Yarraville, late -1990s
From the book How The West Was One (Boom Baby Boom Publishing, 2017)
…When I returned to my roots in the West I found that cool gigs were starting to happen and it was no longer necessary to cross town to get to good shows. The first one I hooked into was at the Commercial Hotel in Yarraville. Three sisters had taken it over and had succeeded in transforming ex-Footscray captain coach Charlie Sutton’s old watering hole from a rough truckie’s pub, to a funky venue that featured regular quality live music from performers like Nicky Bomba and Texicali Rose.
The best sessions however occurred when ex-Daddy Cool guitarist and Melbourne music legend Ross Hannaford played there with his trio. A lifetime of devotion to his craft had resulted in Ross combining a range of disparate influences: reggae, 50’s doo-wop, rock n roll, blues, eastern mysticism and more, into a seamless, musical concoction of his own invention. At that stage his trio was the most perfect distillation of Ross’s personal musical vision, and now that I was ensconced back in the West I was fortunate enough to have a front row seat!
By this stage I had taken the plunge and, with my partner Lauri, had bought our first home together. I have to mention that this was made possible in part because Rob Rowe, the manager of the Bendigo Bank in Williamstown at the time, was also a huge music fan. Rob would go on to be instrumental in setting up the Way Out West music club which was, and still is, active in promoting blues and roots music gigs in the Williamstown/Newport area. Unlike most bank managers he recognised that playing music was a job like any other, and he was willing to give you a loan for a house if you had the deposit – even if you were a musician! We managed to secure a house located next to the railway line in Yarraville. The bonus was that I could walk to a gig at the Commercial and see Ross Hannaford, one of my musical heroes, making magic up close and personal.
From the world of music I’d had a nodding acquaintance with Ross for many years but through his regular gigs at the Commercial I got to know him a bit better, even playing gigs with him occasionally.
Around about this time I had commenced a Friday night residency at the Town Hall Hotel in North Melbourne, initially inviting a different player along each week to accompany me and add variety as I sang and played guitar on a repertoire of originals plus folk and blues covers. One week I invited Ross along. The gig was so mind blowingly great for us and the audience that I invited him back the next week and the same result ensued… only it was mind blowing in a whole different way.
We never rehearsed, or even discussed what we would play; we just dove into the river of music and let it carry us along. Ross’ playing was so in the moment, and each time we performed it felt like it was for the first time. From that point on at this gig I had no need to get different people accompanying me for the sake of variety. Ross had the ability to be a different person every week! It was always fresh and we never knew where we’d go with it, we just trusted in the music and knew everything would be ok if we just surrendered to it. Without any words being exchanged this was probably the greatest lesson I’d ever had in music.
Our residency lasted for over two years and needless to say over that time we became pretty tight both musically and personally. We became even tighter when Ross, after breaking up with his wife, started looking for somewhere to live and ended up buying an old factory a few doors down the street from my house. He moved in, initially living in a caravan parked inside of the factory. He then set about turning the space into a funky residence in his own highly idiosyncratic way. It was like a constantly evolving work of art.
Even though on stage he could be outgoing and demonstrative, in private Ross was shy and a bit socially awkward. He really valued having his own space and his own private world in which to dream his dreams, and as a neighbour I respected that. He wasn’t by any means a total recluse and I treasured those times we could play a bit of music together around the house or just relax and chat about our dreams and frustrations.
Ross passed away in 2016 after a long, slow decline in his health which was brought on, in many ways, by the pitfalls of his life as a musician. Even though he hated to publicise his health issues, as his friend and neighbour I was privy to his gradual deterioration and wished only that he could enjoy the time that he had left.
With this in mind I invited him down one Sunday night to Jambo, a bar in nearby Barkly St Footscray, to hear live Ethio-jazz music being played on the small stage by two absolute virtuosos, Daniel Seifu Atlaw on keys and Solomon Sissay on saxophone.
Ross was entranced, swaying to the hypnotic sounds, eyes closed, taking it all in. He later confided to me that even though he couldn’t technically understand the music they played (as much of their music is based on scales that are foreign to Western ears) he was so energised and inspired by what he heard that he stayed up all night recording, working on his final musical testament.
From the book How The West Was One (Boom Baby Boom Publishing, 2017).
All profits of sales of How the West Was One go to Western Chances.