The Northcote Social Club is known both as a stalwart of gool ole’ timey rock and roll and as an incubator for some of Melbourne’s best up-and-coming bands. Appropriately enough for The Hello Morning, who fittingly played their long-awaited single launch there last week, they could comfortably be slotted into either category.
On an unseasonably cool night, a small number of supporters made it to the Social Club early in order to catch Juan Alban open proceedings. The former Epicure frontman plays some plaintive tunes, both on acoustic and clean-toned electric. With a distinct nod towards towards nu-blues acts like the The Black Keys, Alban’s solo material was mostly competent, if not particularly original in composition.
Fleshed out with woozy solos and vocal harmonies, Alban’s last song, and the undisputed highlight of his short set, was the single “A Death in the Family,” which trades in the familiar blues stylings for a melody and temperament that more closely resembles indie folk like Sufjan Stevens.
Seated in a timid U-shape around the back walls of the band room, it was hard to tell if the punters were there in order to really get into Alban’s set, or just for the novelty of catching a glimpse of the singer’s life after Epicure.
Next up were Sweet Jean, a collective hand-picked by The Hello Morning for the evening. Featuring the inimitable troubadour Sime Nugent, their songs play like hymns, Bible verses, or snippets of John Steinbeck novels set to music, invoking all sorts of weird and wonderful imagery (their debut single “Shiver & Shake” is based on one of Grimm’s fairy tales).
Even if their brand of mid-tempo, haunting folksiness isn’t your thing, it’s hard not to be impressed by their stage presence; an array of instruments extending all the way down to an autoharp adds an extra dimension to their storytelling. It’s a distinctly country-Australian sound, but bolstered by the rich timbre of Alice Keath’s plaintive, honest vocals, Sweet Jean really do stand out from the crowd.
Which, at a Hello Morning show, is no small feat. The journeymen have come a long way in the few years since becoming a well-known name in Melbourne’s rock and roll scene. Not only have their guitars gotten louder, The Hello Morning certainly look the part, challenging for the venerated crown of Melbourne’s best dressed rockers. Appropriately dolled up for the release of single “Stone Cold Lover,” all the strings players took the stage with collared shirts and jackets, and together they definitely have the nicest shoes of any band to play the Social Club in recent times.
But those who have seen The Hello Morning before will know that it’s not just all style and no substance; with a three-pronged guitar attack and an actual Hammond organ, it’s obvious where all that volume’s coming from. Long time staple “Poolside Lover” opens up the now-packed band room with reverberating keys, sliding guitar and the whiskey-ripened voice of Stephen Clifford, and their professionalism is clear from the start. The Hello Morning aren’t simply a slapdash gang of crooks; they are carefully pieced together and every member compliments their sound in important ways. It’s hard to imagine them without Joe Cope’s organ spinning away in the background.
Album track “Edge of Town” is the most musically ambitious song the band have written to date, and it’s exciting to hear them exploring some darker and more discordant sounds. But they know as well as anybody that A- and G-major chords are the building blocks of any decent folk rock tune, and use them to great effect, particularly with first single “Don’t Let It,” a driving and passionate number where the band let loose with soothing four part harmonies. Ballads such as “Don’t Wait on Me” lack the electric punch of “Don’t Let It,” but the band’s gusto, even when in acoustic mode, and the injured voice of Clifford, carry them through nonetheless.
Drinking straight spirits up on stage, Clifford and friends seem familiar and comfortable, making banter amongst themselves, with friends in the crowd and with regular punters who, for their part, are an eclectic mix of acquaintances, industry folk, rock and roll aficionados and Northcote locals.
Everyone, though, abandons themselves to the thick sounds pouring down from the stage, for The Hello Morning never do anything in half measures, and it’s easy to be swept away by their rich, full chords, slidey duelling solors and driving rhythms. But it’s their commanding stage presence and confidence in their craft that lend The Hello Morning most of their eminently likeable charisma.
If one was to nitpick, it could be said that the set was slightly too top-heavy, but closing with a quiet yet rousing rendition of Wilson Picketts “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” and rounding things out with “Stone Cold Lover” ensured that everybody went home satisfied. The band bashed out a stadium-sized outro to their latest single, and without an encore, retired to the side of the stage. Fans quickly scrambled to pick up an advance copy of the album at the merch table, and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” came on the Social Club’s PA. However, far from being a bad omen, it’s hard to imagine The Hello Morning’s momentum slowing down in 2012.
– Darren Gubbins