Robert Forster Solo

Nicki Alchin
9th Dec 2016

On the back of his success with the release of his book Grant and I - a very personal account of his friendship with fellow Go-Betweens founder Grant McLennan - Robert Forster decided to do a few solo acoustic shows in key cities: Wellington, Auckland, Melbourne, and Sydney. The Sydney show took place on 1st December at the Factory Theatre in Marrickville.

The night began with a quirky Sydney alt rock folk band called Community Radio. They couldn't have been a more perfect opener. Their flavour of music was reminiscent of The Go-Betweens sound with a bit of My Friend The Chocolate Cake thrown in for good measure. Jangly rollicking guitars and solid bass riffs provided the band’s musical backbone. They started out as a four piece – guitarist/vocalist, bass player, drummer and keyboard (token female) and morphed into a five piece with the addition of a second guitarist a couple of songs into their set. The lead singer began with wispy vocals that grew stronger (almost sounding like Grant McLennan) as he harmonised with the other band members to match the cacophony of noise that spilled into friendly, approachable, rambling melodies.

A happy vibe permeated the room during the set as they settled into playing amiable tracks with a familiarity that put you immediately at ease. Some swaying along to the music could be seen within the seated and standing audience. In my mind, the scene was perfectly laid out for the transition to solo Forster.

All band paraphernalia was removed from the stage and it was stripped back to an essential performance space – just a microphone front and centre, and a chair some distance behind it. It was certainly a strong reminder to us that we would be hearing unadorned acoustic versions of Robert’s songs tonight. And so he appeared on stage at 9.30pm with a guitar hanging off his tall lanky frame at a jaunty angle. He began with a brief hello and introduction of what he would be playing – a mix of tracks ranging from his latest album Songs to Play and other solo albums as well as those from the Go-Betweens days.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Robert Forster gig without a polite sincere acknowledgement of surroundings and audience, the majority of whom were in reserved seating with a small group of general admission punters gathered up the back. Of the Factory Theatre Robert said “it is my first time here… Love it… Heaps of room… Great stage and lights… Just up to me now to play a great show. I am going to try” and then he was off on a song adventure that lasted an hour and half. The songs were interspersed mostly with a “thank you very much” or a one line intro until much further into the night when he entertained us with a few stories.

“Let Me Imagine You (An Ode to Imagination)" from Songs to Play started the night’s musical proceedings. It has a lovely easy melody, perfect for playing without a band. The guitar and vocals were able to shine to maximum advantage. The comical lyrics that make comment on our obsession with documenting on social media of our lives, could be clearly heard and chuckled at. Robert Forster has a great sense of irony and humour with most of his lyrics and has no problem playing up to them by pulling funny faces and doing cute instrumental guitar interludes to emphasise the hilarity of what he is singing about. I particularly liked when he added the line “this is the sound of the calculator” and made some clicking noises with his mouth to complement the song’s lyrics of “let me get my calculator to add up the cost of all those things”.

After waiting for the great round of applause to die down, he rolled straight into “Spirit” – a rather sombre personal and intense song, with some dark humour in the lyrics. It is at this point we notice his gentle caressing of the guitar strings. Mid song a plane flies overhead (it is Marrickville and we are slap bang in the middle of the flight path) and he asks the audience “Is that a storm?” It is these small interactions with his fans that are relished. Next was “Baby Stones” off his 1990 debut solo album “Danger in the Past," a biting funny fight back response to a wife regarding her desire to go seek out other men. At the conclusion of the song,

Robert took a little breather looking cool, calm and collected and happy to be performing. It was then he gave the intro of “this is the story of my life” before leaping into the sprightly deeply personal autobiographical “Born To A Family” off “The Go Betweens” album “That Striped Sunlight Sound”. This is one of my favourite songs of Robert’s – he always plays and sings it well with a sense of pride – tonight was no exception.

All night he was like a man on a mission, a one-man band working with fervour and commitment to entertain, especially with the song "I'm So Happy For You."" He gave his all – strumming his heart out on that guitar. He followed it up with “Darlinghurst Nights” – the poignant song off the final Go-Betweens album Oceans Apart that recounts the band’s time in Sydney during their heydays and the nostalgia that is stirred up on a return visit to the location. Forster played the song with dramatic showmanship and sung it with small nuances such as whispering certain lines. As always, he brought it back to the personal.

Just before starting the next half of songs, Robert jumped up onto the raised part of the stage and then drew the audience in further with “Rock 'n' Roll Friend”. He mixed up the arrangement and gave us a true performance. It was from this point that he decided to give more narrative, treating the audience to anecdotes surrounding the songs.

He introduced “I Love Myself” as a song about self-belief and self-esteem. Only Robert Forster could record such a song with such panache and dash of comedy. Once more we went into the personal world of Robert Forster as he explained that the next song had never been played to an audience and that even though he wrote it some time ago, he only pulls it out now and then before putting it away again as he isn’t completely sure whether it has something or not. His opinion wavers on it and he explains further that he is seeking feedback from us at the end of the show. He tells us it has two titles: “Advice to DB” and “Advice to Young Men”. It feels a deeply personal song and is quite beautiful, heartfelt and moving. It sure does have something.

The night continued to be one of comic instances. This most certainly included Robert’s plea to the bar staff to bring him a glass of sparkling water, “say a Pelligrino with a slice of lemon”. The bar staff yells back, yes we can bring it up to you, it will cost $3.50. Upon receiving tasting the drink, Robert deduced “it is sparkling soda water at a guess..."

For the rest of the night, lots of other new and old favourites were played, including “Here Comes a City”, “He Lives My Life”, and the extremely fun and nostalgic “Surfing Magazines” that the audience is urged to participate in much to their pleasure. Just as we think it was all about to end, Robert threw in another two songs – the great sing along track, “People Say” and the emotionally charged “Cattle and Cane” – the song in which Grant had so dextrously expressed the story of his childhood, was the closing the number. It was such a superb intimate show from Robert. As always he was the appreciative, giving, consummate performer, and definitely gave the show his all. As always, I felt privileged to be a witness of the night - building memories of classic gigs as they say.

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