Wednesday 23 March, Monash University Clayton Campus, SummerFest
I felt slightly disconcerted when I entered the ‘Soundshell.’ Small pockets of people milled about, lounging on inflatable sea creatures. Most groups had considerable distance between each other and not much chatter. It hardly seemed like the setting for a good show.
There seemed to be two tribes here; bearded men wearing AC/DC t shirts and alternative types with canvas shoes. They were not mixing. In the fifteen minutes between gates opening and the first act the atmosphere was growing markedly more awkward. Despite a couple of DJs pumping out tracks, there seemed to be little energy in the air.
Which is why Dorsal Fins were such a delight when they hit the stage. Any trace of the queasy pre-show atmosphere disappeared extremely quickly. This is a band who plays with genuine joy, and this joy is translated straight back into the audience. Everything they do lives on the premise of fun, and these songs contain a swagger and attitude that oozes an irresistible personality. Cliques no longer matter when a band like this is playing; I can imagine grandmothers having as good a time here as emos. Even the AC/DC shirts made their way to the front of the stage. Dorsal Fins make it feel harder not to dance.
This sense of fun comes from a penchant for the mildly ridiculous, managing to be entertaining without being pretentious. It would be obvious and easy for a band like this to stick to a basic setup, but that couldn’t accommodate the level of cool that they bring. So Dorsal Fins don’t even consider this idea and decide to add two vocalists, rhythm and lead guitars, a brass section and electric percussion. Instead of asking ‘why would we do this?” they constantly ask ‘why not do this?, meaning that suddenly a guitarist sporting a Tool t shirt now has the license to put down his instrument and pick up a saxophone. And it works.
It works because the songs are superbly well written; finding the intersection between being musically interesting and being accessible time and time again. They have a songwriting style that chooses not to make predictable choices but always remains subtle enough not to be unnecessarily over the top. The electric percussion does not simply mirror the live drums but has a place of its own in the songs in their own right. The use of two singers, male and female, adds another dimension to the sound without announcing itself too loudly. They are not afraid to play with any style of music, so long as it makes sense within the context of the song; at one point a rap verse makes an appearance, along with a half time space rock breakdown. It’s this ability married with chutzpah that defines Dorsal Fins.
Kingswood elicited a different reaction from the audience. They let the music do most of the talking, rarely taking a break. They play with an honesty and forthright mindset, exactly the way rock should be played. It’s proper heart on your sleeve, sing a long passion, inviting you to lose yourself in the moment. Kingswood make this very easy to do, you come here to release the things that trouble you and be connected with the fans around you. They are truly an expression of proper, hearty rock music.
But it wouldn’t be rock without the guitar solos; perhaps the most impressive part of their performance. There were so many textures explored; the audience treated to instances of pure shred, a dose of finger picking and even slide. The guitar work mostly holds its power through knowledge of the instrument, without reliance on effects. In this way, the music was really talking
I suspect most songs were extended from the studio versions, but this was done well, never becoming boring, never making the listener want to get to the next song. They had a way of drawing the audience in, making them immersed in the songs. When they finally announced they only had a song left to play, I couldn’t tell how long it had been, but it didn’t seem long enough.