For every band that has made a successful and sustained career out of performing and recording in this country, there are hundreds of bands who, despite setting out with the same aspirations, talent and energy, did not get the chance to jump on the rock and roll train to eternal fame.
Yet, without the foundation that was built by so many of these bands toiling through gigs in front of modest crowds of half-interested punters at a thousand unglamorous pubs, clubs, youth centres and local fetes, Australia would not have been able to nurture those bands who did make it through to the top tier.
You only have to look at the ridiculous prices many one-off vinyl singles by long-overlooked acts are commanding at present to realise that people have come to realise that these bands, despite their lack of commercial success, produced some of the most vital and historically fascinating sounds of their eras, and that a new appreciation for their contribution to our national culture has emerged.
Adelaide band, Buffalo Drive, flirted with ‘making it big’ during their four year lifespan in the early seventies. They released a couple of singles locally before being signed to Polydor, a major label, where they released a few more 45s under the band’s name and one under their ensuing moniker, Fair Dinkum.
One single, Life’s Been Good To Me, charted in the Top Ten in Adelaide back in 1972, but the band could not sustain the impetus of this modest success and soon disappeared into the annals of local music history unable to afford or sustain a more concerted push to the next level.
Close to fifty years on, and still good mates, Buffalo Drive decided to reform in 2020 to do some shows around town but COVID concerns scuppered those initial plans. The band persevered though, and have finally had the opportunity to present their show The Evolution Of Buffalo Drive at this year’s Fringe.
Their three-hour show comprises three sets, all of which are distinctly different in character, as the band works through their collective musical histories.
The first set focusses on their origins as they emerged out of a high school House band as The Henchmen (not to be confused with the contemporaneous and more successful Melbourne band of the same name!) who then jumped on the folk music bandwagon of the early sixties. They were heavily influenced at the time by acts such as the American vocal group The Highwaymen, and our own mega-successful folkies, The Seekers.
The first set was impressive for the surprisingly high quality of the band’s vocal harmonies. Despite the average age of the band being somewhere in the low to mid-seventies, all of their voices are still clear and powerful and they combined beautifully on early Highwaymen hits such as March On Brothers and The Gypsy Rover.
The set also contained a smattering of gospel songs, rockabilly and anti-Vietnam protest songs – one of the latter category actually having won them a final on Channel 10’s local talent show, New Faces, back in the day!
The Henchmen subsequently morphed into a more rock and pop outfit named Genesis (not to be confused with the contemporaneous and more successful British band of the same name who had formed around the same time!) and this period of the band was represented by covers of songs by The Beatles, The Seekers, Tim Rose and Roger Miller. The band also delivered one original composition, Photograph, to serve as an appealing taster for more of the original songs that would come to dominate their next phase as Buffalo Drive.
The second set featured a fairly extensive run-through of the band’s recorded output, and this diverse collection of A & B-sides from their singles confirmed that it was only bad luck that stopped them from achieving a bigger breakthrough when these songs were first released.
Both sides of their first single, Jumpin’ Judy and Fortunate Fella, both stand up as being just as good as any other straight-ahead rock songs released in their era, and Wooloomooloo Lulu and Raw Prawn Polka still deliver the manic energy and fun they were originally imbued with.
The covers the band chose during this era also displayed a growing youthful confidence and musical sophistication within the band – so much so they attempted to emulate The Beach Boys and The Four Tops vocal artistry.
A tasteful cover of John Phillips’ classic, Mississippi, was another highlight of the centrepiece set.
The last bracket started with some of the later Polydor singles like Money Stride and both sides of their biggest hit, the rollicking Life’s Been Good To Me and its classy flipside, Security Woman.
Life’s Been Good To Me was obviously affectionately remembered by the near full-house crowd who all sang along, unable to repress the huge grins on their faces. This infectious joy underlined the original spirit of the band’s sound which, in retrospect, was very reminiscent of England’s Mungo Jerry – albeit without a kazoo – who were making a successful career out of jaunty, chorus filled tunes like Buffalo Drive’s at the very same time.
The last section of the show presented some of the songs that lead vocalist, Rod Boucher, wrote and recorded after the band’s demise.
This bracket reflected his tendency to write songs with a country feel and an ocker-ish lyrical bent. The title track from his 1981 solo album, Yoo Hoo, was the loudest and brashest of these – much to the delight of the crowd who were, by now, ready to shout and punch the air at every possible moment.
Two songs covered by Slim Dusty were highlights of the late set. One of these, Boucher’s Traveller’s Prayer, was chosen to be played at the legendary country singer’s state funeral as his coffin departed from the cathedral, and this song brought the main show to a lovely, but oddly low-key, conclusion. A reprise of Life’s Been Good To Me – by loudly voiced audience demand – did however ensure that the crowd went home smiling and not weeping!
The band’s on-stage performance was complimented throughout by a fascinating backdrop of projected images which mixed photographs of the band at various stages of their musical lives with contextualised pop culture imagery. Some of the juxtapositions these images made with the song being played were unintentionally very amusing – the front page headline ‘Whitlam Sacked!’ came up just as the first chorus of Life’s Been Good To Me kicked in, for instance!
After fifty years, the original band – Rod Boucher (vocals, banjo, mandolin and guitar), David ‘Jacko’ Jackson (keyboards, vocals), Graham ‘Grimy’ Bettany (bass vocals), Rod ‘Bodzak’ Dunn (drums, vocals), Georgina Nou (vocals) and ‘ring-in’ Peter ‘Charlie’ Farley – proved that they could still deliver a show full of energy, fun and no small amount of musical prowess.
Sure, there were some occasional sound issues apparent at times, but these did not detract from the overall quality of the performance.
No matter how small Buffalo Drive’s imprint on the local music scene may seem to have been now, it was inarguably significant. It is great to be able to get to hear these songs played live again with such a high degree of humour, joy and passion that belies the ages of the musicians playing them.
It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I was glad to be there.
Rating: 4 stars
The Evolution Of Buffalo Drive will be performed one more time at this year’s Adelaide Fringe at the Osmond Terrace Function Centre on Sunday 14 March at 3:00pm.
Tickets are available here: The Evolution Of Buffalo Drive