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Adelaide’s twilight Tea Party, 20 years on

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Two decades ago, Canadian trio The Tea Party closed Adelaide’s Fringe festival with a gig that has become part of local live music folklore. Ahead of the band’s return this week, Tom Richardson looks back on the original Edges of Twilight tour.

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Three albums in, the Tea Party truly found their sound in 1995.

Bass and keyboardist Stuart Chatwood describes the inception of The Edges of Twilight as the Canadian trio “trying to really expand the horizons of rock music”. Already boasting the sound and aura of classic Led Zeppelin fronted by a strumming Jim Morrison, the band infused their tunes ever further with eastern mysticism.

“This is the record that solidified that trademark sound, that mix of rock music with world music,” Chatwood tells InDaily, as he recalls recording the album at A&M studios in Los Angeles.

Artists in adjoining studios – such as Seal, and Neil Young and Pearl Jam, who were putting the finishing touches on their Mirror Ball collaboration – would stop by, fascinated by the eclectic array of world instruments – santoors, sarods, sitars, and tanpuras – arriving daily for the Tea Party’s sessions.

“We were young and naïve…we had no money and we blew the budget [on these instruments],” Chatwood says.

The album not only cemented the band’s sound, but also a dedicated fanbase; it went double platinum in their native land, and struck a resonant chord here.

“It was Top 20 for 18 weeks in Australia,” says Chatwood, “and we haven’t repeated that in our lives.”

But if the album is fondly remembered here, its status as a touchstone of its era was confirmed when the band hit the road.

…music fans here are a little less worried about what people think about them

Before the Garden of Unearthly Delights took out its March mortgage on the East End Parklands, The Tea Party helped Adelaide farewell the 1996 Fringe season with an open-air gig that those who attended still talk about in tones approaching hushed reverence.

Frontman Jeff Martin hovered above the crowd like a brooding diviner. At one point, he broke a guitar string, and changed it mid-strum, literally without missing a beat.

It was a sultry, still, late-summer night, emphasising the “down-the-rabbit-hole” enchantment of the Mad Hatter’s get-together recalled by the band’s name, and it infected all who took part, from the hordes that packed into the Parklands to the local bands on the bill.

These days, Peter Owen is the state director of the Wilderness Society, but back in ’96 he played drums with Adelaide’s one-time Next Big Thing, The Reckoning.

They took the stage, appropriately, as the edges of twilight collapsed into night, and Owen remembers feeling his bass-drum foot shaking with nervous anticipation.

“It was an amazing night,” he recalls now.

“Adelaide came out in force, the weather was perfect and the atmosphere in the Parklands was electric.

“It’s probably one of the strongest memories I have from playing with the Reckoning; I remember the huge crowd, it was a really balmy night…The Tea Party probably put on the best performance I’ve ever seen them put on, and it was a privilege to be part of that night.”

Indeed, the band’s retrospective website fondly reflects that it was like playing “in front of what seemed like the entire city of Adelaide”.

“It was such a still night,” says Owen.

“You could hear the sound going right through the Parklands…I remember the sound from the stage echoing back off the old Brewery [on Rundle Street]. For whatever reason, the bands that were up on stage that night really gelled, and the energy between the stage and the crowd…I can remember dead silence through some of the songs; you could hear a pin drop.”

The Reckoning used footage from their performance that night in their subsequent promo clip for single “Weird Kids”.

Andrew P. Street, now an author and Fairfax columnist, opened proceedings with his former outfit The Undecided.

“It was huge,” he tells InDaily.

“I just remember the size of the crowd, and also that we’d never been so far away from one another on stage. We had our own little caravan thing behind the stage, which we thought was the absolute height of made-it-ness.

“I’m pretty sure that we were too nervous to touch our rider before the show too, and by the time we got off stage it had been swiped – probably by Reckoning, let’s be honest. 

“And needless to say, the Tea Party were sensational.”

This week, the band returns to Australia following last month’s release of a “Deluxe 20th Anniversary Edition” of The Edges of Twilight.

Appropriately, it features tracks taken from an Australian performance, on Triple J’s Live at the Wireless. Aptly, too, the Adelaide show – on Thursday night at The Gov – was the first to sell out.

Along with other career highlights, the band will play their third album from start to finish, a conceit of many recent “comeback” tours, but one that emphasises the LP’s consistent quality.

“Being able to play records start to finish is awesome, because a lot of records now are filled with ‘filler’,” says Chatwood.

The production, like the tracks themselves, holds up. The album sounds not like a mid-90s curio, but “timeless”.

“I think a lot of bands got caught up in the grunge mode and…we didn’t get caught up in that,” says Chatwood.

“Our goal was always to get caught up in timeless music. Revisiting the album to relearn some of the songs, it was nice to hear it wasn’t dated; it wasn’t ‘90s-style production’.”

This is the Tea Party’s 15th tour of Australia, and the crowds keep coming back.

“I think music fans here are a little less worried about what people think about them,” ponders Chatwood.

He notes that artists of the ilk of the late Jeff Buckley, who toured Australia only weeks after the Tea Party’s March 1996 shows, were similarly clutched to antipodean hearts.

“He wasn’t nothing in America, but had less American success…but Jeff Buckley is a legend in Australia, and that’s sort of reflective of the music scene in Australia,” he says.

“People are really passionate about music. Every city in Australia just seems to have a passionate group of music fans that are not scared to love and embrace what we’re doing…they come to shows and, to use an Australian term, they go off.”

After Thursday night’s sold-out show at the Gov, the Tea Party play Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

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