El Marks the Spot: From Rubens to Bootlegs

I would like to report that I spent the break in front of a fireplace, cosily wrapped in my doona, drinking tea and rereading War and Peace. That would, however, be rather misleading. Instead, I have spent many an afternoon and evening in concert halls, local churches and gloomy pubs in search of the warm glow of musical excellence. I see you start and hear you exclaim in surprise. But yes, this can be found in Canberra. Sometimes it will be promoted and talked about, sometimes it will be hidden away or known only to a few. Sometimes it will be brilliant, sometimes disappointing. And there will always be something not quite right. But good music is out there – all we have to do is find it.

On the well-publicised end was The Rubens’ brief excursion to university for their guerrilla gig in Union Court and evening concert at ANU Bar. Performing for an audience largely composed of absconding school students following Facebook tipoffs, The Rubens put an acoustic spin on a couple of hits off their self-titled debut album. Working with the limitations that come from playing in Union Court, they brought out and emphasised the air of gentleness and vulnerability which pervades the album. As the VMusic promotion reveals, they also set a few underage hearts aflutter. Their gig at the ANU Bar that night was, however, a very different beast, revealing the extent of their inexperience and lack of cohesion as a group. In ‘Be Gone’, a musically exemplary guitar feature was rendered unremarkable by the decision to play it while standing in the corner of the stage hidden by a large speaker. ‘Paddy’ was marred by what appeared to be a miniature civil war between the rhythm section and the guitar. As drummer Scott Baldwin had managed to double the tempo in about two minutes, guitarist Zaac Margin was forced out of the shadows to stand in front of him and keep time. There were, however, flashes of brilliance. ‘Don’t Ever Want to Be Found’ featured a tambourine player pulled from the audience (a plant I suspect) and immediately electrified the entire refectory with an urgent, commanding drive and firm beat. The real highlight, however, was Sam Margin’s flawless vocals and undeniable presence on stage. Indeed, I was unexpectedly treated to some of the best falsetto I’ve heard recently. The Rubens have a lot to learn and a lot of improvements to make but they do have extraordinary potential.

Much less publicised, and much better, was a little set at a Phoenix Bootleg session by Alex Richens, Joel Davies and Nick Churchill. I’ve written many a feature about Bootlegs before and it’s true that they are sometimes less than impressive. On some nights, however, they are wonderful value (free) and extremely enjoyable. Singer and guitarist Alex Richens is the main writer in the group, producing a range of songs which draw on folk, roots, jazz and bluegrass works. Although lovely in themselves, it is the addition of Joel Davies’ cello that renders them unique. Bringing jazz influences through an occasional walking bass and more classical ideas in long, mellow lines, it balances the sweet, soft vocals. The recent addition of Nick Churchill on drums adds further depth and a fantastic drive to the group, particularly in the more up-beat, jazz and bluegrass inspired pieces. As with most groups in this genre, there is a slight tendency to both lyrical and musical self-indulgence and most of their pieces would benefit from tighter, disciplined editing. Overall, however, they were enjoyable to listen to and wonderful to watch. We keenly await the release of their first EP later in the year.

So there you are. A couple of gigs, one by a well-known group and one by a group that is less than six weeks old. One that disappointed and one that surpassed all expectations.

Canberra is a strange place.

Welcome to our music.