Mick Thomas

Around the Country in Fifteen Meals.

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Fine Dining with the Roving Commission and Shelley Short

Do you think that we’ll get fed much on this tour? Asked  Shelley Short on our first day as we headed over to Perth for the opening shows of the Tourists on Tour back in March.  It was a reasonable question for someone on a budget heading out on a major run of dates – but she didn’t have to worry as myself and Squeezebox Wally are always pretty concerned where the next meal is coming from and after thirty years on the road together have both pretty much come to the same conclusion – it’s good to eat well.

So when I think back on one of the more enjoyable tours of my life, somehow it’s the meals that punctuate it for me. I think there was twenty something dates all told and we were lucky enough to be fed at a lot of them so here goes, starting from Perth.

The first show was at a place called Friends Restaurant in the heart of Perth. It’s upstairs and a pretty formal supper and show kind of atmosphere is what they have created here. Possibly the most up market of all our dining experiences this was a start we couldn’t possibly hope to maintain and while we impressed upon Shelley she shouldn’t be expecting this every night there was something pretty nice about a roasted barramundi shellfish emulsion with marron and creamed potatoes and asparagus to kick of our gastronomic tour of the country. For a first show we played pretty well and the few songs we guested on of Shelley’s (and she of ours) worked well enough to get us thinking of more we could try the next day. We took it pretty easy as we were all pretty tired from the flight over and Shelley had only flown in from Portland a couple of days before we left. And for some insane reason I had offered to drive meaning a couple of light beers and a glass of something or other at dinner was the full extent of things.

Next day we were at the Norfolk Hotel Basement in Fremantle and being across from the market food hall everyone tended to go their own way for dinner. Special mention must be made of the Japanese Soup Bar in the actual market which is a personal favourite. It was great to have my opinion ratified by current bass player Zane Lynd who being married to a Japanese woman has spent enough time there to recognise this as a really original and authentic type of eatery. The band loosened up a bit that night and the integration of ours and Shelley’s repertoire continued to develop. It was fun having Grant Ferstat from the Jayco Brothers sitting in on the guitar for half a dozen songs and it was a really strong turn out.

Next day disaster struck the tour pretty much from the moment we got up and packed the van to drive to Geraldton with Zane coming down pretty unwell. He continued to suffer in silence as we drove up and detoured to the Pinnacle Desert generally cavorting in the heat unaware that he was dehydrating rapidly. We checked in at a lovely quirky B&B in Geraldton where Zane managed to grab a small sleep before we headed out to the Nukara Festival thirty kilometres into the bush.  For a variety of reasons I somehow imagine everyone will be able to somehow make it through any given show so when Zane told me he would be all right to play I believed him. But as every hour at the festival passed he seemed to be declining rapidly. Dinner that night was provided by the festival and it was a more than passable veggie curry for myself with the most memorable part of the experience being as Zane was carted off in an ambulance to Geraldton Hospital a half hour before we were due to take the stage our drummer Dave Foley asking us sheepishly if it was bad form to use Zane’s meal ticket for a second serving. We played as a three piece that night so maybe Dave needed the extra fuel. Zane flew back East the next day and we continued without a bass player.

Next day we were back in town at the Oxford Hotel in Leederville where I have had many fine dining experiences over the years and this one was no different. It was Barramundi again cooked to perfection and my only other memory of this meal was Shelley dilligently attempting to work her way through a  massive side of chicken before ultimately conceding defeat. It was a fair effort and with the three out of four shows feeding us so far the tour was looking good from a Freegan perspective. (i.e. someone who is on a diet of food they don’t have to pay for).

Our next meal as a band was at The Marngrook footy show at the ABC studios in Ripponlea where they put on a fantastic Thai spread making sure that everyone on the show that night eats together. ‘No segregation here,’ Grant Hansen pointed out the first time we did the programme and as we sat there that night and vied for pad thai and spring rolls with Ron Barassi and Tom Hafey, Gilbert McAdam and Ronny Burns we had to conclude he was right.

After a couple of days in hospital on a drip Zane made it back by the time we headed to Hobart a few days later. Our show at the Republic was a bit of a blur for me due to  an unwise decision to attend Nick Lowe’s show at the Forum after our performance on the Marngrook show the night before an early flight. I didn’t eat that night as I was busy heading back to the airport to pick up the merch I had left in Melbourne which is part of the tax I have to pay for being my age and not being smart enough to know when to pull my head in. The others ate at the pub and everyone seemed to think it was fine. The next day we headed north to Devonport where we ate Thai once again in the main drag with the only other notable culinary experience being the intense dissection of the merits of a particularly Tasmanian phenomena – the scallop pie. Initially sceptical Dave Foley is now a convert. Probably the best thing we had in Tasmania was a breakfast burger at a café on the beach in Devonport – the chef had been at the show the night before so we were in good hands and the setting was more than spectacular.

The people of Ararat in Western Victoria are understandably touchy about the fact the a survey last year declared them the most overweight town in the state.  My home council duristiction of Darebin weighs in with the highest rate of type two diabetes so I guess we have something in common. But if they do have a problem they might want to look at the gargantuan portions the Italian restaurant in the main drag are serving as take away. Shelley and Dave opted for this and while it looked pretty good but I went for fish n’ chips instead undeterred  at being a long way from the ocean.  Actually it was all fine but we needn’t have bothered as our show in the Moyston Hall was a ‘bring a plate’ affair so there was stacks of food. The show itself was an absolute cracker – significant for me in that it was the first time we finished the set with Shelley singing Springsteen’s I’m On Fire – something which we continued for the rest of the tour. Home made sausage rolls and  scones take on an strangely gourmet hue in terms of such profound and triumphant performance as this. I realise that sounds a touch pretentious but I’m totally serious. I suppose the local sparkling shiraz helped as well.

Eating for the rest of the South Australian leg all seemed to be in the Gouger Street food court so nothing much in the way of us all sitting down together. Byron Bay Bluesfest was the week after and again while the food in the performer’s area was fantastic it all felt a little rushed and cafeteria like. The week after in NSW saw some memorable dining experiences beginning with a top notch Vietnamese Pho in Dickson (Canberra).  The next night the slaughter of barramundi resumed at Lizotte’s in Newcastle and then Kincumber –  both of which looked after us wonderfully to the point where as you sit at a beautifully laden table drinking wine and eating such splendid food there is a risk of you actually losing total contact with the fact you are there to do a show. But what are you going to do? You spend so many years not getting anything at shows I think we all feel honour bound to take what’s on offer every time.  Freegans indeed.

The Annandale was like going back in time for a few of us. They supplied us with Asian food that was incredibly fresh and good and cheap and had the added attraction of being served in the beer garden with the football blaring on the television – coincidentally letting us witness the monumental occasion of Irael Fellau’s first goal in AFL football. And it doesn’t come much better than that no matter what you are eating. The Cooggee Diggers was a quiet show as I think the massive Dig it Up show down the road with a reformed Sunnyboys did us some damage. Still, it’s a great room in a great club and incredibly nice they arranged for us to get our meal after the show as it is a perfectly civilised way to wind down and something we so seldom get to do.  I fear the barramundi  stocks once again took a knock.

Regional Victoria was generous with the Theatre Royal in Castlemaine turning on some cracking gourmet pizza action before a show which for me will be forever synonymous with the drive home where I somehow managed to fill my diesel van with standard unleaded petrol. You see the past few months we had been hiring vans interstate that all ran on normal fuel whereas for these closer to home shows we had opted to use my old diesel banger which was fine except for this drive Shelley had put up her hand meaning we could all have a merry old van party until we got to Carlsrhue where Shelley naturally pulled up beside the unleaded pump and where I naturally (stupidly?) chose to fill the bloody thing with the wrong fuel. We got about two kilometres down the highway before every warning light on the dashboard  came on and we were forced to pull into a lay-by and ring the RACV. They sent out a cab for everyone but I had to wait with the van until 7.30 am when the tow truck arrived. It was freezing and as I jogged around the vehicle to keep warm the fine wine and dining of the last month seemed a distant memory. Fuck it was cold. And sad.

But it’s funny how quick you can bounce back from these things. Next day I hired another van courtesy of the RACV and before I knew it we were bound for the Westernport Hotel in San Remo where we were looked after very well and  the prospect of barramundi for dinner was somehow very comforting. The show that night was a little on the quiet side but in true regional fashion once the publican had taken the door cover charge off and let the bar folk (i.e. people who didn’t have enough faith in you to stump up the cash in the first place) then the gig became a bit of a rowdy free for all. We finished with our first (and to this date only) live airing of our Marngrook song ‘A DVD and a New Tattoo’ which seemed to work well enough as a dance tune and led me to reflect on just how many years I have been coming down to Gippsland in the winter to play shows pretty much like this. It doesn’t bare too much thinking about really.

Our next meal as a band came at the table of Mary and Dennis Hanlon (yes, Darren’s parents) en route to our show at the Sunshine coast. It was just a lovely relaxed barbeque affair and with Darren home on songwriting sabatical there was plenty of entertainment as  he basically performed a DJ set on the family record player.

Things started to fragment somewhat after this as I had opted to take only half the ensemble to the Wintermoon Festival just outside Mackay. We managed one last meal with the whole group at a fantastic Tibetan Restaurant in Brisbane before myself, Wally and Shelley boarded the plane north sending Gus Agars and Julien Chick back to Melbourne. They fed us and generally looked after us really well at the festival but I think all three of us felt the thing was somehow not quite complete on a personal level and could only really think forward to our last show in Northcote at the Regal Ballroom the following weekend.

And so before you knew it we had been around the country, gone through a couple of drummers, a couple of bass players, not to mention a whole school of barramundi – and made a firm friend and musical cohort in Shelley Short. But this was the end my friend – and what a place to finish it all up. High Stret Northcote is looking bright and shiny these days and certainly a major contrast to the disgruntled retail strip it was the night I had stood out with Squeezebox Wally as we discussed to dissolving the Weddings back in 1997 (nothing open at 10 o’clock on a Thursday night – no last drinks for us back then). And so while you are spoilt for  food choices around there a communal meal wasn’t a reality as when you are playing a big show in your home town everyone suddenly has other people to consider. So while there would be no big sit down meal that night as I sat across the road in Lam Lam’s Vietnamese restaurant with drumming person Gus Agars I felt pretty chuffed at how the various people involved in the band had integrated and contributed over the course of the tour. When you have a new band together it can be surprisingly easy to get everyone together for something socially symbolic like a full meal and this had definitely proven the case with the Roving Commission.  On the last couple of Weddings Parties Anything tours we had tried repeatedly to get the whole mob together and it was only a brief two hour window the day after our very last show that it became a reality. But there we were in High St Northcote fifteen meals together after the beginning of a journey and all we can really think about in the light of our withdrawal from one another is getting together as a whole band at least one more time before Shelley heads back to America –  and do you know what? I think we might head out for a meal.