I did a few narrative style shows at the Butterfly Club in the early 2000s.
It’s a small theatre showroom that used to inhabit a Victorian house in South Melbourne and has now flown into town where it has landed inside a narrow four storey building that fronts onto Collins street between Swanston and Elizabeth. Incredibly, the rent is cheaper in the new address!
There are several bars across several levels. A bit of a carnival fantasy world, all sense of direction is lost as soon as you enter the building, (through an alleyway off of Little Collins street). The building is full of all sorts of bric a brac – books and stuffed animals and old 78 record players as well as board games and posters of everybody from Schwarzenegger to George V. A great joint. (The owners transported a lot the items to the new location via the tram that goes straight down Clarendon street into Collins street in the city)
My third show (Early Folk. It folllowed POINT BLANK and LIVE IN HELL) was an experiment in early opening. A 6pm start and I was greatly heartened by the public’s appreciation of the idea. Big, sophisticated cities need early entertainment options! Screw all that dumb diehard rock’n’roll bullshit! Go to a show and then walk outside at 8pm to decide what to do next! A game of squash? Why Sure?! A sauna? Yes please! Dinner and a late movie? Do it!
The club is still a bit of a secret to people who tread the familiar paths to established venues which operate at regular times. (Not that the club closes early- it has several different shows most nights and loves any kind late night loosening of people minds) I mean to say its hard to find out about it and what goes on in there. During my run there I espied a performer of interest to me who was coming down from Sydney to do a rare Melbourne show. It was Mic Conway who, decades ago , entered the straying public consciousness as the long haired but deep voiced singer of The Captain matchbox Whoopee Band. A true troupe of freakish brothers from the wilder depths and shores of underground Melbourne music and performance. they crossed boundaries and all manner of manners as to what an act could be doing and saying. Not that I ever saw them perform- just a mere glimpse of them destroying the joint that was the tv show COUNTDOWN one Sunday evening. Even then , they may have been past their prime, things moving much quicker in the world of entertainment in those days. (By way of illustration, I heard the drummer of Metallica talking about Creams drummer Ginger Baker in a film called “beware Mr Baker” and he said that Creams entire career lasted two months less than his bands last tour….) Luckily, I had seen them via an even earlier ABC show called GTK which transmitted their true freakdom to the bush and the far cities in a very sensitive manner)
So on the Sunday following my own season I sat down with Clare Moore to watch Mic do a show in the same room, on the other side of the footlights.
The Butterfly Club showroom fits roughly 80 people and is run like a small theatre. Very formal. An usher walks through the bars and lounges ringing a bell to signify the show is to start and people take their seats- no latecomers allowed!
Given the room is so small, many performers opt to work without a microphone at all- singing straight into the room. Even though its small, this can be very demanding on a performers pipes and they must choose the material carefully. Mic came out with his accompanist, Rob “daddy long legs” Long, on archtop electric guitar and began the show. He used no microphone. Mic used no mic- just Mic!
His voice is a classic, rich and deep and sonorous. they began the show.
I once read a book about the legendary star Louise Brooks and she talked about how it was a shame no film ever really captured the comic genius of WC FIELDS because they didn’t show his whole body. She had worked with him a lot on the stage and said he was comic in the totality of his movement. His face and his voice were funny but the whole package was the best. He moved funny.
Mic Conway has this. His clothes are perfectly dusty and the collar all skew whiff and drunk. A cummerbund, a funny hat to begin. His side of the stage was like a shop and he kept diving into the pile of props and bags to bring out another marvel. We laughed from beginning to end. He does magic tricks and tells the corniest of gags and lays it all out, the show I mean, with the ease and timing of an absolute confidence man.
He played a parlour sized steel guitar with Hawaiian dancers painted on the back and a ukulele. He put a harmonica rack around his neck which included a kazoo, several whistles, a couple of bird calls, and a jug as well as the harmonica. No turn was unstoned.
There were others in his generation, across many countries, who appeared in that counter cultural fog of the 60s and 70s. Tiny Tim and Robert Crumb to name a couple. They appeared among the freaks. People assumed they were put-ons or flim flam artists - fakes. Time moved on and the freaky crowd settled down and these characters stayed the same. They were for real, that was the freakiest thing!
Robbie Long was the perfect accompanist, vamping on chords and licks as Mic pulled off elaborate sight gags and card tricks, pulled faces and joined in on the mad stories with yells and cries into the room. Absolutely magic entertainment skills. He played a beautiful old archtop through a tiny Vox amp. Splendidly.
Mic drew on songs from Bing Crosby’s early repertoire “street of dreams” , Tom Lehrer “masochism tango” and Marlene Dietrich “illusions” as well as the beautifully sophisticated and bitter sweet “paper moon”. He played a song called “lets incorporate” and mentioned it was from “the last depression- nobody heard it then – I don’t know why- I’ve only ever liked stuff nobody knows about…” He touched on songs from his Matchbox past with “my canary has circles under his eyes”, explaining it was a song from the twenties when people gave marijuana to their pet birds!
The whole show was a display of skills in every area. Then there was the innate charisma and persona of the performer. It has struck me several times, seeing a player in front of a crowd where they have a sense of him or her in their minds before a word is uttered or a note is played. The performer is already there, walking across their minds. He had us moving with him from the beginning.
Mic moved through all these songs and changes. Hats and clothes and props and tricks. His voice stayed constant. He has an easy smile and world weary, hooded eyes. A light, knowing touch on every note. No heavy trips here. Sometimes he looked like the oldest entertainer in vaudeville, other times, he was a timeless hero from the youth of the known world. He was there with all this stuff before AC/DC and before Cold Chisel. Probably playing in the same joints. He seriously has the blues. I mean that as the highest compliment. He seemed surprised but delighted this hammy stuff still worked. He liked it!, nobody else was supposed to! He smiled easily, like Nick Cave, from a long way away.
They ended with “I don’t want to set the world on fire” and he apologized for the lack of fire eating and flame throwing. Regulations forbid it in the venue. He didn’t need the hell here. He played the room in a supersized, classic, pre electric mode. If you ever see him posterized as to an upcoming visit- see him!