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Television at MONA live music review: Art rock meets rock art

Show reviews

MONA, Hobart
November 1

No wonder it took Television so long to make it to Australia – they had no idea how to find it.

"Until a couple of hours ago we thought Hobart was 30 miles north of Sydney," frontman Tom Verlaine said at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania on Friday night. They were the first words the notoriously grumpy singer and guitarist spoke to the audience, and they came about 40 minutes into a show that consisted of just 10 songs and a little under 90 minutes of complex interweaving guitar tunes. They were also his last.

It's doubtful, though, that anyone left feeling they'd been cheated. This was a great show, in a stunning (if somewhat challenging) venue, and quite possibly worth the 40-year wait.

Television formed in New York in 1973, became the house band at CBGB's (the legendary venue in lower Manhattan that gave the likes of Blondie, The Ramones and Talking Heads some of their earliest gigs) the following year, and released their first album, Marquee Moon, in 1977. The classic line-up included Richard Lloyd on second guitar, Billy Ficca on drums and Fred Smith on bass. Only Lloyd – who has had an ugly falling out with Verlaine – was not here for the band's first Australian tour.

His replacement, Jimmy Rip, has been playing live with Television since 2007 and he has the Lloyd parts down pat. Often, they are the true leads of the songs, though it's always been Verlaine – with his gaunt angular beauty, his obscurely poetic lyrics and his free-form jazz-surf-rock hybrid licks – who grabbed the lion's share of the attention and fan worship.


Live, Verlaine is an enigma. He still sings in the high, reedy register of his youth – at 63, he appears to be in remarkably good shape – but his vocals are often indistinct, thanks not just to the opaque lyrics but also some dubious microphone technique. His guitar playing too is sometimes brilliant, occasionally a little less so. Rip's intricate, technically proficient playing only highlights how important Lloyd was to the mix.

At the Release the Bats (All Tomorrow's Parties) festival in Melbourne a week earlier the band had played Marquee Moon in its entirety; here, they played six of its eight tracks and a few from their not exactly extensive wider catalogue. They opened with Moon's Prove It, kicked into the magnificent Glory (from the rather under-appreciated second album, Adventure) and hit full stride with Little Johnny Jewel, their debut single from 1975.

Ficca and Smith laid down a powerful backing groove that allowed the duelling heroics of Verlaine and Rip to flow sublimely. The stage was set up in front of Julius Popp's water sculpture (sadly not operating at the time) in the basement of MONA, in a void at the end of a hallway 70 metres long and 10 metres wide. With a sandstone rock face on one side and three tiers of concrete balconies on the other, it was as if they were playing in a ravine, but the sound was good, with a surprising lack of echo or angularity.

The set built, inevitably, towards the title track from Marquee Moon, rightly regarded by many as the band's finest moment. They finished, walked off, and then returned for the song's coda, the album's studio trickery brought brilliantly to life and even amplified. Then they walked off again. The one-song encore, Friction, was terrific but barely enough.

It was fitting that Television played in a gallery; though so often described as a "punk" band, they really fit more into the art-rock stream. And like the sandstone wall against which they played, their belated appearance in this part of the world may have had its flaws but it was also both monumental and magnificent.

Twitter: @karlkwin

This was a great show, in a stunning (if somewhat challenging) venue, and quite possibly worth the 40-year wait.

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