Live, Music, Reviews

Robert Forster, Jen Cloher, Thin White Ukes (Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne)

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For a change, I made sure that we got there early on Friday (November 27) to catch the Thin White Ukes, a threesome doing Bowie on, of course, ukuleles. Fun, nicely sung, carefully arranged, slightly tongue- in-cheek versions of classic songs.
It’s the second time I’ve seen them as support at a show, and I think this crowd was more receptive than last time, where the vibe was decidedly rockier, although the fate of warm-up acts is always to play to a third filled rooms. They are certainly worth another listen.
Not long from her triumph at the “Horses” album show at the Melbourne Festival, Jen Cloher came on and immediately created a welcoming, homey feel in a big room with hundreds still spread thinly.
I don’t quite know how she did that. Playing mostly her own songs, telling a few short stories in introducing songs and drawing us in to her experience, then delivering the goods with just her acoustic guitar. I’m not even usually a fan of acoustic guitar solo sets, but the honesty and passion she put into her performance made that irrelevant. It felt like we were all sitting around her hearth, swapping stories and songs, laughing, commiserating and warming to each other.
Jen brought the Ukes back for the last two songs, bringing a wider dimension and some great harmonies into the music, finishing off on a high. Highlight songs: Mt Beauty and David Bowie Eyes from her last album In Blood Memory, plus a Gillian Welch cover whose title I didn’t catch. At the end she brought the Ukes back on and sang a couple of songs (one, Needle in the Hay that she recently released with Courtney Barnett) with their backing — it ended the set with a flourish, and there was a lot of love in the room for her.
Then it was time for Robert Forster to come on. There’s so much baggage for me in seeing him play: memories of Go-Betweens’ shows that are still in my best gigs of all time lists; his oddly uncanny resemblance to a cranky old boss and some of the memories that triggers; the fact that he’s a recognised and awarded rock critic….it all adds up to make this feel a little more than just another night out to me.
He strode on, strapped on a lovely semi-acoustic guitar and launched into a song with the band (Scott on guitar/keys, Luke on bass, Matt on drums and Karin on violin/tambourine — they all sang too — non intrusive backing vocals that gave Robert’s voice a soft cushion on which to rest). He was in form tonight, despite having not long driven up from doing a set at Queenscliff Music Festival, strumming determinedly at his instrument, his engaging voice telling tales of life in all its variations.
Robert always reminds me of both David Byrne and Jonathan Richman — I can hear their timbre in his voice, their concerns in his lyrics, their physical styles reflected in his stage presence. At once theatrical and self-effacing; serious, tempered with humour; both naïve and knowing, he launched into a set mainly covering the new album with a generous selection of songs from his long history.
A version of Draining the Pool for You from Spring Hill Fair was an unexpected pleasure — lightly fleshed out and extended with tongue placed in cheek, bringing the audience into his world. Head Full of Steam, another oldie from Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, didn’t quite hit the same mark, sounding a little more like a cover band version of his song (and maybe it’s just not the same without Tracey Thorn in the chorus).
The songs in which Robert played the semi-acoustic (i.e. electric) guitar seemed to gel much more as a band than those in which he swapped out for an acoustic, and had more depth and power in them.
It could just be that a number of his acoustic guitar based songs have a sameness about the rhythm and strumming, but they didn’t affect me as much as some of the others in general with some exceptions like I Love Myself (and I Always Have) and the single — Let Me Imagine You — there is a fun little making of video for the new album Songs to Play on YouTube too here.
He covered a lot of ground with songs such as Surfing Magazines from Rachel Worth, Here Comes a City from Oceans Apart all featuring, and Danger in the Past (title track of his first solo album) again showing Robert’s theatricality and wry humour as he twisted the song about and directed the band. I saw him at WOMAD back in March and a lot of the same ground was covered in this set, but there he played with a string quartet, while here the full rock band really pushed his songs along and added power.
As when he was with The Go-Betweens, Robert’s shows have the power to connect with us in a very human way — despite being personally intense (or at least he appears that way) — what comes through on the stage is a love of playing and a frailty that asks you to warm to his performance.
This radiated through the whole room (and I was sitting way up the back tonight). The audience called him back for two encores before they were satisfied. He won’t be back in town for a while, as he has dates all through Europe ahead of him, but I hope that you got a chance to catch him this time around — it’s always a delight.
Later this week I’ll be seeing Zikora launch their new EP Golden Thread. That should be an interesting show — they are certainly different to a lot that’s around. Tickets and show details here.

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