Rock From Down Under Comes Up For Air

It’s March madness in the American music business, that time of year when the annual gathering of all things vaguely alternative rock (South By South West in Austin this week) dovetails into the annual gathering of all things vaguely danceable (Winter Music Conference in Miami next week). Dozens of acts from all corners of the globe fly into America to showcase at one or both of these industry events, and inevitably arrange tours, however brief, to make the most of the long-distance journey. The result is that citizens of major music cities like New York can enjoy a barrage of international live acts without getting on a plane.

Last night, March 13, for example, two markedly different acts from the Antipodes each performed – for free – on the Lower East Side. I was lucky enough to catch New Zealand’s The Bats play a semi-acoustic 6pm show at Cakeshop on Ludlow Street. Those who know their Kiwi scene will know that The Bats are descendents of legends The Clean, and remain Flying Nun label partners of iJamming! faves The Chills. They will also know that there are pronounced similarities in the music: simple acoustic chord patterns and plaintive vocal melodies augmented by delicate lead guitar playing and perfect harmonies – a description that could as easily befit the like-minded though recently-disbanded Luna. It’s hardly a revolutionary noise, which may partly explain the Bats’ continued minor cult status: the group split up for a decade before reforming intact for last year’s album At The National Grid. But it’s a sound beloved by its legions of fans, of which I readily consider myself a member.

With lead guitarist/harmonies singer Kaye Woodward stealing the musical limelight from acoustic guitarist and lead singer Robert Scott, the middle-aged Bats played an hour-long set at Cakeshop. The highlights, they will surely be pleased to know, were both from At The National Grid: ‘Flowers & Trees’ and ‘Up To The Sky.’ The set was rendered all the more appealing by its location, not in the downstairs live room but upstairs in the record store, a room that can barely fit a dozen customers, let alone a four-piece band and fifty long-term fans. I spent the whole show worrying that bassist Paul Kean would swing around too suddenly and bang his tuning pegs into me. Fortunately, I remained just – and I mean, just – out of his range.

What record stores are for: The Bats find a groove at Cakeshop.

Later on Monday night, Australian record label Modular hosted a free party a couple of blocks away on Eldridge Street, in the basement of another new venue called Fontana’s. Modular is the label that brought us The Avalanches and Cut Copy, and its hopes are currently pinned on The Presets, one of the few acts whose danceable rock sound allows them to play both South By South West and Winter Music Conference. It sounded like a great night, all the better for the appearance of 2 Mandy DJs (sic), but I was down in Brooklyn having a lovely dinner with friends and watching The Sopranos and I’m too old to head back into town for a live gig at 11pm on a Monday night. Besides, I’m going down to Austin myself later this week and will likely see more live bands over two nights than I’ve seen in the last month. Those who live and stay in NYC will no doubt to continue the enjoy the wide range of traveling live music, without the sense of an industry circus.

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October 2021