two Sundays in Sydney

Sunday, Sept. 22

Calexico, the American alt-rock band, performed at the Sydney Opera House. Like most tourists in the city for the first time, I might have been content to watch someone scrub the stage with a mop just to get a glimpse of the inside of one of the world’s most fascinating structures. Thankfully, Calexico, a band I enjoy very much, brought their drums and guitars and saved the janitorial staff from the task of entertaining me.

Last year, I was introduced to Calexico’s funky blend of rock and traditional Mexican folk music by their performance on the Austin City Limits TV series. At the Opera House, they sounded great, and were enhanced by the building’s superior acoustical design. What surprised me, from my seat in the furthest row back from the stage, was how sedated the crowd was. When I’ve seen videos of Calexico performing elsewhere, it’s clear the crowd is enjoying the hell out of themselves with loads of dancing and clapping.

In the Opera House, I gasped at seeing people actually dozing in their seats, getting up and leaving in the middle of the show, and generally giving a lackluster response to the excellent performance the band was offering. The only logic I can apply to this disappointment is that many in the audience had purchased tickets just because they wanted to be inside the venue, without any knowledge or interest in the band themselves. (I hate to generalize, but some of the snoozers looked as if they came from non-rock-music-listening places. Or perhaps they had all run the marathon that morning – but so did I, and I managed to stay awake.)

As beautiful as the Opera House is, and as precise and lovely as its acoustics are, it might not be the best place for a rock band to set up. The seats are bolted to the floor. No one is dancing. It probably happens to everyone who plays there, and it might be more noticeable in the very back row. But for someone who thinks of concert-going as others might consider church, it was bizarre to witness.

Calexico, Sydney Opera House, 9/22/13
Calexico, Sydney Opera House, 9/22/13

Sunday, Sept. 29

Who knew that the Enmore Theater could ask for twice the gate price that the Sydney Opera House could? I certainly didn’t, but by the end of the night, I had no complaints. The Enmore has the appearance of (and could well be) an old converted movie house, snugly positioned in the hip Newtown suburb of Sydney. If I had to guess, I’d say that this place was showing Chaplin movies to a packed house in the 1920’s.

The opening band, Alpine, natives of Melbourne, were the soundtrack to several of my road trips this summer, so getting the chance to watch them in their native country as they’re just starting out was the icing on the cake for this show.

Rolling Stone and TIME magazine have both called Alpine a ‘Band to Watch’ within the last six months. The group’s airy vocal harmonies come from Phoebe Baker and Lou James, who complement the fuzzy cloud of perfect bass riffs with some mesmerizing dance moves. I was rocking out and had almost forgotten that FOALS was backstage getting ready to perform.

Several months ago, FOALS gave one of, if not the most, memorable performance I have ever seen in the 15 years I’ve been going to Washington D.C.’s 9:30 (here’s a video clip from the crowd) so I was excited to find out they were playing the Enmore Theater in Sydney while I was visiting.

The FOALS sound ducks in and out of labyrinthine beats and wizardly guitar riffs, and the danceable, screamy rock gets ratcheted up by the lead singer’s affinity for risking dismemberment while leaping from balconies and shoving his way through the audience, guitar strapped all the way.

The set at Enmore was just as intense as what I saw in Washington, with an even larger audience. (Here’s a video clip from the balcony – thanks, Youtube) Again, lead singer Yannis Philippakis abandoned the stage to perform half of the song ‘Two Steps, Twice’ from the crowd, climbing and leaping from the balcony.

Following the show I was lucky enough to find my way to the same bar that FOALS was claiming for the night. After walking into a fake hot dog shop storefront on Wentworth Ave. and passing through a cleverly disguised false door, I made it to the Soda Factory and stayed until the early hours of the morning.

FOALS set list, 9/29/13
FOALS set list, 9/29/13

I had a brief chance to speak to FOALS singer Yannis, and mentioned I had been at the show in D.C.  He was quick to praise 9:30 as one of his favorite clubs and went on to say that the D.C. independent music scene (Fugazi and Dischord Records) had been a big influence on him as a teenager.

It’s hard to emphasize how great it was to be on the other side of the world hearing a guy I just watched jump off a balcony into a throng of screaming fans tell me that he loved the city I came from. Rock on, Yannis.

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