Thursday, June 10, 2010

Memory and Reflection: Live Music at the Railway Hotel

When I was in my late teens, back in the 1990s, my mother introduced me to the thriving roots-music community centered, in part, around North Fitzroy’s Railway Hotel. Headbelly Buzzard were just beginning their fourteen year Friday-night residency and were quickly establishing themselves as Melbourne’s most dynamic old-time string band. I remember seeing them there: Craig in his denim overalls and Irish flat cap, Nicola in a flowing skirt, fiddle poised on her arm, Mick like some spunky, subterranean Neanderthal with a low-hung guitar and twinkle in his eye. The music was fiery, rhythmic. The crowd loved them. As the years passed Mum invited me to these Railway gigs to see all-female country band GIT, the rootsy, fiddle playing Buzzards, the electrifying Brunswick Blues Shooters. I quickly fell in love. I came back, again and again. Years later I met my future partner at The Railway; he was a tall, quiet young guy with sculpted cheek-bones, a mop of curly brown hair, sensual lips, and cool blue eyes. I would sometimes feel him watching me from the shadows of the blue-lit pub as I danced to the Blues Shooters in tight jeans and jangly earrings. When we got together, it was to play music; we sang ‘Georgia on My Mind’ at the old piano at the Lomond Hotel. We fell in love.

Jess and I went to The Railway most Thursday nights before our child was born to drink wine and dance and he would sit in with The Blues Shooters to play guitar or I would sing an old jazz tune to the familiar faces in the crowd. We were the next generation of musos – always offered opportunities to get up and perform. I remember (yes, fondly) the faux-marble floor, awful fluorescent lights, wood veneer tables and footy memorabilia on the walls. I remember the grapevines growing on trellises in the courtyard out back; the rich smells of the home-style pub food cooked by the publican’s wife, Miriam, in the kitchen; the faces at the bar, young and old, who would greet each other with a pot of beer and plenty of talk; Peter’s resigned, slightly grumpy, nod in greeting. But most of all I remember the bands. The live music community at The Railway was a given, like the air we breathed; it was our heritage.

It was such a shock then, when late in 2009 the Italian publican, Peter Negrelli, informed the bands that due to changes in liquor licensing legislation (stating the pub required video surveillance and two licensed security guards when providing entertainment) the pub could no longer afford to put on gigs. As a result, both Headbelly Buzzard and The Brunswick Blues Shooters (who had played every Thursday night for four years) were instantly out of work. This was a blow to the whole community. My partner’s band ‘The Goodtime Medicine Band’, who had held the Saturday night spot at The Railway Hotel for a year and a half, also lost their gig. I don’t need to tell you the implications of this for us personally or for the broader music community; the bare bones are frightening enough: several generations of Melbourne roots musicians were culled by poorly conceived legislation that labeled live music – a culturally diverse and celebratory practice, known for encouraging strong community – a cause of alcohol-fuelled violence.

Ever since the debate has been raging: on the streets, in parliament and in the pubs where our strong music communities, of all genres, have been vocal about their anger at the linking of live music to alcohol-fuelled violence. It was at The Railway, in fact, that civil rights lawyer Anne O’Rourke began campaigning with fellow live music supporters Quincy McLean and Helen Marcou of Save Live Australian Music (SLAM) to fight for the link between ‘high risk’ conditions and live music to be overturned. This work, along with the support of other members of the industry led to the hugely successful SLAM rally that drew over 10,000 supporters into the city to protest against the reformed liquor licensing laws. At the time of the rally, in a spirit of goodwill, an accord was signed by the Brumby Government stating their intention to review the impact of the laws on small venues. The onus was still on the venues however and the review process complicated. It wasn’t until April’s petition delivery to Parliament (presented by nine well-known Victorian musicians) and a lot of bad press, that a couple of venues who had applied for the roll-back were finally approved. In the meantime gigs were being dropped all over the state. To date, only a small handful of venues have been successful. A new Director of Liquor Licensing has been appointed to replace the controversial Sue MacLellan and we are yet to see how or if this will change things for live music.

If you walked into The Railway Hotel today you’d find the food is still great, the fish-tank bubbling, the grapes still growing out back, but the music has largely disappeared and half the community with it. Headbelly Buzzard disbanded (they have recently reformed in a new line-up as ‘The Flying Engine String Band’ – see sidebar for details), The Brunswick Blues Shooters are still looking for a new residency, and The Goodtime Medicine Band are down from two gigs per week, to one (Lomond Hotel, Sundays 9pm). And what of the new bands that may have come through? So much lost opportunity. All of a sudden my mother’s words take on new meaning: “Headbelly Buzzard are a Melbourne Institution”, she’d said. It is devastating that the Government has been able to change the course of Melbourne’s music history so suddenly, in such an arbitrary way. It is inexcusable that this can happen whilst The Railway Hotel remains advertised on the State governed Tourism Victoria’s website as a pub popular for hosting live acoustic music. The hypocrisy is laughable. Is this all our culture means to Government – a sales pitch?

History is personal. If you close your eyes for a moment too long our heritage is gone; the place has been culled, renovated, replaced with high-rise apartments or hotels (as in the old city square) and, unforgivably, casinos. Then the culture dies, and our memories with it. Who are we then – when all we have left to remind us of our identity are faceless corporations, nightclubs and gaming joints? Who do we become? Voiceless? Disenchanted? Violent perhaps? I’ve been reading a novel lately: ‘Conditions of Faith’ by Melbourne-based author Alex Miller. In it his character ‘Antoine’ says: “The only history that satisfies our sense of justice is the history we write ourselves”. Yes. We won’t let our music history be overwritten. Music is voice, a powerful one; a voice that speaks from our most basic human need for culture and belonging. The Government has a big responsibility to the people who make up our cultural heritage in Victoria. And we have a big responsibility to fight for it, to protect it. We have a responsibility to remember.

Below is a youtube clip I found of Headbelly playing at the Railway in 2007 at Mick Cameron’s 50th. Though the footage is quite dark it is well worth persisting (it gets a bit easier to see when the b’day cake comes out) – the music is incredible and the energy and community captured on film is stunning. It is a poignant reminder of what we have lost and what we are still fighting for. H

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