Robert Forster - Whelan's, Dublin, May 28th 2016
I went to see Robert Forster a couple of weeks ago. It was the fifth time I’d seen him in the flesh.
There was the first time in The Mean Fiddler in Dublin in late 1996 around the time of the Warm nights album. I love that album and the gig was a great upbeat joyous occasion.
The next time was in the same venue about 9 months later, in June 1997. It was the same rhythm section from the 1996 solo gig (Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson) with Grant McLennan added, The Go Betweens reunion tour. There was a kind of gospel service atmosphere in the packed room. A palpable air of expectation. When they came on stage the emotion was hard to take. By the time they finished the first song (I can’t remember what it was now), I was in tears. In fact, I felt like I could leave satisfied at that point. Something in me had been fulfilled, already, within the space of a few minutes. You see, I became a fan of The Go Betweens after they broke up so I’d never seen them play live before. But I’d lived closely with their music since about 1991. Practically lived in it. Wore it like a vest. Their music was the immersive soundtrack to my twenties.
I saw them again a few days later at the Finsbury Fleadh in London in a half full tent. I enjoyed that gig too but it didn’t have the same air of special event about it. There was a lot of a certain kind of mature muso in the crowd – men obviously, you know the type – who conducted long private conversations with Robert and Grant between songs (or heckled them if you prefer), which had the effect of spoiling any chance of a communal atmosphere. The pair of them also seemed a bit uncomfortable with the dynamic. They certainly didn’t show the same openness and (maybe the word is) gratification that they had in Dublin earlier that week.
I saw Robert and Grant play again in Dublin in 2001, just the two of them, two acoustic guitars. It was at Vicar Street and that gig had a sense of a victory lap about it. More a chance for us to show appreciation than to experience something transformative.
At the end of May, Robert was back with a band at Whelan’s playing songs from his wonderful current album, Songs to play, as well as from his own solo and the Go Betweens back catalogues. His first time in Europe with a band in a good number of years. And the first time I’d seen him play since Grant died in 2006.
The news is he’s in good shape. He looks well for a man in his late 50s. Long and thin, he wears a suit well too (well he always did), an elegant three-piece brown number with tie in Whelan’s. He’s in perky, chipper form on the new album and he was in good voice on stage. There was a bit of hoarseness (cups of tea were delivered onstage at regular intervals by his wife Karin) and a few times he seemed to be battling with the pa. That might reflect lack of practice playing live with a band. In general he was at ease and in his element really.
And he’s clearly revitalised by the band dynamic. He made a point during the gig of saying that he could have done a solo tour but that he specifically wanted to come back to Europe this time with “an electric band”. And the band is the absolute ace card in this gig. Scott Bromiley and Luke McDonnell from the John Steel Singers sharing bass, guitar and keys (the drummer’s name I didn’t catch, he could well be another John Steeler) and Karin Baumler on violin and vocals. The backing was crisp, the drumming lovely and sharp and the guitars sweet and chiming. And the backing vocals – massed layers of harmonies at key points – were up there with the highest heights of Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane.
The effect of this full electric band is to underscore the swagger of certain songs, particularly some of the best Go Betweens ones, a certain shake of the hips. Like that choppy pre-chorus section of ‘Spring rain’ (the closing song and one of three marvellous encore numbers) – “these people are excited, by their cars, I want surprises, just like spring rain”. Or the wonderfully louche offbeat rhythm of ‘Draining the pool for you’. Robert sings the words while the music fills in the meaning.
Unexpectedly, there were a couple of songs from his first solo album Danger in the past including the title track, a heartfelt and elegaic ballad to a struggling friend. This brought some bursts of laughter from the crowd but mostly still captivated moments - “your mother is a saint...she’s relieved we’re just friends” - as the gig swung between humour and deadly seriousness without missing a step (for the first time I wondered while listening to that song, released in 1992, if it was actually about Grant?). And an old favourite of mine, ‘Heart out to tender’ in which Robert became a cross between Nick Cave and Al Green, mike in hand leaning into the front row soul revue style, and showed that he can still do a good pout, to everyone’s sheer delight.
Of course they played several of the highlights from Songs to play - ‘Learn to burn’ (“I stop for petrol and I stop for Dylan”, a clue to the particular brand of “esoteric folk rock” on the album), the sweetly playful ‘Let me imagine you’ ("please don't twitter"), the brilliantly acerbic ‘A poet walks’ (“my soup stained vest, my critical eye”) and ‘I love myself and I always have’, the latter introduced as a song about self esteem. Cue hilarity. “No it is”, he insisted. “I think most songs are. You know you have singer songwriters who tell you, this song’s about a woman who left me, or it’s about something else that happened to me. No it’s not. It’s about self esteem.” All with a completely straight face. Cue complete uproar in the room.
There was so much heart and soul on show. From Robert for sure. Never more than at the first encore, when he arrived back on stage unaccompanied - “this is a song I didn’t write, I wish I had, hopefully I can do it justice”. There followed the opening bars of ‘Cattle and Cane’ and the roof almost lifted off the building. One of the best loved Go Betweens songs written by Grant McLennan whose 10th anniversary was only last month. Afterwards, no mention of Grant by name, no need, just a glance to the ceiling and a finger in the air and a meaningful look in the eye. Touch of class, that.
There was emotion elsewhere on stage too. A different kind to that running through the audience. More of a muted pride, a misty eyed gratification perhaps (that word again), some kind of heart swell. You could see it in the occasional supportive pats on the shoulder from Karin. Also in the bowled over easy grins of Scott and Luke, clearly having the time of their lives playing songs they no doubt grew up with.
A night full of emotion. There was a little nostalgia certainly, but not a wallowing kind, and these were songs and performances to stand up in their own right, fresh and vigorous as ever. A transformative show no doubt. No tears from me this time. More of a shiver and a thrill at the sight and sound of a loved artist reborn.