Country In The Convict Capital: Sydney


With Gareth Hipwell

At the global level, the postwar years saw the meteoric rise of both the mass-commercial intercontinental passenger flight and the intercontinental ballistic missile. While the first of these innovations brought American superstars of the rock, pop and country variety to Australian shores for the first time, the second served only to expand fearful new horizons for apocalyptic dread. Fortunately, the cessation of Cold War hostilities all but brought an end to the latter threat, while international touring artists of a country bent have found ever-expanding opportunities to visit and perform in Sydney. Today, Sydney’s status as a go-to destination for global music megastars is explained in part by its complement of world-class performance venues. But it wasn’t always so.

From 1955 until the mid-to-late 1960s, the biggest, best, (and only) place in Sydney to see foreign stars perform was the Sydney Stadium in Rushcutters Bay – widely known as “The Old Tin Shed”. With its metal roof and want of air-conditioning, the venue had a reputation for being uncomfortably hot. Despite this, US expat and trailblazing promoter Lee Gordon booked the stadium for major international acts in those halcyon days. Throughout the period, Gordon brought a steady stream of major American stars to Sydney audiences, including Bill Haley, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Jimmie Rodgers, The Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, and noted singer of Western movie soundtracks, Frankie Lane. Ultimately, though, and despite its enviable stable of past performers, the Sydney Stadium was demolished in 1973.

Jumping forward in time, the opening months of 2014 find a fresh armada of country superstars descending on Sydney from across the Pacific. The barrage began with an early tour from Taylor Swift in December 2013, and hit its stride with visits from perennial superstar Dolly Parton, and Southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd, in February 2014. Fortunately, the contemporary touring artist has any number of suitable theatres and venues to choose from in the Sydney basin – most of them air-conditioned, to boot. Some even double as wineries.

With Dolly having just played the venue on 15 February, the Hunter Valley’s Hope Estate at Pokolbin will again host CMC Rocks the Hunter in 2014. The festival, which runs from March 14 to 16, is headlined this year by US megastar Toby Keith as part of his first ever tour of Australia. Keith will be joined at Hope Estate by several American compatriots, including superstar Gretchen Wilson, Kellie Pickler, “Mr. Americana” Jim Lauderdale, Craig Campbell, The Eli Young Band, Love & Theft, Thompson Square, Paul Thorn, and Clay Walker. Playing alongside the US’ finest at Hope Estate are a host of Australian artists from Lee Kernaghan to Busby Marou, and including cover-lad Luke OShea and Convict Capital favourites Wagons, Little Bastard, Lachlan Bryan and Shane Nicholson. The dust won’t have settled at Hope Estate before Toby Keith brings his solo show to Sydney’s Allphones Arena on 18 March, “warming the seat” for prodigal heartthrob Keith Urban who is set to bring his own monolithic Light the Fuse tour to the Arena on 21 June.

The Hunter Valley is something of a festival hotspot at this time of year. The Gum Ball – staged at the idyllic Dashville property near Belford on 11 and 12 April –plays an important part. The festival will this year feature Canadian Americana star Lindi Ortega, along with Antipodean favourites Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes.

Beyond the festival circuit, soulful outlaw veteran Kris Kristofferson visits Sydney’s grand State Theatre on 11 April before journeying North to play the Newcastle Civic Centre on 13 April. Kristofferson will cover vast tracts of the great southern land this year, with almost two-dozen dates scheduled from Perth to Cairns. Also touring widely down under are Steve Earle and the Dukes & Duchesses. Earle and band headline the Enmore Theatre on 23 April with support from Kasey Chambers. Gregg Allman of Allman Brothers fame is also at the Enmore, on 21 April. On 13 April, the Factory Theatre in Marrickville sees the long-anticipated return of Alabama’s Jason Isbell. A former member of Southern rock stalwarts Drive By Truckers, Isbell’s Southeastern was named American Songwriter Magazine’s number one album of 2013.

While the above parade of international stars is undeniably compelling, Sydney concertgoers should take care not to neglect the local talent. As ever, there’s no better place to get your fix of homegrown country stars than at Rooty Hill RSL. On 28 February the club will host Christie Lamb’s debut album launch, with support from Luke Dickens and The Viper Creek Band. Also at Rooty Hill RSL is rising Aussie star Morgan Evans with support from Tamworth songstress Ashleigh Dallas on 22 March, and famed Eagles tribute act Desperado takes the stage on 29 March.

On the coastal side of things, Lizotte’s has a typically stellar local lineup ahead – punctuated by some exciting overseas visitors. Lizotte’s Dee Why has Amber Lawrence and Jason Owen on 28 February (the pair are at the Central Coast venue on 29 March and at Newcastle on 30 March) and US bluegrass legends The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band on 19 March. The inimitable Archie Roach is also at Dee Why on 8 May, and the Central Coast venue on 9 May. Lizotte’s Central Coast has Harmony James on 9 March and Daniel Thompson’s “Johnny Cash – In Solitary” show on 12 April, while Lizotte’s Newcastle features Tamara Stewart on 30 April (Tamara also plays the Central Coast venue on 1 May and the Dee Why venue on 2 May), Morgan Evans’ album launch party on 20 March (with Kaylens Rain), and The Perch Creek Family Jug Band on 8 May (the band are at Lizotte’s Central Coast on 7 May).

As always – and especially while the warm weather holds – music lovers are well advised to keep an eye on gig listings at such inviting venues as Belmont 16s, Berowra RSL, Petersham Bowling Club, Marrickville Bowling Club, Newtown’s Union Hotel and the East Sydney Hotel in Woolloomooloo. Because if there’s one thing Sydney has, it’s an enviable range of venues for all weathers, and for country artists of all kinds. And there’s not an ICBM in sight.