THE WHITLAMS with WASO @ Perth Concert Hall gets 8/10

The Whitlams with WASO @ Perth Concert Hall
Wednesday, May 3, 2017

8/10

The Whitlams celebrated 25 Years this week with an ambitious anniversary tour comprised of orchestral performances in every major Australian city. On Wednesday night they teamed up with the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) for a special one night only performance at Perth Concert Hall. Starting at 8pm with a large but orderly crowd frontman Tim Freedman emerged in a striking blue suit and took his place behind the keyboard. The rest of the four-piece joined him on the front of the stage with guitarist Jack Housden front-and-centre looking more enthused than anyone else in the venue. The orchestra was a captivating backdrop that burst into life as the familiar notes of Charlie No.1 began proceedings amid rapturous applause.

Following the song Freedman welcomed the crowd to their anniversary tour, joking that he was going to enjoy the eight days and then “going back to sleep”. He then fittingly followed up the opener with Charlie No.2 (Buy Now Pay Later) and Charlie No.3 from their acclaimed 1998 album Eternal Nightcap. Freedman’s lively piano melodies were the centrepiece of the ensemble while celebrated conductor Guy Noble led the orchestra though the opening suite of songs. Warwick Hornby’s bass guitar was discernible but beautifully enveloped by the lower tones of the cello and brass sections. Jack Housden’s guitar would rise above the mix only on considered moments that added a new dynamic to the production and occasionally reminding you that there was still a rock band at the heart of it all.

Surprisingly some of the most captivating moments were when the songs were stripped back to just Freedman’s voice and the piano. Songs like God Drinks Down at the Sando were given the chance to breathe and the sheer restraint and anticipation of having an entire orchestra at the ready remaining silent made made moments like these all the more electrifying. After the spellbinding Blow up the Pokies, Freedman open to “lighten things up a little”, encouraging the audience to cast their minds back with him to the trials of “shared accommodation” in You Sound Like Louis Burdett. This was the first time in the set you felt the band and the orchestra were truly allowed to give it their all with the brass section deployed to its full capacity and had the audience bouncing in their chairs. After Fall for You Freedman praised the venue saying it was a “beautiful sounding room”, contrasted to the Sydney Opera House the night before which was a “beautiful looking room”.

Freedman often charmed the audience between tracks often with candide observations of his time with the group: “25 years is a long time. We’ve been through more Prime Ministers than drummers”. He also praised the work of director Guy Noble and the orchestra particularly for their “James Bond” style interpretation of the sneering Up Against the Wall. This was never demonstrated better than during Out the Back, when Freedman walked away from the keyboard to the side of stage just to watch the orchestra for a minute or two and appreciate them as part of the audience and then applauding them as much as anyone else in the room.

Possibly the only part of the production that could have been done better was the application of Terepai Richmond on the drums. The presence of an acoustic drum kit at the very front of the stage put it too high in the mix and sometimes its sheer volume intruded on the sound of the orchestra. It definitely felt appropriate to have the band members staged in front of the orchestra meaning it was probably an unavoidable trade-off, however it made it difficult for Richmond to ease in and out of songs with the same subtlety that everyone else enjoyed.

After a brief intermission, Freedman breezed through more popular tracks like Melbourne, No Aphrodisiac and I Make Hamburgers, the latter pushing the group to the same emphatic levels captured on Louis Burdett. He also pulled out a few surprises, paying homage to former guitarist Stevie Plunder with his track The Ballad of Lester Walker, which opened their debut album in 1993. There was also folk classic Soldier Boys, “not from the last century but the one before”, which Freedman joked he intended to release as a single but decided against it when Rolf Harris beat him to it. Nothing seemed to cap off the evening and the Whitlams’ career better than Thank You (for Loving Me at My Worst), and when they bowed to the crowd the audience gave the group and WASO a well-deserved standing ovation. Although keeping to script they basically turned on their heels side of stage for a fun and fitting encore of their namesake Gough.

Although audiences might be used to the concept now, putting the works of a rock band into an orchestral arrangement is a complex and ambitious task. The fact that The Whitlams are doing just that with six different orchestras over eight days across a continent the size of Australia is nothing short of astounding. Their performance with WASO last night demonstrated they have an elite level of professionalism and yet seem to have lost none of their youthful charm. It might not have all been perfect but ultimately it is the personality of the songs that allow them captivate an audience even after 25 years.

BRAYDEN EDWARDS

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