PART 1: MOJO ‘N MOSS

I drove up country last Friday night to perform with Mojo Juju at the Riverboats festival in Echuca. We were billed for a twilight slot before eminent rock doyen, Ian Moss, “Cold Chisel” axeman-vocalist and solo legend.

There was excitement brewing at rehearsal the night prior. “Telephone Booth” and “Tucker’s Daughter” were hummed on repeat as we polished Mojo’s back catalogue after a four-month touring hiatus. For drummer, Phil, excitement blended with apprehension—he mucked up on a man weekend on the Murray years back, was kicked out of town for inebriated destruction of public property and told never to return. I envisaged his moustachioed gypsy-ringed mug shot ogling us at the city limits, his arse booted out once more, leaving us to perform Riverboats as a percussionless three-piece.

The traffic out of Melbourne was heinous, bushfires up near Kilmore carried smoke over the city like a burnt out dream fog and made the Victorian countryside look and feel lonelier than it already is. I figured it’d be a relatively smooth shot once out of the snarl, but I took the Calder instead of the Hume, and a couple of bungled turns at Kyneton, with some perilous back roads on the wrong side of Lake Eppalock, made me question my choice of route.  Hours flew as Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” kept me company on audiobook, tarnished somewhat by the reader’s goofy huckster voice.

Dusty sun soon set, I slide my window down to let in the balmy rivergum air of Echuca. No sign of Phil’s illegal mug.

The evening begins here at the Riverboats festival, a humble gathering of locals, hungry for hits, booze and dancing, as the hot day gives way to a soft Murray misty night, and Mojo and Moss prepare backstage to entertain the masses

***

I walk past the security guard by the mesh fence and enter the band area. There is a brooding, curly haired man in his fifties parked at the plastic dining table. It’s Mossy. He strums his white Stratocaster in sandals and shorts. There are silver haired rock dogs picking at fruit platters, and their dark haired wives chat to the road crew. Drinks lay in vats on fresh ice. Moss’s boys stick to softies. At the other side of the marquee I frequent the plushest portaloo I’ve ever seen, a shower-toilet combo unit with air con and downy towels. Drying my hands, I’m reminded of an interview I read once, Moss divulging his pre-show vocal warm ups: “I just scream in the shower for 20 minutes,” he said. I wonder if he’s warmed up yet. It occurs to me that Mossy always looks like he’s just come out of the shower. It’s because of his luscious curls, no doubt; they’re greyer now, clipped short, still aching to retrieve their old mate, the halcyon mullet of the “Tuckers Daughter” heyday that never missed a party.

I meet Mojo in our dressing area. She scrawls set lists in a three-piece suit and snakeskin boots, hair slicked. I set up my horn and warm up the old ladyface with some long notes and chromatic runs, and when the stage sound softens to the MC voice of “Rockwiz” host Brian Nankervis, I saunter out to assume my place. Jules rigs up his double bass; Phil, his tubs; Mojo, her new butterscotch Telecaster. My set up is done, all I need do is wander on and blow, so I take a few more warm-ups backstage, which is really just a wooden platform by the fence to an algae-infested lake, sign saying “Do Not Swim” written on it.

Nankervis joins me, requesting the names of the band members. We chat for a bit. I tell him about the Raymond J. Bartholomew (his old alias) poetry collection I’ve owned since I was a ten-year old boy, and the poem he addressed to me inside it. He smiles, forefinger on lip.

“Gosh, now…where were we back then?”

It was my mum who got him to sign it for me, and I recite the lines he wrote:

                        Dear Cameron,

                        Please be nice, please be sweet,

                        Beware the saxophones that fall on your feet

                        Cheers,

                        Raymond J.

“I love that—I like to think the past is always chasing you into the present,” he says. “You know, I just wrote the same poem for a fella out in the crowd. I used the word ‘dust’ instead of ‘saxophones.’”

We’re interrupted by incredibly loud guitar shreds from the stage—Mossy, bogarting Mojo’s setup and sound check to make sure his duel-Marshall rig is adequately fired up to hit “11”. The sound is pure “Chisel,” lead filler licks, single coil valve-warmed signatures of an era when pub rock ruled.

Brian turns back to me.

“Such a classic Mossy manoeuvre,” he says. “Rip out licks just as the band before you is trying to set up.”

“Marking his territory.” I say.

Nank has a champagne smile and his eyes disappear into happy wrinkles.

I continue warming up my horn over Mossy’s diabolically loud warmup as a memory flickers back—I’m 8 years old, at the Melbourne tennis centre with Mum, climbing the steps to watch Jimmy Barnes’s “Soul Deep” show, my first ever live concert. A man with luscious curls who looks as if he’s just gotten out of the shower starts chatting Mum up. He says he has to run in and get on stage.

“Who was that guy?” I ask afterwards.

“A guy named Ian Moss,” she says.

Satisfied with his rig for now, Mossy leaves the stage. Nankervis flings a Frisbee around into the crowd and back, warming them with goofy observational banter.

Showtime. Nank introduces each of us individually, we take our stage places under strobe light. It’s dusk, I see a row of lit lanterns straddling the rear barrier fence. A few thousand faces stare back at us. Mojo slides into a smooth, slow blues, punctuated by crescendos and swells; my horn is warm and ready to howl, the reed feels right and the crowd is keen.

In between horn wails, I look over to the band. Mojo is diminutive yet dominating, lumber shouldered, with the baby face of a prohibition-era gangster. She swaggers with charisma and mystique—short lady, huge voice—the love child of Tom Waits and Ella Fitzgerald. She has “it”. Between songs, she banters about how Phil is a wanted man around these parts; I see some eyebrows raise in the crowd.

It’s a good hour set. We rise and fall in intensity delivering Mojo’s ballads and gutbucket gospel hits, a little gypsy rockabilly toward the end, culminating in that menacing cover of Screamin’ J. Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You.” She destroys the final roaring howl, spellbinding the gape-mouthed dancers up by the stage front who’ve never heard such a bellow, and yell “more!” as they lose control of their pelvises. I towel off backstage after the crowd, roused further by Brian, gives us raucous adulation.

After a brief changeover, Mossy takes the stage. Ironically, his amp shits itself two songs into his set. It’s long enough for me to catch “Telephone Booth,” the melody plants itself into my brain, and will grip on for the whole ride all the way back to Melbourne, to remain for the whole weekend.

As light rain begins to fall on the roads, I floor the Astra out, pushing 110 in the darkness on the lonely highway. My phone shows the red 10% battery warning, 3-hours from home in the dead of night. I put it on flight mode, and without Googlemaps, become uncertain of my exact location. Concerned that I may have accidentally taken the loopy route that I arrived on, I become consumed with “the fear,” that my car will die like Mossy’s amp out here in B.F Idaho and I’ll get Wolf Creeked, no phone to save me. Chagrin persists for 45 minutes, until the next petrol station, where I stop to ask a toothy attendant if there’s any weird turns back south I should know about.

“Straight shot, pal,” he says. “But watch out for roos.”

“I’ll keep my eyes peeled,” I say.

Turns out I was on the Northern Highway all along. The B-75 takes me south straight and true. I breathe relief, and hug the lanes of the citybound Hume without a hitch.

Using the remaining 10% battery, I crank “Dharma Bums” where I left it, pulling into Carlton as Japhy and Ray come hurtling back down Matterhorn to mad yelps and hollers, home safe.

PART 2: “The Boss” Coming soon.

***

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