Live Review: Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders @ Mary’s Underground, Sydney

26 February 2024 | 11:53 am | Shaun Colnan

To say Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders arrived onto the Mary’s Underground stage with swagger and clout would be an understatement.

Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders

Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders (Supplied)

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To say Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders arrived onto the Mary’s Underground stage with swagger and clout would be an understatement. Touted as “orbit[ing] our solar system, each a celestial being containing their own ecology”, this assortment of local artists – who have all gone on to other successful endeavours – return to stage together in a rare sighting of planets aligning.

Such a humbling experience to see Mr Experience himself (Donny Benet) and the Anaemic Adonis (Kirin J Callinan), who both occupy a special place in many of our hearts as frontmen, take a backseat to the imposing Tim Rogers (here taking on the role of Jack Ladder). 

This was indeed the case on opening track, Xmas In Rehab, from Ladder’s 2021 album Hijack! A sad anthem of vice, regret and fledgling hope, delivered with the menacing eyes of a man with a white-painted face who towers over the audience and booms a baritone drawl – whose motley outfit and dishevelled hair paint the picture of Pagliacci, the sad clown. “Well, this feels good,” Ladder uttered with a cheeky grin. “Mission from God.”

Next, the atmospheric and get-under-your-skin opening track from 2011 album Hurtsville: Beautiful Sound, a dark ballad of love and loss, tension and trauma, all infused with the black comedy, extended metaphors and punning Ladder’s sound is synonymous with. The song’s hook, “When the heart breaks it makes a beautiful sound,” rings out in the amethyst air as Lawrence Pike’s drums intensify. Here, Ladder introduced his lead guitarist: “Christmas J Callinan... it’s Christmas every day.”

The infectious synth line, marching drums and bass herald the opening track from 2014 album Playmates: Come On Back This Way. While they didn’t have Sharon Van Etten to add backing vocals this time, Kirin’s kicks punctuated the hits in the titular chorus. Let Me Love You was slightly more upbeat, but with that deep, dark croon, there’s something of the necrophilic perversity creeping into this groovy salsa-infused track. With lines like “If you won’t let me love you, I’ll set myself on fire” there’s a clear indication this is the detailing of something beyond doting.

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Then came another change of pace with Ladder explaining, “Last time you might’ve seen us play with the string ensemble because we couldn’t get Kirin...” I Can’t Drink The Water cuts through the masquerade for a moment as this emotionally-charged song seems to draw out the reality behind the droll delivery and witty imagery. That chorus burrows in and seems to leave Ladder almost unable to complete the song, letting that last line hang.

Leaving Eden – also off Ladder’s 2021 LP – has a caliginous repetitive hook with a lovely dagger-like assonance: the titular “Leaving Eden.” Imagery of “living under the flightpath”, “houses and cars covered in ash” and “delicious prisons” create a hellscape matched by the stop-start instrumentation. After this track came a tender moment in which Ladder and Callinan came close together and Jack wiped the sweat from Kirin’s brow, only to wipe his hand on Kirin’s cropped ruby red t-shirt.

The dancey and raw Her Hands from 2014’s Playmates created a groove which the audience couldn’t help embracing. The song wouldn’t be complete without Callinan’s guitar flourishes which added a new dimension to the dancefloor filler. Neon Blue – also off the 2014 LP – took a right-hand turn to something harder and darker; perhaps a companion piece to Her Hands, detailing another phase of a turbulent relationship. Ladder’s deep drone meets the meditative minor notes and the distorted guitar to create a wall of blues-tinged rock.

Ladder shouted out openers, Scott & Charlene’s Wedding (for whom Ladder filled in on drums) and particularly singer and frontman, Craig Dermody, who he labelled one of the best contemporary songwriters in Australia. Footscray-based Indie rockers, Scott & Charlene’s Wedding show a versatility and musical maturity honed over almost twenty years. They measured the barometer of a generation with tracks from their 2016 album Mid Thirties Single Scene among many others.

Back to Ladder & The Dreamlanders, To Keep And To Be Kept yielded a nostalgic and poignant feeling as the lights burned blue and the guitar licks peppered the soundscape. Then a heartfelt moment of crowd engagement: “It’s so good,” Ladder said, “to play with my best friends... to play every few years the music that we made... well, we’ll see you again in a few years in a strange retirement village... for over forty-fives...”

After this, a similarly atmospheric Hurtsville rang out in a trance-inducing imagery-inflected track from the album of the same name before one of the final sign-offs to the audience from the frontman: “I’m just glad that you’re all here. This is the hardest thing to do, especially with all the things going on in the world…and all the things going on in Sydney. I’m just glad you’re here and not at the blink-182 concert.”

Someone in the crowd yelled out, “Fuck Taylor Swift!” to which Ladder replied, “Hey, she’s alright. We’ve got mutual friends.”