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DAVE JOHNSTONE @ Badlands Bar gets 8/10


Dave Johnstone @ Badlands Bar

w/ The Leap Year, Lonesome Dove
Friday, July 8, 2022

8/10

Ammonia were arguably one of Perth’s greatest musical exports. A talented group that achieved much success in a small time, and broke up too soon. The group are still held in high regard by 90s Aus music fans – as evidenced by two of their tracks appearing in RTRFM’s 45 Greatest WA Songs list. Starting in 1992, the three-piece quickly became local legends with their melodic take on the grunge sound, gaining heavy triple j support, before releasing their classic debut album Mint 400 in 1995 to much acclaim, then touring the world until calling it quits after their second album, with a final show at Perth Big Day Out in 1999.   

In the mid-90s, as Nirvana and grunge were taking over the world, Ammonia were the first band signed to Sony Australia’s influential Murmur label – the second band was Silverchair, and the roster also included Something For Kate and Jebediah. There were high hopes for Ammonia as they broke into the US market, getting major support, tours, and radio airplay – particularly with their catchy hit, Drugs, which they wrote as a throwaway song in five minutes during rehearsal, but then became what they were most known for.

It was both a blessing and a curse, as they became pigeonholed, despite having a wider scope. Their underrated sophomore album Eleventh Avenue failed to match expectations, and as quickly as they exploded on the scene, they disappeared – burning out after a non-stop six-year ride. The band went their separate ways. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Dave Johnstone, ended up re-skilling in IT and settling down, whilst occasionally playing in the odd band.  

A few years ago, the Melbourne-based, mild-mannered family man Johnstone grew restless, and was inspired by the renewed interest in 90s Australian bands. So he decided to recruit a couple of mates on bass and drums, and dust off some old tunes. He had so much fun, he decided he wanted to play some shows. Then just as he was about to embark on a tour, COVID hit and everything was cancelled. Thankfully a couple of years later, Dave still has the renewed passion to play, and after some shows over east, he finally made it back to Perth for his first show playing these songs in a very long time… 

Lonesome Dove

There was some solid support on the night, starting with Lonesome Dove. Their two-pronged, girl-guy lead vocal attack kept things dynamic, exchanging songs, with a real retro alt-rock vibe and sound, that belied their youth. A well suited act to start the night. Some songs featured three-way vocal melodies with the bass player along with some big distorted, Smashing Pumpkins-esque lead guitar merging into an epic finale of guitar noise. Burning Bridges is a great tune with a wicked riff, soaked in 90s goodness, reminiscent of acts like Belly. These guys have good songs, guitar riffs and stage presence. They could perhaps work on their stage banter, but there is loads of potential for Lonesome Dove to take flight. 

The Leap Year

The Leap Year followed on and took things down a notch, with some great laidback melodic indie rock, with a low slung guitar attack, keyboards and a tight rhythm section. The loud/quiet dynamic and winding instrumental passages of layered, almost shoe-gazey guitar, made them seem perhaps a bit mellow, dark and moody a support at times, but the veteran Perth band are an accomplished live act and provided a great interlude and broke up the two more upfront, in your face bands. With dry, self-deprecating banter, they thanked Lonesome Dove for a great set, and said “We were just an afterthought really… We’ve got a couple more numbers… We’re an act, and we play numbers.”

There were some nice moments where things all came together with complex guitar interplay and waves of dense, heavy harmonics with the two vocalists. Slow breakdowns and changes of pace, falling into the lull of gently picked notes and slow, urging bass lines with spatterings of drums. They did their job well, to not steal Dave’s thunder with anything too big and brash, leaving the crowd ready for the main act to pick things up a level. 

Dave Johnstone

There was great anticipation in the air – random strangers were exchanging fabled Ammonia tales in the toilets (“Man, it was 25 years ago their last show!” “Did you see that gig at Planet Nightclub?” “I went to school with Dave! He was always a great guitarist”) The mostly older and somewhat cautious crowd had crept slightly closer to the stage. While numbers had grown since earlier in the night to loosely fill the multi-tiered venue, it was a little disappointing there wasn’t a bigger, more-packed mosh pit, like the old days, for such a grand occasion as Johnstone’s Ammonia return, but by the time Dave Johnstone took the stage and launched into his upbeat, heavy rock riffery, the crowd were well up for it. 

Dave Johnstone

Taking to the stage sporting a beard and glasses, he looked more school teacher than rock star – but as soon as the familiar opening chords to Ken Carter sparkled out of his Marshall stack, and his voice kicked in, sounding remarkably youthful and evergreen, cheers rang out and trepidation was replaced by excitement! It was some kind of time-warp magic trick, transporting us all back to those heady days, and as you were swept up in the music and the moment, it was like not a day had gone by… apart from the fact everyone looked 30 years older.

Ken Carter, named after the notorious, crazy Canadian stunt driver, is still an absolute belter of a tune, one of Johnstone’s best, and he didn’t waste any time going from that straight into Drugs. Getting it out of the way early. It still sounds greater live than on record, with its wall of guitar fuzz, but as any true Ammonia fan would tell you, they have numerous better songs!

Dave Johnstone

Lucky No. 3 was up next – a track from their very first EP In A Box, from 1994. Adding to the occasion, there were interesting little sounds and samples triggered in-between songs as interludes. Strange noises, old film sounds and dialogue, even morse code. The band themselves sounded great, tight and well rehearsed. They make a big sound for a three-piece. Dave showed off his chops with some searing lead guitar, and big instrumental breaks. With his new bass guitarist stepping into the role providing the prominent, heavy, rattling bass lines that were a signature part of the Ammonia sound. 

Baby Blue and Keep On My Side from Eleventh Avenue both sounded great, but when the bass twang at the start of In A Box kicked in, it seemed to finally really get people going, enticing them onto the dance floor, and the energy in the room lifted a notch.

Dave Johnstone

Finishing the set with a big couple of latter day Ammonia singles You’re Not The Only One Who Feels This Way and Sleepwalking ended things with a bang, as they left the stage to big cheers. Returning after a short break, Dave finally said a few words! Even on such an auspicious occasion, he barely said a word all night, but let the music do the speaking. Though the crowd offered some heartfelt applause when he said “It’s nice to be home.” 

A short encore was finished off climatically with one their most underrated tracks, Satin Only, which was a single that ended up being included as a hidden track at the end of Eleventh Avenue. A cult fave, it rocks out with a scorching solo at the end that’s so ferocious it could easily be a Nirvana outtake.  

A highly enjoyable, nostalgic trip, yet one that showed just how well most of the songs stand up after all these years. It was a great, career spanning set, including some new solo material – all the die-hards could have wanted was perhaps one or two more fan faves like Suzi Q, but hopefully it won’t be another 20 odd years before we see Johnstone tour again, and maybe even see the release of some new material. Hopefully the word will get out to more fans, old and new, to give this WA legend an even bigger welcome home next time. 

Words and photos by 

ALFRED GORMAN 

 

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