Countdown Spectacular Newcastle, Wednesday August 30: Not spectacular, but solid

Newcastle Entertainment centre

The evenings always start off slowly when you go to a concert on your own in a place you’ve never visited before, especially if, like me, you’re hopelessly paranoid. It starts with the train. I’m staying at Wickham, just 5 minutes away from the Newcastle Entertainment Centre by train. The concert starts at 7:30pm, and I have an assigned seat. Yet paranoia means I have to catch the 6:04pm train. The reason? If it got cancelled, the next train is at 6:42pm, which is still OK. But if that one got cancelled, the next one isn’t until 7:09pm, which is cutting it fine if (as is likely) I get lost at the venue. (If two trains in a row got cancelled, I’d catch a taxi, but that’s not the point.)

So I sit around, read my BlackBerry, and buy a souvenir program. Not bad at $25, though I’m not paying $15 for the Sherbet mini-program, since, unlike what turns out to be quite a large percentage of the audience, I really don’t care about the Sherbet reunion.

The Newcastle Entertainment Centre reminds me very much of Perth’s Burswood Dome — similar scale, similarly located seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and a similarly casual vibe compared to the standard Sydney Entertainment Centre frenzy. One non-casual note: the security guard personally chats to everyone in the first two rows, informing us that the production crew have asked we don’t stand and dance at the front of the stage. This will turn out to be a big fat lie, but more on that later.

To the show’s credit, it starts bang on time at 7:30pm — and it needs to, since it doesn’t finish until four hours later. Here’s the rundown:

Gavin Wood, the show’s long-running announcer, comes on stage to briefly warm us up, then there’s some historic video footage from the show’s inception. Classic Countdown clips are played throughout the night; most of them are pretty familiar, since they’ve largely been lifted from the Countdown 10th anniversary special, which I still have on VHS somewhere. Then the Countdown Dancers (a dozen or so guys and gals) rush the front of the stage pretending to be fans, and the show kicks off with . . .

John Paul Young, performing ‘Yesterday’s Hero’, just as he did on the first Countdown of 1975. He’s aged well and his voice is still good.

Then Molly Meldrum comes on stage and reads some poor, Newcastle-specific jokes about local celebrities (Daniel Johns, Jennifer Hawkins). Endearingly, even this early in the night, he forgets to use the microphone properly.

One of my major concerns about this show was how the transitions between singers (using the house band) and bands (using their own equipment) were going to be managed without excessive delays. This is handled very cleverly by using a fully rotating stage, so the bands can set up backstage while a singer is performing out front. And the first performer to rotate into view is . . .

Swanee, performing ‘If I Were A Carpenter’. He still sounds like a more tuneful version of his younger brother, Jimmy Barnes. Disappointingly, he doesn’t do ‘He’s Gonna Step On You Again’ (a hit when he fronted the Party Boys), even though it was a bigger hit. This sets the pattern for an evening full of people not doing enough songs, or, in some cases, the right songs.

Kids In The Kitchen’s Scott Carne jumps on for ‘Change In Mood’. He’s singing well, but has run slightly to fat and his hairstyle simply isn’t working. I’m disappointed he only gets one song — what, no ‘Current Stand’?

Cheetah perform their one big hit, ‘Spend The Night’. The two Hammond girls haven’t sung together for 25 years, but you wouldn’t know it.

The stage revolves and we get the Choirboys, performing — of course — ‘Run To Paradise’. This marks the first occasion on which the repeated requests for an audience singalong are actually successful. Lead singer Mark Gable looked a tad frightful, but perhaps he always did.

Ol’ 55 — or, to be precise, Frankie J. Holden and Wilbur Wilde — are the first act of the evening to get two songs, one a doo-wop track I have no memory of (it turns out to be ‘Looking For An Echo’ and the other their most notable hit, ‘On The Prowl’. They work the crowd well. Wilbur deserves special note: while technically he’s on the bill for Ol’ 55 and Jo Jo Zep, he shows up every time there’s a sax solo needed, and puts in more stage time than any other ‘celebrity’ involved.

Wendy & The Rocketts’ Wendy Stapleton did her one big hit, Play The Game, energetically, and faithfully to my admittedly limited recollection. She made particularly good use of the three female backing vocalists who are rolled out for all the ‘solo’ performances.

Uncanny X-Men’s Brian Mannix performed ‘Everybody Wants To Work’ with his customary energy and arse-wiggling enthusiasm, complete with feather boa and running endlessly from side to side to dance on the twin podiums. He’s aged pretty well; his voice is no better now than it was then, but as a performer he’s hard to fault.

Recalling the infamous dance contests which Countdown staged in 1980 and 1983 (with Xanadu and Flashdance themes respectively), the Countdown Dancers return with a medley of performances to ‘Thriller’, ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’, ‘Stayin’ Alive’, ‘Greased Lightning’, ‘You’re The One That I Want’, ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme’ (with a hint of ‘Hung Up’) and ‘Xanadu’. It’s all done competently, but to my mind it’s a huge waste of time that could have been better spent letting someone other than Ol’ 55 sing two songs.

Paul Norton does his most notable hit, ‘Stuck On You’, and I enjoy the performance rather more than I expected. (Technically, Norton’s appearance is a cheat; ‘Stuck On You’ is from 1989 and was hence never performed on Countdown, though it did appear on the daily sequel-of-sorts, Countdown Revolution).

Jo Jo Zep (in truth, just Jo Camilleri, plus Wilbur) offers a masterful performance of ‘Shape I’m In’ and ‘Hit And Run’. No-one tonight has been a bad performer, but Jo is the first person who seems to be genuinely, uncynically enjoying himself, and he’s in fabulous voice.

Next, we get video footage of Red Symons, paying tribute to notable performers from the Countdown era who can’t be here because, well, they’re dead. Naturally, his Skyhooks cohort Shirley Strachan is first off the rank, and then there’s brief mentions of Marc Hunter, Steve Gilpin from Mi-Sex, Ted Mulry, and Michael Hutchence. Having theorised that you can’t replace a singer, Symons then began citing the counter-example of AC/DC, but the moment was lost due to a major video playback glitch. And so Gavin cuts rather hastily to . . .

The rising, and falling, on-stage logo

Moving Pictures’ Alex Smith, doing ‘What About Me’. It’s a great performance, although you can’t help suspecting that even in this ageing crowd, many people are more familiar with the Shannon Noll version, which is similar but not identical (no long sax solo for one thing). Trivia note: Smith has been shipped in from London, where he now works as a music therapist.

Real Life’s David Sterry, looking more or less unchanged from 20 years ago, rocks his way through ‘Send Me An Angel’. I wish the drums had been louder, but this is such an 80s classic, I don’t really care.

Stephen Cummings ditches twenty years of his solo career to recall his time with the Sports and performs ‘Who Listens To The Radio?’ It’s well sung, but his stage grimaces leave me with the impression that he’d rather be doing an acoustic set somewhere else.

The Eurogliders — well, core Gliders and former couple, Grace Knight (vocals) and Bernie Lynch (songwriting) — were one of my bigger incentives to see this show, as they’ve never done the big reunion tour. Sadly, we get just one song, and it is of course ‘Heaven (Must Be There)’. Gavin’s own intro notes the band had 10 Top 10 hits — that sounds like a mild exaggeration, but surely there’d have been room for another one?

The Ferrets’ Billy Miller does the band’s only hit of note, ‘Don’t Fall In Love’. I didn’t ever like this track much (it didn’t surprise me to read in the program that it was originally going to be a B-side), but the performance is competent enough.

Joe Dolce performs ‘Shaddap Ya Face’, complete with Molly replicating a Countdown performance by wearing an Italian moustache and miming the accordion. Quite how this song became a global hit eludes me still, but I suspect small children had a lot to do with it.

And so we come to the closing act for the first half: Hush, who rotate on stage with an elaborate set involving fire-breathing dragons. Effectively, Hush are a low-rent Led Zep clone, and I think it’s indicative that both their hits — ‘Glad All Over’ and ‘Bony Maronie’ — were covers. Both go on far too long, but the 70s-leaning side of the crowd enjoys it.

To tell the truth, I wasn’t expecting an interval, but I guess it serves two useful benefits. Firstly, they can flog some merchandise (which I might get to at a subsequent gig). Secondly, it allows them to divide up the alleged ‘headline’ acts, most of whom are a bit seventies-leaning for my tastes, rather than clumping them at the end of the show. We’re promised 20 minutes, and it’s only 25 minutes later that things kicked off again with . . .

Goanna’s Shane Howard, singing ‘Solid Rock’. Howard makes the odd alteration to the lyrics, but this is a good opener, and the only moment in the show that’s even vaguely political. To my ears, the female trio’s backing vocals are a bit too smooth, and I’m interested to note that for the Melbourne show, the original Goanna women will in fact be appearing. (So will Mark Holden, but that’s another story.)

Leo Sayer, who infamously has now moved to Australia, is next up, performing ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancin” and ‘When I Need You’ which is, rather improbably, the first ballad we’ve had all evening. Sayer is great — enthusiastic, note-perfect and not notably aged at all. It’s a major bummer that he doesn’t do ‘More Than I Can Say’, though.

The annoyance is highlighted by the return of the Countdown Dancers, this time performing a medley of ‘Flashdance’, ‘Fame’, ‘Footloose’, ‘Mickey’ and ‘YMCA’. Again it’s competent; again I’d rather see another song from one of the featured performers.

Next up are The Models’ Sean Kelly & James Freud, who split their two songs for one lead vocal each. Sean takes on ‘I Hear Motion’, while James, naturally, plumps for ‘Out Of Mind, Out Of Sight’. It’s a shame he has long hair. Great vocals and cracking sound, and Sean laughs repeatedly during the performance, belying his reputation as a miserable art-rocker.

And then it’s the moment I’ve long been waiting for — The Chantoozies, performing with all four members for the first time since 1989. They bound onto stage to perform ‘Wanna Be Up’, sounding and looking fabulous. I wait in eager anticipation for ‘Witch Queen’. The stage goes black. They’ve reunited the Chantoozies — and given them second-top billing amongst the 80s performers — and we get ONE SONG?

All four Chantoozies

Next up, a lengthy Humdrum segment, where Molly reviews overseas acts that Countdown played a major role in launching: ABBA, Peter Allen, Blondie, John Cougar, the Motels, the Tourists, the Human League, Billy Idol, Madonna, and Kylie. I can see this on video; I don’t need it here. And Kylie is an outright lie, having started her music career after Countdown had stopped broadcasting.

Back to the music with Jon English, who hits on an idea I’m surprised hadn’t shown up earlier: doing a medley to maximise the number of featured hits. I don’t know his back catalogue well enough to identify ’em all, but ‘Six Ribbons’ and ‘Words Are Not Enough’ are in there.

Pseudo Echo’s Brian Canham brings us back to my preferred decade. Pseudo Echo’s ‘Listening’ was famously performed on the show before the band were signed, but apparently that’s not enough reason to perform it. Instead, we just get ‘Funkytown’. It’s a classic song and a great performance — Canham’s hair is thinning, but his vocal and guitar chops are still there.

Mondo Rock also make use of the medley format, combining the intro of ‘No Time’, ‘a truncated ‘Cool World’, ‘Summer of 81’ and then closing with ‘Come Said The Boy’. It’s all great stuff, and I’m glad they get so many tracks — but on the other hand, I’ve heard all these songs performed by the band half a dozen times during the Here & Now trek, plus a couple of corporate gigs. Still, you can’t fight quality.

I’ve also seen James Reyne do the odd corporate love-in, and these generally feature his acoustic version of ‘Reckless’, which opens here. After that, it’s a high-paced medley of ‘Fall Of Rome’, ‘Beautiful People’, ‘Errol’, and ‘Boys Light Up’. Classic stuff, well-performed, and you can even follow most of the words.

Renee Geyer. This is a tough one. Renee’s undeniably a great vocalist, but in truth her blues singer schtick is not particularly Countdown. She’s always made it clear that she loathes her biggest hit, ‘Say I Love You’, but it’s always been equally clear that she wouldn’t be able to skip it on a Countdown tour.

Unfortunately, this means she performs the entire song with a scowl on her face, relying heavily on the backing singers to bring the song its necessary pep and grace. It’s meant to be a fun track, not a dirge. Geyer’s cover of ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s World’ is much better, and obviously more to her tastes, but I still can’t help feeling that if she’s this iffy about being on the show, she might as well have stayed away.

John Paul Young then makes a second appearance, not entirely unexpected given his high billing. This time it’s ‘I Hate The Music’. I keep expecting him to do ‘Love Is In The Air’, but he doesn’t — maybe he’s grateful for the chance to emphasise different elements of his back catalogue.

And finally, we come to Sherbet. I’m too young to really care about them — indeed, there’s only one song of theirs I can comfortably recognise, the immortal ‘Howzat’. I’ve had renewed respect for Daryl Braithwaite’s singing ever since I saw him in Chess back in 1997, but the reunion of the group is simply not something I can get excited about.

To be fair, I’m in the minority here. As soon as the band starts, the stage is rushed by fat middle-aged women who could care less about the earlier strictures from the guards. I can see an immediate look of panic in the guitarist’s eyes: “Fuck, this is what my groupies look like now?” But given that the band members now mostly look like elderly accountants, that’s not such a bad mismatch. (Believe it or not, on a casual glance around, I was still one of the youngest people in the audience. Where are all the other 1980s Countdown viewers?)

I’m pretty sure the setlist comprises ‘Slipstream’, ‘Live Is For Living’, ‘Rock Me Gently’, ‘Howzat’ (surprisingly not the closer) and ‘Summer Loving’, but I could have messed up on the earlier tracks since, as I said, I don’t remember them. Braithwaite performs with flair and there’s a neat moment where the band remove their jackets to reveals 70s-style satin-backed shirts, but the performance of ‘Rock Me Gently’, which is matched with on-screen video of the band in their heyday, just shows how badly they’ve aged, and I say this as someone who spends a lot of time watching over-the-hill popstars.

Impressively, we then get an encore with pretty much every performer returning to the stage (I didn’t spot either of the Models, but that may have just been the crowds). The theme of “acknowledging the dead” is returned to, with covers of ‘Living In The 70s’ (led by Leo, Ross and Daryl), ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ (led by Alex and Stephen), ‘April Sun In Cuba’ (James and Renee) and ‘High Voltage’ (Swanee plus lots of other people). It’s great watching Scott and Brian bicker over the microphones, Chantoozies all over the stage, and people just generally having a good time. And then it’s over, at around 11:40pm, with no need to rush because I know the return train doesn’t appear until 12:20am. Some things never change.

Lest that all sounded a bit whiney, let me make it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed myself by providing a summary of the good stuff.

What I liked:

  • Any lineup featuring (in effect) Kids In The Kitchen, Uncanny X-Men, Jo Jo Zep, Real Life, Pseudo Echo, Real Life, the Eurogliders, the Models, the Chantoozies, Mondo Rock and James Reyne is going to work for me, no matter what else is going on.
  • The house band were uniformly excellent.
  • Alternating between acts from different eras means no-one spends too long getting bored.
  • At 210 minutes of stage time, it’s good value for money.
  • The closing medley was an unexpected treat.
  • No-one seems to have completely lost their voice.

    What I didn’t like:

  • There’s too many acts given only one song, and a bit too much emphasis on 70s rawk.
  • The dancers seem unnecessary given how much has to be crowded in.
  • The effective ban on ballads means many acts had to skip their best-known songs. (Case in point: Brian Mannix clearly wouldn’t be allowed to do ’50 Years’.)
  • Some people clearly only came to see Sherbet, which seems to me like an expensive evening out.

    Next show is in Sydney on Friday. I wonder if anything will change?

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