In amongst the loveliness of walking down the steps by the ticket office into the warmth of ‘Head Full of Steam’, and spotting the selection of rare-looking Go-Betweens 7-inch singles spread out on the merchandise table, I missed the notice on the wall behind them: ‘Robert here 6 minutes after the end of the show’. Leaving the stage a little less than two hours later he announced a revised schedule: ‘I’m going to go upstairs and drink a bottle of cool alcohol-free lager, then I’ll be over at the back if you have any questions. See you there in eight – no, eight and a half minutes.’ And out he bowed: his arms in the air, the crowd’s arms in the air, to more than your average round of cheering. ‘The gig equivalent of a standing ovation,’ thought A. It’s obvious why, of course: The Go-Betweens were always a band who inspired affection, and for most of us this is the first time we’ve seen Robert play since Grant McLennan’s ludicrously premature death two years ago. We’ve always loved him, of course – how could you not? – but this time out it’s that bit more important to show it. Robert knows this, and he gives us the chance: plays Grant’s ‘Quiet Heart’, introduces bassist Adele Pickvance saying, ‘Grant McLennan used to call her the duchess of the deep end’ (exactly the kind of naff thing Grant would say). It’s well judged: an acknowledgement of what we’re all thinking, in the midst of an evening which is more Robert Forster-ish than you would believe.
A. had another thought, during the wait for Robert to finish his alcohol-free lager. That he had begun to resemble someone in the decade since she last saw him, at a Go-Betweens show which I missed, but at which a lemon yellow-suited Robert, chatting afterwards, asked politely about Glasgow bands and Chris warned him off Mogwai (Chris hated Mogwai) by doing an unprovoked and embarrassing hunchbacked impersonation of Stuart Braithwaite, whilst G. attempted to distract attention by standing on Isobel Campbell’s record bag. Robert sipped his herbal tea and Grant was oblivious, intent on finding out where was good to go clubbing. So who does he resemble?
‘Isn’t it obvious?’
‘Not really. He’s Robert Forster – he looks like Robert Forster.’
‘And John Cleese.’
There is something in this. Something of the Ministry of Silly Walks about the rock ’n’ roll moves he started to pull a few songs in, when things really began to take off. Possibly during ‘German Farmhouse’, and the wild-eyed overacting accompanying the line, ‘there was a rumour PAVAROTTI would play there’. There was this thing he did a couple of times: eyes popping out of their sockets, hands stretched wide to the sides of his head, as a way of emphasising something. And the break downs! If you’ve ever dreaded the day your favourite band decided to double the lengths of your favourite songs, putting in quiet bits and bluesy bits and shouting out ‘once more!’ when the break down (do you call them break downs?) seems to be almost over, well – fret no more, if The Go-Betweens are your favourite band, and ‘Spring Rain’ your favourite song. There is clearly no way this ought to have worked, but Robert managed to make these comedy moves with such seriousness that you didn’t know whether to laugh or dance, and ended up doing both. For too much of Robert’s solo career in the ’90s his records (all except Danger in the Past) lacked exactly this crackle – he went blues but forgot that blues needs energy. And now here it is, redeeming the previously anaemic ‘1-2-1’ like it was a beast of a song all along. Even ‘I Can Do’ was kind of OK, and that’s saying something.
There were plenty of songs, too, which had never needed saving – ‘The Darlinghurst Years’ from Oceans Apart (‘this covers the years 1981-83 in my life, in exhaustive detail’), and a couple from this year’s The Evangelist, my favourite record of his since The Friends of Rachel Worth. ‘Demon Days’ was rapturously received, probably for the line ‘the fingers of fate / stretch out and take’, which felt like it referred to Grant, though the song itself is (wonderfully) vague. Older songs included ‘Draining the Pool for You’ and ‘Heart Out to Tender’ – both featuring epic break downs, the latter prompting the heckle, ‘I’ll bid for it!’ – and, glory of glories, ‘People Say’, which is and always has been the last word in two minute off key pop perfection. It really feels now, as it rarely did in the ’90s, that Robert Forster can stand outside The Go-Betweens – now that he has no choice, and now that he no longer has to stand at odds to them. Which is great news: he made a fine journalist and all, in the interim, but what the world really needs are his moves.