A Punkfest comes with certain expectations: tartan, Mohawks, numerous safety pins as various fixtures, mad dancing, and fast – no very fast – angry music. You wouldn’t expect sea shanties, pirate ditties, old Celtic songs or a “Yo ho ho and a bottle of fockin’ rum!” But that was the musical fare served up at the Punkfest at the Jubilee Hotel.
It’s hard to describe the music because it seems to be a bit of…well, everything. At different times, you can hear rockabilly, hillbilly, the aforementioned pirate, and folk, but sung at serious speed, maybe, three or four times as fast. And that’s what makes it punk. The bands don’t sing about your punk staples like anarchy, anti-establishment and violence and there’s no real fuck-offs or fuck-yous; they sing about old bushrangers, shearing and courting a
girl in Belfast City. They don’t play your usual punk instruments – there are mandolins, fiddles, banjos, trombones, double bass, accordion, tin whistle, and even a lagerphone. They don’t dress like your typical punk bands – they wear ties with vests and your English working man’s cap; some look sea tug boat captains or your typical Aussie bushie.
The confusion about musical classification doesn’t end there. Many of the punters are dressed punk – there’s a fair bit of tartan; there’s a guy with an impressive Mohawk; another wearing skinny leopard print pants and ripped t-shirt; and a young man who could easily be one of Fagan’s pickpockets in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, bar the dozens of safety pins – yet they dance like they’re doing an Irish jig, kicking their legs out and swinging each other around by locking elbows. Late in the gig, they place arms across shoulders like they’re at a wedding, dancing a drunken Zorba the Greek. It’s bizarre.
First up, there’s Wheat Paste, a six-piece band, who sound a bit like The Pogues; they play a slower song that sounds a bit like The Clash; and their double bass player looks a bit like a fan of the Stray Cats. They get the crowd up dancing by their fourth song. It’s kind of hard to sit still to this music. Their sixth song about police assault is really good and the crowd are doin’ their rootin’-tootin’-scootin’ dance.
Sled “we sound better with beer” follows. The lead singer could be the spawn of Henry Rollins. Sled is probably the most recognisably punk out of the five bands playing here, they have more of a thrasher sound, but…by the sixth song, yep, out comes the pirate. Spawn encourages the crowd: “We want to see everyone up here jiggling like a pirate!” after which he sings, I’m just a pirate…” (wearing a Rancid t-shirt).
Contrast spawn of Henry Rollins with the lead singer of Jack Flash, who could be an accountant-by-day, Punkfest-singer-by-night. With their mandolin, tin whistle and electric fiddle, Jack Flash‘s music sounds like you’re at a mad, mad, mad, mad, mad bush dance. They sing, Poor Ned, about bushranger, Ned Kelly. The lead singer tips his beer mug to salute the crowd, “It’s good to see some mandolins.” An old sandgroper nearby tries to head bang to the song.
Rumjacks music seems to be inspired by the sea and wharfies: are all wearing the English working man’s cap. At one point, the lead singer gets onto one knee and leans into the crowd as if to start a tale, “let me tell yee of how I came to get this here wooden leg.” By the fourth song, they’re into a sea shanty, singing, “I’m not going down with the ship”. Meanwhile the punks at the front are into a slow dance. When the band sings the Irish song, The Rising of the Moon, the crowd goes mad, jumping around, fists in the air, hands clapping. It could have been a latest hit on the charts.
Headline act, “we’re from inner-west Sydney” Handsome Young Strangers, play fast. Their warm-up song, an Irish tune, Drowsy Maggie, goes through several iterations – each time played and sung faster than the time before. One of the singers (there are at least three) continues the pace by getting into the crowd and thrashing his lagerphone like a crazed Pete Townsend. The crowd is now whirling bodies, singing and dancing without self-consciousness, and it seems like everyone is joining in on the songs. Band members, from others on the bill, play percussion instruments while standing in the crowd. It’s more like an all-in musical practice.
Near the close of the set, a chant of “Warne” (an original Handsome Young Strangers‘ song) comes from the back of the crowd. But there’s too much noise down the front, too much mad dancing for band members to notice.
SET LIST for Handsome Young Strangers
Live Review: Punkfest @ The Jubilee Hotel, Brisbane