Magic In Here
There are some very excited people here. No, not because Jason Donovan is rumoured to be present. Don't be ridiculous. What would the London music media care about the former Australian soap opera star and all-round fuck-up? People are excited because these two men up on stage, playing their gentle, sweet songs of passion and betrayal are... um, up on stage playing their sweet, gentle songs of betrayal and passion.
'The next song we're going to play is track two, side one: 'Spirit',' announces lanky singer Robert Forster - the one who likes to make graceful hand movements in the air during silences. 'I'm talking old terms here.'
Let me explain. Once there was an Australian band called The Go-Betweens. During the 80s, they released six albums of the most exquisite, guitar-led poetry. Songs that reflected both the wide spaces of their native land, and the easy betrayal of friends and lovers. Songs which delighted in their intricacy, in their subtle, deprecating insights into human relationships and suburban nostalgia. Songs which became more and more polished with every new release, as new members and instruments got added, but never lost sight of the basic humanity at the core. Their albums spawned a brace of classic singles, from the sun-drenched 'Cattle And Cane' (Before Hollywood) to the minimal 'Man O' Sand To Girl O' Sea' and teeming rain and pathos of 'Streets Of Your Town'. Musicians and critics everywhere - from St Etienne's Bob Stanley to Belle & Sebastian to R.E.M. - loved them, but not the kids. Sigh. Those cruel bastard kids. After 1988's string-saturated 16 Lovers Lane, the pairing of Forster and short-arse Grant McLennan was no more...
And the world seemed a poorer, less romantic place for their passing. 'This is the song that starts the album, the big song, track one, side one.' says Robert before the pivotal 'Magic In Here' - the song which is at the core of the reformed Go-Betweens. (Yes, the core. As his partner, short-arse Grant McLennan, says on the hook to this most lilting of songs, 'I don't want to change a thing/When there's magic in here.' Don't fucking fix what ain't broken.)
Time sometimes provides happy endings. A new Go-Betweens album, the superbly laconic The Friends Of Rachel Worth, is shortly to appear. In place of long-term drummer Lindy Morrisson are members of Sleater-Kinney and Portland's wonderful Elliott Smith spin-off band Quasi adding sensitive, cool harmonies and the odd glissando organ. (Lindy Morrisson, of course, tried to sue her former band-members when they wanted to reform the band a few years back, leading to the ridiculous situation of the duo playing dates in their native land under the sobriquet The Australian Go-Betweens, or some such name...)
That's why the people here tonight are excited. Ecstatic, even. Robert and Grant are gliding through stripped-back acoustic versions of their new album's (rather stripped-back) songs. Highlights include the scary, bittersweet 'He Lives My Life' and the Patti Smith tribute 'When She Sang About Angels' with its memorable line about how Robert wished she'd 'sung about Tom Verlaine', not Kurt Cobain. Then there's Forster's 'wicked little riff' on the autobiographical 'German Farmhouse', Grant's almost wearily resonant 'The Clock' and a run-through of the classic 'Bye Bye Pride'. (Interestingly, the full-bodied guitar sound on 'The Clock' recalls prime Beat Happening... although one suspects that the comparison should actually be made the other way round.) All this - and a bizarre bongo solo on 'Danger In The Past' (from Forster's first solo album) while McLennan sits, lost in reverie in the background. Truly, we feel spoilt.
'You've got to imagine some atmospherics on this one,' says Robert, introducing 'Orpheus Beach'. 'And could I just say what an incredible job [Quasi]'s Sam Coombes did on the album. There's a rumour going round that Elliott Smith plays on the album, and I know how it got started, but it's not true.'
A solitary cheer comes from the audience. People turn round and stare. Who's that jerk, cheering the absence of Elliott. I look round perplexed, too... and then realise.
It was me.
(ADDENDA: If you're wondering why I haven't described the show in detail, please allow me the odd indulgence. Even music critics like to hold their moments to cherish, their memories to linger. The Friends Of Rachel Worth and the live performance that accompanies it is so spell-binding in their simplicity and riffs to die for, they almost defy description. The Go-Betweens always understood the maxim that less is more: their sound is so of itself as to be self-descriptive, and their harmonies so understated and graceful it makes you want to cry in delight. There's a moment on 'He Lives My Life' where Grant adds just one line of vocal harmony to Robert's tormented lead. I cannot think of another pop band who wouldn't have swamped the song with vocals. The Go-Betweens remain the Go-Betweens.)
© Everett True 2000