Live Review: The Age Music Victoria Awards 2015

12 November 2015 | 2:36 pm | Tim Kroenert

"Here I am, awkwardly winning something else," goes down as the understatement of the evening."

More Courtney Barnett More Courtney Barnett

It's still light at street level, but deep in the belly of 170 Russell it could be any time of day or night. With its mirror balls, black drapes, chandeliers and cosy proportions, the venue always brings to mind what it might be like if the Batcave had a ballroom. It's far from gloomy, though — the DJ is cranking some great local tunes and there are bars aplenty, the booze helping to lighten moods and loosen lips. Perhaps a little too much, because by the time hosts Lyndelle Wilkinson and Chris Gill arrive onstage to get the formalities underway it's next to impossible to achieve a respectful hush. This is a party after all, though you do have to feel for state Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley, who has some genuinely exciting initiatives to announce, including more than $700,000 of new investments to support local music. Among the recipients of the first round of Music Works Grants is emerging star Olympia, who's on the bill to perform later in the night.

After stealing the show when he closed last month's Carlton Dry Independent Music Awards, Melbourne funk-rocker Harts puts on a still more dazzling performance as tonight's opening act. He effortlessly shreds his way through a set of three songs, beginning with the stomping title track from his debut EP Breakthrough and finishing with an epic guitar solo ("Do you mind if I play my guitar for a bit?" No one does) during which he slides onto his knees, plays behind his head and basically acts like the born rockstar he clearly is. We feel he could keep the act up all night long.

Tonight for the first time The Age Music Victoria Genre Awards (which are chosen by panels of experts) and Public Awards (which are voted by the public) have been merged into one event. The Genre Awards "help us appreciate diversity", says Wilkinson; one person who's grateful for the gesture is Fiona Boyes, winner of Best Blues Album (Box & Dice), who thanks the organisers for recognising blues as a distinct category, rather than boxing it in with other niche genres. Among the nominees for Best Country Album, Marlon Williams gets the biggest cheer (he is due to perform soon after all), but the winner is Raised By Eagles, for Diamonds In The Bloodstream. Barney McAll is in the US and has sent his elderly dad to collect his award for Best Jazz Album (Mooroolbark): "I asked him what I should say and he said, 'You'll think of something'. And that is what I'm doing right now," he adlibs with a big grin. Keeping up the parental theme, Maundz, whose Nobody's Business wins Best Hip Hop Album, thanks his parents for coming and promises to return the favour by not putting them in a home. In listing the nominees for Best Heavy Album, Gill says "Excuse my French" three times — for Cuntz, Fuck The Fitzroy Doom Scene and Ne Obliviscaris, which is actually Latin, but the joke still works. (The winner, though, is High Tension for Bully.)

Marlon Williams performs a mini-set of four songs ranging from rapid-fire bluegrass to slow, moody country to big-throated balladry, which is heavy on harmonies and twang. The crowd seems particularly listless during his set; the longer he goes on, however, the more he opens up with his massive chest voice with its evocations of Antony and Jeff Buckley, and the more attention he demands. He manages to finish on a high note, both literally and figuratively.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

The Public Awards kick off with Golden Plains being named Best Festival; Theatre Royal in Castlemaine, which this year hosted the likes of CW Stoneking, Dan Sultan and Kasey Chambers, is Best Regional Venue. Of the nominees for Best Venue, The Gasometer Hotel and The Tote get the biggest cheers, but who could really begrudge Richmond's Corner Hotel for winning. The Smith Street Band are anointed Best Live Band — appropriately, they are too busy touring the US to be here tonight. "You don't get to be a great live band unless you play a lot," says a rep receiving the award on the band's behalf. Raised By Eagles find it genuinely surreal to be dubbed Best Emerging Act — individual members including Luke Sinclair and Nick O'Mara have been stalwarts of the industry for over a decade. "It feels like we've been emerging for 11 years," one of the band members says during their acceptance speech.  

After cleaning up in absentia in all the major categories at the Carlton Dry Independent Music Awards, it's a good thing Courtney Barnett is here tonight because, as the ceremony approaches its climax, it's once again all about her. After performing an effortlessly excellent mini-set with her rocking band, Barnett goes on to win all the remaining awards for which she is eligible (the exception being Best Male Artist, which is won by CW Stoneking). The Music's own incomparable Bryget Chrisfield calls out Barnett's name for Best Female Artist; receiving the award, Barnett thanks her mother, and the audience for listening to her play although "[it] felt like some people were talking and not really listening". She persists with this gracious self-deprecation: "This song has two chords in it, so, sucked in," she says when Depreston is named Best Song; she defers to her band members when she wins Best Band; and, "Here I am, awkwardly winning something else," goes down as the understatement of the evening, when Barnett's debut LP Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is named Best Album.

The formalities out of the way, it's over to The EG Allstars Band led by Ash Naylor on guitar, accommodating a diverse roster of guest vocalists. The musicians' skill and versatility is on display as they slide from blues (Blue Eyes Cry's Iseula Hingano) to soul (Emma Donovan) to alt-pop (Olympia) to Africana (Ajak Kwai) to hip hop (Briggs) to rock (Ben Salter) to punk (The Peep Tempel's Blake Scott) with the ease of a needle in a groove. Kwai and Briggs go down a treat with the dancers front of stage but it is Scott, with his working-class growl and Mick Jagger posturing, who gets the room jumping with a balls-out rendition of The Peep Tempel's angry anthem Carol.