When the Bondi Cigars were first gigging around Sydney, in late 1989, they moved in a blues / R&B circuit which, while robust since the 60s, had then been sparked into new life by the 'blues revival' of the mid-80's, spearheaded by Robert Cray, Joe Louis Walker, Stevie Ray Vaughan and similar crusaders.
While many of the Sydney bands from that era have since vanished, become historical footnotes or undergone major changes, the Cigars - true survivors that they indisputably are - have continued on, without ever compromising their distinctive no nonsense style, to become a leading force in Australian R&B.
That original Cigars line-up brought together four like-minded experienced players, all veterans of Sydney inner-west blues venues, and from the word go, as the 1990 tracks demonstrate, the Cigars have been the very model of the 'no passengers' band, a well-oiled machine plus soul: no room for slackers here. Always one of the country's hardest working outfits (on the road more than off), the Cigars have kept their music tight, hard-driving and down-to-earth: the Australian bar band par excellence.
Apart from the timeless, unpretentious nature of the music, an obvious reason for the longevity of the Cigars must be the ongoing musical team work of 2 foundation members, Shane Pacey and Al Britton, who continue to co-lead the band. This also explains the consistency of the band's sound, instantly recognisable for 20 years now, despite personnel changes and occasional stylistic variations.
Front man Shane Pacey has long been a forceful, convincing singer, and a hard-attacking, razor sharp guitarist in the modern blowtorch style of Albert Collins, Joe Louis Walker, Larry McCray and other crazy stringbenders; he's also an outstanding prolific songwriter, and there's ample evidence in these tracks of his sardonic, savvy and slightly warped way with lyrics.
Bass player Al Hollywood Britton is another blues trooper, having survived the Dynamic Hepnotics and the Foreday Riders, and puts real backbone into the rhythm section - rock solid, responsive and funky; what's more, he's a dab hand in the organisational department, playing great lead telephone, according to the credits of Mercy (1998).
These dual father-figures have kept the music tough and vigorous by usually recruiting new members from Sydney's inner-west breeding grounds of exciting young R&B/roots bands. The first 2 Cigars albums had featured the original line-up, but after the departure interstate of Les Karski and Ace Follington, the next CD Got The News (appearing under the name Shane Pacey and the Cigars) included hot young Adelaideians Clayton Doley on keyboards and Matt Morrison on drums, both also associated with Robert Susz of Mighty Reapers fame.
Got The News, expertly produced by Sydney funky/soul boss, the late Jackie Orszaczky, and the Cigars sound was further spiced up by the precision horns of Paul Panicci and Andrew Robson.
By 1995, with the release of After Closing Time, 2 fine new Cigars had been press-ganged from the youthful but punchy Balmain R&B band The Beefs: Mitch Grainger (guitar/harmonica) and Declan Kelly (drums), who have both since moved on, but remain active in Sydney's roots/funk scene.
The following album Mercy saw the introduction of drummer Andrew Vainouskas, plus on guitar and vocals Eben Hale, 'the second-best left handed guitarist in the band' according to Shane; Eben has remained a paid-up member to this day.
Since then, the only changes have been on the drum stool: Frank Corby and Joel Sutton, with Frank Corby back and firing once more with the band.
In 2007, the Cigars released a very welcome double album retrospective 32 Premium Quality Cuts, offering a good opportunity to follow a great Australian R&B band through 17 years of hard-hitting music that is readily identifiable, and continues to evolve. For the few not familiar with the muscular sound of the Cigars, this album is the perfect introduction, while for veteran followers it provides a comprehensive overview, with 2 bonus tracks from the most recent line-up.
The follow up to that release was the late 2009 release, Universal Stew - the band's 6th studio offering. Recorded in a different manner to all previous releases, none of the songs were subjected to the usual rigorous 'Cigars 'road-testing' of rehearsal, performing live and then recording. Instead, songs were written; the band played them once or twice, and then they were immediately recorded. While the band recognised the risk of going in cold, they were all pleased with the result - the snappiness of the performances a result of the immediacy of the recording process.
More than 20 years after their inception, the Bondi Cigars are very much at the top of their game, consistently in demand at major festivals and music venues around the country.