Perhaps even more compelling than the phenomenon of a successful Australian band which sings exclusively about beards is the question: what kind of man goes to see such a band perform? The atmosphere before a show is often more interesting than the show itself, and Friday night’s performance by The Beards at Bondi Junction’s Jam Gallery was certainly so.
Unsurprisingly, people here have beards. And not beards that go with skin-tight maroon button-up plaid shirts and subtle ear-studs; these are beards that go with scruffy t-shirts, blue jeans, and bombastic voices. In a different room, the t-shirts would feel lazy, but here they are deliberate – a defiant refusal to comply with the foppery of a fashion-conscious world. Many are adorned with slogans. “No beard, no good,” reads one. “You should consider having sex with a bearded man,” another (the title of one of The Beards’ more popular songs). And many are emblazoned with a stylised beard above a pair of crossed straight razors, and the proudly bold words “Sydney Facial Hair Club”. There are few women in the audience, and most have quite obviously been dragged here by enthusiastically hirsute partners.
It is difficult to tell where the fervour ends and the jocular irony begins. I befriend a tall man with wide, friendly eyes and a dense, well-kept, blonde beard. Simon is from the small town of Skellefteå (pronounced “she-left-you”) in northern Sweden, and works in construction and demolition. He speaks with an earnest manner which seems to constantly vacillate between friendliness and bewilderment. Simon generally keeps a beard. Sometimes, he is forced to shave it off by an employer, such as when a dusty job requires him to wear a respirator. But he hasn’t shaved since November, and he has a respectable growth to show for it. He doesn’t understand the scarcity of facial hair in Australia, he tells me. In Sweden, nobody thinks twice about having a beard, but here, “it’s a statement”. A tall, blonde woman walks by, and briefly grasps his beard as she passes. “See?” he says. “She just stopped and touched my face. That never happens at home. Never ever. It’s so great.”
The Beards have an energetic stage presence, and many of their lyrics seem deliberately absurd. I wonder if they are actually trying to say anything, or if it’s all just a one-trick gag that got away from them. Some of it is simple old-school he-man posturing – girls wanting to have sex with the lead singer is a repeated theme; girls being denied sex with the lead singer because of an insufficient adoration of beards, almost equally prevalent.
But much of The Beards’ performance is clearly an avoiding, perhaps even a subversion, of the low-hanging tropes of manliness. A song from their upcoming “The Beard Album” insists that they like neither sex nor sports nor beer; merely beards. Band members will caress each other’s beards on stage, and rub their beards together. At times, the lead singer or base guitarist will lean forward into the crowd, inviting the eagerly-willing fans to fondle his beard.
The entire experience feels like a magnificent demonstration of the mechanics of in-groups, especially as I’ve unwisely shaved only two days earlier. For a couple of surreal hours, I am transported to an eerie yet didactic world, where the solitary relevant factor – that which divides Us from Them – ceases to be race or religion or wealth or geography. All that matters is beards, and I don’t have one.
I haven’t shaved since the concert.