All posts by nstop

AUS/NZ Trip Diary: Day 13

March 18

Day 13: Byron Bay/Brisbane

Morning

For once we’re moving on to another city without having to fly there. So we can sleep in (a little) and avoid having to pack our bags with military efficiency. Besides, I deserve a little extra sleep: it’s my birthday!

Our host had mentioned that she would bake some bread for us as part of our complimentary continental breakfast. And, sure enough, when I get up that morning there is a small paper bag outside our door with fresh-baked whole wheat bread inside. We toast it up in the in-room toaster and spread with peanut butter (Mike) and butter and jam (me). We also grab a banana and a couple of local cookies from the fridge but pass on the tea. (As if it isn’t clear by now, I’m a coffee gal.) I want to try one this espresso joint in town we passed by yesterday anyway.

Into town and I get my morning flat white before we’re ready for a drive. We plan to stop in nearby coastal town Byron Bay before heading up the coast to Brisbane, where we’ll be staying for the next two nights.

It’s sunny out, we’ve got more music on the stereo, and we’re looking forward to seeing the ocean. A good start to the day. We get to Byron Bay soon enough and find a place to park on one of the main roads right by the beach. Ah, here’s the big commercial strip. Much more like parts of modern-day Key West than sleepy Bangalow. Convenience stores and surf shops and cheap towel and flip-flop vendors? Check.

We don’t have too much time to spend in Byron Bay, as we absolutely, positively need to return the car in Brisbane by 5pm, when the rental office closes. And it’s an approx. 2-hour drive to get there. So we decide to forgo actually swimming in the ocean, though we’ll wade in as far as the length of my skirt and Mike’s shorts will allow.

Opting out of using our sunscreen again, even though it is very hot and sunny (I know, I know!), we make our way over to the beach. I do have my sunglasses and dorky hat on, though. We creep down a rocky pathway to the incredibly fine sand and take off our shoes. Commence much toe-wiggling — ahhhhh!

Off in the distance, we can see surfers catching waves as the water breaks in decent-sized swells. We wade out into the water, which is really lovely: clear and warm.

The waters of Byron Bay
The waters of Byron Bay

The waster depth increases to about knee level before it becomes shallow again, where there is a little sand bar before it dips once more. We make our way out there and just chill, watching the surfers and the water.

Mike gets beachy
Mike gets beachy

Then Mike does an arm check and notices he’s starting to get a bit redder. I check my arm: same. Uh oh. We make our way back towards shore a little, so we don’t get caught on the sand bar should the tide be coming in. But we finally decide we should get out of the sun, though not before a little beachcombing. As a kid I loved looking for shells on the beaches of Sanibel Island, on Florida’s Gulf coast, so I note the different shells here with interest. We each grab a few small ones then wander back over to our shoes.

Sandy and hot, we look for a place to get a drink. I’m also seeking something with vitamin C, as I’m finding it hard to shake the low-grade cough-and-sniffle I seem to have picked up in Sydney. I feel generally fine, but I sound like a frog.

We stop at a convenience store for a mango-banana-lychee drink when we spot the adjacent chest freezer filled with… locally-made ice cream sandwiches! I dig through every goddamn sandwich in search of the variety with espresso ice cream advertised on the sign, but I come up empty. Ah, well. A classic chocolate cookie and vanilla ice cream will do. Mike goes for the chocolate chip cookie with strawberry ice cream.

Munching our sandwiches and sipping our drink on a sidewalk bench, we agree that we’ve probably reached our maximum sun exposure for the day and should get back in the car and resume our journey to Brisbane. Besides, once we get to Brisbane we have a few required stops before we need to return the car.

Afternoon

What better music for driving to Brisbane than Brisbane bands? We start with the debut album by The Goon Sax, released just a week earlier. So good! Angular and jaunty, with hummable melodies and lyrics about ice cream and longing.

As we creep closer to Brisbane and The Goon Sax record ends, it naturally time for music from another band hailing from our destination city: The Go-Betweens. Mike puts on the bonus live disc from the Quiet Heart compilation I bought at Red Eye in Sydney, which kicks off with my favorite Go-Betweens tune: “Unkind & Unwise.”

Here’s the part where I nerd out about the Go-Betweens a bit, telling Mike…

…how cool it is to hear the different versions of the songs as played by the varying lineups over the years! And how singer/songwriter Robert Forster likes to make slight lyrical tweaks in his live performances. Like, when I saw him in the 90s he would change the second part of the “Head Full of Steam” line “opened the windows for the neighbors to see/her climb on my knee” to “her climb onto me.” But when we saw him at The Toff in Melbourne he reverted to the original lyric, I wonder why…

(Yes, I should just shut up now and write my academic paper about this.)

Anyway, my geeky tangent becomes more relevant (if no less geeky) as their version of “Head Full of Steam” from this live set comes on. Then we get to that particular line — what variation (if any) will there be? Forster sings:

…opened the windows for the neighbors to see
her fuck all over me

!!!

I burst out laughing, and Mike gives me a funny look, as he didn’t quite catch that. So I repeat the line. And giggle some more. Way to be direct, Robert.

The Go-Betweens continue to play on the car stereo as we enter Brisbane, headed for our first destination related to this, my favorite band. Where are we going? The old house of the other main Go-Between: Grant McLennan.

I happen to have his address from when I interviewed him back in the 90s. He’d scribbled it on a piece of paper and handed it to me, encouraging me to write. It’s something which — to my great regret — I never did, as he died in his sleep of a heart attack in 2006. Anyway, his house close enough to where we were going, and a little piece of Brisbane history to me, so why not?

We find the street and park just around the corner. Grant’s street is very quiet on this Friday afternoon, the only signs of life being a couple of utilities workers and those very loud birds in the trees overhead. After a few minutes’ walk we come close to the end of the dead end street, and there is the street address on a mailbox by the sidewalk. I peek up the walkway to the modern-looking bungalow set back from the street. Nice house.

Your tour guide, in front of Grant McLennan's house
Your tour guide, in front of Grant McLennan’s house

After a few photos, we wander a little further down the street in hopes of a view, as we appear to be on a hill. But there are too many trees and bushes. I bet the houses have great views. Perhaps that explains the house to the right of Grant’s, where the structure that is actually immediately adjacent is… a private tennis court.

Go-Betweens stop #1 complete, we have just one more (thank you for humoring me, Mike!) before commencing with our usual record shopping routine. We’re going to visit the Go Between bridge. It’s a bridge that spans one section of the twisty-turvy river that flows through Brisbane, opened in 2010 and named in honor of The Go-Betweens.

I’m thinking we can find it, then park somewhere nearby and walk over the bridge. But there doesn’t seem to be any adjacent parking, and traffic is getting kind of heavy (it’s a Friday afternoon), so I settle for driving over, taking a picture of the sign from our car just before we do:

About to drive over the Go Between bridge
About to drive over the Go Between bridge

Pilgrimages completed, we’re now off to the West End neighborhood, which is the furthest away from our Airbnb that has cool stuff to explore. And I was feeling anxious about the time we have left with the car, as we absolutely must return it by 5. But it seems earlier than I’d expected — what gives?

Mike figures it out first: when we entered the state of Queensland we crossed into a different time zone, where the clocks are one hour earlier. Hooray!

We park near the center of the West End area, and begin to walk around. There’s The Bearded Lady, the pub where tonight’s show is. A good local band that Mike discovered randomly on Soundcloud, Tree & Ray, are on the bill. Next door is an op shop where I find a weird Bulgarian Bowie shirt. AUS$6? Sold!

Tonight's entertainment
Tonight’s entertainment

Then we start walking in the direction of the first record store on the map when we see the sign and cool-looking exterior for Junky, the comic shop we’d put on our Brisbane city map. So we decide to check that out first.

Walking inside, the first thing we see is a table full of nothing but small, indie comics. Yeah!

Indie comics at Junky
Indie comics at Junky

As we start to browse, “Pink Frost” by The Chills comes on the store stereo. Another good omen. In fact, Mike deems this easily the best comic shop of the trip so far, as he stacks up comic after comic in his purchase pile.

The clerk at the counter is super-friendly, too, giving additional details about the items that Mike has picked out. We mention we’re from Seattle and she asks if we know Simon Hanselmann, and Mike says, in fact, he’s friends with his wife. We make a mental note to tell anyone we know planning a trip to Brisbane about this awesome store.

After a short break for conveyor belt sushi and feeding the parking meter, we cross the street to Jet Black Cat Records. It’s a tiny shop with virtually all new records. The only thing I find I hadn’t seen elsewhere is a Dick Diver 7″ that actually was on a U.S. label, but not one I knew and nothing I recognized. Mike eyes the (excellently-designed) store-branded tees.

We’ve all but exhausted our shopping options in the West End, as the record store on our map, a Brisbane branch of Egg Records, appears to have just recently closed. Bummer.

But there’s another op shop a 10-minute or so walk away. What seems like a short detour becomes a bit wearying in the late afternoon sun and heat. When we get there, we see enormous and unruly stacks of records in a corner by the front… plus a dude sitting on the floor in front of them who seems to be camped out. I start going through a rack of nearby t-shirts while this guy sloooowly inspects a couple of records without actively flipping through any. Move your butt, dude!

While waiting, I do find a wool Icebreaker tee for only AUS$3, which may be a little small, but the price is right. The guy finally moves and we start rearranging the stacks for optimal flippage. Mike sees a Moog instrumentals LP featuring “Popcorn” and an excellent popcorn-filled cover, and hands it to me. Thanks! We slog through the rest without finding anything else similarly cool. Time to high-tail it back to the car before the meter runs out.

We’re about to walk by Jet Black Cat again, and Mike decides he wants a t-shirt from there. So he breaks off to get that while I babysit the car. I roll down the windows but the car is an oven. Thankfully the t-shirt stop is quick and we’re off towards the central business district, where we hope to drop our bags at our Brisbane Airbnb.

Mike is doing his best to navigate, but the streets wrap around each other in the most puzzling ways. Google is giving us directions that seem bizarre, telling us to do wide loops with lots of quick turns in succession. While I have gotten used to driving on other side of the road, I’m hot and tired and starting to get cranky from the challenge of driving Brisbane’s streets in medium-to-heavy traffic. (Is this what visitors to my native Boston feel like driving there for the first time, I wonder?)

After multiple misnavigations, we finally make it onto the road that loops around the park on which the buildings in our Airbnb host’s complex are found. We’re a little over an hour earlier that we’d last communicated our arrival to be, but I don’t figure it’s an issue since it’s after 4pm anyway.

I message our host before we take our bags out of the car, just in case. And a few minutes later, the reply: no, he is not at home right now. But he will be at 5:30pm, as we’d previously said. Ugh. Guess we need to drop off the car now and do the 20+ minute walk back to his place from there with all of our bags.

But first we need to find gas, and I’m starting to get anxious about the time (around 4:20 by now) given how hard it can be to get from point A to point B by car in this city.

So I ask Mike to Google for gas stations along the way, but oh wait, he’s using his phone to navigate. Here’s my phone, but I guess trying to do two things at once isn’t smart and — oh no! — Mike’s phone is about to run out of battery power, and I guess my phone is for navigation now. And maybe we should just find the goddamn Hertz already so I can at least ensure we are able to find that before they close.

So we make it to the Hertz, which is good. Less good is the fact that we found no gas stations along the way, Google Maps indicates there are none nearby, and this location closes in just 20 minutes. I resign myself to eating the cost of having Hertz refuel the car, even though I estimate that will run us an extra $50 (American dollars). What a good guesser I end up being. *sad trombone*

Evening

The flexibility of having a car was awesome, but I’m very glad to get out from behind the wheel. Though now we need to schlep our increasingly large load to our Airbnb. This is not fun. Not only is the distance pretty far given the amount of luggage we have, but we need to get to a road on the other side of a train station and we can’t seem to figure out how to do that. Cue montage of exhausted trekking-back-and-forth-through-the-train-station, sweating, drinking water, and collapsing on stairs checking Uber even though Google at this point says it is a 5-minute walk.

The only good thing along the the way is my spotting this rad hotel:

Hey, I have a hotel in Brisbane!
Hey, I have a hotel in Brisbane!

Then somehow we manage to find the right corridor that seems to align with the map, and we get special passes from the station agents to let us cut through the paid train station area at no charge. We exit into a parking garage, then down to a weird underpass where, after yet more backtracking, we figure out we need to take the elevator in the second parking garage on the other side of the train tracks upstairs to… the ground floor of one of he buildings in our host’s complex. Finally!

Our host, Nick, is thankfully home, and we ignore his messy common area as we are led to our room and collapse on the bed. Two hours til showtime, and we need a little bit of rest.

When we’ve finally recovered enough to head out, we’re given the lone key to the apartment as Nick says he will be in all evening. One key to share between us? This makes me uneasy, but what can we do?

Taking a cab back out to the The Bearded Lady, we scope out the situation, where the barman indicates that the first band won’t actually go on til around 8:30. However, we do note the sign saying that outside food is welcome, so we scrap our original plan of eating somewhere nearby in favor of getting takeaway and bringing it to the bar to eat with a couple of local brews.

There are a lot of restaurants the main commercial strip, but none the food looks especially appealing. It’s only by chance that, about five blocks away, I notice something across the street that looks like a food truck. So we cross and check it out only to find… an enormous street food fair! There are tons of food stalls in an area around an entire city block in size.

I’m feeling both giddy and overwhelmed by the options, but we make the rounds of every single stall, sampling a few things along the way. After conferring, we decide the winner for tonight: Sri Lankan! I get a cinnamon-spiced chicken curry with rice, papadams, roti and a spicy coconut chutney. Plus one urid dhal vadai, a tiny savory donut that I eat while waiting for my main meal.

Birthday dinner: Sri Lankan street food
Birthday dinner: Sri Lankan street food

We oh-so-carefully shepherd our overloaded plates of food through the crowds at the food fair and down the street back to The Bearded Lady. After the day’s labors, it tastes especially amazing, and we wash it down with pints of local beer on tap. Then we head into the main room where two cozy lounge chairs with an excellent view of the stage are just waiting for us.

Bearded Lady beers
Bearded Lady beers

The band we already know and like, Tree & Ray, will be on first. Someone (the headliner?) comes around with a donation box for the bands, as there is no official cover charge, so we kick in. Then Tree & Ray are on. And we get a set of exuberant jangle pop with a helping of surfy organ and guitar style.

Tree & Ray, at The Bearded Lady
Tree & Ray, at The Bearded Lady

Once the set is done, Mike and I look at each other: yes, we need to purchase something. There is no merch table, so Mike approaches the singer/guitarist and asks: are you selling anything? The answer: yes! He needs to get the merch, but Kirby (as he introduced himself) has 7″ singles, CDs and t-shirts.

Kirby heads off then returns shortly with a large box. We’ll take a single and a CD each, please! He’s incredibly nice and we have a good talk about Seattle and its music scene, how much we are digging Brisbane so far, and the happenstance way in which we discovered his band. Kirby cuts Mike a deal on a t-shirt and now we’re fully stocked with Tree & Ray merch. Too bad we no longer have access to a CD player.

At this point I’m feeling pretty beat, so I tell Mike that I think that maybe I can make it through the first four songs of the next band, but that’s about it. He’s cool with that and we settle back into our comfy chairs… and maybe get a little too comfy. I manage to stay for the whole of the next band’s set, mostly through inertia, but at that point I am struggling to keep my eyes open. Mike says about as much, so we take off before the headliner appears — a very rare occurrence for us, skipping out early on a gig — because we literally cannot stay awake for much longer.

A cab delivers us back to our Airbnb where we vow to get a good night’s sleep so as not to waste our one remaining day in Brisbane. And so we can fully enjoy the epic Blank Realm/Thigh Master/Terry show the next night.

It was a birthday filled with many of my favorite things, along with my favorite person with whom to share them. I see a couple of birthday messages from friends — the U.S. east coast is just waking up and I forgot we’ve been living a day ahead of most everyone we know — then fall right to sleep.

AUS/NZ Trip Diary: Day 12

March 17

Day 12: Byron Bay/Bangalow

Morning

As we’ve bought more and more records and comics and books, the size of our backpacks has grown in both dimension and weight. So we’ve become increasingly picky about transportation options to and from airports, when we’ll be lugging around all of our crap. Cabs — specifically Uber cars — are not only more convenient than buses or trains, they’ve proven to be surprisingly cost-effective for a pair of travelers, as we found in Melbourne.

Kit warned us about rush-hour traffic, so we get up at what we feel is a good hour, allocating 30 minutes for what would otherwise be a 17-minute ride. But I wait until we are all ready to go before opening the Uber app, where I find that the closest car available is all the way at the airport. And it will take 20 minutes just to get to where we are. And surge pricing is in effect. Goddammit!

So we sit and wait. And wait. My face is glued to the app screen as I watch the car inch along the map, appearing to go backwards at a few points. The time to arrival inches up in minutes, then stays constant even as the car makes forward progress. I put the phone down, as this is causing me too much anxiety. I apologize to Mike for not calling the car sooner and wonder if we’re going to miss our flight.

When the car finally arrives, we have just over an hour before our flight departs. Bag check closes 30 minutes before the flight, and we definitely need to check bags. At least we already checked in online the night before.

Our driver, hearing that we are running late, pulls a few road moves that wouldn’t be out of place in my native Boston. When we get to the airport with 15 whole minutes to spare before bag check closes, we thank him profusely and scurry inside the terminal.

We rush to the bag drop area only to find… a huge line of at least 40 people for the bag drop, and it’s moving slowly. Argh! We get in line, then I look around for other ideas, because there is no way this line is going to move fast enough for us to make our flight. I tell Mike to stay in line while I try to find a Qantas rep to talk to.

The Service desk is a possibility, but there is a line there, too. Then I notice a Qantas rep helping a couple use a nearby check-in kiosk. I hover off to the side until they are done, then grab her attention, saying we are about to miss the bag drop cutoff for our flight to Byron Bay, and could she help? The rep looks at my boarding pass, then waves me in the direction of a desk I hadn’t previously noticed, marked “Flights Closing.” I get Mike’s attention and we hustle over to that desk, where there is no line at all. Hallelujah!

Our bags are very efficiently whisked away, boarding passes handed to us, and off we go to security. Just as we’ve passed through the scanner and are grabbing our bags, a security offer pulls me aside and says he needs to do an inspection. (Nonononono…) I say to him (very, very politely), “oh really? Okay, well, we are worried about missing our flight just now.” He says it will only take a minute and — whaddya know! — it does. My shoes and bag get swabbed and they run that through a machine, but there’s not pat down or anything like that, thank god.

We are now doing our champion pairs speed-walking team routine down the corridor, weaving around travelers clearly in no particular rush to get to where they are headed. We get to the gate with a few minutes to spare before boarding time, so we chance on stopping to get something to eat for the flight plus coffee for me, as the kiosk is right opposite the gate.

We get our food and find a spot on the floor in the packed gate area to sit down and eat and wait. And wait. So, yeah, our flight is delayed and our plane hasn’t even yet arrived at the gate. I am both relieved (we will make our flight!) and irritated (we had more time after all!) and still so anxious that I wolf down my banana bread as Mike, seeing my distress, gives me a tiny shoulder rub. By the time we actually board the plane, I’ve chilled out enough to start to once more feel excited about the show tonight.

The flight is pretty quick (about an hour), and we step off the plane down a ramp right onto the tarmac. Not only is this a small plane, it’s a small airport.

Our plane, on the tarmac at Byron Bay airport
Our plane, on the tarmac at Byron Bay airport
Walking from the plane to Byron Bay's tiny airport terminal
Walking from the plane to Byron Bay’s tiny airport terminal

Mike mans the baggage carousel while I head over to the Hertz rental desk, where I’m given the keys to a silver Toyota Corolla. Ready to drive I, uh, guess?

Our car is parked right nearby and we load our bags into it and take our seats, me in the driver’s seat on the right-hand side (weird!). That’s when we see the in-dash CD player. Right on! We both immediately hop right back out of the car to open the trunk and rummage through our bags for recent CD purchases. And I also need my sunglasses. It’s sunny and even hotter than Sydney, which makes sense as we’re farther north.

And now I take the wheel for real — eeeeeeeee!

Watch out, Australian drivers!
Watch out, Australian drivers!

I’d joked earlier about how I’d surely be hitting the windshield wipers when I tried to signal, as things will obviously be backwards to me. Little did I imagine how quickly that would happen. Yep, my first signal to exit the lot is a wiper move. I laugh: that was pretty funny. A small giggle the second time. By the third time within maybe a mile I’m rolling my eyes at my own spazziness. Get it together, Jen! The fourth time’s the charm, and we both cheer as I correctly signal a right turn.

Woo, I’m driving in Australia! And other than driving a bit too close to the left initially, I get the hang of it pretty quickly. Even if I do still pull the wiper move occasionally. And we’re listening to the Ancients CD that Mike found in Sydney; its hazy psych vibe is mellow enough not to distract.

Now I’m ever more reliant on Mike’s navigation skills, as I need to put all of my concentration on the road ahead. But — as far as I’m able to register — the scenery here is quite beautiful, very green with rolling hills and cows grazing here and there. It’s the first time we’re spending time outside of a city proper on this trip.

Afternoon

After a short drive we arrive in Bangalow, a sleepy, kind of hippie resort town that rinds me a bit of one of the less-traveled parts of the Florida Keys. It’s not yet time to check in to our Airbnb, so we decide to wander around the tiny downtown and find some food.

Parallel parking maneuver successfully executed (yes!), we exit the car and start our stroll down the main drag. There are little clothing and gift boutiques, a stationery store, a butcher, and many small cafes. After checking out a few cafes that look okay, but nothing special, we walk by a pub with the following sign outside:

St. Patrick's Day specials at the pub in Bangalow
St. Patrick’s Day specials at the pub in Bangalow

In spite of the tropical heat, fish pie and a Guinness sounds just dandy. We place our order and find a spot on the patio. We grab our beers and wait for the fish pies to arrive. When they do, they’re pretty damn good, like a New England-style fish chowder topped with a pastry crust, and lots of large chunks of cod.

Fish pies and Guinness
Fish pies and Guinness

(We never do get the free hat promised by the sign, though.)

Our host messages us to let us know the room is ready, and we’re eager to get our records out of that hot car. But we want to quickly scope out tonight’s venue first, as it’s just a few blocks away.

On the way to the venue, we see a sign for a record store. Well, hello there! We check it out, but it’s entirely new vinyl, mostly mainstream stuff, plus gifts and cards and whatnot. Eh.

So we continue on and up ahead is the Bangalow A&I Hall, a 100+ year-old structure at the end of the street, set next to a park. It looks very quaint — not your typical concert venue.

Curiosity satisfied, we head back towards the car. But first we want to get some postcards for us to send to family, so we get those at the stationery store, then get stamps at he post office. On the way out of the post office, I suddenly freeze, as there is a giant lizard sitting on a table just outside:

Big Lizard in Bangalow Post Office's Backyard
Big Lizard in Bangalow Post Office’s Backyard

Crazy.

After we both creep as close to the lizard as we dare to snap pics, we drive to our Airbnb just a few minutes away. The house is a cute bungalow partially hidden by tall palm trees and other tropical plants, which form a kind of screen around the building’s wrap-around porch.

Our host comes out to greet us, and she shows us around and to our room, in a section of the house that is just for us, with our own bathroom. (After our Sydney housing experience, this is a big relief.) The room is cute and kind of quirky, with vintage furniture, a big feathery pillow on the bed, and shelves of books and knick-knacks. Time for a short rest before heading out again, including some chill-out time on that sweet porch.

Evening

Since the venue did not appear to be the kind of place to have food, we look for something nearby and settle on a burger place nearby for dinner. The place is called Bang Burger Bar and almost all of the burgers have the word “bang” in them (bang… Bangalow… geddit?). So we snigger at a few burger names that are particularly, ah, creative. (Yes, we are twelve.)

We get our burgers — halloumi burger for me, veggie patty for Mike — for takeaway so we can be at the venue at the stated opening time of 6:30pm, even though that’s probably just the door time. And it is, so we sit on the steps and eat our burgers as people slowly begin to arrive and the sun sets.

It’s a warm night and the birds are in full force on the grounds, tweeting up a storm and flying from one huge, ancient tree to another. After finishing our meal, we walk along the path behind the venue, through the grounds. And there’s Courtney Barnett and some of the other Milk! Records artists hanging out on a balcony behind the building. Guess that’s the green room.

The front doors are open, and people are drifting inside, so we give us our names at the door and take a peek at the lineup scrawled on a piece of paper at the ticket table:

Milk! Records show set order
Milk! Records show set order

I’m most excited to see Jen Cloher, as I dig her twangy pop-with-attitude. She’s one of the artists I’d discovered in my most recent Australian indie music deep dive. And of course I, like the rest of the paying-at-least-some-shred-of-attention-to-new-rock-music crowd, am familiar with Courtney Barnett. In fact, we have tickets to her Seattle gig next month, though mainly so we can see openers Alvvays. So while it will be fun to see her now, catching lesser-known artists less likely to make it over to the U.S. anytime soon is the real draw.

We find a spot against the wall of the venue, the inside of which has a catering hall-meets-school gymnasium kind of vibe. There’s only a sparse crowd when the first band, the Finks, quietly take the stage. A very tall fellow plays electric guitar while a petite woman, sitting, recites prose over it. They notch up the energy just a bit for the next song, now singing proper, with the woman playing cello. Then another woman — hey, that’s Jen Cloher! — joins the duo onstage and adds more electric guitar. A charming, low-key set that builds upon itself quite nicely.

The Finks
The Finks

And then the music stops, and the musicians switch up for what looks like a simple scene change. No real break, no house music up. We roll right into the set of the next band, East Brunswick All Girls Choir. I’m not super-into their rock-n-roll thang, but the one song where they first deploy double drummers, that’s a keeper. We’ll find that to be the case for other bands that night: even if their music isn’t necessarily to our taste, there will be at least one song that sparks some head-bopping.

East Brunswick All Girls Choir
East Brunswick All Girls Choir

Ouch My Face are up next, blasting away with spiky, riot grrrl-esque punk-funk that is enhanced by (again) Jen Cloher and the woman from the Finks. In fact, one song features a synchronized dance-move sequence:

Ouch My Face (and friends)
Ouch My Face (and friends)

Super fun, and an energizing end to the first half of tonight’s revue. We head outside to sit on the steps and get some air as it’s announced there will be a 20-25 minute break for intermission.

It’s not long before we hear music drifting out through the open door — intermission over! We head back in for the second half.

Onstage is Jen Cloher and her band, who have just started playing. And guess who she’s got on lead guitar? None other than Courtney Barnett. We move a bit closer to the stage so we can better enjoy this set. Plus, the hall is finally starting to fill up and we want to stake out some good spots.

Dressed in black jeans and t-shirt, her dark hair in a Chrissie Hynde shag, Jen Cloher exudes charisma onstage, punctuating her tales of relationship drama with snarls, evils grins and the occasional fist pump. I first recognize earlier track “Mount Beauty,” then new song “Famously Monogamous,” from the Milk! Records tour comp. She starts to launch in to the latter before pausing for a drink of water, explaining: “this one has a lot of words.” And a fierce pop punch. Highlight of her set, for sure.

Jen Cloher
Jen Cloher

Another quick change of musical players, and Fraser A. Gorman and his band is up. Though the drummer stays onstage. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of familiar faces from band to band, especially the drummers, two of whom have been playing with multiple bands, sometimes at the same time. Courtney Barnett, too, continues in her adjunct guitar role for this next act.

Before the music starts, however, Jen Cloher first initiates a guessing game with the audience: what does the “A” in Fraser A. Gorman stand for? People yell out assorted men’s names beginning with “A” (even Mike, who tosses out “Alistair”).

But the one fellow who yells out “Alexander,” he wins! He is beckoned to the stage as his prize is brought out for all to see: an enormous watermelon. The young man raises the watermelon above his head in victory, then hoists it offstage.

Jen Cloher giving the thumbs-up to the watermelon-laden contest winner
Jen Cloher giving the thumbs-up to the watermelon-laden contest winner

Contest over, the music commences once more. And the music is again not entirely to our taste, a bit Americana-ish (the Flying Burrito Bros. and Austin City Limits t-shirts worn by band members are a tip-off). But again, there is one good song, about — as described in a very long story by means of introduction — a street kid/car window washer.

Then Courtney Barnett is up. She shreds through song after song, and the crowd goes wild, singing along a good part of the time. One clearly-intoxicated dude gets onstage to mug next to Courtney Barnett, but the crowd is clearly not with him, and security hustles him towards the front of the stage, where he performs an unsuccessful stage dive onto the wooden floor.

Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett

We’re up front with the teens, who are bopping their little hearts out. There are a lot of kids here, in fact — it’s an all-ages show — and they are all ga-ga for Courtney Barnett. She’s really good, though very rock-n-roll. Of course I most enjoy her most pop song.

Then it’s time for all the bands to come back onstage for a big Bowie singalong (“Suffragette City”), then one more tune before we’re done for the night. Mike and I wander over to the well-stocked merch stand to eye the goods on offer. While we’re tempted by the variety of cool t-shirts, in the end we both decide on just copies of the Milk! Records comp (edition of 3000 on green vinyl, oooh).

The Milk! Records group finale
The Milk! Records group finale

We both agree: fun show, chill vibe, unique venue. And a pretty intimate gig for someone of Courtney Barnett’s stature. We were able to get right by the front of the stage, and there were maybe 200 people there total. Even though we’d got our tickets for this gig when originally planning this as a stopover while driving up the coast from Sydney to Brisbane, it was still a worthwhile detour.

Back to our Airbnb and its wonderfully comfy bed, which we’ll sadly have to leave the next day. Because we need to head further north, to Brisbane. On to another city, another gig, and some beach time along the way. Not bad plans for my birthday, huh?