The Palais Theatre, Melbourne, Victoria
The Railway Hotel, Linton, country Victoria
I’m sitting down by the highway
Down by the highway side
Everybody’s going somewhere
Riding just as fast as they can ride
On Thursday evening 29 March, Jackson Browne sang Your Bright Baby Blues at The Palais Theatre in seaside St Kilda. I was about as far from the stage as one could be: third row from the back in the dress circle. Row BB Seat 52. But Browne’s vocals and words rang as true as ever through the theatre and through the years, backed by a top-shelf touring band that has played with Browne on many a stage.
On Sunday afternoon 1 April, my brother Peter sang Your Bright Baby Blues at The Railway Hotel in Linton in country Victoria. I was about as close to the musicians as you could get. In the backroom that is the bandroom at The Railway everyone is effectively in the front row. Peter’s vocals and lap steel guitar rang as true as ever, backed by an impromptu band who – apart from the bass player – had not met, let alone played with Peter before and, very likely, had never heard Your Bright Baby Blues.
Peter gave the bass player and keyboardist a chord chart to share, gave the drummer a beat, and away they went. Opening tune of the first-Sunday-of-the-month jam in little Linton, an old goldfields town on a quiet country highway. Second song on the great 1976 album The Pretender. I’d forgotten it was part of my brother’s set list.
At The Palais, most of the audience would have known Bright Baby Blues. At The Railway, probably only two brothers.
You could fit the entire population of Linton (580) into The Palais five times over. You could have fitted the Sunday arvo audience at The Railway (about 30) into one row of The Palais. There wasn’t much room in The Railway amongst the guitars, drums, keyboards, microphones, speakers, guitar stands, music stands, amplifiers, snooker table, benches and chairs.
The Palais Theatre was built in 1927 and has recently had $26million of renovations. The Railway Hotel was built on the back of the goldrush, in the second half of the 19th century, when there were rather more people in Linton. And a railway.
My Palais ticket was $108, and worth every cent. I bought the ticket online the night before the show. The Railway asked for a gold coin donation. I put a note in a jar as I was leaving.
From Row BB Seat 52 at The Palais I had a clear view of the band way, way below. I couldn’t see their faces but it’s hard to miss Browne’s ever-youthful hair, finally turning grey.
At The Railway I could see my brother’s fingers moving up and down the guitar, I could see the curls in his hair and in his beard, I could see his bright baby brother blue eyes behind his glasses.
At The Palais I chatted easily with a stranger before the show, the woman in Seat 53.
At Linton a stern man sat beside me for half an hour. Didn’t say a word. Then he found his way to the ‘stage’, picked up one of his three guitars, sat down said “I like country, I like blues, but mostly I like this…” Then he played and sang Jumping Jack Flash.
A big man with tattoos up and down his arms, and around his neck, squeezed out of his chair, strapped on a bass guitar and sang up-tempo blues for ten minutes. A woman in dark tracksuit pants sang Summertime clear as a bell. A man in an orange beanie, and playing an old Roland keyboard, led a ten minute jam of Gotta Serve Somebody, singing the verses and chorus and calling out solos from a white-haired trombonist, a shy black-hatted harmonica player, a neatly-dressed guitarist. An man with long dark hair and a grey beard almost to his chest arrived with a five string bass and was soon playing the blues. A woman in her late 60s sang What’s Going On while playing the drums. Later she was up front singing You Send Me ever so sweetly. Turns out Jo Jo Smith’s been playing music festivals forever. Turns out the man in the orange beanie, keyboardist/trumpeter Russell Smith, played in popular Australian bands years and years ago.
“We last played together about 38 years ago,” Jo Jo said towards the end of the afternoon. “Well, make it 39, make it an even 40!”
But who are these other people, I wondered? Where have they come from? It seemed they’d just walked in off the highway. And when did they learn to play like this? For a non-musician such as myself it was quite mesmerising. How do they latch onto a groove, a chord, a riff, a hook – whatever these things are – and know what to do? I guess most of the songs, save Bright Baby Blues, were well known to this generation. ‘Don’t know what would have happened if someone had started a song by One Direction or Beyonce or Sia or Kanye West or Tupac or Animal Collective.. .Guess the musos would have followed a chord chart, or followed the fingers of a guitarist, found a groove…a song is a song is a song.
And Your Bright Baby Blues? It’s not short of highway metaphors and the sense of life not quite taking you where you might have hoped.
I’ve been up and down this highway
Far as my eyes can see
No matter how fast I run
I can never seem to get away from me
No matter where I am
I can’t help thinking I’m just a day away
From where I want to be
At The Palais and at The Railway, for a few hours at least, I was exactly where I wanted to be.