Love at First Listen

Miri Jassy

[July 2011.]

Cover of Thirty Tigers URA 351

WAGONS: Rumble, Shake and Tumble (2011). Thirty Tigers URA 351 ( US release, August 16.

Sometimes music weakens the knees the way a pair of smouldering eyes can shatter your concentration from across a crowded room. It’s better when this doesn’t occur on a busy highway. King Street, Newtown, is less a highway than a hipster car boot sale in Sydney. It was among traffic of re-purposed 1960s ambulance vans, ergonomic tricycles and souped-up hot rods on the way back to the suburbs that I first laid ears on Wagons.

While they are THE Wagons, a mighty alternative country rock outfit hailing from Melbourne, Australia, they are not “The Wagons.” Denuded of “the,” Wagons is named for frontman Henry Wagons’ suspiciously apt surname; the band has everything going for them except the use of the definite article.

Rumble, Shake and Tumble, the new album from Wagons, builds on the band’s storytelling folk bent, powerful, driving rhythms and the wilfully geeky charisma of Henry Wagons. The Curse of Lightning (2007) and The Rise and Fall of Goodtown (2009) are intensely listenable and melodious for all their backwoods angst, and entice the budding Wagons fan with their palette of traditional rock fused with countrified lyrical whimsy.

“Goodtown” is a moon-howler of a train track anthem, a witty comment on modern tree changers infused with a hum-along dose of gothic pop. Yet it would be months before I saw Wagons live, dominating the stage at the Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival. Wagons got me through the mud and portable toilets of Bluesfest, and were way up on my festival favourites alongside Mavis Staples, the Blind Boys of Alabama and electro-fairy, British muso Imogen Heap.

The opening songs on Rumble, Shake and Tumble yield satisfying power grunt and deliver the promised rumble. “Downlow” and “I Blew It” rock out and pulse with a forward momentum. Also hovering around the perfect 3:30 mark and similarly grabbing the listener by the shirt-front is “Willie Nelson,” a song devoted to the headband-wearing, bio-diesel pumping legend. A better track live, thriving on audience participation to belt out the name “Willie” at fortissimo in rising thirds, “Willie Nelson” is a thundering paean to the roots of musical passion. It works as “a song of joyful praise” which highlights the heroes who’ve shaped Henry Wagons — “Sometimes I listen to Elvis / (so goes the bridge) Sometimes I listen to Cash / Sometimes I listen to Waylon / But it all goes back to the one and only …Willie (x3) Nelson.” I’ll ascend to some Nashville corner of heaven if I ever hear Willie himself on stage with Henry and the Wagons lads. That would be worth all the mud a music festival could throw at you.

“My search is over, I’m following you” sings Henry Wagons on their rockin’ tonky track “Save me.” With the rambling rhythm of a prop donkey-cart from the set of Deadwood, “Save me” is signature Wagons: a sweet melody knitted like last winter’s tea-cosy around a humble love story, both familiar and friendly. A similar song, “Turn My Moon Into the Sun,” invokes that old-but-new sound with like charm.

While not as rusty nails rootsy as the authentic sound of Gillian Welch, Wagons nonetheless possess a re-oiled, grandad’s first set of six-guns quality that’s rich and real. Real, you say? How come Henry Wagons sings sounds as though he’s the lead in a Christopher Guest mockumentary about country singers? Sure, he’s funny, but that doesn’t make Henry Wagons a fake. The disarming irony of Henry Wagons’ modern outlaw pose adds too-oft-denied fun to some seriously great music. Booming of voice and dainty of foot, Henry Wagons is the basso buffo of country rock. Sporting his own Willie Nelson-style headband and daringly clad in double denims, Henry Wagons makes every live show worth watching as well as hearing: He leaps up and stalks along the bar, mucks about among the crowds, gets them singing and gets away with it, telling a great story with laconic Aussie bluntness. Oversized black-rimmed spectacles are the perfect frame for this geek gone guitarist, with a voice deeper than Steve Earle’s and supple like the heavenly mellowness of Lyle Lovett.

Sometimes the only disappointment you have after a live show is not hearing a band play your favourite songs from their back catalogue. I missed out on “Redwoods” and “Draw Blood” from The Curse of Lightning when Wagons played the Annandale in June. “Redwoods” is a deep-voiced, rites of passage tune and “Draw Blood,” with echoes of Bobbie Gentry softness, is a gentle song, confused like all of us about whether “moving to Vegas” will solve life’s problems. The muscle of Rumble, Shake and Tumble was pre-empted by the stunning “Snake Bite” on the earlier Curse of Lightning, a raw journey of spiralling riffs on the steady barque of that Henry Wagons voice, urging us to “rattle and roll” through nights of bitter cold. Later, on the approach to “Goodtown” the insistent “Drive All Night Til Dawn” has the gutsy forward thrust you crave in the final hour of a long road-trip. “I always bring the shit,” booms a confident Henry Wagons, and you believe him.

With the confidence of US distribution, Wagons are set to “take the lead” across America as their song “Follow the Leader” promises on their latest album. On stage at Bluesfest, Henry Wagons announced his life goal, to become Australia’s answer to Kenny Rogers. Could Wagons handle demands of mainstream fandom as well as the money? Henry Wagons’ recent “Advance Australia Fair” at the League’s memorial Legends Game, and a surprisingly moving rendition by the band of “Up There Cazaly” on ABC’s Marngrook Footy Show prove that Wagons are a crowd-pleaser. They are the voice of passionate, pie-eating Australia, with a strong, butch sound not lacking in tenderness and intelligence. Wagons are in touch with the need for a good Aussie singalong but are an exciting addition to the small pool of Australia’s alt-country scene.

It could be his goggle-eyed sincerity or the mock megastar antics, but Henry Wagons walks the line between heartfelt intensity and hilarious self-deprecation. Listening to Henry Wagons do the national anthem is a bit like watching Melbourne satirist John Safran deliver the Sabbath sermon at synagogue: You don’t know if you should be enjoying it as much as you are.


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