The Old Bar, Melbourne
“Just between you and me, we’re going to America soon,” says Romy Vager, rather slyly. It’s no secret, of course, especially not to the crowd she is addressing at Melbourne’s Old Bar, who are here to see RVG in the midst of their three-night run of shows in late February. The band are swiftly getting things in check before they head to Austin, Texas as part of the Australian contingent at this year’s SXSW.
It seems apt that they’ve chosen the Old Bar for this final stint. It’s a humbling venue to play; with its fireplace and rickety staircase, you could be standing in someone’s (slightly sticky) living room; when it’s busy, band members have to squeeze through the crowd to get to the stage. Maybe they were hoping to imprint a final hometown memory before being whisked off to join the industry cavalcade.
In spite of their modesty, RVG inspire feverish levels of affection from their audiences. At the launch of their album A Quality of Mercy, at the Tote last year, crowd members embraced and tears flowed. Tonight—Monday night—the audience has assembled expectantly, like wartime mothers gathered at the docks. The mood is buoyant though; we have accepted they must journey onwards—as if it was predestined.
On stage, bathed in tic-tac orange light, Vager firstly acknowledges country and politely suggests that the shorter people in attendance are welcome to move to the front. The singer speaks with a slight British inflection—whether inherited or contrived, I’m not sure. Fitting though, when you consider her influences. The Go-Betweens comparisons are drawn frequently, thanks to the shimmery guitar, lyrical narratives and the similar geography, but, you get the sense RVG would be more at home in 80s Britain. In broody, monochrome press shots they could be peers of Echo and the Bunnymen or Siouxsie Sioux.
The band begin with “Heart Paste”. Vager, in a signature long-sleeve black dress and suede ankle boots, nurses her black Danelectro, which will be flecked with sweat by the end of the set. When singing, she draws down deep inside of herself, knowing when to wring out emotion and when to spit venom; she opens her mouth wide and bares her teeth; winces slightly; avoids eye contact with the audience. Occasionally she will clutch fiercely at the microphone or give a theatrical hand flourish.
It’s easy to be swept up in Vager’s presence, but equally as transfixing is the way the band functions as a musical unit. They formed a few years ago for what was meant to be a one-off performance, but the formula turned out be so good they had to continue. You get the impression that each member—Reuben Bloxham on guitar; Marc Nolte on drums; Angus Bell on bass—is an integral element. As Vager has explained before, it’s as if she “storyboards the song[s] and the others animate [them]”.
While Vager offers deep, unconcealed emotion, the rest of the band are magnetically coy; Bloxham and Bell provide a pleasing symmetry on either side of the stage, each swaying slowly from one foot to the other, mostly solemn-faced but occasionally flashing a quick smile. Nolte is a firm anchor at the back. The earnestness seems to stem from an almost ecclesiastical respect for the songs. When Vager is delivering an opening monologue in “That’s All”, the others stare downwards, patiently, mesmerically, waiting for their cue.
The set includes a large chunk of album favourites (“A Quality of Mercy”, “Eggshell World”, “Cause and Effect”), but there are newer songs too—which will appear on a second album to be recorded later this year. Musically, by the sound of things tonight, they seem fleshy and already well worn in; Vager has said her lyrics will be sadder.
The crowd is quietly enamoured: hands are draped absentmindedly on chests or necks; a few eyelids are closed; there are lots of fond grins. Vager grabs her cheeks in mock exasperation—or perhaps genuine exhaustion; it’s as if she can’t believe it all either. They close with “Feral Beach”; its ebullient guitar line sounding satisfyingly full. The band don’t quite elicit the fervour of previous shows, but that’s to be expected for this dry run. They’ve got bigger things on their minds.
By Wednesday, the room is filled to the brim. Sets of lovers clutch each other tight. The stage lights are set to a velvet blue. Tonight, the band is charged, taut. Bloxham breaks a string halfway in, but adeptly retunes and carries on. They bluster through and by the time Vager wrenches out her familiar cry of “That’s all that I want…” the audience is experiencing a collective emotional release. Everything is set in place.
Words: Kimberley Thomson