11pm on Maundy Thursday and a four-day weekend loomed. I can’t say I was sober when I stumbled into the Union Hotel in Newtown. The joint was packed, all eyes fixed on some skinny troubadour bellowing back at them. I grabbed a beer and took a seat at the back with the intention of chatting to a mate. Another friend leaned in, “This is a Guided By Voices cover, y’know!”. Indeed it was. I didn’t reply – that guy and his guitar had something going on together. (What I later discovered to be) “West End Girls” had this attendee slack-jawed and in awe by the second verse.
Such was my first exposure to Ben Salter. In transpire he’s been a staple of the Australian music scene for over ten years: The Gin Club, Giants of Science, The Wilson Pickers. Live, Salter’s voice pitches itself somewhere between Mark Eitzel (American Music Club) and Colin Meloy (The Decemeberists). He also swirls amongst esteemed Australian company. Produced by Drones front-man Gareth Liddiard, Ben Salter’s 2011 album The Cat has him sounding closer to Josh Pyke…but don’t hold that against him. Emphatically more acoustic than his other projects, three flickering-flame strum-along songs eventually give way to the instrumental “German Tourist”, after which Salter skirts closer to his darker, more brooding/bellowing live sound. Funeral-paced bass and drum underpin “West End Girls” and “I’m Not Ashamed”.
Salter rounded the Union Hotel gig out with covers of Neil Young’s “World On A String” (which I dug) and Smokey Robison’s “The Tracks Of My Tears” (which I didn’t). Two nights later at Petersham Bowling Club saw a similarly impressive – but less intimate – performance by Salter. He ditched the Young cover and slayed with his run around Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”; easily the match of the original. Yes, seriously.
Don’t let this talk of covers put you off. They’re the hook that brought me closer; I’m hoping they’ll snag you too. Fans of Darren Hanlon, (the aforementioned) Pyke and Liddiard are the softest targets for this record. To this Brit, it sounds gloriously Australian. Go listen.
“I was up until dawn / with nary a yawn / drinking gluttonously / as they struggled and heaved.”
Further information: Ben Salter