The Sleepy Jackson

by James Bean

23 November 2004


The Sleepy Jackson

I heard beforehand, from a reliable source, that an exercise bicycle had been ordered for the gig. I’m unfit, so I ought not to comment, but what an unpromising prop! Borrow a three-necked guitar from Steve Vai. Order fireworks in bulk. Commission Tommy Emmanuel and insist he only plays an SG through a double Marshall stack. Book Paul Oakenfold and Sasha, then cancel at the last minute.

The Sleepy Jackson

22 Oct 2004: Hifi Bar — Melbourne, Australia

But a bicycle? Please.

Young Luke Steele, the brains and chops behind the Sleepy Jackson, opened the gig with an epic guitar twang-fest—no bass—and a litany of ‘80s-era, stratospheric hooks. Careening away from this sonic onslaught, I foundnd myself swept off, thinking about how Phil Collins was probably one of the best singer-drummers ever, and then…. Then? Then, from the upper altitudes, Steele & company plummeted 37,000 feet into a rootsy Neil Young-inspired jam, skimming over the swamp grass, vocals fluttering with hokum flourish.

It was about as subtle as oxygen masks descending from the cabin roof. And believe me, I needed oxygen. Genre-atrophy. Between the white-hot, ‘80s confectionery and them good ol’ boys playing their yee-haw music, my aural musculature was melting away.

I looked around for a rebuttal, but the un-shrugged shoulders, dead eyes, and limp body language told plenty. The punters were borderline, non-committal, visibly unimpressed. Were it not for Steele and his new guitarist remonstrating their audience into several reticent applauses the gig would have remained narcoleptic. No arms in the air, no cries of “woo!”, no requests, nothing but regret running through our minds.

The Sleepy Jackson is like your average record collection. A misshapen assortment of moods and whims assembled at different times, it’s more a testimony to its owner’s aspirations than to where he’s really at, will be, or really ever was. Between the record dividers, rickety racks, dust jackets and the thin gauze of dust that descends from only God knows where, a primordial slime lies dormant. Often, artists’ albums no more resemble the inner workings of their conscience, the waveform of their minds, or the grasping nature of whim than the collection of these albums.

The better artists shuck the pearls out from beneath this slime and muck, work them into some semblance of a theme. Dare I say it, inasmuch as you have to deejay your own collection, an artist must deliberate carefully over his albums and live performances with a modicum of groove and the merest whiff of vibe.

It was this aspect of Sleepy Jackson that was most disconcerting and off-putting. The labile nature of the gig and the about-faces from one genre to the next bespoke a lack of empathy for the audience. A hurried, desperate-to-please style is normally the province of the amateur or rookie musician, whereas the abrupt departures and sudden descents Luke Steele seeks to achieve are the province of the rock ‘n’ roll elite. One earns this sort of mastery; it’s not God-given. Back to the drawing room, coyote.

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