I’d seen Tex Don & Charlie perform a few times prior to their Factory Theatre gig in Marrickville last week; twice in 1993 when they’d just formed, and again to a packed house at the Hopetoun in Surry Hills in 2003. Fourteen years later, the group had sold out the larger Factory Theatre over three consecutive nights, confirming their enduring popularity and appeal as they tour Australia for the first time in over a decade.
Something of a mini-super group, the band comprises of Tex Perkins (Cruel Sea, Beasts of Bourbon), Charlie Owen (Divinyls, Beasts of Bourbon), and Don Walker (Cold Chisel, Catfish), with extra musicians guesting on double bass, drums, and at this recent gig a pedal steel guitar. Tex Don & Charlie weren’t particularly popular to begin with. Being a huge Don Walker fan I didn’t miss the opportunity to see them live as soon as they started gigging together back in 1993-95. The venues they played in back then were small and the audiences subdued; I got the feeling that most of the audience were there to see Tex Perkins who was trailing hot from his time in the Beasts of Bourbon and Cruel Sea. Cold Chisel remained coolly submerged from the fashionable zone in the early nineties and Charlie’s fine skill as a guitarist was known only to fellow musicians and dedicated fans.
Almost twenty-five years later we find audiences singing along to both the newer and older songs, revelling in the pleasure of music made by three great performers and songsmiths who work just damn wonderfully together. Tex Perkins is an exceptional front-man; he’s tall, gravelly-voiced, articulate and theatrical. His once trademark swarthy, aggressive stage manner has refined itself with age. He’s a little more composed and dignified now without in any way affecting his characteristic stage presence and innate theatricality, on the contrary he is now performing better than ever. Don Walker is rightfully respected and loved by audiences, and Charlie Owen is seen as an integral musical and personal force as he weaves his way with a variety of guitars around the songs of Don Walker and Tex Perkins. Fittingly, the first album they made together back in 1993, Sad but True, is now universally regarded as one of the great albums of the Australian music canon.
The group played a mixture of songs mostly from their first and most recent third album, You Don’t Know Lonely. The songs from their latest release are brought to vivid life in a live context when compared to the understated, skeletal tone of the album. These are reflective, almost world-weary pieces that resonate well with middle-aged folk, sounding refreshingly vibrant when performed live.
The band started with something quite familiar. ‘Redheads, Goldcards and long black limousines’ is the opening track of Sad but True and was sung by both Tex and Don over alternating verses. It’s a great opener and introduces us to the concert with a fitting line, “…I’ve been in and out of trouble, mainly in…”. ‘Man in conflict with nature’ showcases a fine lyric from Tex who is himself a fine storyteller. “…I got myself three hookers, and some sushi…” was easily the most memorable line here, and all the more satisfying when ‘taxi’ was used to rhyme with ‘sushi’.
‘Danielle’ was featured early on in the set. This is one of Don Walker’s Ray Charles flavoured, jazz-blues signature tunes that had been adapted from a Chisel song ‘Janelle’ and re-recorded by Tex, Don & Charlie for Sad but True. This version had Don swapping his lead vocal with Tex, mirroring the Chisel version which had Ian’s lead vocal swapping half way with Jimmy Barnes’. Of the four, Tex probably sings it the best with his warm, commanding baritone, and Don for that matter as composer is not quite the singer that the other three are, but no matter: ‘Danielle’ is a musical and lyrical delight and was a set highlight.
Don and Tex swapped places on stage for ‘Harry was a bad bugger’ which featured Tex theatrically carving out single note motifs on the piano, underpinned by Charlie’s understated guitar. This song of a racketeering, notorious crim called “Harry” managed in its four minutes to eek out the terrain of the entire Underbelly series. Musically sparse though lyrically detailed, ‘Harry was a bad bugger’ was delivered with a poetic precision that once again showcased Don Walker’s unique talents as a songwriter.
Tex commandeered his acoustic guitar on a number of songs including ‘Fake that emotion’ from Sad but True. This is one of Tex’s better-known tunes from Tex Don & Charlie, and the song elicited an enthusiastic response. The band overall gave a committed performance and engaged in some laid-back on-stage banter, particularly Tex. The audience in turn delighted in the songs, the performance, and the band’s easy camaraderie and humour on stage. And they got their money’s worth with the main act playing for almost two hours.
The final song performed prior to the encore was Don Walker’s ‘Sitting in a bar’ from Sad but True. The guest musicians left the stage at this point and for the first time we witness only the three men on stage, Charlie, Tex, and Don. This song encapsulated everything that is great about the band: Don’s compositional genius and storytelling mastery, Tex’s singing and showmanship and Charlie’s deft musicianship. The audience loved it and laughed and spurred on the singer as he approached those iconic lines, “…I’m sitting in a bar doing lift-home deals, with the last two drinkers in the skirt and high heels, one of them’s a girl, the other one…I’m not so sure…”. These lines surprised audiences in 1993, but in 2017 the audience at large know the song well, laughing and anticipating Tex’s customary send-up as he came to sing those lines.
‘Sitting in a bar’ could be set anywhere, ostensibly Kings Cross, but reads also as an indictment of empty lives centred around far-flung, nowheresville, landlocked suburban pubs where Friday nights are met with “the usual bender in mind, a wet week’s end” and a “cold grey Saturday coming in under the door”, fleeting romantic prospects so that “I’m making eyes at the floor” and a midnight meal that’s “coming alive” at “half-past five” when I’m “half alive”.
The band finished their encores with ‘Postcard from Elvis’, written by Smotherman/Ehmig and featured on Sad but True. It was a fitting ending to a superb concert, with the band jamming out heartily to the song’s calypso-like coda. Tex by this point had cracked open a beer and sung out the refrains with his own improvised melodies, losing himself in this terrific home-cooked musical corroboree.
Tex, Don and Charlie appear to get together about once every twelve years. These guys are wonderful musicians with their own unique flavour and appeal. Let’s hope their next album and tour comes along a lot sooner than 2030.