09.07.2019

The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster remains a crowning national treasure

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Words by Augustus Welby
Photos by BandAnna Photography

This was a performance that had to be seen to be believed.

Life has turned a page for Robert Forster. The Brisbane songwriter turned 62 years old last week, but he was always going to suit his wizened years. He’s as long and slender as ever, but now comfortably grey on top. The impact of his baritone voice has only intensified as its youthful crispness has waned.

The Go-Betweens were self-consciously literate songwriters. A sweeping romanticism underlies their work, but it’s often cut with wistfulness – the sense that things might be going well but how long can it possibly last, and does any of it even matter? Forster and his former songwriting partner, Grant McLennan, were in for the long haul and committed to exploring these questions.

The Go-Betweens came through in the late-‘70s post-punk boom, a movement Forster describes as prizing “commitment and ideas over old-fashioned virtuosity”. The stylistic codes of that era shone through tonight in Go-Betweens songs like ‘Man O’Sand To Girl O’Sea’ and ‘In The Core Of A Flame’. However, as the 1980s progressed, Forster and McLennan were happy to let trends pass them by and focus on refining their songwriting. The outcomes of this pursuit were vindicated by early setlist highlight, ‘Dive For Your Memory’, from the band’s 1988 opus, 16 Lovers Lane.

As a frontperson, he’s incredibly engaging. You’d happily return the following night just to see him performing sans-guitar as he did during ‘Twin Layers of Lightning’. As a vocalist, Forster’s range is about as capacious as a floppy disc. This could easily impede the progress of someone entering their fifth decade of music-making but Inferno, the new record propping up this tour, flies in the face of this notion.

The record’s strongest moments are when Forster takes liberties as a storyteller.

‘Life Has Turned A Page’ is a Springsteenesque account of a young couple eager to travel but whose southward journey to Byron is derailed by an unexpected pregnancy. ‘Remain’ is the story of a filmmaker with big city dreams, but no commensurate audience. “I fell through, but I can do magic to turned backs” Forster sings, perhaps recalling the many bands he’s seen rise and fall over the years.

In a 1993 artist-on-artist interview for GQ magazine, Nick Cave told McLennan that, “I don’t think either of us are really concerned about doing anything that’s new, or breaking new areas of music. We’re far more interested in writing purposeful and soulful and well-constructed songs, and as you go, you get more tools to be able to do that.”

Forster’s performance was a testament to this intention. His songs have simplified with age – first-phase Go-Betweens cuts like ‘Spring Rain’ and ‘In The Core Of A Flame’ were among the more technical songs played this evening, while newies ‘Inferno (Brisbane In Summer)’ and ‘Crazy Jane On the Day of Judgement’ revolved around a few basic chord progressions and Forster’s compelling deadpan.

The double-encore show finally came to an end with ‘Surfing Magazines’. Taken from The Go-Betweens’ 2000 reunion record, The Friends of Rachel Worth, it’s a postmodern pop song about adolescent dreams with a wordless chorus that got the boomer-heavy crowd singing in unison. I think everyone agreed: rarely are gigs this enjoyable.

Highlight: ‘Twin Layers of Lightning’.

Lowlight: A brief broken amp hiccup.

Crowd favourite: ‘Dive For Your Memory’.