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

DELVING into the murky world of Alternative Country is never a predictable experience, the vast range of potential influences making it difficult to know exactly what to expect. So it was with tentative steps that we entered the feral-chic cavern of the Old Bar for this Alt Country double bill. The subtle lighting and abundance of checked shirts lent the venue a suitable ambience, looking like something between a Midwestern honky-tonk bar and a back-alley lumberjack convention. The late cancellation of the promised barbecue did little to dampen spirits, with the easy going crowd much more interested in the $10 jugs on offer than any other form of sustenance.

Easing into the lazy, ramshackle Sunday vibe, Country Burnouts ambled onto the stage roughly 40 minutes late, its members in varying degrees of cheery intoxication. Despite an ongoing battle with a feedback problem, the CBs turned in a surprisingly competent set, churning out noisy, rock-fuelled country music with heavy blues sentiments, and incorporating the banjo to good effect to create a consistent, rhythmic sound. Highlights were the tongue-in-cheek bluegrass of ‘Devil’s Daughter’ and comical toker anthem ‘Up In Smoke’, both of which served the band’s sense of self-deprecating humour to a tee. On a similar theme, the boys also managed an ambitious, but not entirely unsuccessful reworking of Cypress Hill’s ‘I Wanna Get High’, to the obvious delight of their audience.

In contrast, The Idle Hoes made a strangely subdued entrance, and immediately announced in a resigned fashion that they were minus a drummer for the evening, without going into too much detail as to why. This, they explained, would be a one-off low-key acoustic show, and despite being equipped with bass, guitar, mandolin and backing vocals, the late change clearly had an adverse effect on the band’s confidence.

Even taking into account the last minute reshuffle, this is a band that has taken a decidedly new direction in the last year or so. Gone is the raucous, inimitably Australian folk angst of older recordings, and in its place is a more direct take on the traditional American form of the country genre, albeit with an Australian accent on particular songs. With such sensibilities, you might have assumed that an acoustic setting would bring out the best in the ‘Hoes, but as the show plodded on it was evident that there was something missing here. The backing vocals and mandolin accompaniment were too low to be heard properly, and the set seemed for the most part to be little more than an exercise in damage limitation.

That said, there were genuine moments of distinction. The mellow Americana of ‘Hollow Moon’ was a clear stand-out, while the folky, uncomplicated ‘Silver Fox’ was delivered with memorable warmth and affection. Covers of John Prine and Bob Dylan were handled well but without much in the way of new ideas, while the choice of Willie Nelson’s ‘Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys’ was just a little too Nashville for this Melbourne audience.

It is hard not to feel for The Idle Hoes, the last minute change to their line-up seemingly as much of a surprise to the band as to everyone else in attendance. It is to their credit that they decided to persevere rather than cancelling last-minute, and one suspects the audience here may have heard just enough to give them another chance.