You might be looking at the title of this list with some confusion. Live acts? Live music? In this economy? Yes, of course, this year has been the roughest yet on the industry – all international tours have been delayed or cancelled outright, large-scale shows are only just starting to claw back and the long-promised funding for venues in need has largely had to be self-funded due to the government being largely more interested in keeping the footy seasons going.
Truthfully, though, it’s these very reasons that we should be celebrating those that have been fortunate enough to perform this year. Adapting to restrictions, playing to seated crowds, making the most of the two-and-a-half months before lockdown kicked in… there’s been a lot of obstacles to overcome in 2020, to say the least. Here are 10 acts that through it all, have made an impact, either pre-or post-isolation, within Australian music.
This list is dedicated not just to the performers, but all the places and people that make it happen. To the venues, staff, soundies, techs, roadies, bookers, promoters, managers… everyone behind the scenes across Australia that have been impacted and continue to be impacted. If your state currently allows it, make it a priority to support live music whenever it comes through your city, town, or community.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Donny Benet, The Presets, Ball Park Music, Party Dozen, Hard-Ons, Violent Soho, Georgia June, Julia Jacklin, Good Pash, Phil Jamieson, Tim Freedman, Elana Stone, Ruby Fields, Gordi, Kwame, Maddy Jane, Lisa Caruso, A.B. Original, Polish Club and Fanny Lumsden.
Few people worked harder than Annie Hamilton upon restrictions lifting in NSW. Not only did she pick up solo support slots with the likes of Gordi and Boy & Bear, but she also undertook a run of dates as lead guitarist for Maddy Jane – oh, and she opened those shows too. Throw in some sold-out headlining shows with her recently-expanded supergroup backing band (featuring members of DMA’S and I Know Leopard) and you’re looking at one of the more impressive worksheets of the year. Of course, none of that would count for anything if Hamilton wasn’t a great performer. As it turns out, she’s better now than she ever has been. Across solo shows, full-band sets, and even her Like a Version appearance, Hamilton remained entirely charismatic, focused, and captivating.
Many live acts in Australia had to adapt and recalibrate their approach to live shows as restrictions forced audiences to become all-seated. Truthfully, Baby Beef didn’t have to change a great deal – theirs was already a very theatrical style, to begin with. With no permanent instrumentalist, all three members of the group are free to roam the stage individually – as well as throw in some charming choreography for good measure. Their kitschy, irony-laden take on electro-pop is just as entertaining as a spectator as it is as a participant – indeed, the Beef were a rare Sydney instance of getting to perform to a standing audience both before and after the isolation period. No question: this is the kind of live show you can really, truly invest into.
Brad Cox and Sammy White
Shifting our focus from the big smoke for a minute, a huge shout-out to those that have been flying the flag for rural and regional shows. In the spirit of travellers like Slim Dusty and Joy McKean before them, country music couple Brad Cox and Sammy White spent three months touring between Queensland, the ACT, and NSW. The solo acoustic Drinking Season tour was an accomplishment in and unto itself, taking in everywhere from Bundaberg to Ulladulla. Anyone who caught one of the shows will attest to just how endearing the whole thing was, too. Both Cox and White possess two of the strongest voices in modern Australian country, and each provided audiences with both laughs and sing-alongs aplenty. As his shirts so happily proclaimed: It’s called country music, motherfucker.
2019 saw The Buoys’ founding member Zoe Catterall lock in the strongest version of the band to date, after years of lineup changes and changes in stylistic approach. Not only has she come into her own as the band’s frontwoman, the rough-and-tumble rhythm section of bassist Courtney Cunningham and drummer Tess Wilkin add equal parts of finesse and pub-rock rowdiness. Add in certifiable shred-lord Hilary Geddes – who also moonlights as a prolific jazz performer – and you’re looking at a united front that could go toe-to-toe with any audience and come out as winners. Sold-out headliners, supports for giants like Violent Soho and the Hoodoo Gurus, even some show-stealing festival appearances (remember festivals?). Was there anything they couldn’t do? No crawl about it: 2020 saw The Buoys light up.
Caitlin Harnett & the Pony Boys
How do you engage an entirely-seated audience while still abiding by the rules? Caitlin Harnett – once a Joni Mitchell-style troubadour, now a certified alt-country boot-scooter – found one of the more inventive ways across her band’s shows this year. Simply turn those chairs with backs facing front-ways and ride ’em, cowboy. This isn’t the sole reason the Pony Boys are on this list, but it’s entirely exemplary of how much above-board fun you could have at one of their shows. Even before their long-awaited Late Night Essentials was released, Harnett had audiences singing along en-masse. Really, how could you not when you’re writing songs so irresistible and that pluck so effortlessly at one’s heartstrings? A night with Harnett and her Boys is a rootin’, tootin’, chair dancin’ good time.
If you’re under 25 and totally cool, there’s a good chance the last big-scale standing show you got to see was Dunies. With impeccable timing of wrapping a mere week before lockdown, the band sent out the beginning of the end with a literal bang. Not only did they sport a travelling circus of some of the country’s best rock bands – Ruby Fields, Dear Seattle and TOTTY – they also stepped up their headlining set with all the antics you’ve come to expect from them. From an old-school banner drop to roasting marshmallows on the pyro, Dune Rats kept audiences thoroughly entertained from go to woah-oh-oh. We’ve not seen them in the flesh since, but with any luck 2021 will see them pick up exactly where they left off.
“How the hell is he gonna do a seated show?” This was the million-dollar question when Canberran rap/soul prodigy Genesis Owusu announced Kofi’s Black Dog Jams: a three-night, six-show run at Mary’s Underground. It was a fair one, too – after all, Owusu had spent the last couple of years with his trusty Goon Squad turning audiences great and small into his own CBR zoo. What wasn’t taken into consideration, however, was that he wasn’t kicking out these Jams alone – an all-star band including Kirin J Callinan and Touch Sensitive allowed for Owusu’s back catalogue to be radically, defiantly reinvented. ‘Void’ became a jazz odyssey, ‘WUTD’ revelled in the funk and ‘Whip Cracker’ somehow went even harder. Equal parts bark and bite, Genesis sunk his teeth into this challenge.
The band kicked off the year with a sold-out hometown show benefiting bushfire victims, unaware of the obstacles yet to overcome in the remainder of the calendar. A killer mid-arvo Laneway run kept the engine running before all plans were halted months later. To their credit, the Windang duo took a punt on an unproven experiment and announced they’d be launching their Brain Candy album with a huge outdoor show in nearby Bulli. The catch? Everyone had to watch from their cars. What unfurled was part music festival, part Deni Ute Muster, all extremely fun. In doing so, the band played the biggest show in the area as well as the first large-scale show in NSW post-isolation. For their energy, philanthropy and creativity, the Dad deservedly rank on this list.
Shogun and the Sheets
The Sheets weren’t a new project by any means – they formed in the wake of Royal Headache’s demise, the band with which the titular Shogun first rose to prominence. The soul-rock five-piece were, however, among the first bands to return to the stage when venues reopened this past June. Seeing the band as your return to live music felt like a baptism by fire – the smash of the crash cymbal, the bass pumping through your chest, the guitar piercing your unsuspecting ears. That’s all before Shogun made his way through the fray and laid down his own personal gospel. His inimitable howl – recalling greats like Otis and Sam Cooke – left audiences enraptured and prompted the taboo standing ovation more than once. An essential live experience, unquestionably.
It’s hard to believe festivals on the scale of Laneway actually went ahead in 2020 – they feel like forever ago now, but it started off incredibly strong on the live front. Perth’s Spacey Jane were among the rising stars of the festival circuit and even got a few shows into their headlining tour before they promptly had to get the first plane back west. Due to the impeccable handling of the pandemic by Western Australia, the band were one of the first to complete a tour after March’s shutdown. Audiences across regional WA came out in droves to safely see the band, and they kept the momentum going by adding big-business hometown shows to boot. We miss ’em on the east, but Spacey deserve kudos for keeping the west alive.
Other ways to support the Aussie music industry
Donate to Support Act here
Support local artists through Bandcamp
Find more ways through I Lost My Gig
Create your Lockdown Get Down Playlist
Buy your fave artists’ merch or music
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Subscribe to artists’ Youtubes or Patreons
Share your favourite songs with new audiences
Save your money for when the events return, safely.