Six years ago, when Californian Jonah Matranga was last in Australia, he played at the ill-fated Hopetoun and the now re-ignited Annandale. Spotting the Sando down the hill on King Street, with the recent addition of a bright red sale sign, did he choose to play there for a reason? After all, that’s the kind of guy he is.
The Sandringham Hotel, which has stood on King Street since the 1860s, is now in the control of Ferrier Hodgson with a debt to Bankwest of $3.6 million.
Despite being forced into administration in July, the the iconic live music venue – cradle to many young bands for decades – continues to host live music most nights.
On September 6 Matranga, former member of Far and Gratitude among a host of other projects, was joined by four local acts on the Chill stage, in the pub’s topmost room.
First of the acts for the evening was local singer/songwriter Nick Van Breda. The early turn-out was decidedly strong, and Van Breda made the most of the attention.
Unfortunately Punk Rock Karaoke from below marred a tender tune about a boy who overdosed in Kings Cross. The none-too-pleasant growling attempt at ‘Wild One’ wound its way up the stairs with determination.
Van Breda’s sweet Josh Pyke-esque vocals thankfully gradually overcame the distraction.
Wollongong musician Billy Demos mixed blues, folk and punk to bring together a relaxed acoustic set. Invoking pub-rock-blues at times reminiscent of Mark Seymour, Demos’ charisma was as obvious as his humility and nerves in front of Matranga. He weaved covers and originals seamlessly with his natural blokish charm.
Achoo! Bless you were a mixture of all your typical hippy folk, complete with tambourine, xylophone, ukulele, harmonica and lap steel guitar. Their lo-fi Angus and Julia Stone harmonies lulled the growing crowd- or was it the stifling heat that was putting us all to sleep? The duo’s final tune was easily their best, catchy folk-pop that would have segued perfectly to Matranga.
But there was still one band to come. Let Me Down Jungleman were the outsiders on the bill: very young, premature rock stars with vocals and songs begging refinement. By the time they took the stage the room was already itching for Matranga, the hero they’d waited at least six years to see.
But Let Me Down Jungleman had confidence, and gave it a good shot. Although in the future I suggest they note who it is they’re sharing the bill with because “Thanks to all the bands before us and the band after us” just doesn’t cut it.
Especially when the headliner is a solo artist.
By this stage the thick-aired, sweaty room was not making the wait for Jonah Matranga any easier. The floor that threatened to fall out from under us, the two toilet cubicles downstairs whose doors lay on the ground and the broken hand dryer got me wondering whether this place has passed its time.
It was 11:15 when the man himself finally made his way to the front of the room from the merch desk where he’d been perched all night. Armed with guitar, ipod, water and a scrap of a set list concocted of fans’ requests he’d collected through the evening, he set up quickly and quietly.
Every set Matranga plays is tailored to that particular audience. Every project is personal and original. He runs his website, invites collaborations, manages and records himself. Even the USB drives he was selling came with eight albums worth of personally-loaded music, from 15-year-old rock rarities to covers, solo re-recordings and even a live concert.
I met a girl from the UK who had been instructed to come to the show by friends back home. Her friends had flown Matranga to the UK from California to play at their wedding. No project or idea or room is too small or too big for Jonah Matranga, and the unique experience of sharing music with such a humble and genuine artist was not lost on this crowd.
It’s not every day that one of your favourite artists asks you what song you want him to play, then plays it first up because you “asked really nicely”. The opener was a tingling, heartfelt acoustic rendition of ‘Stay’, from Matranga’s onelinedrawing project.
After dedicating ‘Livin Small’ to Billy Demos, Matranga spoke about the struggling venue we were in. “I hope they can work it out and that you all support them,” he said. “I hope this place stays open and you can keep enjoying the fun and sweetness.”
But after only eight songs, including a rocking cover of Deftones’ ‘Be Quiet and Drive’, the Sando didn’t return the gesture, alerting the crowd that we had four minutes left before the licence ended. A set that for the last 35 minutes had been ascending sweetly, entrancing the whole room, was suddenly cut short by a bouncer.
Matranga concluded with a promise to somehow put together a gig in a week’s time – his last free night on the Australian trip – whether it be in a living room, park, bar or café.
As I strode back up King Street, conflicted by such a great evening coming to such a quick end, towards the discount chemist and mobile phone stores that still seem out of place, I looked back down to the Sando.
The place is a dive, but it’s a lovable dive. It’s another room or two in which to bond over music; a locals’ hangout that Newtown doesn’t need to lose.