WHEN POWDERFINGER PERFORMED AT Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre, not only did homesick Australians chant

“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi” and display the flag of their homeland, but many Canadians were equally as rambunctious.

The multiplatinum Brisbane-based band even got to use its own light show and film projections. For fans who had seen Powderfinger play in the city’s smaller clubs, it was a night of pride.

“We do understand that there are a lot of Australians in Toronto,” frontman Bernard Fanning said. “It’s a fact of life for Australian bands. Some Australian bands take it really personally and think it’s a really terrible thing when they show up acting like that.”

“We’re glad they came, but we’re primarily here to play to Canadian fans,” bassist John “JC” Collins explained.

“That’s why we don’t want all that parochial shit going on where they start going ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi,'” Fanning laughed. “At the best of times, it’s embarrassing.”

But there was nothing embarrassing about the show, part of a six-week North American tour, which wrapped in June.

Just three months earlier, the band members Fanning, Collins, guitarists Ian Haug and Darren Middleton, and drummer Jon Coghill played a free gig at the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern following the sudden cancellation of the Coldplay tour for which they were opening. Powderfinger’s single “My Happiness” from its latest album, Odyssey Number Five, was climbing the Canadian charts when the return date was announced. Originally scheduled for Lee’s Palace (cap. 500), the show had to be moved to the much larger Phoenix (cap. 1,000). Still, the venue was busting at the seams.

“Each time we played in Toronto, we played at the same place, which is really fun,” Fanning said, referring to the Horseshoe. “Everyone in Toronto seems to love the Horseshoe, but the last time we played was the hardest in February because we’d been playing with Coldplay on theatre shows and we’d been on Big Day Out in Australia. So we’d been playing massive stadiums with really big production and then we came here.”

Reminded that Powderfinger has played other venues in Toronto like the El Mocambo for North By Northeast several years ago and even dance club Whisky Saigon, he struggled to remember the latter.

“I’m not trying to be rock ‘n’ roll,” he joked when JC tried to help him out with descriptions of the multilevel red, white and blue eyesore. Perhaps Fanning’s life is a blur because the band has been touring non-stop since the lineup solidified with his addition in 1993.

While other Australian bands got fed up crossing the waters because the perks and adoration weren’t the same or the schedule was just too grueling, Powderfinger didn’t moan. They worked.

Although conquering international markets was always a goal, the band concentrated on building a following at home in its neophyte days. Playing cover sets injected with originals, Powderfinger landed a hotel gig in Brisbane called The Orient every second weekend.

Jon Coghill
John Collins
Bernard Fanning
Ian Haug
Darren Middleton

“The guy who was the booker there had this biker bar, Club AC’s, so we had to play Led Zeppelin for bikers,” Fanning recounted. “We’d start at midnight and finish at four in the morning four sets.”

Paul Piticco of Secret Service Management “took them away from all that,” JC quipped, “like Charlie.”

With the help of Village Sounds booking agent Jessica Ducrou, who the band met in Sydney, Powderfinger made a self-titled EP in 1993 and started touring. Polydor signed the band and released a new EP, Transfusion.

“On eBay, one of them sold for 250 bucks,” Fanning marveled.

They were lean years, he remembered. Even Powderfinger’s 1994 full-length debut, Parables For Wooden Ears, received little radio play. But the band persevered.

“We have this mentality,” Fanning explained. “We have a record deal. We’re not going to just give up. We’re going to work hard.”

With Powderfinger’s 1996 second full-length, Double Allergic, “Pick You Up” became a crossover hit and the album sold more than 150,000 units. It was then the band decided to make Canada the next territory to conquest. But first, it had to pay a Vancouver-based band of the same name about $1,000 (Cdn.), according to Fanning.

At its El Mocambo show, the Canadian label, PolyGram (now Universal), gave away Aussie Rules cassette compilations. With a European tour with Beast of Bourbon canceled, Powderfinger opted to cross the border to play an illegal (as in no papers) show, in New York.

In late ’98, the band released Internationalist, which went double platinum in Australia. Powderfinger was now a consistent draw and seller. In September of 2000, Odyssey Number Five was released domestically. It has since gone five times platinum.

Still promoting it internationally and seeing results with each return engagement Fanning and JC joke about playing Toronto SkyDome on their next visit.

“[The Phoenix] was the biggest show on the tour,” JC said, although dates in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Arizona, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton sold out, too.

Powderfinger recently headlined Australia’s Splendour In the Grass festival and was on the Fuji Rock bill in Japan July 28th. Their itinerary will then take them back home, to Europe and possibly North America once again this year.

A new album is expected in 2002. Pull quote: “We have this mentality. We have a record deal. We’re not going to just give up. We’re going to work hard.”