Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs 1965

Every week, Facebook and Twitter are deluged with clickbait questions “Who was the first/best/worst band or performer you saw?” Of course, big name acts predominate, but my first instincts often shoot straight to lesser known acts who blew my socks off at different times in my life. So here’s my best five in a few categories.

5 of the earliest bands I saw

1964: Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages who for some bizarre reason were booked to play in Bathurst (where I grew up) at the now demolished City Theatre on his 1964 three week tour of Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that he had 18 inch long hair, screamed his songs and wiped his nose on the stage curtains. He went on to form the Monster Raving Looney Party and serially contested British elections until 1997. He died in 1999. I vaguely recall they were very loud and outrageous, which greatly impressed 13 year old Simon.

1965: Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs. My dad sometimes took me to Sydney on his trips to buy supplies for his business. We’d stay at the Imperial Hotel in Kings Cross and one night we walked past Surf City where the Crest Hotel now stands. We went in and I saw Billy Thorpe’s band playing songs like this in neat suits, doing their little dance routines like Cliff Richard’s band the Shadows had perfected. It was beyond wonderful. Here’s Billy Thorpe reminiscing about Surf City

1966: The Black Diamonds A band fromthe coal-mining town of Lithgow, described by the Easybeats as the best support band they ever played with.   I heard them at the Bathurst show where their guitarist played a lot through an echo chamber. See the way was their standout song.

1969: The Original Battersea Heroes. When I moved to Sydney in 1969 I often went to French’s Tavern in Oxford Street where early blues bands like the Starving Wild Dogs and Gut Bucket played. My favourites were the Heroes, a jug, washboard, harmonica and guitar band fronted by the bouncy Terry Darmody.

1970: Jeff St John & the Copperwine. I saw them many times at university gigs. Jeff’s soaring, powerful voice was never better than with his version of the Temptation’s Cloud Nine. The Hammond B3 through the Leslie sound in it pours all over the song.

5 of the Best

1984 Sam Mangwana and the African Allstars, London This was my first experience of live African music. The Congolese superstar’s band was thick with the best session men from Kinshasa, with about 18 on the stage including the dancers. From that night on, I have been a slave to Congolese rumba. Here he is today

1976: Santana – in Sydney at the Hordern Pavilion at their peak during Carlos’ Sri Chimoy period. Played lots from Caravanserai, with Gregg Rollie  on keys. Spellbinding.

2003: The Rolling Stones – Lucked in and saw them from the moshpit in the one-off 2000 seat Enmore Theatre, with the ACDC Young brothers guesting. Read the full story here

2010: Vieux Farka Toure, Festival of Sydney. Powerful Malian guitarist. Never pass any opportunity to see him.

2014 Bruce Springsteen, Sydney. Beyond comparison in energy and virtuosity,  Played for nearly 3 hours. We sat right above the stage.

Honorable mentions

1985: Les Quatres Etoiles (London) Congolese supergroup with Nyboma, Bopol, Syran and Wuta Mayi

2008 Toumani Diabate ‘s Symmetric Orchestra Malian kora maestro (Sydney Opera House)

(Many times) Senegal’s Youssou N’dour – never fails to deliver spectacular gigs

Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters, Sydney Opera House: This was the highlight – watch through till the end, sound full up.

2014: Ariel Bringuez  Quartet– Cuban jazz trio resident in Madrid. Sensationally good. Restaurant gig. Try this

Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters (the Basement, Sydney 1990s Boston blues guitarist. Amazing if you’ve not heard him.

2005: Ernest Ranglin and Monty Alexander (legendary Jamaican guitarist and piano session men who played together at Sydney’s Basement)  

2006: Jan Garbarek – ethereal Norwegian saxophonist. Saw in concert in Lyon, France 2006. Pin drop perfection.

1970s: Leo Kottke, twice in Sydney. US acoustic guitarist

Early 1990s M’Bilia Bel & Rigo Star – Congolese diva living in Paris who toured Australia in the early 1990s with near-zero publicity. With some 40 others I saw them at the Birkenhead Tavern and was singing along to the standard Shauri Yako when she saw me and invited me up to duet it with her. Huge thrill.

The very worst

1979 Bo Diddley Kings Cross Rex hotel. Unchanging stone age beat, on and on …. zzzz

1985: Van Morrison, at the London Dominion  The first half featured Morrison’s band playing Irish music. Fine, but we’d payed to hear Van. After the break, the band returned and played several more Van-less songs leading to slow hand clapping, before the Great Man slipped on stage, sat on a stool to the side and mumbled his way through a few standards with all the interest of last week’s cold soup. No audience engagement. Bored beyond belief. Half the audience, including us, walked out. Apparently not that uncommon.

2004 James Brown East Coast Blues and Roots Festival, Byron Bay. A performer well past his prime. Took his time to join the band, a shell of his former self. Went through the motions and kept leaving the stage, perhaps for oxygen? Some understatement from a review “Sure, his voice wasn’t perfect. And he definitely couldn’t move the same way as we saw him do on videos from the 60s.”

2004 Al Green State Theatre, Sydney.  Played for only around an hour, cramming material into superficial mash-up medleys of his hits. Another legendary performer far better as a memory than as a performer.

2006 The Mighty Sparrow. The Trinidad soca superstar played at the Enmore Theatre. The sound mix was atrocious, the band were very aged and looked tired and bored. I kept telling the people I took how legendary and wonderful Sparrow was. They all looked at me as if I was in on some bad joke or scam to get them there. We all left after 40 minutes.

Here’s a list I made a few years ago of all the performers I can remember seeing — a good many since then