Amongst the graffiti-filled stairwells of a Surry Hills apartment block is Hibernian House, a surprisingly hospitable venue. Walk through a pokey hallway and you will find an expansive, high-ceilinged room with exposed pipes, windows along two-thirds of the walls, cushions on the floor and a small, well-lit space against one wall that serves as a stage.
When I got there the place was chock-a-block. On stage was a lap steel guitar, three beautiful semi-acoustic guitars, a large ukulele, a drum kit with a wonderfully cut cymbal that spiralled towards the floor, and seven half-empty cups of tea.
Suddenly everyone stopped talking, as TonkSGreen stepped on stage. Syd picked up the lap steel and laid it across his knees. With a nod from Matt, he gently slid the metal gizmo over the strings, pulling a haunting, bluesy refrain across the peaceful awe of us onlookers.
Syd built the refrain, working little licks around a main idea—thickening the texture, solidifying the pulse. Matt started singing, adding a confident, heartfelt melody. The microphone caught every nuance and dip of his vocals, allowing him the freedom to shout, whisper, grumble and pitch into airy falsettos.
Syd encouraged wonderful noises from the kit and an assortment of percussion toys. The two friends acted like a single being, relaxing into that state between nerves and confidence that propels clear, unthinking focus.
As the song finished, the respectful quiet burst like a dam into one huge crash of applause. This excitement lasted throughout the hour-long set, though bums quickly went numb on the wooden floorboards.
The second song, called ‘Horse’s Head’, was about being careful of prospective partners and their potentially awful relatives. People swayed and bopped their heads to the upbeat music and the morbid lyrics. This time, the applause was possibly louder than for the song before.
Matt was a little self-conscious about the awkward breaks between songs. After the applause died down, he re-tuned his guitar and praised a police siren hurtling past the window for being a “well-timed tuning distraction”.
The next song, ‘Oliver Wins’, was about Matt’s son. It immediately made sense that Matt was a loving father: his practical Blundstones, faded jeans and political T-shirt all spoke of a man who seemed to deal in the facts of being a musician supporting a family, and who wouldn’t trade those facts for anything.
The set progressed in a similarly emotive vein: ‘Mary’s Bells’, a sweet ballad about falling in love with Sydney again (the city, not one half of TonkSGreen), ‘Go to Ground’, a cascade of bluegrass hammer-ons, and devilish fingerpicking from Matt, and ‘Virginia’, an anthem with long, catchy choruses hollered by Syd and Matt in unison.
There was a pervading spaciousness in their music that gave weight to every percussive jingle and fingerpicked melody. I was spellbound throughout.
After the last song, the applause didn’t stop. I shouted “Encore!” and the cry was taken up, the applause accelerated into a roar. Poor Matt and Syd had no choice. They turned on their heels and sat right back down again.