Friday, January 20, 2012

Band - Expatriate at East Brunswick Club

Gig: Expatriate, “Miracle Mile” gig
Support: Them Swoops, Undercolours
Venue: East Brunswick Club, $15 tix
Date: Thursday 15th December, 2011

Late last year we noticed that Expatriate, a Sydney band that made something of a splash around Australia’s live music scene in 2007, would be playing an almost inconspicuous gig at the East Brunswick Club. Tickets were only $15 and we had good memories from the Expatriate gigs that we saw four years ago. So, we jumped on the opportunity to hit one more gig around the old suburbs in 2011. More importantly, we knew that it would sadly also be our last ever gig at East Brunswick Club. The venue, one of my top 5 live music rooms of recent years in Melbourne, has fallen victim to developers who will suck cultural life out of the place in favour of making a buck on building apartments (boo!).

Anyway…Expatriate gig…good band, good price and one last hoorah to a good venue…hence, we were excited to catch these synthy-pop-rock boys who had produced the excellent album In the Midst of This (an excellent soundtrack for running to!) then went quiet for so long.

So it's a shame the Expatriate set was a bit of an dud. More on that later though.

We arrived as first support, Them Swoops, were starting up. At first this local three piece had a very working class feel about them. They played a type of indie-pop-fuzz-rock with a splash of psych. Upbeat, they worked well as a young band, effortlessly in sync with each other and creating their own brand of sound. They happily announced and played their rhythm driven songs to an almost empty room. I suspect the only other people in the room besides us were staff or band members from the next support. Tracks included "Backflips", "Take Your Time" and "Work Around It". They also played a song called "White Rabbit", which was eerily appropriate as I drank a White Rabbit Dark Ale.

Them Swoop’s short final song was probably their best, as the rhythm guitar chords that dominated their set was replaced by a solid riff. Overall I thought they were a quality first support, but probably need to discover some type of X-factor to take their young band to the next level. Good set, Them Swoops!

Undercolours took us back to American high-school pop rock of the 80s for the second support. A collision of Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams, Air Supply, Journey, Cheap Trick and so on, along with the guitar effects of U2. Their set was like listening to the soundtrack to a 80s John Hughes film, which is fitting considering the guitarist looked like Emilio Estevez!

Undercolours were fun but in a novelty kind of way. They played well, but their sound was too familiar. I felt like this band been done before. There was also a slight air of cockiness to them, in contrast to the "we're just happy to play and have fun despite the empty room" vibe of Them Swoops.

The Undercolours novelty wore off on me quickly as every instrument began to sound like a cliché of the 80s Americana rock sound. That wave has passed for now.

The crowd had swelled in readiness for the main act, but it was far from capacity and the energy was quite restrained. Maybe it was the mid-December Thursday night factor, but few in the audience were willing to approach the front of stage position.

We first saw Expatriate support Something For Kate in 2006, followed by their own headlined gigs in 2007. Our Expatriate live highlight was one packed high energy night at The Corner Hotel.

Unlike those gigs of four years ago, Expatiate hit the stage and began this gig in very understated fashion and to somewhat restrained cheers and applause. It set the low tone of the gig.

The set was opened with new radio single "Miracle Mile" followed by unheard song "Do You Remember", which will feature on the band’s new album Hyper/Hearts that is due out in March. The unfamiliar track lulled the crowd a little.

The anticipated energy was reclaimed when the semi-epic, Cure-reminiscent, "Are You Awake", the lush final track on their In the Midst of This album, was a surprise third song. The excitement was back...but it was short lived.

Early on the band declared that they were underdone and not in their best form after a long break from playing together live...and it showed. This was their first gig back in Australia since relocating to Berlin over the past three years. Several stuff-ups were obvious and some songs seemed undercooked. The band's expressions during the show were very plain. They lacked the full sound and flamboyant energy of the past, which we had been anticipating to experience again. Maybe the lack of audience energy to feed off sullied the band.

Thankfully David Molland did manage to pull off some classic bass rock-out poses...

Next came several more new songs, which seemed more like band practice than a gig. Most of these new tracks seemed relatively slow and mellow for Expatriate and seemed to hinder the crowds desire to recall the songs and spirit of Expatriate circa-'07.

With the crowd holding back about two metres from the stage, lead singer Ben King’s former practice of spending much of the gig half inside the crowd was cut off. At times it seemed like he was weighing up whether to reach out into the audience or not. He never did, staying put on the stage.

The atmosphere was lifted by hits "The Spaces Between" and "Crazy", but the levels were still far below former glory. The sound was much more raw than in the past, with the use of effects seemingly limited.

Despite the band's overall rusty showing, drummer Christo was on fire. He effortlessly drummed true and with flare. The man's fast hands and techno-driving beats showcased his pure skill. Christo must be one of the best young drummers in an indie Aussie band at the moment. I’d love to see a fast-hands drum-off between Christo and Nik Kaloper of The Jezabels.

A song called "Design" finished the gig. The band gave a neutral "thanks" and departed.

There was a slow and weak call for an encore, which eventually built into a decent enough appeal for one more song. But Expatriate were done and no more to be seen. The lights stayed low and house music remained off for long enough to give the impression an encore was imminent, but when nothing eventuated the flat mood and slight disappointment of the night was only confounded.

Expatriate are a great band, a class act, but they were just off their game tonight. Back to the rehersal room, boys! There's polishing to be done.

Here’s hoping they are back in full force when the new albums hits the streets!

Don't just listen to my one view about this gig though. Other reviewers had a much more positive experience on this night and saw it quite differently to me. So, check out the reviews at:
There's also a good recent interview with Ben King on Mess & Noise at:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bar - Oscar's Ale House, Belgrave

Here's a new year's resolution for everyone who lives in or will be passing through Melbourne in 2012...visit Oscar's Ale House in Belgrave!

James Smith, beer journalist and driving force behind The Crafty Pint, has labelled Oscar's Ale House as one of the best beer bars in Victoria, primarily due to its extensive selection of local craft beers.

When I first walked into Oscar's, a few days after moving into the area, I knew within a minute that I completely agreed with Smith. More importantly, I was overwhelming happy with this bar that would now be my local. Just quietly, it was perfect...and I hadn't even had a beer. Pint please!


This little bar at the end of the train line is my saving grace as a new resident in the Dandenong Hills. For the last 10 years I had been living in the inner suburbs where craft beer is generally available by a short walk in any direction. Now our new home is 40km (an hours travel time) from the bustling craft beer and live music scene of Melbourne city. My expectation for finding a quality, friendly watering hole out this way was low.

This city-slicker blogger is now adjusting to unfamiliar hills, which require much effort to maintain a home, and a region lacking in plentiful supply of good beer. Thankfully my tree-change has been made somewhat easier by the short stroll to Oscar's. Less than 500 metres from my front door, this bar is my new local...and what a local to have! Few towns in any other direction over 40km from Melbourne are lucky to have such a good beer presence, but add to that the bonus of a bar with live music and good people in a beautiful environment...and it's a dream come true!

Oscar's Ale House was opened 3 years ago by Brad and Gypsy Merrit. It is located at the end of Belgrave's main street, metres from the railway and bus station and the entrance to Puffing Billy. The Merrit's bar brings together three passions that I raise my glass to - music, art and most of all...good beer.

For Brad, running Oscar's is a lifestyle, not a venture in profit or market chasing. The Californian native and his Aussie wife (a Dandenong's local) have swapped corporate city life in favour of providing a quality social hub for their local community. At Oscar's, named after one of the Merritt's dogs, Brad does things his way (in the best way possible) and he loves it. The success of Brad's ethos shows in the welcoming and easy-going vibe of the place.

The bar consists of three sections where patrons gather: 1. inside the main bar, 2. out the front along the pathway seating and 3. the small enclosed beer garden out the back.

The main room is showcased by a large wooden dogleg bar surrounded by comfy stools. About 14 people can sit at the bar, which is a great size and location for consuming your time at Oscar's. Much to my delight, for when I'm there alone, there's a good stack of street-press and beer books (such as Garrett Oliver's The Brewmaster's Table) to be found at the end of the bar. Alternatively, one can just stare almost endlessly at the rows of empty bottles that fill the roof-high shelves of the back wall.

Behind the bar you will find 5 draught beer taps pouring some of Brad's favourite local craft beers. Currently on tap are the Holgate ESB and "Road Trip" IPA, Mornington Peninsula Brewery's Pale Ale and IPA and the 2 Brothers "Growler" American Brown Ale.

On the lower-side behind the bar are fridges filled with a fine selection of craft beers. The bottled beer list covers all styles and flavours from across the local and international craft beer market. There is a list of regular bottle beer stock printed in a menu book, which also includes local ciders (no macro-swill cider!) and local wines, plus standard spirits and the bar's own cocktails.

A rotating list of new beers is clearly printed on two chalkboards either side of the bar (one for Australian beers and one for international/imported beers).

No shortage of choice at Oscar's!

The main section of the bar provides several booth-like couches facing across tables, which makes for easy and comfy conversation over drinks.

At the back of the bar is a small yet spacious beer garden. The enclosed but roofless space sits on top of an elevated deck and is shaded by a large umbrella.

There's no kitchen at Oscar's but they do sell food to accompany good beer drinking. On the menu are 3 cheese plates, a tomato & basil bruschetta and gourmet cheesy toast.

If you are seeking something more substantial, the staff are happy for you to BYO take-out, with a number of local pizza and take-out menu's available next to the bar. Alternatively, it's a short stroll to the various food shops and restaurants in Belgrave.

The Delicate cheese plate.

The other key feature of Oscar's is the arts. The venue regularly hosts art exhibitions and features live music across every weekend. The front corner of the venue is setup as a performance space for quality local acts, often from the blues/roots/alt-country genres. Brad is an experienced band-booker from his time working at bars in America, so he has a good ear for talent and finding acts that suit the venue.

It's a fine little venue for enjoying a free gig over good beer...a perfect match!

Josh Owen is a favourite at Oscar's.

Oscar's Ale House is simple and elegant yet characterful. However, the real character and enjoyment is found in the people that fill the bar...staff, locals and visitors.

The first few times I visited Oscar's I was hit by the quiet joy of seeing so many people drinking excellent craft beers.  It's just not something I expected to see out in Belgrave. Misguided was I!

The bar brings in a regular crowd of locals who have had palates for better beer developed by Brad's selection. The empty bottles that line the bar are often new release craft beers that cost over $20 per bottle. Then there are the occasions when women come up to the bar during early summer and ask Brad if he currently has any stouts on tap...and I just want to high-5 everyone because she didn't ask for a cider or white-wine spritzer, as is too common in the city. Yes, women do love stouts and porters.  This is how beer should be.

Naturally, there are those patrons who are not into craft beer and prefer to stick with the bland macro lagers or big brand spirits, something that is completely expected in this area, but their presence simply confirms that Oscar's is a choice local for everyone and anyone (unless, of course, you're a dickhead...that's a given).

Brad is a homebrewer, hop head and lover of big and crazy hybrid style beers, but he understands the (unfortunate) need for mainstream lagers in Belgrave, so he stocks James Boags Premium Lager and the marketing bullshit that is Doss Blockos, which plenty of locals drink. I am keen to see the sadly popular Doss Blockos replaced by a genuine Aussie craft Pale Lager, but it’s not an easy task finding accessible craft lagers that have the same appeal to the uneducated or misguided, the hipsters, the unadventurous and other dedicated mainstream drinkers.

The prices are good, exactly what I'd expect to pay for everything at a good bar (between $8-$9.50 for a pint of craft beer)

At first it was a surprise to me that Oscar's is often quiet, but that is no problem for the Merritts and their staff. Out here we're not in the city where an almost empty bar can be a sign of a failing business or an unwelcome domain. There is no need to pack this bar every night to make it viable. Oscar's is a labour of love. The occasional low attendance is also not a problem for me (I have been the only person in the bar several times) because I'm not the most social of animals. I enjoy being able to just sit at the bar by myself or with Jenn and lose a few hours over a couple of pints. Still, my former city-self says...this bar is so good that it should always be packed! Ok, yes, the quietness is the nature of the area. Belgrave does not have the rich population and bubbling 24/7 culture of the inner Melbourne suburbs. My new hometown is in the quiet hills, full of families and baby boomers, where having a local is common but revolving your life around visiting the trendy hot spots and making them rowdy is not (hooray!). Oscar's definitely has it's busy times...with the bar staff having all hands full late on most Friday and Saturday nights. Nonetheless, I would love for more people to discover Oscar's Ale House.

Oscar's is accessible, cosy, friendly, full of beer choice and diversity...and just a great place to discover out in the hills. Come find me there!

For the best insight into Oscar's, check out the two articles on The Crafty Pint: