Normie Rowe and the Playboys (Corner Hotel, Melbourne)

This was not to be your normal gig at the Corner on Saturday night. Instead of tatts, beards and black it was pearls, glitter and (probably) fake fur. I thought it was the Richmond RSL as I walked in, and it was a change to be the youngest punter in the room. More so as it was a seated show — it was Corner Hotel Bizarro World where everything was weirdly the same but different. I settled in for a night of being prodded to stay awake…

As The Pardoners got ready to play, Normie Rowe wandered out to a smattering of applause to introduce them as his “favourite musicians in Australia”. It was a sincere gesture of respect for Sam See and Glyn Mason, young compared to Normie, but nevertheless veterans of bands ranging from the Flying Circus to Ariel. I saw two acoustic guitars and thought, ‘hmm… snooze fest’.

I was wrong. Sam See is nothing short of brilliant on his instruments, with a jazzy style and ability to bang out licks that add to the song’s depth without ever being indulgent. Glyn provided solid rhythm guitar, strumming and counterpointing Sam’s effortless playing.

Both of their voices are in fine fettle too. Glyn is instantly recognisable; his voice has mellowed slightly but is still bright and noticeably the same as it ever was. Sam’s deeper growl was a perfect foil for Glyn’s higher tones. They never missed a note all night and their harmonies were bright and bouncy.

Even better, they are self-deprecatingly funny on stage, plainly enjoying the gig, riffing off each other and just not taking the thing too seriously. They did a breathtakingly superb hillbilly recreation of Whiter Shade of Pale (as written by “Wilbur Smoot and Orville Longshanks….”) and kept the banter going all night, even through more serious fare about death and the road, covering Gypsy Queen, and dragging the odd song or two from their past as writers.

If you like to be entertained by great performers who love their work and make it look easy while ripping out beautiful songs go and catch The Pardoners or buy their album. They were a glorious surprise on the night.

After that I thought that it was to be RSL review time with a tired Normie trotting out his hits lacklustredly. We’re all well aware of the highlights of the Normie Rowe saga — mega hits in the mid-’60s and being called up for Vietnam in a way that suggested he was targeted unfairly as some sort of retaliation for baby boomers enjoying post war society and protesting the war. Then he came back a darker person and there was the shameful insult from Ron Casey and an ensuing brawl on TV and Vietnam Vets advocacy work and so on. Normie’s story really is a mini-series in the making.

It all led to an expectation of a somewhat sad and deflated aging boomer doing his retirement tour. That expectation was dashed the minute he got on stage, pumping out a Don Walker song with the full band pulsing with energy.

In a 90 minute set there was a mix of his classic songs and some  dedicated to vets and the Vietnam War which plainly looms large in his life. He never sounded like he was going through the motions. Normie gives it his all singing with a passion and energy that would put many younger musos to shame.

He puts on a real show, dragging the audience in to singalong to the bigger hits, chastising them for being too old, teasing them by insisting that they cannot sing along on I Who Have Nothing, and getting them to their feet.

The banter is funny and engaging. Trotta, the drummer — and a “non-musician” —  a theme that was repeated through the night), has been playing with Normie since they were in high school. Gil Mathews — the legendary Aztecs drummer played lead guitar with a cool swagger that was undercut by his beer gut and near perfect impersonation of a life- size Mario Bro. They took the piss out of themselves and everything else, playing little tricks on each other musically — you could see the surprise on Normie’s face a few times when something was sprung on him.

The rest of the band were great — a solid bass player Phil, who kept it going while staying in the background; trumpet and sax, played with precision and in the one or two solos showing us their chops; and Steve, the group’s musical director and baby, playing keys, singing backing and doing stage announcements as if he’d had a long AM radio career. Oh, and Normie is a terrific guitarist too, something I’d never realised.

All in all, they were exceptionally entertaining, managing to sound fresh while pumping out songs that some of them had been playing continuously for 50 years. Highlights were the big hits: It Ain’t Necessarily So, It’s Not Easy Loving You, Que Sera and my favourite, Shakin’ All Over.

Normie is now about 70 and plays to a ‘coupla hundred older folk in suburban beer barns and RSLs. He is  ignored by mainstream media and radio as his legacy is glossed over as a mere pop idol of the ’60s. It’s a miracle that in spite, or because of his very dramatic story, there’s never been any scandal around Normie Rowe — no drugs/drink/rehab, no down and out. He’s simply taken the cards he’s been dealt and given it his best.

It’s a shame that we don’t value our musical heritage enough. I’d have loved to see him play to a full house that included more younger people but our culture is very unforgiving of the past. It’s a hangover of our longstanding cringe, and needs to go. It was a reawakening to walk into the main Corner bar post-show last night into a much younger world full of post-footy drinkers who stared as their grandmas marched past to the exit.

Normie Rowe and the Playboys are playing around the place. Go and see a real superstar of Australian music and culture while you can. He’s still very much giving it his all as he puts on a great night of music and fun. He’s among the very best rock and roll performers this country has produced and he still has it in spades.

3 responses to “Normie Rowe and the Playboys (Corner Hotel, Melbourne)

  1. I played guitar for Normie a number of times in the 70s. He used to sit behind my amp stack and listen to me perform in the opening sets before he came out to do his show. He was hugely encouraging to me as a younger player. When we reached the guitar solo in Shaking All Over he’d announce me with all the excitement he could muster …” His name is….and he plays guitar!” You had to give him your best performance after that passionate intro. His voice and delivery was always exceptional. I love that he would come to our venue without s guitarist, even though he often used a lifetime friend, Stephen Housden back then. Normie is a national treasure. Hope I can get back to Australia and catch a show in the near future.

  2. What happened to Normie concerning the Vietnam War needs to be INVESTIGATED as something just as Important as anything today! It’s a shame and disgrace that we don’t learn from and cherish our LIVING “National Treasures” – Normie being one. MAIN STREAM, wake up! Great Show, Normie! Thank you for standing Tall all these years.

    Big Hugs,
    Deanna

  3. A great review Shane yes A shame how things are in the music industry because you are in the Bracket as old hat you are left out in the cold no airplay at all as if you never existed the days Normie is from where fantastic people of today look at us as some old person i am 68 but i was there age too back then funny how we think.

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