Walking into the iconic venue that is The Palais Theatre last Friday night, we were met with a sea of people, flashes of bright lights and waves of sound. Guitars, singing, gleeful screaming – the foyer was alive with the sounds of tonight’s support act, James Johnston. I had no idea what to expect from the night, I was asked whether I wanted to cover this gig because of my love for country and folk music. But this sounded more like stadium country than the melancholic yeehaw I frequent. I was intrigued, nervous and eager to hear more.
Australian Idol finalist, James Johnston has come a long way since 2009. He’s moved from the living rooms of Australian families and is playing to nearly 3,000 people. The Palais is at full capacity. All I see when I peak in, is a swath of bright-wide strobes. James Johnston is wearing a simple singlet and jeans and has the crowd going NUTS. People are standing and swinging their shirts around. “I’ll be out in the foyer signing anything you have and taking photos!” He exclaims happily as his band takes a bow and exits the stage. His backup vocalist’s amazing shiny silver cowboy boots glitter in the lights and dazzle the senses as she walks off. The usher turns to my housemate and I, who had left the heat to get a drink, “You’ll have to move to the foyer, sorry.” We’re confused, why are they so frantic to free up space? We were fine a minute ago. But almost instantly, I understand. We wind our way upstairs as a thousand people flood the foyer and grab a place in line to have their bags, books and arms signed by the Mid-Coast legend.
It’s a crowd of big hats, and bigger mullets. Some opt for cowboy hats, and others are adorned with large trucker hats. Boots of varying persuasions clink across the floor. One woman is wearing shimmery pink frills and knee-high pink cowboy boots, I love her. Someone is wearing a pink cowboy hat with an LED light trim. Three of the biggest mullets I’ve ever seen in my life walk past me. Mostly, the crowd is what you would expect from stadium-country fans, a far throw from the bluegrass enjoyers I surround myself with. But within the crowd, there are people dressed as if they’ve only listened to Joni Mitchell’s, Blue, and I feel a wave of calm. Tonight, will give everyone a little bit of something.
Armed with a Sprite and a Pepsi Max, we make our way into the theatre and take our seats. Without any warning, tonight’s headliner, fellow Novocastrian, Morgan Evans, takes the stage. After a flurry of frantic white strobes, there he is. Centre stage, he’s surrounded by one of the best backing bands in the country game right now. Let’s get to meet them, shall we?
“All the way from upstate New York, he makes the best margarita this side of the Mexican border, and he plays drums alright too. Make some Big Melbourne Noise for Pete Wilson.”
“To my left, all the way from Knoxville, Tennessee. He’s a trained psychologist but he prefers to play on this thing (bass guitar), he’s on a mission to drink all the beer in Melbourne this week (of course, the crowd cheers), and he’s got a burgeoning love affair with Hungry Jacks (we cheer more). Make some noise for Andrew Brown!”
“And last but not least, on electric guitar, keyboards and more, the youngest member of the band. All the way from a little town outside Dallas, Texas. He’s taken such a liking to Australia, and he’s also single, might be looking for an Australian wife actually. Ian Bawley.” Ian, if you’re reading this, I’ll be your Australian wife.
And so, we have our guides for this evening’s journey through the Life Upside Down tour.
Morgan Evans might be from Newcastle, but he sings with a heavy southern drawl. Listening to the crowd drawl along with him as he opens with Young Again, I’m taken back to my time growing up in the US. This is like, the weirdest version of culture shock. It feels like a familiar culture to me, but in entirely the wrong venue. It’s all hoots and hollers, and I swear I can smell corn on the cob. This is the crowd who loves Monster Trucking, and who hold each other up when the going gets tough, and the tough gets going. Country music has become a global sensation, that much is clear to see. And the County Fair Community vibe belongs to no one nation, we’re adopting the colourful slang and drawn-out rhythms of our American brothers. Except his shoes are off. The dogs are out. Can’t take the Newcastle out of the boy.
While this is not my genre of choice, I just lean into it. I embrace the cringe, and I sing along and whistle and cheer with the rest of them. Country Outta My Girl has me and my housemate singing along and grinning ear to ear. People are standing up, whipping their shirts around, fist’s pumping in the air and snapping photos, They’re a rowdy bunch for sure, but their energy is just too contagious. Evans seems so totally comfortable onstage. He radiates this effortless charisma, and we eat it up.
“Last night was good, but I can tell tonight is gonna get a little crazy.” Evans smirks into the mic. A sea of middle-aged women and mullets in caps cheers back at him. We launch into Kiss Somebody, and I just have to say it, what a banger. It’s still stuck in my head.
During his next song, I Do. My housemate says she’s going to make it her wedding song. And while it is a little Hallmark-y, it is undeniably lovely and oh-so romantic. The walls of The Palais are alight with projected roses, which swirl around the walls and dance over our heads as the lights onstage flicker from purple to orange to pink and back again.
Now, by this point, I’m completely onboard with whatever Mr Evans is serving. So when he suggests a competition, I’m immediately in. For Love Is Real, he divides the room down the middle, and we have a sing (scream) off to determine which side are the best and the brightest. East vs West, we dual to the death, to the glory. We sing,
I am Yours! You are Mine! Love is Real!
Evans high-fives some kids, sings back to us, smiles, and laughs and it feels like we’re hanging out with old friends. Speaking of old friends, it’s his guitar-swapping roadies’ birthday. And while we’re fired up, he gets us to shout, “Happy Birthday Jeff!” Into the wings. And so, of course, we do. And we do it loud.
Over For You is a change of pace. Slow, sad and beautifully played on the keys. “This is the part of the show where I can do whatever the fuck I want, because it’s just me and you.” Full of heartbreak, Evans really shows us just how good his vocals really are, without the strobes and the over-the-top drawl. He has beautiful control. And the entire crowd is still, for the first time that night. The stage is ablaze with individual lights, he is playing piano in front of a sea of stars. For any Didirri fans, this could be worth checking out.
Determined to never let us get bored, Evans changes pace yet again. And we jump along into maybe the most iconic heartbreak banger I’ve heard this month. It’s an unreleased track, but when I tell you, he’s SO REAL for this one. “This is a new song for everyone who has an ex they can’t stop talking shit about.” Absolutely feral shrieks leave people’s mouths. And the lyrics on this thing, scathing, funny and oh-so good to sing along with.
You’re fingerpainting, and thinking they’re Picassos / Say what you want about me / But what does that say about you?
My ex was working the bar upstairs, but I hope he put his ear to the door for this. I hope very bad ex ever puts their ear to the metaphorical door for this. Because it’s brutal, it’s sobering, it’s funny. Get ready for this release.
Out of nowhere, Evans pulls out a guitar and starts playing the instrumental opening to Waltzing Matilda. At first, I think it’s just a segue into another song. But oh-no, I’ve underestimated just how Okka this crowd is. Without missing a beat, the entire crowd is singing Waltzing Matilda – without Evans. He just strums as we sing so loud, and so out of tune.
YOU’LL COME A WALTZING MATILDA WITH MEEEEEE
Voices crack, people whoop, people stifle laughs. It’s an experience I literally can’t describe to you. It feels like something out of a book. It was wild.
And after a rousing cover of the Slim Dusty classic, his band comes back onstage. By this point, I have a full-blown crush on his guitarist, Ian. So, to that handsome, southern Cowboy with a moustache, I yet again sexily wave my Australian Citizenship. He sits down on a stool, with a fully steel guitar, a resonator, in his hands. “Take us on a little trip to Texas.” And he starts to play something so southern, so sexy, it immediately makes me think of Tumbleweeds and oil drilling. A guttural “Yeaaaahhhh!” leaves my housemates mouth and everyone whistles. “I think that only took us halfway to Texas, how about you take us all the way?” And everyone cheers. Next is the most insane display of instrumental talent. He absolutely rides that resonator to Dallas and takes us with him. Painting incredible landscapes with his strums, Evans sneaks up behind him and places a cowboy hat on his head. The lights turn orange, with gorgeous sunset-yellow spotlights illuminating our iconic 4-some. Andrew Brown joins in on bass and starts to dance his signature two-step. This is southern bluegrass cowboy realness at its finest.
The rest of the night continued this trajectory of outrageous fun, big whoops and hollers and lickin’ guitar solos. Apparently two people vomited in the foyer from too much booze. So, the staff may not have been having that much fun, but I sure was. The sound mixing was incredible, the energy unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and I was so enraptured by Evans’ performance that I forgot he wasn’t wearing shoes.
So try something new. Go to that gig you think you might hate. Stick it out. And I promise, the Music will reward you.