Friday, June 15, 2012

New York Am I

Kenneth Branagh at a You Am I gig?! I had to look twice. It turned out to be an ostrich-like version, but that's New York for you: imitations, echoes, shadows ... of fame, fatal fame. It's been styled into people's DNA.
The Mercury Lounge sings with those dreams, with bar-land ambitions and grungy possibilities. Welcome to New York: the font of opportunity, the home of lost souls.
This is the last night of You Am I's American tour to promote their new RCA release #4 Record. Back home in Australia this group shimmer with critical and commercial success. But when singer-guitarist Tim Rogers, drummer Russell Hopkinson and bassist Andy Kent hit the stage it's a shock to see this much-vaunted group (their admirers include Sonic Youth, the former Soundgarden, Oasis and silverchair). They look battered, ragged, puffy, greasy, pale, just plain unwell and messed up by the road.
A full house of some 200 people, 50/50 American/Australian, greets them enthusiastically. I've made the mistake of saying to Andy Kent earlier at the bar that it's great to hear so many Australian accents. The comment seems to trouble him - why grind away here for an audience they already have back home?
Tim Rogers may have answers to that. He comes on as if James Brown has possessed his spastic, skinny white-boy body, thrusting his arse out, jutting his chin, giving a declarative rap about "showtime". A moustached Russell Hopkinson has a look best described as bottleshop Spanish, with a drumming action indebted to a loopy Keith Moon sensibility that seems to push the songs forward into the audience. Andy Kent's huge bass chords cable the whole beast together.
This is a great three-piece down on its luck. And it takes a few songs before You Am I really start to burn. During that build-up it's interesting to watch how utterly driven Tim Rogers is - the increasing intensity of his physical performance.
From the by-now-standard windmill fury of his guitar style to the gravelly, throaty envelope around the sweeter thinness of his recorded voice ... to the spitting, the wisecracks, the sense of danger that underlines him at every turn, most explicable in a ferocious version of Junk where he almost eats the microphone in two or three gestures that are strangely chilling.
Rogers's energy is phenomenal. He appears to have literally worn Hopkinson and Kent out with his drive, to have chewed up their existential energy and to push on the ghosts of what is left of them.
Rogers tries to use humour to cover or mask what is an extraordinarily angry performance. But it continues to pour out of him.
Trike has much more power than the recorded version but it doesn't shine as a song. It also hints at a wrong turn in Rogers's writing - the '60s affectations, The Who meets The Jam fandom that has taken the band away from the direct and raw muscularity of their Sound As Ever debut.
It is as if he has gotten too smart, too embroiled in his love of pop history. He's still a brilliant songwriter, of course - studious, encyclopedic, ruthless as a craftsman, but he seems to be commenting all the time, pointing and observing rather than feeling. He's losing the centre of the music, himself.
Perhaps that's the source of the inexplicable rage that has always been a part of Rogers's mocking stage persona. After the show I see him sitting alone downstairs with a black glass of Guinness in hand, looking morose. I ask him, "What's the matter - you look down in the mouth?"
Rogers tells me and repels me at the same time with the comment, "Everybody has their problems, you know." I can't tell if it's an appeal for intimacy or a snarl.
It's been a great night. Powerful, intelligent music from a band quite clearly injured by their own quest to make it in America.
Tim Rogers must wonder where it's going to end.
- Mark Mordue

* First published Sydney Morning Herald/The Age, December 24, 1998
+ Image of You Am I taken from a promotional poster for You Am I's #4 record. More images and details at