San Francisco Bath House
Thursday, November 10
Every now and then you’re lucky enough to see a gig that is all about the music – about the art and craft (and then conveyance) of songwriting. It was always hopeful, likely that an evening with Robert Forster might result in such a gig; twice as likely once Sam Scott was added to the bill.
The dropping of pins would have been easily detected as people sat transfixed, stood arms folded and focused, drinking in these wonderful songs. First Samuel Flynn Scott ran through a half dozen or so Phoenix Foundation songs, concluding with recent anthem, Give Up Your Dreams. He squeezed a solo song into the set – remarking that there wasn’t a lot of difference when he was playing them all on an acoustic guitar anyway, also lovingly tossed into the set was a cover of Brian Eno and John Cale’s Spinning Away from their 1990 album, Wrong Way Up.
If there was one thing that truly connected Scott and Forster – beyond the subtly clever pairing that each of them present one half of a cult band’s songwriting team and were charged with reworking those band songs as solo acoustic numbers – it’s that both are very strong lyric writers. Perhaps we don’t always get to appreciate the strength of Scott’s lyrics in the Phoenix Foundation when there are trippy textures and dynamic tempi and individual instrumentalists as well as the collective heave of the band, but he’s a sharp and funny lyric-writer.
In The Go-Betweens Robert Forster largely provided that role, the funny, gifted lyricist. Grant McLennan wrote some great lyrics too, of course. But he was more the pop tunesmith.
So when Forster took the stage he had the hardcore Go-Betweens fans to satiate – and he did so offering up shining gems such as Spring Rain. He also had his own muse to please and, luckily, his recent album, Songs to Play is perhaps his finest solo offering, certainly one that Forster is proud of – and with good reason. The songs from that slipped into the set as if old, road-tested favourites.
I Love Myself (And I Always Have) was a standout from the recent album but as the set carried on and gathered a momentum it became less about dividing solo and band songs, more about devouring them all. In particular the material from the first “comeback” album by The Go-Betweens, 2000’s The Friends of Rachel Worth seemed so well suited to this format, Surfing Magazines and German Farmhouse proving wise selections. The latter replete with a very fine explanation of how the lyric came to be – after making up a line for about coping with The Go-Betweens breakup for an interview, in which Forster-in-character spent years drinking beer consoling himself in a German farmhouse he finally had the start of the lyrics to go with the riff he’d been carrying. Born To A Family, his lovely little 2-minute autobiography from the final Go-Betweens album, 2005’s Oceans Apart, another gem from that band’s consistent second-run.
As Forster grew more comfortable – even praising the venue and the crowd and assuring all that he was having a “wonderful time” – that inimitable deadpanned-banter became more of a feature. But it was still and always about the songs. The meat. The potatoes. A little bit of gravy just helped it all slide down. He praised Wellington’s Unity Books (“I spent $200”) but was disappointed with the loud rock music in store (“either no music or something very quiet”). He was sure though that the store was “fantastic”. And as he said that I was taken back, instantly, to ten years earlier. He and Grant on stage together for the last time in pubic. Playing their Go-Betweens songs in Sydney at the Arts Festival. The use of the word “fantastic” – so key to Forster’s best stories. That time it was about how Marc Hunter looked like a rock-star even at 10am. “He always”, he paused for effect on that occasion, then brought it home, “looked fantastic”. He rolled it around in his mind and then his mouth and repeated. “He always looked fantastic”.
Shades of R.E.M. and Dylan and Robin Hitchcock and the encouragement on his shoulder from the spirit of McLennan no doubt. Shades – most obviously – of The Velvet Underground. Perhaps only Lou Reed better managed his limitations, making a virtue of them. Forster is wise and wondrous and wide-eyed and weird. He’s also a great performer and a gifted songwriter, a most thoughtful, funny, literate and often profound lyricist. And the simple serving of these gorgeously dog-eared songs was a rare treat.