The School Of Ross - Part Two

The Palace Hotel (Downstairs) Late Afternoon

The place is by no means crowded, but the regulars are here; Sunday-afternooners on their regular stools, bellies up to the bar. There’s a staircase to the next floor. We head over to it and pause to examine a display board by the staircase. There’s a poster tacked to it. The poster shows a man wearing a long, dark coat and holding an umbrella although it doesn’t seem to be raining where he is, which is in the middle of a street somewhere in suburbia. The man is grinning even though there’s an overturned vehicle not far behind him. Above the photo are the words “ROSS RYAN”, underneath are the words “ONE PERSON QUEUE” and below the poster is a sign which says “CD LAUNCH UPSTAIRS”.

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Next to the display board an actual umbrella is suspended. It’s grey, just like the one the man on the poster is holding, and it’s upside down.

We head on up the stairs.


The Palace Hotel (Upstairs) Late Afternoon

There’s a desk at the top of the stairs and it’s overseen by two fine YOUNG MEN, who want us to give them money in return for badges that have pictures of the man we saw on the poster. He’s in a different (bonus! extra!) pose, but he’s still got the umbrella and he’s still on the street and the troubled vehicle is still behind him. We aren’t just paying for badges, we’re paying to get in to see the show: the CD LAUNCH for ONE PERSON QUEUE by ROSS RYAN. Anyway, it’s much better to get a badge than a stamp or a ticket or one of those awful plastic wrist straps.

We scan the upstairs venue. There’s a nice vibe in here. Family and friends and fans. Some of the people are famous. Or look like they are. Or were. Or should be. This is where it’s all happening, man. We take a seat in a corner by the stair rail.

Hey, isn’t that MIKE RUDD? People are laughing a lot and nothing’s happened yet. Oh, look! There’s that MARK HOLDEN! He’s giving autographs to little kids. Turn turn turn indeed. Of course, they know him from the telly and before that there was his appearance on “Burke’s Backyard” with Ross Ryan. Turns out they’re long time pals, y’see, and quite the double act to boot. And he was on “This Is Your Life” (and Mr. Ryan was one of the surprise guests, looking delighted at how delightful it all was, standing next to that other Icon of Icons, Molly Meldrum). And now he sings back-up for MR. RYAN on the new album. In fact, both MIKE RUDD and MARK HOLDEN sing on One Person Queue.

Hey! There’s STEVE BLACKBURN! We used to hold the Teac up to the TV to record him and his cohorts on “Australia You’re Standing In It.” He plays keyboards on One Person Queue. Who better than a comedian to be in ROSS RYAN’s band? It’s all falling into place. And we’re becoming quite breathless with anticipation.

The time for RYAN to take the stage has come…and--just like re-establishing radio contact with Apollo 13 after the three minute blackout--gone. Is he here? After all these years was he just too battered to survive re-entry?

We move down into the area in front of the stage. Ah! the primo seats. Now we see that there are indeed a lot of people here. We turn from the sunken area before the stage and climb up to the bar.

There was a smattering of applause. Ross had taken the stage.

He thanked us for coming and explained that the first set was going to be solo acoustic. The second set was he said, going to be with the band - Ross Ryan Dot Combo. I wondered, to be honest, what we were in for. Now, in his introduction, he sounded a little nervous. What the hell was he nervous about? Just because he’d written a song a million years ago that had become an anthem of its time; just because he’d toured with Van Morrison and Roy Orbison and had his songs covered by Slim Dusty and John Farnham; just because he was about to relaunch himself into the unblinking yet forgetful public eye after a thousand years of self-imposed exile in a studio in the suburbs of Melbourne. For this he’s nervous? Sheesh, rock and roll icons these days, I don’t know…

Or maybe he really wasn’t all that sure about how this whole thing was gonna fly.

To get himself and the audience cosy he started with something that was pretty much as melancholy as the afternoon/evening was going to get; easing into the water with one of Dylan’s “farewell” songs, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Having tested the water, Ross seemed to find it fine and dove in deep with the first track from the new album One Person Queue ....

Only My Breathing

It’s a beautifully naked song to open such an anticipated record. That afternoon Ross dedicated the song to his wife Tina, who had produced the event to present the album to the public. It must have been a mammoth task to organise this thing and it was done with finesse and a certain tasteful grandeur. And humour. “The Mrs Wife” (as she is referred to in the caption of a photo with Ross in the CD booklet) deserves congratulations and thanks from him and all of us who were there for the job she did on the launch. And the job she’s done on bringing together all that came before it. As Mr. Ryan says in the liner notes, “never marry a songwriter.” But what a song “Only My Breathing” is to have dedicated to you.

On the album it opens with an electronic tock of a beat that is swept away by the welcome swoop of Broc O’Connor’s electric country guitar twang. Broc co-wrote this song and there’s so much to be said about his contribution to the album as a whole: his work as an instrumentalist, co-songwriter, behind-the-sound guru and all around good guy on this collection cannot, I think, be overstated. Then comes the full Ryan rhythm acoustic and the superb drumming of Peter Robertson. Robertson is perfect. That’s really all there is to say about him. Listen to the repeating, deliberate hitch to the rhythm in this song. Like everyone keeps stopping to catch their breath. It’s a neat, risky trick and it works.

So we’re carried into “Only My Breathing”. It floats nice and easy and warm over the touchy beat and leads us into the opening lyric.

           You came out of nowhere
           An angel in the wings

Heeeeeeee’s baaaack!

This time around Ryan (on record) has developed a vocal style that sounds as tense and familiar as it has so many times before, but now has an added knowing softness to it. A (yikes!) maturity that doesn’t sound as though he’s desperately trying to be as dreadfully earnest and urgent as he possibly can, as it strikes me he has in the past. That doesn’t mean the earnestness and urgency have gone, it just means that this time around he finally sounds like he’s trusting his lyrics and the sounds around them. Ryan has said that he isn’t happy with some of the records he’s made. It’s not just the songs themselves he has a problem with, but also their recordings.

Now, at G.I. Recorders where One Person Queue was carefully and lovingly fussed into life, he has the ability to give himself what he wants in an environment that he’s comfortable in, surrounded by people he’s comfortable with. You can hear it. Take a listen to some of the tracks on The Greats of Ross and compare their harder, sometimes shrill, get-it-done-and-get-it-out sound to what we have now. Now it sounds like much more time and a lot more care.

Ryan followed “Breathing” (which we all were quite easily and comfortably doing now, including him on stage) by reaching back into his (and many of the audience members’) comfort zone. It was a retreat into the past, way back to “606”, a track from his 1974 album My Name Means Horse ; a strategic fall back to a position the audience appreciated immensely.

Ross always works hard to make sure he doesn’t give you a half-arsed version of one of his classics (he might have a little fun with them, but that’s part of who he is, as we have seen). I’ll tell you what I reckon. I reckon he has a new enthusiasm. At the album launch it came across in the nerves; not that obvious, but they were there and they were a good thing, because the nerves generated excitement and excitement generates enthusiasm and so everything old is new again.

Also, remember that he hasn’t been that keen on some of his old recordings, so why not take the opportunity, on the occasion of the debut of the new recordings (of which he is justifiably keen and proud), to sell the old songs back to us. Show us how good his personal favourites still are.

Chase The Ghosts Away

After “606” Ryan took us back to the new album with “Chase The Ghosts Away” (at one point mooted as the title for the CD). This is probably the most personal and introspective of the songs on One Person Queue (which is saying something because just about every song is personal and introspective in its own way). “I’ve long abandoned the burdens of ambition,” Ryan sings early on. “And I’ve long forgotten the meaning of my name.” (Geddit?) “I’m a true and fierce believer,” he sings like he means it. And I believe he does.

I’d like to take a moment here to make a big deal about another quote from Ross Ryan about his music. He’s said that the lyrics come hardest. Really hard. As I’ve mentioned, in the notes to this album he thanks his wife and he thanks “the Great Reluctant Muse.” Then what we hear - what is finally recorded and performed - for a song is never really finished; is just captured for a moment. I doubt Ross would ever trust anything that came easily - he might be thankful for it, but he wouldn’t trust it. Ryan is a brilliant lyricist, one of the best in the country, and it’s because he’s tough on himself and tough on his talent. The lyrics on this album are the best he’s done, and that really is saying something considering the work he’s done in the past.

On the album, “Chase The Ghosts Away” starts with the musical equivalent of a football fake. There’s some nice ambient acoustic guitar and a…a…well, “Celtic bit” is what it’s listed as in the liner notes (played or performed or created by James Feldman, who, along with Ryan, produced the album). You think you’ve got a bead on the song straight away; the vocals will come in next and it will be pretty, but suddenly there’s banjo (Matt Fagan) and violin (Andrew Clermont) and we’ve got a kind of American Civil War combo on our hands. Then come the opening lines.

           It’s such a journey
           And the roads are haunted
           By the ghosts of dreamers
           Who kissed their gifts away

(What’d I tell you? Pretty friggin’ good, right? If it came hard it was damn well worth it.)

After two plaintive verses, the chorus kicks in. Robertson kicks in too, with a hard hitting boogie shuffle that knits tightly to the rock solid bass (long time Ryan collaborator Roy Zedras). As with a lot of the songs on this album there’s a country feel at times, but it’s really only that…a feel. There’s a lot of styles at work across the CD and they’re cunningly and seamlessly combined into a sound that’s uniquely Ross’s.

Don't Be Unkind

Then I had a problem.

There’s a song on the album called “Don’t Be Unkind” and I goddamn love it. For me it really encapsulates how good Ryan has become; how he’s managed to jumble the humour and the bitterness; the shtick and the bam! ; the performer and the writer. This is the song that shows how he has finally meshed all the facets of his talent. Here we have the world class songwriter; the clever lyricist and smart tunesmith; the wizard producer; the fine musician and mighty singer; the angst ridden folkie and the die hard rocker and the incredibly cheeky, gut-bustingly funny bloke who also happens to be a riveting entertainer. See, he’s done it all in one song.

That’s what this album is about to me. That’s why I adore it. He has finally become the sum of his excellent parts, all in one easy-to-carry compact disc!

The middle section (eight, bridge, whatever you want to call it) in “Don’t Be Unkind” is an absolute treasure. Ryan has had people favourably comment on his singing during this section , which is a bit of a bugger because it’s not him. It’s (wait for it) Mark Holden; another brilliant bit of casting. “Nightclub vocals” is what Holden’s credited with in the liner notes and it’s a role he performs to perfection. The song swells for his sickeningly slick entrance. We hear silky babes “ooo”-ing under him . Holden croons without having to ham (much) - all he needs do is his usual smooth-guy stuff and, coupled with the “babes” and the contrast to Ryan’s spitting vocals in the verses, the point is made beautifully. This idea really is a peach. Holden gives a nod to his carnation strewn past and, as the purple drama builds, finally allows himself a pretty generous slice of ham. Listen to him letting his voice break as he sings the word “heart.” Such fun.

What else could follow but a clarinet solo (Lionel Mrocki) that sounds as though it’s being played by one of the “wurgen “ band members from Cabaret ? Cheekily--without any fancy transition-we’re plonked back into Ryan’s spiteful, jealous lead vocal. “It’s all right we can call off the wedding,” he sings like he never gave a shit anyway. And then one of my favourite lyrics on the album.

           Good luck with your bullet-proof lover boy
           With his telephone voice and perfumes

I love this glorious poison and the way it’s delivered with such a believable sneer. And as if to taunt our sourpuss cuckold, the babes are still doo-woping and the clarinet sniggers behind him. He don’t care. He’s gotten so lazy and bored that he’s half speaking some of his vicious missives. But the drama builds for him, too, and he’s finally angry. He really does give a shit, he’s just been hiding his bruises behind defiant sarcasm. There’ll be other babes for him (“you won’t be the last woman to walk out that door”), but he misses the one he’s talking to now. So he gets angrier and the song rocks up with Stuart Beatty’s snake uncoiling guitar and Glyn Mason’s furious harmonies. Suddenly our poor sod is bargaining with the babe not to go. Or for permission not to leave. But of course it’s bargaining, depression, anger and acceptance (and the other one) and we sink back into the black mud of reflective recrimination as Ross says “yes” and the babes and the clarinet sail us out of this bad, funny place.

Wonderful, hilarious, nasty stuff with great dollops of genuine production genius.

So what does Ross Ryan do with it at the CD launch?

He plays it by himself on the acoustic guitar.

That’s what annoyed me. It should have been played with the Combo in the second half of the show. But, as Ryan explained, he and the band simply lacked the rehearsal time to do the song justice (or at least that's his story).

It was back to Smiling For The Camera with “Where Are You Now?” which worked as well live and bare as it always has and then “Orchestra Ladies” from My Name Means Horse.

Not Our Time

“Not Our Time” is Old School Of Ross. A very folkie, so laid back it’s practically lying down (probably in a hammock), three four. Just to make sure there’s no doubt that Ryan’s still in contact with the Old Folk there’s a sleepy mandolin on the track (Andrew Clermont) as well as a violin and 12 string guitar (Andrew Clermont and Andrew Clermont) and, for good measure, an accordion (Cathy Middleton). The harmonies supplied by Freydi Mrocki are as pretty and clean as a shadow coloured crystal. The lyrics are pure Ross Ryan nostalgia; unlike “Don’t Be Unkind”, this is completely forlorn and wearily resigned melancholia.

The song sounds as though it’s been lifted from the back catalogue. Is this Ryan’s Anthology? Already? Just when we were peaking again? Say it ain’t so. But, alas, it sounds so. The thrusting darkness of the bowed bass (David Krycer) as the song sleepwalks through its final verses are a nice touch and enough to make your speakers wobble (always a good thing). The piano played by Wallace Cooper is good and busy but…but…okay! I don’t like this song! I’ve said it! Happy now?

It sounds too easy for someone of Ryan’s formidable calibre. I’m not saying that everything should come hard and hurt. And if I look at what I’ve written I see that I seem to be bashing folk music, which I’m not, I like folk music. Remember fifty-thousand words back? Where was I? At a folk festival , damnit! It’s not a bad song, but it’s not where the rest of the album is, it’s where the rest of My Name Means Horse or Smiling For The Camera or After The Applause is. And that’s not saying that there was anything wrong with those albums, apart from the fact that they had too many songs like this one on them. By which I mean been-there-done-that kind of stuff. Other people will love “It’s Not Our Time.” Lyrically it’s certainly got a point, but it’s only the one.

And he played it live and it was fine.

The Only Show In Town

Ryan was then joined onstage by singer Jojo Leslie for “The Only Show In Town” and we were returned to the high quality stuff from One Person Queue . Leslie provided not only her excellent singing (she’s on “The Only Show In Town” on the album and a number of other tracks), but also a touch of glamour to the proceedings. You can see Jojo in the “Cool River” video on the CD. Her and Ross and Michael Moore and Duff and the Phantom and a train and some puddles. It’s a terrific bonus and a well made clip, indicative of the love, care and enormous amount of work that’s gone into the project.

On the album, “The Only Show In Town” is unashamedly country in its sound and feel. Ryan sighs into the harp like a true journeyman. You can taste the dust on the reeds. Ken Stephenson removes any doubt that we’re on the road with his evocative pedal steel and Dobro. Steve Blackburn plays an unobtrusively wandering piano as though it’s this particular talent he was born for. Leslie slips in nicely with Ryan as the song gets going (actually it’s her lift that gets it moving). She’s a true revelation, riding Ryan’s vocal perfectly, smoothing it, enhancing it, giving life to lyrics he sounds too familiar with. They’re great lyrics, but, you know, he wrote them; Leslie lifts them up for him without ever overbearing him, even though she’s mixed right up there. This song has a sophisticated Wilbury-ness to it. It sounds like a paean to the pros and cons of touring, especially those glorious backwater bergs.

           Forget about the static
           Look beyond the bleachers
           To a fan who’s always planned on you being around

I like the sentiment (my interpretation of it, anyway). I admire the self-awareness. I like the song very much. I have to say that the build to the lovely harp solo is absolute Springsteen, which is not at all a bad thing.

Ryan and Leslie gave “The Only Show In Town” even more warmth and beauty live, imbruing it with an intimacy that worked beautifully in the context of its circumstance: a song about the true fans performed right to those good folks who had traveled to Camberwell that afternoon to support the very long awaited launch of the new songs.

Ryan then opened the bar for requests, before quickly seeming to regret it. See, some yobbo (okay, it was me), started hollering out for him to do “Tortured Clouds Of Sorrow.” For whatever reason, Ryan seemed terribly reluctant to revisit that particular gem. He ummed and erred but grudgingly acquiesced and performed “Tortured Clouds” with the dopey solemnity that it deserves. It went down a treat and it was still as freshly funny as it was when I first heard it.

What else could follow it, and close the solo section of the show, but “Pegasus”?

It was played nice and straight, no buggering about; the Gentleman’s learned that lesson. As usual, it was the treat it can’t help but be, especially with its new found importance, having recently been proclaimed an “Unofficial Anthem” (not to be confused with another Ryan song from the archive which is actually called “Anthem”) by ABC TV’s “Love Is In The Air”. I think there’s now an unofficial law that Ryan can never muck about with that old chestnut again, which is kind of a pity, but there you go. Give the people what they want and yadda yadda yadda. It was a grand performance and a good close to the first half of the show.

O.K!!! After the intermission it’s…

Ross Ryan Dot Combo.

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