Live Review: Romero, Smarts, The Prize

20 December 2021 | 11:41 am | Andy Hazel

"One of the greatest concerts that this writer has seen in years."

More Romero More Romero

That a gig can be announced and actually go ahead without postponement, live streaming, a change in venue or line-up or the intervention of at least one grassroots music charity in 2021, feels like some kind of miracle. That it is the first-ever headline show for a band with the profile of Romero, seems like another. Tonight, in the long hall of the Brunswick Ballroom, a mix of friends, fans and curious music industry types assembled for a concert that went beyond merely being a good gig, or one that delivered a shot of faith in Melbourne’s live music scene. The combination of bands, venue and crowd made it one of the greatest concerts that this writer has seen in years.

On any other bill, a band like The Prize should be headlining. The fresh-sounding five-piece boasts four singers and three guitarists and brings a blast of cacophonous drums, driving chordplay and melodies. A sound briefly reminiscent of The Undertones or White Reaper, before becoming wholly their own. It seems inconceivable that a band this tight and with songs as good as these is only playing their third show, but it’s been a weird year. Every song is so potent that you’re left half expecting the band to end the set by announcing that they discovered a lost post-punk album and have been playing it track by track. Guitar solos are doubled, giving a twin attack that cuts through the breakneck pace of songs like the opening Easy Way Out and the dynamite Wrong Side Of Town. Absolutely a band to catch.

Another group of musicians who didn’t waste lockdowns was Smarts. Boasting the energy and nerve of a well-oiled Fall, and leavened with the thrilling riffs of saxophonist Stella Rennex, Smarts are a jaw-dropping band. Few songs run longer than two minutes and each is an exercise in taut rhythmic shifts. There are so many stops and starts that it’s hard not to laugh at the intricacy. Melodies and riffs are constantly interrupted, dismantled and abandoned by a flurry of Jake Robertson’s precise drumming or disappear entirely to let Billy Gardner’s distorted bass drive the song toward a new cliff. It’s thrilling stuff and, like The Prize, feels timeless. Smarts are a band Lester Bangs would have loved in 1981, John Peel would have played twice in a row in 1990 and most Melbourne record store owners will enthuse about today. “This is the pop one,” Gardner says wryly before launching into future community radio favourite Breaking The Tradition. It’s glorious stuff.

Having set the bar so high with their choice of opening bands, Romero wasted no time in making their last show of 2021 count. Opening with an Acknowledgement of Country before diving into their latest single, Troublemaker, the five-piece pull the crowd out of their chairs to the stage. Despite a brace of new songs showing that the best is likely yet to come, the band’s first releases Neapolitan and the almighty blast of joy that is Honey are highlights of a stunningly good set. As I asked one member of a more famous Melbourne band at the Luliepalooza festival two weeks earlier as we watched Romero make the crowd their own, “Is Honey the best single of the year?" "Nah," she replied, "best three years at least.” Watching tonight, it’s hard to disagree. The more energy the band put in, the more swooping guitar lines and driving rhythms, the more we get out, as the new song Lady Of The Night proves. Singer Alanna Oliver’s voice cuts through the room like a siren, shaking the chandeliers. “It’s been a sick night,” she says, introducing the night’s final song, the glam stomp banger Halfway Out the Door. She’s not wrong.