Robert Forster + Jen Cloher – The Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne (27/11/2015)

The lush setting of The Thornbury Theatre seemed an appropriate one for this evening’s performances, as a decidedly middle aged crowd moved around the tables scattered in the opulent cavern.

Jen Cloher, who having been inspired by her relationship with Courtney Barnett has often recently been seen clutching an electric guitar, was tonight in acoustic mode, the alt-country leanings of her writing being brought once more to the fore. It is perhaps this guise that suits her the best, as Cloher’s strong and often beautiful voice did justice to songs from throughout her releases, as well as a fine cover of Gillian Welch’s Everything Is Free.

There are a long list of nouns and adjectives that proffer themselves when seeking to describe Robert Forster. Elegant, witty, fiercely intelligent, consummate dandy, icon. His personality is perhaps not an imposing one over the general public’s eye, but he has made his presence felt, leaving an indelible mark upon Australian popular culture since rising to prominence with The Go-Betweens at the tail end of the 1970’s.

Walking onstage with a wry smile, polite wave and crisp suit, Forster addressed the audience as a group of old friends, clearly confident in his purpose but with possibly a little mischief in his strut.

“It’s good to see you,” he deadpanned, “we are looking forward to playing some songs,” pointing to guitarist Luke McDonald who dutifully lead the band into Learn To Burn, the opening track of the new album, Songs To Play.

Forster has described in interviews that his latest collection of songs are typified by a playfulness which ensures that they are enjoyable to perform, inspired perhaps by the experience of touring his previous album, The Evangelist, which dealt with the death of former bandmate Grant McLennan in 2007. Consequently it was no surprise to find that the songs worked just as well live as they do on record, particularly because the band featured on this tour are also those featured on the album. McDonald and Scott Bromiley from The John Steel Singers were on guitar/keys and bass duties while wife Karin Baumler contributed backing vocals and violin and drummer Chris added a light pulse to the proceedings.

Go-Betweens’ classics were peppered throughout the set and predictably garnered some of the largest crowd responses, with the entire theatre raising their voices for Clouds and Head Full of Steam, the latter’s jangly pop feel contrasting with the more poised nature of the recent material. A Poet Walks, from the new album, was perhaps the set highlight, the song revealing itself in the live setting to be a perfect piece of concise pop mastery.

Returning for an encore of Danger In the Past, the title track from his 1990 solo debut, Forster abandoned the acoustic guitar and instead worked the crowd with a microphone in his hand. Clearly enjoying the melodrama of his delivery, Forster crooned to the room while the band underplayed a gentle boogie behind him. Those from a certain vantage point would have been interested to note the small cues he threw from behind his back, with a thumbs up and a point to signal a quiet explosion of noise at the climax.

In wonderfully typical fashion, Forster interrupted his own goodnight wishes to the crowd with a reading recommendation, William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, “I’m up to about page 80, it’s great”, which also served as introduction to the set’s conclusion, a large sing-a-long moment for 2000’s Surfing Magazines.

Written for Beat Magazine.

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