It’s the Middle Park Hotel in the late 1980s. It’s the Continental Club in the early 1990s. It’s Way Out West in Williamstown. Pick your year there. It’s any given Boxing Day at the Corner Hotel. It’s so, so many venues over so, so many years. Spaces and stages big and small, airy or dank.
A big man stalks the stage. He prowls. Shaved hair. Baggy t-shirt. Faded jeans. A denim jacket if he was feeling fancy. Clothes you can sweat in. This ain’t no fashion show. This is the blues. This is country. This is Chris Wilson music.
In case you’d missed the point, a finger would jab the air. Then a harmonica blast might leave your mouth agape. Then that big, deep soulful voice would kick in. It might growl, it could roar, but it could also cajole. Entice. Beguile. Persuade. Comfort. Captivate.
If you followed Melbourne’s live music scene over the last thirty years and more, you probably came across Chris Wilson. He was a hard man to miss. Especially if he had a microphone in front of him.
Chris had already had a career before I’d really caught on. He was the big guy wailing on the harp (and occasional sax) in the mighty Harem Scarem. But that was really the Marshalls’ band. He was the biggest, scariest looking Coloured Girl for a while. But nobody steals Paul Kelly’s stage. Chris was a born frontman. He came into his own as a Crown of Thorn.
I’ve probably seen Chris Wilson perform more times than any other musician. I never once saw him give less than 100%. That’s pride and respect. Pride in the craft. Respect for the music, and the audience. Even if you weren’t really up for it when a gig began, he’d drag you along until you were. No passengers on this train. In his younger years, Chris carried more bulk to go with his size. When he was shooting out 7-11’s, he had the sort of physical presence and intensity I imagine Howling Wolf possessed. I expect Chris would blanche at that comparison. I’ll stand by it.
But he seemed a very different personality to The Wolf. More open. Less suspicious. He was as comfortable with a ballad as a driving, grinding riff. Many attest that he became a mentor. He wrote songs about the loves and lives of working people. Songs of great humanity. I’ve chosen You Will Surely Love Again here, but it could have been many others. Slim Boy Fat. Or Changeling. Or Face In The Mirror. Or Wolves. You will have your own pick.
The best testimony to Chris is the musicians who played alongside him. In the early days, Barry Palmer and Barb Waters. When rhythm duties were required, always, always it seemed, there was Chris Rogers and Peter Jones. There was Shannon Bourne and Andrew Pendlebury. And of course, there was Shane O’Mara. Or as Chris would often shout, “Shane Fucking O’Mara, ladies and gentlemen”. There were many, many more. The cream of the scene.
I was there on one of the nights Chris and Shane recorded what became the Live At The Continental album. Over the years this has become a storied album, and an acclaimed performance. But as great an album as it is, in truth, this was the capturing of a couple of nights among many. Whether the crowd was 20 or 2000, the commitment never changed.
I was born and bred in Melbourne for 45 years, before I moved to what Melburnians blurrily refer to as ‘country Victoria’. Once I left town, I never managed to catch another Chris Wilson gig. It’s so easy to take things for granted. When news of his illness spread last year, it was a jolt. The realisation that there was never going to be another Chris Wilson gig felt like a personal loss. Many would still feel the same. Many thousands, probably. Imagine how his family and friends feel.
For all the times I saw him play, I never introduced myself. That was my reticence. A reticence I don’t really understand now. A reticence I never noticed in Chris, at least when he was performing. If you can get a sense of a man from the songs he sang, he was perfectly approachable. There was calmness along with the intensity. If you ever heard his regular book reviews on Brian Wise’s RRR radio show, there was great amiability as well. And a great love of music and fellow musicians.
We mourn the dead, but if they touched us in some way they never really die. My memory of Chris Wilson will always be like that great photo on his King For A Day album, a cloud of steam rising from his shaved head as he wails on that harp. He was certainly king of many of my nights. He staked his ground. He sang his piece. He remains an important part of my sense of being a Melburnian.
Thank you, sir. Well played.