a respite from the blinding walls of white.
After a lengthy wait, the room darkens and the icebreaking sounds of HTRK detonate among us. Watching the duo is a difficult experience with bright pulsing lights trained on the crowd and the band bathed in dark blue. Listening is far easier, with their sounds so brilliantly sculpted and powerful and the room so ideal that what those sounds do is almost secondary. Almost. Unfortunately here lies the weakness of HTRK; songs seem exercises in shifting blocks of noise, each one sharing an asexual grind and annoyingly vague and indistinct lyrics, the repetition of which amplifies their annoying vagueness. This may, along with the alienating light show, be their intent, given their love of subversive music and cinema. But, unlike their touchstones, there are no surprises or innovations here. Nigel Yang’s guitar is almost as an aesthetic afterthought, so buried is it beneath the synths and icily cyclical beats and so processed is its sounds. There is masterfulness in their execution but emptiness inside.