“We’re back.” There were equal parts anxiety and excitement as Melbourne’s live music scene emerged from its Covid-induced mothballs on Saturday night.
The gig, at Sidney Myer Music Bowl on Saturday at Play On Victoria, was Melbourne’s first big post-lockdown gig.
The impending waves of bass to be delivered by headliners Baker Boy, Amyl and the Sniffers and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, would be the first thing to make Melburnians’ internal organs vibrate since an actual earthquake.
Mask rules were relaxed just the day before, so while it felt freeing to not be yelling through something resembling a damp dish cloth, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with 4,000 others came with a sense of trepidation – the last time the city saw big crowds was when anti-lockdown protesters rampaged through flare smoke at the nearby Shrine of Remembrance.
“It’s the biggest contrast you could think of: sitting at home drinking a beer on the porch to playing in front of thousands of people at the Music Bowl,” Play On Victoria opener Grace Cummings says the day before the show, by far the biggest of her career, but just her third this year out of more than 30 cancelled performances. “There’s no way to ease yourself into it. It’s a bit confronting, exciting but quite scary.”
But as Cummings launched into Heaven, the first single from her forthcoming album Storm Queen, spines began tingling. Bellowing with a voice powerful enough to pound granite into dust, Cummings pumped her fist. “It’s fuckin’ good to play a gig!”
Long-missed scenes emerged: white knuckles clenching the guard rail, a King Gizzard fan with pupils wide enough to suck in planets and the pungent incense of body odour. Two lads wore improvised raincoats fashioned from black plastic bags to ward off the rain, or perhaps the onstage tears of Vika Bull, playing second on the bill alongside her sister Linda.
“It’s a very emotional day. And I can’t stop crying,” said the veteran rocker as a rainbow arched across the Bowl’s southern flank.
Shows between lockdowns at the Myer Bowl saw groups perched atop fenced-off podiums, which were now replaced with rugs resembling safety blankets, ready to put out a fire in the event someone spontaneously combusted – which would be unsurprising really, given the last few catastrophic months.
But two songs into Baker Boy’s set bums were abandoning their picnic rugs entirely. Baker Boy, AKA Danzal Baker, released his anticipated debut album Gela (which refers to his skin name) at the beginning of the month, with Play On Victoria his first show since its release. Rapping in both English and Yolŋu Matha, sometimes wielding a yiḏaki, Baker leapt from the stage with his long braid tracking his airborne spins.
“I didn’t even say ‘everyone stand up let’s party’ but I could see everyone just started jumping and dancing,” Baker says post-set. “It’s been a long time coming, especially for Melbourne, we’ve been through the longest lockdown in the world … I really appreciate that I get to finally go out and perform and share my story again; and just remind people how music is really important, how it brings everyone together.”
Baker wasn’t the only artist with a big new album begging to be unleashed live. Amyl and the Sniffers, arguably Australia’s most electric live band right now, released their sophomore album Comfort to Me in September, but hadn’t played live since July.
“The only thing I was nervous about was that it was gonna get canceled. I was like, ‘Oh my god I’m gonna break me leg’ or there’ll be a huge flood,” the band’s singer Amy Taylor said. “But honestly, the thoughts I’ve had are all really positive, anticipating it and just being excited about it.”
Tearing up and down the stage in satin boxer shorts and a bikini top seemingly constructed from a reflective safety material (an early warning signal for anyone foolish enough to step into her path), Taylor was a peroxide blond magnet for the masses streaming down the stalls to be pulverised by the band’s riffs.
Nonetheless, the band’s rambunctious theatrics hide a sobering message as we step out under the cover of dark again, with Taylor pointing to the song Knifey as a reminder of the threats of violence faced by women everywhere. As the refugees detained in the Covid-riddled Park Hotel can attest, freedom isn’t always dealt out equally.
Still, Play On Victoria was exultant, a cathartic purge for a music-obsessed city so long denied this essential piece of its identity. King Gizzard closed out the night with a fitting cover of Canned Heat’s On the Road Again, but it’s a simple dressing room sentiment by the softly-spoken Baker that sums up the night:
“Tonight’s show reminds us that we’re back.”