Standing in an unkempt and uneven backyard somewhere in Carlton under a freakishly cloudless August sky, I was surrounded by 30-odd similarly hungover people. A longneck nestled in one hand, a ciggy dangling in the other – we all smirked and swigged as a bunch of blokes dressed in silly hats, afro wigs and uncomfortably tight shirts played a shed-storming set of Oz rock covers – from Paul Kelly’s ‘Dumb Things’ through to the Divinyls’ ‘Boys In Town’. The band was called TNNL CNTS (pronounced tunnel-… you get the rest), and I drunkenly captioned an Instagram video of them performing the Screaming Jets’ ‘Better’ with, “Saturdays in Melbourne.” It was a brief acknowledgment of the joy I’d been experiencing the previous three days / all the words I had the capacity to type at the time. Someone pointed out to me that the guitarist dressed as an Essendon Bomber wasn’t wearing “footy shorts” as it might have appeared, but had instead pulled his legs through a pair of cut-off cricket pants. It hurt to laugh as hard as I did at this pure slice of Australiana, but it was a pain happily earned from the previous days’ festivities. And standing here, with a group of people that were mostly strangers, in a place I’d never been before, I felt totally at home.
But I’m way, way ahead of myself here.
Although I’m a proud Sydneysider, I’ve always had a soft spot for Melbourne. The coffee, the beer, the art, the culture, the footy, the souvlaki – if they cancel tram fares at the next state election, I might pack my fucking bags. But there’s one reason why Melbourne stands head and shoulders above the majority of our other fine capital cities in my power rankings – its music scene.
Melbourne in recent years has carved itself a deeper and deeper reputation as one of the most thriving punk and rock melting pots on the planet. If Philadelphia has the most exciting punk rock scene in the US, Melbourne is its Australian counterpart. From the Smith Street Band, to The Bennies, Harmony and Clowns – the city is burning a brilliant flame for alternative music in this country and nowhere is that more on display than The Weekender.
For the uninitiated, The Weekender is a festival hosted by Poison City and Resist Records – the former being the small Fitzroy skateboard/record shop and record label that not only stages the festival, but is also home to a majority of the bands on the event’s line-up. Hosted in multiple venues across the city, it’s become a celebration of the music of the local scene, as well as the venues and the community of music lovers that support it and have helped it earn an international reputation – a reputation that was leading me to make the pilgrimage to the event for the first time.
It was a bizarrely mild winter night for Melbourne when my flight arrived late on a Thursday. I met my friend Anastasia at Tullamarine and we caught a cab together into the city – our excited conversation discussing the days ahead of music in direct opposition to the eerily quiet night outside. As we drove across the Westgate Bridge and past those giant, Duplo-like statues, the streets seemed deserted, as if the entire city was battening down the hatches in preparation for what was to come. Even as we arrived at The Reverence Hotel, the joint looked dead from the outside. But we entered to find a raucous, buzzing mass of bodies, clasping pints and comparing Violent Soho t-shirts. The Weekender was in full swing.
Tonight was deemed the Pre-kender, a way to get your ears and your liver ready for the onslaught that was about to happen. We arrived just in time for the final band of the night, US visitors Knapsack. Their melodic and passionate emotive rock struck a chord with me instantly. “Their music makes you feel happy and sad at the same time!” Anastasia yelled in my ear. “That’s called ‘nostalgia!'” I smart-arsedly replied/shouted, not sure if she could hear me through her protective earplugs. Everyone wears earplugs in Melbourne. Not only do they have better taste than the rest of us, but they’re also more health conscious.
We shuffled into the pub’s courtyard for a few late night brews and I was introduced to several people as being from Sydney; each time greeted with mixed levels of surprise and excitement that I’d made the journey down south. It was an indicative snapshot of this community and the fact that this scene has largely built itself independently from mainstream and widespread media support / radio play that it might be afforded in other countries – and how it humbly appreciates any outside recognition. In the meantime I was constantly distracted by familiar faces flying through the crowd, shaking hands and grappling hugs. Members of The Bennies, Smith Street Band, Luca Brasi – all engaged in conversations and laughs with friends. As someone who’d been longing to come to this event year after year, as my record shelves filled with albums from each of these bands, it was surreally satisfying that it was pretty much everything I’d imagined it to be.
The next day, I popped my head into Poison City’s Fitzroy store and as I ran up my credit card debt with t-shirt and record purchases, I spoke with Andy Hayden, the owner/founder of Poison City Records, retail clerk at his own store, and from what I gathered from our brief interaction, helluva nice dude. I thanked him for granting me a press pass to cover the festival and he seemed equally stoked anyone from Channel [V] was interested enough to come down and give the shows some love. I then walked down the street to meet Bec from Deathproof PR at their Fitzroy offices. A major part of the reason I was down here was Bec and her business partner Em [with assistance from the aforementioned Anastasia], who run an amazing little firm that promotes the best the local and international punk, hard rock and hardcore scenes have to offer. It’s been through them that I’ve already had the chance to interview a lot of the acts on the bill in recent years – thus flaming the fires of my passion for it. Bec, myself and my mate Nick ascended a local bar’s rooftop and drank day beers in the blazing sunlight, trying to think of reasons I shouldn’t move to Melbourne. After we watched the sun set, we knew it was time to prep for the first official Weekender evening.
The night’s festivities were held at The Corner in Richmond. Inside, the venue is quite an awkward, bendy one, with giant, annoying load-bearing pillars sticking up in the middle of the dance floor. At the start of the night I was frustrated at the lack of visibility because of them – by the end I was thanking the heavens they were there, holding the roof up amongst the chaos and calamity in what would be the rowdiest of nights at The Weekender. With The Bennies smoking six foot bongs on stage, Clowns frontman, Stevie, hanging off roof fixtures like they were designed for gymnastics, and Tassie imports Luca Brasi whipping the room into a frenzy – legs, arms and shoes flew around the pit like tumbleweed threaded with human bodies.
Knapsack headlined the night – but unfortunately I missed them this time ’round as I was much busier having an arm-in-arm sing-along to Blink 182’s ‘Josie’ with some girl I’d met in the beer line who was similarly overcome with a need to spontaneously karaoke. The sense of comradery was so palpable, it felt like everyone in the room would be happy to give you the last smoke in their packet, without even mentioning it.
The next morning (afternoon) with a throbbing noggin and a big brekky + three lattes under my belt, Nick, Bec and myself grabbed a couple of armfuls of beers and started the long (short – felt long) walk to a suburban house in Carlton North where we would attend the unofficial Weekender Backyarder recovery BBQ.
The aforementioned TNNL CNTS were phenomenal, but almost as good was the opening act, whose name I was too “tired” to recall. They played a set that may as well have been lifted from my 17-year-old self’s CD wallet – RATM’s ‘Bulls On Parade,’ the President of the United States of America’s ‘Lump’, and Andrew W.K.’s ‘Party Hard’ to name but a few of the hits. I felt like my hair was dyed purple and my shorts were cargo all over again.
An afternoon power nap later, we made our way to the John Curtin, named after Australia’s most hardcore Prime Minister. Sloppily anthemic indie rockers Freak Wave proved to be a great opener, but Infinite Void were simply hypnotic from the moment they took the stage and were definitely one of my biggest personal discoveries of the weekend – their music like a throwback to the grimy punk rock of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Hardcore outfit High Tension were always going to be a highlight, and like a footy team playing in front of their home crowd they rose to the occasion, playing a blistering, meaty set. It was almost unfortunate they performed so well, as they capped off a round of local acts that almost outshone the night’s headliners, Pity Sex, who had again made the long journey to cross the Pacific ditch and perform for us. Hopefully they’ll go home with stories of our excellence.
Sunday rolled around and things by this stage were shady, to say the least. Livers hurt. Brains swelled. Sleep was needed. A day of napping and sipping Gatorade while watching the footy was the only activity I could muster myself to achieve ahead of the push for the final night of the festival. But again, the last evening felt more like a celebration than a gig.
Arguably the strongest line-up of the weekend came together once again at The Rev. Hoodlum Shouts were raw and intimidating. Harmony were simultaneously brutal and ethereal, as always. But it was always a night that was going to belong to Wil Wagner. If there is an unofficial leader of this Melbourne movement, it’s Wagner. The Smith Street Band frontman, whether he intends to or not, walks around the room with a truckload of charisma, and his solo, acoustic performance was evidence of why that is. Leading teary-eyed, multi-person-hug sing-alongs to ‘Young Drunk’, and ‘Ducks Fly Together’, he, more than anyone, has the ability to concisely sum up the emotions and mateship that is so essential to the fabric of this movement – the same spirit I’d been getting drunk on all weekend. When you listen to Wagner or any other band on The Weekender line-up, you know they’re singing to you, for you, about you, and most importantly with you.
And finally, Lincoln le Fevre served as the ideal closer to the weekend, like a camp counselor bringing the kids together for one last campfire ‘Kumbaya My Lord’, before our parents would be there to pick us up and take us home in the morning.
Sitting there, in my fresh, new Poison City Records T-shirt, eating a disgusting breakfast sausage wrap thing at the airport Hungry Jacks and waiting for my Jetstar flight to stop being delayed, I pondered the weekend that had just fallen. In an Australia where pop, EDM and Aussie hip-hop seem to have an ever-increasing stranglehold on the airwaves, it was exhilarating to witness the rock resistance first hand. Maybe I was still slightly sick with the nostalgia from watching Knapsack, all those bands ago – maybe it was the horrible sausage wrap – but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d just tapped into the same feelings I’d had as a teenager over a decade ago, during the final glory days of rock in this country, when you’d turn on the radio or TV and it wasn’t a surprise to hear or see Magic Dirt, Bodyjar, Jebediah, Frenzal Rhomb or Grinspoon. The Weekender showed me that although those glory days maybe well and truly dead, the spirit of them is alive and well.
In just over an hour I would return to being a Sydneysider, but it was comforting to know I’ll always be part of a Melbourne music community.
Originally published on vmusic.com.au