The autumnal chill may have been kicking in but the nearby trains were running on time for the country boys and girls who survived.

There was no sign of Buster Keaton or Clara Bow underneath the gaze of a posse of Greco-Roman statues that have long kept an eye on artistic and theatrical productions in this stately colosseum at the Flinders and Russell St corner in the Melbourne CBD.

Yo, it started in 1929 when bejewelled theatre patrons of historic interwar years took their seats under the minarets and majestic clock tower.

Tonight it was the turn of Arkansas born and latter day Nashville singer-songwriter Joe Nichols leading a honky tonk septet through their paces.

Photo by Michael Schack

The long tall troubadour towered over support acts Peter McWhirter from former sheep country south of Sydney and diminutive Jasmine Rae from Fawkner on the northern rim of the Victorian capital.

Unlike the silent custodians there was nothing neo-Gothic about the good old young boys from the American south treading the boards.

Nichols, 34 and holding, signalled his intentions from rollicking entrée What's A Guy Gotta Do and the aptly titled Size Matters.

It was jovial Joe's second Australian visit this year - his first was CMC Rocks The Hunter festival in March - an ambitious reprise of a 2009 tour that peaked at CMC Rocks The Snowys at Thredbo.

This was traditional mainstream country delivered with a hefty dose of dance dynamics.

It drove many patrons to leave the comfort of their plush padded pews to soak up the action in the vast mosh pit.

The huge Nichols tour promo banner, supremely illuminated behind the stage, was a fitting accessory for the stately oriel windows and cupola up above.

Also a reminder of why we were here - my last visit was a concert by Los Lobos where the wall of sound was severely challenged in the instrument separation field.

There were no such problems for Nichols sound mixer who ensured the vocals, pedal steel guitar, piano and mandolin were heard and not just seen.

The only problem - the size of the audience didn't befit the talent of the artist and creativity of the promoters.

Size matters.

But that didn't the sap the energy of Nichols who segued from embryonic hit Brokenheartsville to new single Take It Off from his 9th album set for a September release.


The singer acknowledged the past of the genre - not just the venue where Frank Thring reigned in days of yore - paying homage to heroes diverse as Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr and George Jones.

Okie From Muskogee enabled Nichols to update the locale of the hippies from San Francisco to Nashville but here - midway between MCG and Docklands - there was no need to change "football's still the roughest thing on campus."

"Downtown Modesto" became Melbourne in another Haggard tune Make Up And Faded Blue Jeans where a young girl in the audience is a jezebel in disguise.

No, she was definitely not the same honky tonk heroine who inspired the wry wordplay of She Only Smokes When She Drinks.

Nichols also crossed genres for Z.Z Top tune Nationwide and Nickelback hit Rockstar - replete with mandolin.

Nichols enriched those deviations with his Hank Williams Jr singalong Family Tradition - "why do you drink - why do you roll smoke?"

He also slowed the tempo and made the most of the user-friendly sound with an acoustic version of I'll Wait For You.

It was a brave move in such a large venue but proved the artist was not just a band front man.

Nichols reached back to 2002 for his first #1 hit The Impossible and then thanked Blake Shelton for Who Are You When I'm Not Looking.

Joe passed on the song when he was recording his album Real Things and it recently became a hit for the singing spouse of Grammy winning Texan Miranda Lambert.

The band then shifted gears for hook heavy Coming Back In A Cadillac.

The Shape I'm In - an evocative story about recent war veterans was ideal punctuation for another crowd pleaser Let's Get Drunk And Fight.

Nichols introduced his stellar road band members including pedal steel guitarist from Birmingham, Alabama, before reviving It Ain't No Crime and #1 hit Gimme That Girl.

There was more time to study the distant sky blue ceiling, adorned with twinkling stars, as the band prepared for the obligatory encore.

A riveting version of George Jones hit One Woman Man segued into the singalong Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.

With 23 songs by the headliner and two inspired sets by the local support acts soon to be sated fans who had travelled from as far afield as Koroit satellite city Yarpturk, wanted more.

Nichols provided it - by post concert autographing of CDs, tee shirts, hats and other merchandise beneath the ornate staircase in the Forum foyer.

The Flinders street furs and stoles of days of yore had a successor - jeans boots and hats, maybe from Manly footwear, courtesy of Merle Haggard.

Reviewed by David Dawson

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