Live: Howlin’ Steam Train @ Elsternwick Hotel – 23/08/13

Howlin’ Steam Train had their work cut out for them at the Elsternwick Hotel on Friday night, having to compete with pinball machines, pool tables and Collingwood vs West Coast on the big screen for audience attention. In the end, they didn’t end up competing but contributing to the pub experience. Some microphone issues delayed the start of the gig by ten minutes and immediately made it difficult to give the guys your undivided attention. In the meantime, the band settled into a wah-pedal-infused blues jam that set the groove for the night and gave the audience the entertainment they expected.When the proper songs got underway, we were introduced to a tight and exuberantly lively quartet, anchored by Yan’s relentless drumming, yowling backing vocals and Leigh Stone’s burning bass line. While the rhythm section got people’s feet and fingers tapping, Boots’ (guitar, vocals) reverb-laden, one-note lead lines were so catchy you couldn’t help but sing them back to him. Effectively, people who weren’t treating the guys as background music had been reduced to a bopping, humming jukebox of their set list.As the guys steamed through their mash up of rockabilly, blues, soul and country songs, I got the feeling they’d fit the scene perfectly in any pub in Australia. The train-like beat and songs about bushrangers (Captain Thunderbolt) made me feel like I was in the bush, and with their complete disregard for the letter ‘g’ in both their band and song names (“Ain’t Comin’ Home”, “Ramblin’ Man”), Howlin’ Steam Train encapsulate the free and easy spirit that you head to a pub for.By the time Teddy McLaughlin (guitar, vocals) got out the harmonica and Boots was beating a tambourine astride his amp, Howlin’ Steam Train were right at home, having a rollicking good time on stage. They’d also managed to attract the attention of more pub-goers, helped a bit by the footy ending on TV.The band ended their set as they began it: with a jam. It began with Yan showcasing his skills as a drummer, indiscriminately thumping every drum within his reach — Inspector Gadget style — before the rest of the band joined in, sticking religiously to one key and each getting their turn at improvising solos.I left the building with the impression that Howlin’ Steam Train is one of those bands that get its appeal from not being that well known. While there are some moments of their show worth giving your full attention to, they’re just as compelling if you treat them as part of the overall pub scene, providing the perfect soundtrack to your Friday night out with mates. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t be paid for what they do (though this particular gig was free), but it’d be a shame if they achieved a higher level of popularity if it meant losing their flair for playing for smaller Alexander Darling

August 29th 2013
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