Making it in Melbourne

MAKING IT: Anthonie Tonnon writes on his experiences from a week playing gigs in Melbourne.
MAKING IT: Anthonie Tonnon writes on his experiences from a week playing gigs in Melbourne.

At its best, the life of a musician is a kind of privileged tourism. When I play a show in a city I don't live in, for one night I become a part of the culture; one of the diverse events and experiences that city boasts. I make friends I never could as a tourist, and when I'm paid my first foreign currency it feels like a rite of passage. For one night I have a place, and the drinks are free.

I've recently started playing solo shows, and this is my first trip to Melbourne under my own name. While I live in Auckland now, my first city and my first music scene was Dunedin. Auckland has little in common with Melbourne but there is a lot here to remind me of my hometown. The faded Victorian nostalgia, the reckless jersey choices, the miraculous rises and drops in temperature that can happen as you're walking home at three in the morning.

But with its trams still running, a thriving population and an old-fashioned live music culture, Melbourne is what I dreamed Dunedin would have been like in its heyday - with a few million people added for scale. On a Sunday night, heading back to my accommodation from a show in St Kilda, I manage to switch from the 96 tram at Southern Cross Station to a Northcote-bound train. It's a switch that saves me 20 minutes, but I only make it by a few seconds, running down the escalator. As the train leaves the underground loop and rises just enough above the flat neighbourhoods to take in the immense cityscape, I am in concert with Melbourne's great grid.

Adrenaline in my veins, hard-earned Australian dollars in my pocket and a myki transport card in my hand - I feel like a productive citizen. Melbourne's live music scene feels much larger than both Auckland's or Sydney's. Audiences hop from neighbourhood to neighbourhood by tram, sometimes going to two or three shows in an evening. I'm playing four shows in six days, an amount that would be extreme anywhere else. Two of my shows are in Northcote, a 20-minute tram ride from the city centre - where my girlfriend and I base ourselves on this trip.

On non-show days we aspire to live like locals. I get the lay of the land with runs through the reserve that follows the train line. We dawdle in bookstores and try to work out which Vietnamese place the locals prefer. We ride the tram into the city, visiting just one museum and one strip of shops - as if we have the rest of our lives to see the rest. We become regulars at a cafe called Palomino. A friend tells us it's only an average cafe for the area, but our breakfasts there are perfect - until he joins us on our third time, and his baked egg with fennel is burnt.

On a Thursday night, I tram with my heavy gear into the much busier neighbourhood of Fitzroy for the show I'm most nervous about. I'm headlining, and the venue is The Old Bar, a joint with a punk attitude just off Brunswick Street, which has been around as long as anyone can remember. It is a constant in a neighbourhood that has been hipster central in Australasia for more than a decade, increasing in popularity to the point that it is now really only an 'alternative' area in attitude.

Venues in Melbourne are a little different to ours. Many of them look like old sports bars, with beer soaked carpet and '70s decor - and this is because many of them are. Perhaps the biggest culture shock for a New Zealander here is that sport and indie music share the same audiences - bands and their fans can be seen watching AFL in the main bar before shows start.

Old Bar doesn't have a TV, but it does have the faded décor, ancient posters and some great vintage pinball machines.The worst time for me is always the time between the doors opening and my set. In a small venue like this there's no green room to hide in. I'm worried about how I'll get my solo show across in such a rock and roll setting, even though I've spent a couple of hours in the space planning. I'm worried my set list is wrong. I'm worried no one will turn up. It all comes down to the first two songs. When a gig goes well from the start it builds momentum and can turn into something memorable. If anything goes wrong it can slide downhill and become irretrievable.

I've spent all day practicing and preparing to try to make sure I win the crowd over, and quickly. Tonight it pays off. I have a great turnout - my best in Australia yet. And they're no different to a New Zealand audience, or an American one, for that matter. Audiences are usually shy, and the hard part is getting them to open up and move to the front at the start of the set. I haven't met a brash Australian this entire trip, and I'm starting to believe that Flight of the Concords-like awkwardness is more of an indie music trait than a New Zealand one.

They sit down at the front in their big jackets and the Old Bar quickly feels like it could be a venue back home. Gig money in hand, I taxi back to Northcote with my girlfriend and an old Dunedin buddy to get a celebratory beer. We find that everything is closed at 1am. Melbourne may be as close as I come to New York in my part of the world, but this is a city that does sleep. It may be just as well. Once the show's over, I'm just a tourist and drinks cost money.

Anthonie Tonnon has just releaseda cassette, Live at Inch Bar, and tours New Zealand July 5-20 with Watercolours (musician Chelsea Jade Metcalf). More details: anthonietonnon.tumblr.

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