Merri Creek Tavern logo. Courtesy of MCT.
Featured track: Mick Thomas and The Roving Commission- I Heard Sally Singing mickthomas.bandcamp.com/album/i-heard-sally-singing-single
Narrator: Welcome to the Merri Creek Tavern, 111 High St, Northcote. This local watering hole and music venue replaced the Sash bar in 2018. Featuring acts playing acoustic roots, alt-country and other styles the venue has played host to Melbourne performers and singer-songwriters such as Rob Snarski, Barb Waters, Steven Cummings and Van Walker as well as overseas legends Wreckless Eric and Robyn Hitchcock. The Tavern’s co-owner Mick Thomas has had a long association with Northcote and its surrounds. Here he recalls his first show in the area with Weddings Parties Anything.
Mick Thomas: In those days in the early ‘80s there wasn’t that much going on on High Street, I can tell you straight. There was a guy who ran a venue at what’s become the Northcote Social Club. It was the Commercial Hotel then and they just had really sporadic gigs in those days. The one claim to fame that it had was that it had been Slim Dusty’s pub. It was the place where Slim always played, the only place in Melbourne where Slim would play. Melbourne was probably not that big deal for Slim because he had so many places out in the bush he would be playing. When he did come to Melbourne I guess all he wanted was just a venue that held 200 or 300 people where he could take the whole door and not have to deal with promoters or anything like that.
So it had this funny notoriety. A guy started running a gig there and it was called the Bum Club. It was Thursday nights, three bands, and his one booking policy was that he didn’t have a booking policy. He put on anyone with anyone else and you just got in the queue. That was the very first thing that Weddings Parties Anything did. I guess it was about ‘82 or ‘83 and that was the first time a band called Weddings Parties Anything played. I can still remember it was a pretty catastrophic night. There was a band called Nude Girls On Stage and I can’t remember who the other band was. They were like punk rock bands and we stepped up and it was a very nervous thing. I was the bass player in those days and I remember in the first song I broke a bass string. I thought “This band is gonna go places…”
Narrator: Mick Thomas shifted from Fitzroy to Northcote in the early 1990s. The coming years would see the number of local venues begin to pick up, restoring the area as a major hub for live music.
Mick Thomas: I was living above the Punters Club. I moved out and came up to Northcote to live. People said “What are you doing? Why are you going there?” They said “Well as long as you’re this side of Separation Street” and I was like, “I’m not. I’m actually two streets over Separation Street.” People would go “What happens up there? Do you need a passport?”
There was just so many empty shops that it was a pretty down place at that time. It’s been really interesting watching the area grow. I think the 303 Bar were the pioneers for me. When they started you could just see that they hooked in and there was going to be a strip there.
Narrator: Mick’s songwriting has been heavily influenced by living in Northcote. He’s captured the area’s present in songs such as ‘The Golden Lion’, with its references to the Northcote Plaza, and its past in others such as ‘The Melbourne Retreat for Cure of Inebriates’, which was composed for the Darebin Library’s I Feel Like Going Back project in 2015.
Mick Thomas: Coming out of places like Fitzroy, even though it had that period when it was going off and it was a really really exciting place to be, it could have been anywhere in the world. There’s a place like that in Sydney or New York or San Francisco. It just seemed to be a garden-variety inner-city bohemian area. Once you came up the hill a bit to Northcote it started to become more personable and more like its own place. So I think I found that there was more inspiration for me once I got out of the inner city area. The influence for me is a double thing as it comes back through a lot of the people that I know that live in the area and who tend to write about the area as well.
Narrator: Mick credits a plethora of talented local musicians as encouraging him to take the plunge and open a venue. This involvement inspired the composition of “I Heard Sally Singing”, a song which he and his band The Roving Commission recorded during Lockdown in 2020. As its title suggests it’s about watching Sal Kimber performing at the Merri Creek Tavern.
Mick Thomas: I first met Sal when I was asked to judge a song writing competition for the Darebin Music Feast at the town hall. She was one of the people in it and straight away Sal just touched something with me. She was living in the area at the time. I remember saying “I don’t care whoever gets what prize, Sal Kimber’s gotta win.” So, to have her playing at the pub some years later was a special thing. I have a ton of respect for Sal.
Sal Kimber played at the Merri Creek Tavern on the 13th of March. I think two days later the city was locked down. It just had this ominous feeling. Sal turned up and she’d been bushwalking for two weeks and so she really wasn’t across what was happening. She was heavily pregnant at the time. There were probably three or four pregnant women in the room and I remember them all sitting there at the end. I was just thinking, “Oh my God, this prophetic thing is happening.” We could feel it, it just had that feeling that night. It was a really great gig. Sal really hit it and she was really funny. So she was really good but you’re sort of standing at the back and it was just a funny energy in the room that night. I guess that’s one of the big nights that we’ve had at the Merri Creek Tavern. Already in the two years we’ve had hundreds and hundreds there, but that one for me was pretty special in terms of other people’s gigs in the area.
02 – Merri Creek Tavern (111 High St. Northcote)