A Skyscraper Stan show covers a lot of ground. Last night’s performance, to launch Stan’s new album, Golden Boy Vol. I and Vol. II, kicked off with Tango, from 2015’s Last Year’s Tune, a chipper little number that set the tone for much of what was to come — Oscar Herbig’s guitar weaving details through a tune underpinned by Christopher Windley’s drums and Martin Shilov’s bass, Stan Woodhouse’s vocals rich and strong as he tells a dark tale of people going places they perhaps shouldn’t. It wrapped up with Always Thinking Of You, a slightly — but not by much — more cheerful number that Woodhouse, now pretty much permanently exiled to Melbourne, dedicated to his home town of Auckland.
But along the way, Woodhouse and his band, the Commission Flats, tripped though country-ish rock (Woody Guthrie; see the video below), full-throated rock (Tarcutta Shade), skiffle (much of the set, to be fair), and just plain fun (Hard Lesson To Learn, in particular). But the consistent tread that ran through the show was a sense of a band enjoying themselves at least as much as their audience. Woodhouse’s lyrics are typically quite dark and bleak — even titles, like Dancing On My Own Grave, or I Fall Over, reveal a certain grimness — but the music that accompanies tales of human failure and weakness and flaw is what stops a Skyscraper Stan song from descending into Smiths-level maudlin and drear. Instead, Dole Queues And Dunhill Blues, the album opener and lead single from Golden Boy, could be a grim, bleak thing, singing as it does of “drinking bottom-shelf bourbon in the rain, lukewarm,” but Woodhouse sings the song not with desperation or sadness but with an anger that suggests there is hope. But then the show shifts gear and Hard Lesson To Learn tells the tale of a teenage lad (yes, it was Stan, it transpires) caught in a very funny, and very embarrassing, state in his bathers at a school swimming day. The dark is very, very dark, but the light is plenty light enough to offset it.
But this is music, not just poetry, no matter how insightful and caustic Woodhouse’s lyrics may be (and, let’s be fair, they are — A Man Misunderstood is a slow burn of a story of a man up to no good at all; Tarcutta Shade tells the story of a stop on the Hume Highway, midway between Melbourne and Sydney, where “she fixes her hair in the microwave door and ignores the Tarcutta Day”), and the music is what made last night’s show quite superb. Woodhouse is, of course, the front man, and he’s an engaging, enjoyable stage presence, a storyteller whether he’s singing or talking, possessed of a voice that, when he uses it for songs like A Man Misunderstood, isn’t a terribly great distance from Nick Cave, and a guitar-picking style that manages to be complex and intricate without ever crossing over into the fussy.
And behind him, bassist Shilov and drummer Windley hold down the rhythm with precision and energy, Windley in particular hammering his kit like the drums have said something unpleasant about his mother and need a good seeing to. But particular credit should be given to Oskar Herbig. Stan’s cousin, and an accomplished recording artist in his own right, Herbig drives many of the show’s songs with some quite magnificently chunky guitar playing. Tarcutta Shade, in particular, builds from a melancholy reflection on life in a small town almost in the Outback to, on stage more than it does on record, a rather splendid rock-guitar wigout that sees Woodhouse give Herbig room to invest the song with just the right amount of venom and scream.
If there were any justice in the world, Skyscraper Stan And The Commission Flats would have been launching their new album at a much larger venue. But those of us who were fortunate enough to catch their show at The Tuning Fork were treated to a small, intimate and very, very enjoyable evening of outstanding music.