Sydney Festival: The Go-Betweens
(see also “Further, longer, higher...” but no older. Go-Betweens frontman Grant W McLennan dead at 48.)
Punters who were hoping Robert Forster and Grant McLennan would “relive two amazing decades through stories and special renditions of their favourite songs” (as promised by the Sydney Festival guide) undoubtedly left this concert disappointed.
Half the Go-Betweens material played was new, i.e. post-reformation. A third of the set consisted of songs written and recorded by Forster and McLennan, separately, in the decade after they parted company. Even the show’s title comes from one of Rob’s solo compositions.
The Go-Betweens back catalogue was hardly touched. Nothing from Send Me a Lullaby. Just ‘Cattle and Cane’ from Before Hollywood. A pair of songs from Spring Hill Fair. Nothing from Liberty Belle. One from Tallulah. Two from 16 Lovers Lane. None of the great early songs.
The few stories told were great, but gave us little or no historical context. Grant struggled to explain the significance for the band of ‘Poison in the Walls’, from the 2003 set Bright Yellow Bright Orange, and mention was made of the call Rob made to Grant (almost thirty years ago) which resulted in the formation of the band, but that’s pretty much where the storytelling ended.
Rob introduced a song with a rambling and funny anecdote about seeing Dragon’s singer Marc Hunter on the streets of Darlinghurst, 20-odd years ago, and told us about dating a woman who worked days. (That prefaced ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Friend’ from his solo album Warm Nights.)
“Big Guy” Robert Forster, left, and Grant McLennan
The back story, in fact, was on sale in the foyer: David Nichols’ monograph on the band, a new edition of Clinton Walker’s cult book Inner City Sound and the Go-Betweens’ brand-new DVD/CD set That Striped Sunlight Sound in which Rob and Grant actually do relive two amazing decades through stories and special renditions of their favourite songs.
There, they call it acoustic stories: eleven songs from the first single ‘Lee Remick’ right up to the band’s “AM radio hit” ‘Finding You’ are introduced and contextualised... when and where the song was written, the significance of the song and time to the band, and so on. And each is played unplugged.
The Go-Between boys are nothing if not perverse; when the lights went down at the start of their Sydney Festival concert, Neil Diamond’s ‘I Am I Said’ started pumping! Grant and Robert are alt.pop.au’s butch-femme duo. They make a virtue of disorder. Paradoxically, the smoothness of their playing of older material robbed it of some of its glory and made it oddly syrupy. “I’m not a playboy” sang Rob, wearing a red cravat, in the opening number. “Or a poet.”
Forster and McLennan played acoustic guitars throughout the set -- Forster made his pro debut at the piano and pulled out a classical guitar for another song prompting an olé from yours truly -- but the amplification was brutal. The harmonica was earsplitting. There was little dynamic or tonal range. Nor was there much in the way of dramatic range. No great anthemic renditions of ‘Karen’, say. No surprises. No embarrassing slide shows of Rob performing in a summer frock as he was wont to do. No golden oldie video clips of Grant with long, straw-coloured hair performing ‘Cattle and Cane’ live on Countdown after the band returned to Australia from London. No requests. (A call for ‘Bye Bye Pride’ was met with a glib “We’ve said goodbye to that.”) I was left hungry for less.
And, guys, bad mistake to send people out with Mama Cass singing “Make your own kind of music/Sing your own kind of song.” That’s what people were singing... all the way home.
Ham and cheese. Plus Grant McLennan, right.
Disclosure: In the early ’80s, The Go-Betweens dedicated a song to me. Red Epaulets. It wasn't very good.