Review: The Drones at Melbourne Town Hall, Sunday 13th Nov for Melbourne Music Week 2016

It was a far grander affair that one would normally expect from a gig by The Drones, a band that made a name for themselves with their edgy and messy pub rock gigs.  The plush surrounds of the Melbourne Town Hall, including an enormous amount of wood panelling, provided a special venue for one of the showcase events for the 2016 Melbourne Music Week.  

The iconic Australian band were billed to deliver a career spanning set, incorporating the famous 87-year-old Grand Organ that dominates the main room at the Town Hall.  Featuring nearly 10,000 pipes, some standing at ten metres tall, the instrument pushes through a staggering 90,000 cubic feet of air every minute.  Dropping down from the historic ceiling, amongst the intricate decoration and chandeliers, was an incongruously modern PA system, clearly some additional firepower was needed to match the might of the organ.

With very little fanfare and a simple “How are you?” from frontman Gareth Liddiard, the band took to the stage, the domineering organ bathed in light, but to begin with remaining unplayed.  The set opened with three songs from their most recent release, Feelin’ Kinda Free, ‘Private Execution,’ ‘Taman Shud,’ and ‘Boredom,’ and having toured the album earlier in the year, the five piece were in fine form.  First single ‘Taman Shud’ was clearly a favourite, the crowd singing along to the angry and poignant lyrics.  With fists pumping the crowd spat out the songs most iconic lyric with Liddiard; “Why’d I give a rats about your tribal tatts?  You came here in a boat you f*** c***”

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Melbourne Town Hall’s Grand Organ looms overhead – via MMW

‘The Minotaur’ was the first of the band’s earlier big hits, before keyboard player Steve Heskett left the stage and took his place on the organ, sitting high above the heads of his bandmates, his back to the crowd like some sort of cartoon villain in his castle on the hill (albeit one wearing a trucker’s cap). With the band bathed in a blue, a pale spotlight shone on the keyboard and its confusing array of levers and dials.

A low eerie note opened ‘I See Seaweed’, the title track to the band’s 2013 album.  The sound of the organ transformed what is already an epic song to another level, the powerful melody and big dynamic shifts filling every corner of the multi-storeyed room.  A special mirror was put in place for Heskett to see the rest of the band, his head snapping to the right to keep an eye on Liddiard’s visual queues.

Three vocalists joined the band on stage for ‘To Think That I Once Loved You,’ one of the finer moments off Feelin’ Kinda Free.  Electronic drums and big, low, organ chords started the slower, subtler song, highlighting Liddiard’s wonderfully melodic songwriting that at times gets lost behind a wall of screaming guitar.  The crowd response was one of the biggest of the night, seemingly a song that was written to be played with such grandeur.

For the most part the Grand Organ blended in with the rest of the band, as if The Drones always had one at their shows.  On occasion, however, it would hit a big low chord, and envelope the whole room like nothing else on stage could, like a big, warm, slightly maniacal blanket.  Technical gremlins meant that Dan Luscombe’s guitar was cutting in and out for a lot of the set, a guitar tech repeatedly running on stage trying to rectify what was an ongoing issue.  The band seemed to cover it quite well, and with the additional depth that the organ provided, the lack of second guitar wasn’t too noticeable.

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Image via The Drones

After a little guitarist banter, Liddiard announced that with one guitar down it was his “time to shine” with guitar solos, as they launched into the epic ‘This Time’, off Wait Long By The River….  With the organ, five vocalists, and rather fortuitously the addition of the rhythm guitar as the song built to a closing crescendo was one of the night’s many ‘wow’ moments.

‘Shark Fin Blues’ and ‘Six Ways To Sunday’ closed out the main set, before Liddiard and co. briefly left the stage, returning for a special encore. Opening with Pink Floyd’s ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun,’ the band really nailed the dark and brooding sentiment of the song, the room rattling bottom end again showcase the mammoth organ sound.

The night closed out with a blistering rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Diamonds In The Mine,’ an unannounced but poignant choice considering the legendary songwriters passing earlier in the week.  It was full of beautiful melody, multiple vocal harmonies, and despite the sadness surrounding his recent passing, the song was an uplifting celebration of the amazing talent that was Leonard Cohen.

The night lived up to the billed ‘career spanning set’, however it was songs from Feelin’ Kinda Free that dominated.  The Grand Organ certainly added another element to the sound, and gave a sense of occasion to the show, something worthy of a Melbourne Music Week Showcase.  However, the band didn’t really need it, and for some songs they didn’t use it.

The Drones are an exceptional live band, and one of this country’s finest.  Musically, they are as flawless as they choose to be, whilst maintaining an edge full of spittle and spite that keeps them true their pub rock origins – just as brilliant on special occasions like these as they are on a Thursday night at The Tote.