One of the few displays of kindness between public figures that we’ve seen during this shit-storm of a pandemic was Russell Crowe’s tweet to Victoria’s embattled premier, Dan Andrews: “If you find yourself going through hell, just keep going.” That seems to be the kind of spirit, and thinking, behind “Songs from Behind the Viral Curtain”, the debut EP by Steve Banks and The Sidemen.
As the title suggests, this is the band’s creative response to COVID-19 and the harsh reality of lockdown, which is more brutal for musicians (and other artists) than it is for many other segments of the population, for the simple reason that the necessarily free-flowing working lifestyles of creative people mean that they may not qualify for income support mechanisms like JobKeeper.
The Sidemen—five grizzled musicians whose careers date back to big-name acts of the 1960s—have come out swinging, in every sense. Combining Banks’ humorous lyrics and soulful vocals with a musical authority that brooks no argument, this is a punchy, confident and highly accomplished EP made more remarkable by the fact that the musos recorded remotely from each other, in lockdown,
But the music is not their only way of pushing back against our current affliction: a share of the EP’s proceeds goes to music industry charity Support Act which provides, among other programmes, support specifically for musicians affected by COVID-19. Coming from veteran rockers who’ve probably seen every high and low of a musician’s life, the donation has a certain poignancy.
The EP, however, is significant for other reasons. When Banks launched The Sidemen as a live act in May 2019 the focus, understandably, was on each member’s musical life history and the famous acts and songs with which they will be forever associated. What’s interesting about the latest project is that it sees The Sidemen working with original material for the first time.
This opens up intriguing possibilities for the band’s future development, hints of which may (or may not) be present in each of the EP’s five songs.
SLIPPING EFFORTLESSLY BETWEEN STYLES
One of the great things about musicians with long careers behind them is the ease with which they can draw on so many different musical styles and traditions. The first track, “CV Blues”, is (as the sleeve notes acknowledge) a nod to Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” and draws a neat parallel between Minnie’s bohemian loucherie and the pariah status acquired by a certain Chinese bat.
But while Calloway’s song is, in part, a celebration of hedonistic nightlife, “CV Blues” (again, as noted on the sleeve) evokes a New Orleans funeral march with master-of-ceremonies Banks providing a gothic-horror-comic oration: “Take a bat with attitude—let’s not have this misconstrued: that bat, well, he done us wrong, this ain’t his redemption song.”
The horns, arranged by Paul Williamson (like co-producer and guitarist Jeff Burstin, formerly of The Black Sorrows), pick the song up and carry it, helped by some great piano fills from Bruce Haymes (also co-producer) and beautiful backing vocals from Martine Monro who, although technically a guest artist, puts her stamp on every track and forms an integral part of the EP’s overall sound.
And I can’t help feeling the song makes another nod to musical precedent in the way that most of the instruments fade at the end, leaving the horns to themselves for a few moments of glorious, alley-cat cacophony. Decades ago The Band did something similar in the middle of a song called—wait for it—“Chest Fever”. If the similarity is intentional, it’s clever; if it’s accidental, it’s spooky.
The Sidemen slip effortlessly into country mode with “12 Steps”, an upbeat number with tasteful, melodic fills from Burstin and Haymes, light-but-tight bass and drums (Greg Lyon and Grant Gerathy respectively) and seamless harmonies between Banks and Monro. The mood is deceptive, however, because, lyrically, this is the most affecting song on the EP.
It’s about addiction—or, rather, the sense of vertigo that troubles a former addict when he or she feels at risk of slipping back into old, bad habits: “I’ve been on the 12 steps to survival, I think I’m going in reverse: don’t want to let you down, don’t want to go back there, I can’t tell you which one is worse…”. And how many of us, in lockdown, haven’t felt tempted to drink and/or smoke more?
Part of the song’s power comes from a surprisingly effective narrative device. The song begins with the protagonist “walking sideways down the alley” feeling “I made a terrible mistake”, but then he wakes up “safe and sound beside you”. Far from being an anti-climax, the fact that he dreams his fears underlines, rather than diminishes, the intensity of the addict’s psychological struggle.
The remaining songs are less tied to the COVID-19 theme but no less effective or enjoyable for that. “Secrets on the Darker Side” is a warm piece of romantic nostalgia (teenage love, anyone?) in which all the musical elements—especially the guitars of Burstin and Rick Fenn, Haymes’ piano, and a tantalising vocal breakout by Monro—combine to leave you feeling youthful and optimistic again.
“Father/Son/HG” (as in Holy Ghost) has Banks in reflective, even philosophical, mood, ruminating about religion and the meaning of life. The last time I heard Banks get this deep and meaningful was on “Me, Innit”, a candidly introspective song on his solo album “Ordinary Man” (also produced by Burstin). Both songs ask deep questions about life, but only one of them really works.
The problem (as I see it) with “Father/Son/HG” is that it elaborates an opinion, rather than a state of mind. And no matter how much you might agree with the opinion (“What we need is a basic code to navigate this rocky road, not one guy—you might call him God—firing up his lightning rod”) it lacks the emotional persuasiveness of “Me, Innit”, which is based on a real internal psychodrama.
And so to the closing track, “Rooster in the Hen House,” an out-and-out rocker in which the horns are back and Burstin and Fenn give Keith Richards and Ron Wood a run for their money. A tale about sexual infidelity sung from the point of view of the gleefully unrepentant co-respondent, it just makes you want to play the EP again. And again.
WHERE TO NEXT?
If the songs do provide a pointer to The Sidemen’s future development, it’s that it could be in any direction they damned well pleased. There’s no doubting the credibility, capability and versatility of musicians like these; the only question is where these attributes will take them, once they (and we) are free to live our normal lives again.
God knows what these guys will do when they finally get into a studio together….
 Steve Banks, vocals; Bruce Haymes (The Paul Kelly Band, worked with Renee Geyer and Archie Roach); Jeff Burstin (The Black Sorrows, Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons); Greg Lyon(The Hip Operation, Georgie Fame, Crossfire, Doug Parkinson and many more); Grant Gerathy (former drummer from John Butler Trio, has worked with Pete Murray); Rick Fenn (guitarist from 10cc, worked with Jack Bruce from Cream, Mike Oldfield, Peter Green); special guest vocalist Martine Monroe (Bodacious Cowboys).