The following gig review was originally published in Beat, and is reproduced here in its entirety
Supporting The Dead Leaves as they launched their debut, was the musically schizophrenic Enola Fall. Hopping the pond from Tassie, and arriving on stage at the eleventh hour due to an unfortunate airport mix-up, Enola Fall and particularly band leader Joe Nuttall, look and sound a little underprepared. After delivering two songs of grinding guitars and dull tub-thumping energy that suggests at least one member is enthralled to Jimmy Eat World – they surprise with a sudden musical U-turn. Nuttall migrates to some jaunty piano, in a theatrical rock number closer to Queen’s cabaret leanings than anything their previous alt-rock contested.
They’re impressive when they play to Nuttall’s falsetto and kooky theatrical shifts, but they can’t decide on what (or who) they want to sound like. Buzzing guitars fight against bouncing piano shifts, while a loose rhythm section struggles against slashes of dissonant chords. It’s hard to be patient with them while they figure out their curious sound, and especially given some on-the-nose name-dropping (Peats Ridge, Triple J and Rage all get a mention). They’re certainly interesting however, and closing with their latest single Lions hints at what they’ve yet to master.
The Dead Leaves by comparison, look and sound impossibly polished. Without a word, they open with an explosive take on Cover, bedecked in their usually snappy attire and complemented by a modest horns section and a keys player, they look and sound razor-sharp.
Tonight they launch Cities on the Sea, a fully-realised record of ambitious atmosphere and mature songcraft that synthesises their influences into a mix of anthemic rock via brooding ambience. It’s nothing if not a well-produced album, but in the live setting, their sound demonstrates an equally professional level of detail. They’ve rehearsed their material to a point they seem to no longer listen to what they’re playing, they know they’re playing the right thing.
Following the extended circular chords that close Cover, they launch into a double-hit of their most accessibly carousing tunes, namely Ordinary Lot and If The Shoe Fits. The former uses crashing chord changes to punctuate its unifying shouts of “feel it/the blood running through my veins”; while the latter circles frontman Matt Joe Gow’s deep and passionate croon with an upward momentum. Implying injury as much as experience, his voice centres the cathartic chorus of rousing brass, scaling guitar and punchy rhythm. If the crowd aren’t singing the refrains back at the band just yet, it’s for lack of knowing the material than for their unifying strength.
Later, they are joined onstage by Melbourne artist Maxi, substituting for both Emma Louise and Gin Wigmore for the studio-bound versions of Changing and This Living. Less duets than a secondary voice to flesh out Gow’s vocals, she nevertheless adds the needed emotional candour. The muscular punch of Changing in particular, featuring a recycling plea of “baby don’t go changing on me,” is all the stronger for her presence.
Mixing the stadium-baiting tunes of U2 in their American ascent with the mature sincerity of Brooklyn’s The National and the gloomy histrionics of Interpol, The Dead Leaves make no qualms about making a big, rich sound. Key to that delivery is their jagged grooves, the stabbing guitars of In My Surrender and Cover rely on the spiky precision of the rhythm section of bassist Cam Grindrod and drummer Joel Wittenburg, who sound knuckle-tight without even so much as blinking at each other. Meanwhile, Andy Pollock proves himself a deft guitarist, swapping between mood-setting flourishes and showy, chiming lines worthy of U2’s The Edge. Most notably on Harm, where he swaps between echoing chords, fast-scraped tremolos and even slide guitar; all while providing back-up vocals. He even does an impressive Johnny Marr on a mid-set cover of How Soon Is Now. The moody cover of The Smiths’ most self-consciously spare yet slinky track making a perfect fit for the Melbourne quartet, its latent funk edge brought to the fore by Grindrod’s popping bass while Gow relishes Morrisey’s melancholia.
Their own moments are just as strong in the gloomy art-rock stakes, the warm restraint of Harm allows Gow, free of the guitar, to deliver anxious lines like ‘this terrible feeling that I cannot help you.’ Gracefully pouring into the mic he’s cradling as he gently plods the stage. The steadily swelling dynamics of Never Had A Lover equally confirms the appeal of his distinctively bruised baritone. When he sings “have you got what it takes to beat me at my own game/I’ve never had a lover who could give enough,” it sounds less like a spirited challenge than a cool admittance of fault.
It’s a shame that some between-song banter with a rowdy housemate undoes his stage persona, additionally a joke about purchasing a CD to ‘make me rich’ is misjudged; but there’s no denying that he and his band are already playing at a level that outstrips the despondent moorings of a gig this size. Namely, those rowdy friends and a crowd that’s patchily spread between sitting and standing. But as they close their main set with Spare Parts, and its extended, shimmering crescendo of cymbals and scraped guitars appear to shred the curtains, it’s hard to disagree The Dead Leaves are due for wider exposure. Give them a bigger stage, and they’ll fill it.