After twenty-five years fronting a band as consistently brilliant and well-loved as The Whitlams have been, Tim Freedman can be excused for the grandiose and completely un-rock and roll decision to celebrate this milestone with a fully orchestrated concert tour featuring their greatest songs.
Saturday night’s two and a half hour Festival Theatre performance was an uplifting, although, at times, also disorienting and surreal, experience for the enthralled crowd.
Disorienting and surreal, because the band chose to orchestrate a couple of tunes from their earliest recordings, two of Stevie Plunder’s songs, which originally represented their band at their most raucous and rambunctious, and musically malleable – not the type of music you think would lend itself to the discipline of an orchestrated score!
The other oddly discordant moment came after the brief interval, when Freedman let the orchestra loose on Peter Sculthorpe’s string interlude which he composed especially for the band’s song Out The Back. Here, the momentum and the consistency of the performance was momentarily lost as the string section lost its way for a few fingers dragged down the blackboard moments of aural discomfort.
Thankfully, however, every other song on the setlist was enhanced by the addition of the orchestra, the arrangements adding power, emotional depth and at times, drama to the familiar lyrics and melodies of The Whitlams impressive repertoire.
Highlights of the first half included the opening Charlie Trilogy (Charlie No.1; Buy Now Pay Later & Charlie No.3); the still wonderful Blow Up the Pokies; a lively romp through You Sound Like Louis Burdett, and a beautiful rendition of Fondness Makes The Heart Grow Absent.
Freedman’s vocal delivery: pure, clear, with his ability to enunciate the lyrics so precisely, is still an absolute marvel, one of Australian music’s most valued gems, and in this performance, as usual, he didn’t miss a beat.
The band, understandably, had to play within the constraints of the tight arrangements and were reduced to mere shades of colour in the broader musical picture here. Jak Housden was given the opportunity for a few short solos where he had the chance to shine, and Warwick Hornby on bass and Terepai Richmond on drums seemed happy enough to contribute the anchoring rhythm inconspicuously throughout. Most of Freedman’s interactions were with conductor Guy Noble who appeared to be enjoying the affectionate banter that was directed towards him.
The second half of the show started out with the plaintive and evocative delicacy, The Beauty In Me, and also featured some stunning versions of crowd-pleasers such as No Aphrodisiac and I Make Hamburgers.
Freedman’s rendition of the nineteenth century tune, Two Little Boys, once (infamously) a hit for Rolf Harris, was magnificent, transforming what most people would remember as a twee novelty song into a moving paean to the bonds between brothers in times of high stress.
The main set finished with a lovingly rendered, majestic version of Thank You (For Loving Me At My Worst) and, as the band left the stage, the audience rose as one to deliver a well-deserved ovation which quickly brought the whole ensemble back for a brief encore which was their ode to their inspiration and namesake, Gough.
The Whitlams are now quarter of a century old, and it seemed many of those who have grown into middle age along with the band were in attendance on Saturday night, all happily reliving the joys, frustrations and outrages contained within Freedman’s songs, rejoicing in the full dramatic sensurround sound of the soundtrack of their lives.
Apart from a couple of brief moments – a terrific show.