Dispatched from Australia, STUART LYNCH reports on Melbourne’s live music scene.

THE TOTE HOTEL in Collingwood has earned an iconic reputation over the years for its support of local bands and continual promotion of the underground live music scene. The eclectic line-up assembled here epitomised the establishment’s ‘anything goes’ attitude, and provided a perfect platform for the launch of Major Major’s EP Great Leagues.

Wil Wagner opened proceedings with a short but memorable acoustic set, as an unhurried crowd slowly trickled into the cavernous back room. Wagner’s brand of punky folk was served up with visceral intent, his raucous vocals punctuated with lighter indie guitar moments reminiscent of Billy Bragg in his heyday. The young Melburnian, clearly comfortable in this environment, provided a highlight with the anthemic ‘I Envy Birds’.

Next up came cheeky youngsters The Harpoons, with a refreshing line in 60s-inspired, perfect pop kitsch. Enduring a slightly nervy start, the band soon found their groove and clearly enjoyed themselves, their retro style and infectious hooks well appreciated by the small, attentive crowd. Mixing and matching three vocals, the four-piece displayed impressively quirky pop songwriting (with a cover of The Coasters 1959 classic ‘Poison Ivy’ to boot), and an amiable presence that marked them as a band to watch this summer.

As the crowd swelled steadily in anticipation of the main act, Ben Birchall took to the stage with backing band The Corrections, raising the volume levels and churning out melodious guitar pop from his back catalogue. Despite some intelligently written Britpop-style arrangements and a clearly accomplished stage presence, Birchall’s music somehow failed to reach the heights that his image promised, with too many songs tending toward generic lyrics and anti-climatic choruses. No doubt established fans could appreciate the subtle twists and changes, but for those less familiar with the sound it all seemed a little too bland and safe. One notable exception was the infectious ‘Surprise Surprise’, a 90s-esque rock-pop tune with genuine attitude, complimented by Birchall’s confident vocals.

And then it was time for the band of the hour. Well, almost. In true rockstar fashion, Major Major kept the crowd waiting just long enough before swaggering onto the stage to promote their new EP. The indie rockers have garnered a near-cult status on the underground Melbourne scene in the last few years, and looked very much at home as the headlining act for the evening. Adrian Slattery’s varied vocal lines played well off the bluesy backdrop of rhythmic, punchy guitars, creating more of a consistent sound than particular stand-alone highlights. Indeed, it was the apparent lack of ‘big’ songs or choruses that provided the main point of criticism, and the crowd at times grew noticeably apathetic. Such slacker sensibilities have done no harm to the likes of Sonic Youth and The Breeders, but among a highly expectant, increasingly inebriated audience, the desire for some catchy singalong tunes was apparent. Nonetheless, the local boys happily grooved and swung their way through the set with effortless ease, to the delight of the throng of converted fans that had congregated at the front.

The Tote’s knack of cultivating local talent was once again abundantly clear in this showpiece, promoting Major Major’s release with usual aplomb. The surprisingly talented support acts provided an almost flawless basis for proceedings, and ensured there would be more than one act to follow in the coming months.