The School Of Ross - Part Three

The Ross Ryan Dot Combo

Great name. Greater band.

What a line-up it was that took that odd stage at the Palace for the second section of the show. At its core, of course, the mighty Peter Robertson, rock solid bassist Roy Zedras and guitarist-for-all-seasons Broc O’Connor, fleshed out with Steve Blackburn (who seemed to have no problem at all being introduced as “the original Dodgy Brother himself”) on keyboards and the excellent Anne Eastaugh on fiddle.

 Part One    Part Two

Want more? Okay, how about adding the legendary power of Mike Rudd on vocals and harp, bringing back Jojo Leslie’s perfect vocals and bunging in Where-Have-You-Been-Hiding-Yourself Mark Holden on vocals as well. Put the album’s co-producer, the tirelessly clever James Feldman on the mixing desk (tirelessly and cleverly overcoming the performance area’s bizarro acoustics so that I for one heard no problem at all; remarkable considering the size and volume of the band) and Rob Draper on the difficult job of making the weird venue an atmospherically appropriate place to do this thing and you got yourself a hell of a show. Especially when you put that Ross Ryan and his timeless, boundless talents in front of the whole shebang.

The extraordinary gathering of talent was packed into that livingroom stage like happy sardines (Holden was practically in the wings), blasting off with the wonderful Waylon Jennings song “Nobody Knows I’m Elvis”. There was no doubt that this was gonna be a show to remember.

Lovers Turn To Thieves

Fittingly, Waylon’s number led into “Lovers Turn To Thieves” from IPQ. Jennings and others of his ilk are all over this track and it’s a fitting homage. On the album “Thieves” is Ryan having another look inside, but this one’s a loud, blustering rock out session on the couch. Someone’s blown our man off - but it’s not in a nice way, which is why our chap’s a little cross here:

           Every heart that’s ever been broken
           Well you just probed them and analyzed
           Well surprise
           Mine survived

And he’s gonna bitch about it for our enjoyment and edification. Once again and throughout the lyrics are unbeatable. When he’s got his gander up Ryan’s at his best. You don’t think he needs that pesky muse all that much when he’s got something to whinge about; that marvelous vitriol breeds perfect gems of spite. Take a look:

           You took every precaution
           Then made every mistake

or what about

           You can keep your reflex friendship
           And your knee-jerk honesty

Yee-ouch ! This stuff burns to fuel “Lovers” on to become another stand out track on the album.

Robertson’s percussion starts out testing the waters, then leaps in with a no nonsense pounding drive (cow bell and all) that punches the point of the fierce vocals home. Broc is outstanding; his guitar sounds as angry and righteous as our protagonist. Glyn Mason’s back on the choruses, with the same sort of close harmony used to such great effect in “Don’t Be Unkind.” It’s a great song; a personal favourite.

The Combo rocked the song up live. It was a tad harder than it is on the album, but songs like this deserve a good kick live and “Lovers” was up for it. It was an absolute treat to watch the band-so competent and assured-tackling such fresh material. They were obviously having a blast, too, which is great to see and certainly not seen enough.

Next up was “Pancho and Lefty,” the Townes Van Zandt classic. What with Dylan covered in the first set and Jennings and Van Zandt in the next, it was clear to us what was happening. Ross Ryan’s roots were showing. Van Zandt is a perfect fit for Ryan. Folkie/country leaning angstophiles and funny guys..

Cool River

Jojo Leslie stepped up front with Ryan once again for “Cool River”, the single that would have been if there had been a single. This, you’ll remember, is the song that got a ‘clip’ and was made available on Ryan’s website as a free download to whet your appetite for the album.

The song is a cosy beaut, fully realised and comfortable as an old favourite after just one listen. It sounds easy, but I bet it wasn’t. It has a warm sound and Ryan’s vocal is laid back and sweet. Don’t let that fool you though; lyrically we’re back in some pretty dark territory. Our hero can’t shake “this low lonesome feeling” or make it “through even one lousy day.” He’s after an Al Green (without those happy histrionics) redemption; a rebirth through baptism in a river somewhere. Or is he? Is it really a spiritual cleansing he’s after or, as the lyric at points suggests, does he want the water to simply take him away from the grim place he’s found himself in? We’re not sure and it doesn’t matter. Certainly there is a very spiritual feeling to the song as it grooves along to the introduction of the chorus and the restrained gospel work of Neil & The Watermen and Jojo Leslie. It’s complete with an excellent bass vocal that’ll rattle your coffee cups and martini glasses.

As performed by the Combo, “Cool River” worked beautifully live. It was restrained and touching and the vocals were marvelous, especially Jojo Leslie’s spot sharing performance.

After that it was on to a beautifully rendered version of Neil Young’s brilliant “Long May You Run".

Look Out For The Ricochet

Anyway, Ryan needed that sweat for the next song. Because it was at that point that Ross Ryan Dot Combo blew the roof off the dump with the single shot of a simple hollow point called “Look Out For The Ricochet.” This song is a delirious, howling, ballsy romp, co-penned with Broc O’Connor and featuring Mike Rudd.

Peter Robertson opens with a gallop on the snare that never lets up and the astoundingly talented Simon Ross pounds the keyboards with a wonderful honky tonk don’t-shoot-me-I’m-only-the-piano-player fever that sounds like his life really does depend on how good he does here. Broc is all over this thing with a chest poundingly solid country bass line and guitars that can hardly wait for the off; a couple of impatient harmonics bent at the beginning and then he flies in, wailing and rolling one moment, laying down scatter shot cover fire the next. He’s a demon all through, as angry as he ever sounds and happy to be sounding that way.

Rudd is a perfect choice for this track. His breathless panting chugs on the harp add a reckless urgency to this furious rant. His harp playing and his harmonies are still up there with the best you’ll find and bring back so many glorious memories of his contribution to Australian rock’n’roll. Ryan’s vocal on this track-and the lyrics-are a refreshing release from the resigned melancholia or bitter angst on the rest of the tracks. Sure, he’s still angry, but now he’s gonna do something about it. He has a posse and a six gun; the courage and bravado that comes with a belly full of whisky, a gut full of attitude and a sharply eloquent tongue.

Well, see, he’s “gonna put a bullet through the radio” and then “trash my TV and turn it into a barbeque.”
Stand back, folks, I think he means it. Cause he’s also gonna “drag out my 45’s/Stack ‘em way up high/And crank me out some good ol’ country juice.”

Fine, Mister, go ahead, just don’t hurt anyone.

“Well can you tell me if I’m crazy?” he sneers, daring us to answer. I wouldn’t if I were you. He’s certainly got a bee in his bonnet about something. And it’s this:

           How come no one seems to play
           That music from that golden age
           When the angels set down in Tennessee.

The gang wants to tell us about the time when gee-tar players “didn’t wear no girlie makeup…And Patsy Cline didn’t need to shake her goodies/On the cover of no chicken suckin’ Playboy Magazine.”
Love that last line. It sells the song and tells the story. That and this:

           I refuse to stand by
           And watch my music slowly die
           While we’re wastin time readin’ folks their rights

This song is another instant classic. Rockin’, tough and passionate. Ryan’s taking another risk and it’s a risk that once again pays off.

It was on to a neat cover of “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind” then (if Ryan keeps picking that Dylan thing it’ll never heal) and then an interestingly tinkered version of “Blue Chevrolet Ballerina” (from After The Applause, 1975). It was nice to hear this Ryan classic aired with a full band and a little reworking since we’ve heard it solo so many times now.

Walk On Water

And then…well, then it was “Walk On Water.” The (official) last track on One Person Queue. It’s gospel, people. And why not? Let’s finish up this momentous album with a lusty discourse on gods. Let’s be lyrically and musically ambitious. Hey, let’s drag a friggin’ choir in on it, too! Why the hell (excuse me) not.

I’ve long suspected Ryan’s aspirations to get something gospelly down since I heard (and have) a demo tape he produced for a band in which, at the end of one song, he can be heard screaming “Tell it! Tell it! Tell it!” and “Can I get a witness!” Well, he’s done it now and done it good. This is another writing collaboration with Broc O’Connor who once more handles both guitar and bass duties. Did I say lyrically ambitious? You bet I did. Ryan has timed this so well you’d think it was on purpose. As I write this, Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ is sweeping in millions around the world and yet the moral ambiguity of our world leaders is being allowed to reign free. Consider the passion of the Ross when he sings of “someone .. really abstract” who “watches over you and me.” Of “the beginning…when people still lived in trees” and asked themselves “’Wait a minute, who’s in charge here?’…Glory Hallelujah/And so the suffering was born.”

This is pretty much as overtly politically and socially challenging as Ryan gets on One Person Queue. It’s an innocent series of statements that lead inevitably to some seriously powerful speculation. And yet, once again, it’s witty. And funny.

“Walk On Water” is a difficult song to dare live, but the accomplished Dot Combo did it more than justice, proving what a truly skilled bunch they are. I don’t know whether you’ll ever see this particular line up again, but whatever combo of the Combo happens to occur again, you’d best be there. It’s a rare treat and something for your mind, eyes, guts, soul and feet. And probably other bits too. It depends on what you’re into. I guarantee there’ll be something for some part of every body. There certainly was on this December afternoon. It was a fittingly mighty performance to launch an absolute triumph of an album.

Looking back over the two halves of the show you can see how satisfying the event was. All the choices were right; from the covers to the selections from the back catalogue and the new album and the people Ryan assembled to help him show you what he’s been up to all this time. It worked and worked and worked and guess what, they managed to have fun, too. If you can’t get to see the band, keep an eye out for Idol & Idle, an occasional show Holden and Ryan are doing. I haven’t seen it, but I will and so should you. And if you can’t see that then Ross Ryan and his acoustic and some pleasant and amusing conversation are bound to pop up somewhere in your vicinity.

But truly the best thing you can do is buy One Person Queue. It is really well worth it. I believe it will stand now and forever as the best Ross Ryan has done. If your definition of a classic album is that of a bunch of songs on one CD that are extremely good-so well written, executed and recorded that you can hear them over and over again-then this is a classic. If your definition of a classic album is one that seems timeless, then One Person Queue fits that criteria as well. It’s timeless because it doesn’t seem-as a lot of Ryan’s earlier songs do-of a certain time. It’s a culmination of years that has resulted in the creation of a special space of its own.

But on the night, only nine of the songs on One Person Queue were presented to us

Spirit Of The Rain

So who didn’t make it and why? The “who” is “Spirit Of The Rain.” And the “why"? Apparently it was said some days after the show that he couldn’t work out an acoustic version he was comfortable with on stage, and it would be hard to perform the song unless your band was the London Philharmonic Orchestra. But it’s a great song even though it didn’t make the cut.

Check this out:

           …we struggle with what we’ve become
           There are scars from the journey
           And so the anger breeds
           In the children of those left nothing
           But galvanised roofs and disease…

Is it just me or are we making a point here? It seems to me that when Ryan does venture into social or political commentary he shies a little bit. There’s nothing wrong with that. Especially the way he does it. Because what he seems to do (as in “Walk On Water”) is point you in a direction to think for yourself. He’s just getting the ball rolling. So what if he doesn’t want to holler from the rooftops that “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World” or that Ruben Carter was unjustly tried or (INSERT MIDNIGHT OIL LYRIC HERE…)

He saves his bluntness for the lost love stuff. That’s who he is. “Spirit” works perfectly well and makes its points, it just doesn’t scream them. Ross Ryan isn’t going to be the guy who musters the troops to do something about it. (He saves that for “Look Out For The Ricochet.”) And he’s not going to point the finger of blame either. He’s just going to point at the problem. “Spirit Of The Rain” is a good song; noble and moving.

At the CD launch, some way into the second half of the show, Ryan brought James Feldman (who, you will recall, is the co-producer of One Person Queue and was mixing the show) out on to the stage for a special presentation and some more than deserved praise and thanks. The work he has done on this album, side by side with Ryan for more hours than either probably cares or dares to calculate, is nothing short of phenomenal. Feldman kissed his youth goodbye, Ryan writes in the album notes, to make this thing happen. I myself congratulate and thank him for that. It is one thing to be a musician or techie who pops in to give what they got to the proceedings and then gets to pop out again within a humanly comprehensible amount of time. Kudos upon kudos must go to James Feldman and the assurance that this was indeed worth it.

As we listen to the wonderfully stupid “hidden” track and the lovely little revisit to “Only My Breathing” (which sounds as though it was created as a back drop for Ross to run through the audience, high-fiving old friends), lets look through the handsome booklet that comes with the CD and marvel at the work that’s gone into even that. See who got their names onto The Great List Of The Immortal. Check to see if you made the roll call. And if you didn’t…well, let’s hope you’ll get another chance.

Maybe next semester.

And let’s hope we get the same excellent lecturer. The one who managed to take all the facets of what makes the Great Ross and finally pile them on to one great record. That’s the best part of all this. For the first time the fine singer, brilliant lyricist, excellent composer and musician, hilarious entertainer and showman, cheeky bastard and morose bugger are all one person. On record. No easy task and yet one magnificently achieved.

May he remain true and fierce in his belief. Because as long as he does we will too.

Class dismissed.

  Part One    Part Two
© 2004 Jamie Forbes
From the Ross Ryan biography
The Thankless Years