But I had the pleasure of witnessing Robert Foster in the unlikely setting of Lancaster Library in late 2008, and – a decade and a bit later – he remains an iconic live performer as well as a master songwriter judging by latest album, Inferno, and this intimate Manchester appearance.
When I say performer, he’s still the somewhat gauche artist I expected, seemingly apologetic to be up there at times, yet truly engaging and personable, all the more likeable for that slightly off-kilter demeanour, understated presence and low-key small talk.
Like last time, the quirky setting was rather apt, and I say that despite having snuck in too late to muscle through to the front, making do behind a pillar with a shelf on which I could balance my Cheshire Cat. I don’t mean that in a ‘not enough room to swing a cat’ way. That was my pint of choice on a pleasant early summer evening, and from my location I could gaze upon the star guest and his Swedish rhythm section (Jonas Thorell on bass guitar, Magnus Olsson on drums), occasional cocking my head around to catch Karin Baeumler (violin, vocals) and Robert’s fellow Queenslander, Scott Bromiley (lead guitar).
The Band on the Wall has been at the heart of Manchester’s Northern Quarter scene for nine decades, yet this was my first visit. I’ll certainly return though, making a mental note to get in earlier next time (hopefully starting with Pip Blom’s forthcoming visit).
The depth of the new LP Inferno only properly struck me the week or so approaching Robert’s visit, my preferred ploy of playing albums the first few times in the background – letting them soak in – paying off, our visitors easing in via ‘The Morning’ – Robert and partner Karin’s harmonies assured – and ‘Crazy Jane on the Day of Judgement’ – his ‘William Butler Yeats co-write’ – those numbers already every inch established parts of the set, the band at one with each other.
At that point, Karin left the others to it for the sublime ‘Born to a Family’ from The Go-Betweens’ final – best ‘til last, I’d venture – record, Oceans Apart, cranking up a notch or two. Well, I say that, but technical glitches surfaced, Robert a laid-back guiding presence as the lead guitar cut out, suggesting to a fretting Scott (sorry) that their friendly clientele had plenty of patience and understanding. We were all rock’n’roll friends after all, and after a couple of false starts they were up and running again.
On a roll, from previous LP, Songs to Play, we got an all-empowering, head-strong ‘I Love Myself (And I Always Have)’, Robert marching to his own beat, before the first of three choices from 1986’s Liberty Belle and Black Diamond Express, a dynamic ‘In the Core of the Flame’. Karin took to violin for 2017’s the building almost early Waterboys-esque ‘A Poet Walks’, while the poignant ’Dive For Your Memory’, from the 16 Lovers Lane album – 31 years young – that first turned me on to The Go-Betweens and prompted me to dart back and forth through the catalogue from there, sounded as good as I dared hope.
This was always going to be about more than mere nostalgia though, ‘Life Has Turned a Page’ carries on that great story-song tradition, reminding me of my turn-of-‘90s Aussie adventures, a woman near the front whooping at the mention of Noosa, Byron Bay and Wurtulla, on a night when Robert told us his brother was catching him live for the first time in the UK. The band also shimmered and shimmied on fellow new LP cut ‘Remain’, while the mighty ‘Inferno (Brisbane in Summer)’ ramped it up further, the latest ‘why is this not a hit?’ from an artist it’s fair to say Joe Public never truly understood.
Before we knew it, we were treated to a five-piece Velvet Underground-like treatment of 1983 single ‘Man O’ Sand to Girl O’ Sea’, Scott riffing to his heart’s content, memories rekindled throughout the room, the mood music swiftly taking a major turn, and I swear you could have heard a badge drop during The Evangelist’s heart-rending ‘Demon Days’, Grant McLennan’s haunting lyric and melody still piercing – again Velvetesque – and with no explanation offered nor required from the singer, his intuitive treatment of the song enough. And talking of understated power, new album closer ‘One Bird in the Sky’ further showcases Robert’s continued songcraft.
Back we went to the Liberty Belle for the angular, expressive ‘Twin Layers of Lightning’, Robert’s guitar cast aside, before a delightful D minor riff signalled rapture throughout, ‘Spring Rain’, our star guest’s hymn to mid-‘80s London living, never so refreshing to these ears. I think they were set to head off for a breather then, but our ownership of the moment was mirrored on stage, Robert telling us, ‘This is feeling so good!’ and ploughing on into Oceans Apart’s chugging introductory masterpiece, ‘Here Comes a City’.
On returning, he expressed concerns about nights when he might not get called back, but wasn’t fooling anyone, 16 Lovers Lane’s emotive ‘Love is a Sign’ including his sole guitar solo, a song with its roots in Oslo in ’88 still possessing the subtle power to captivate.
The highlights continued, with hardly a dry eye in the house during an upbeat yet naturally wistful delivery of Grant’s ‘Finding You’, Robert then changing the mood again, shedding his Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine skin, treating us to something more Talking Heads-like for Songs to Play’s ‘Learn to Burn’, his dance moves enthusiastically received, channelling his inner Iggy Pop with added mic. swirling.
When they returned for a final time, the strings were heart-searing and the spirit of early Bowie was worn with pride on Tallulah‘s ever-atmpospheric ‘The Clarke Sisters’, before a trip back to 1979 – yep, 40 years, count them – for ‘Don’t Let Him Come Back’, the semi-ragged B-side of the mighty ‘People Say’ another treat for The Go-Betweens purists, Robert even pitching in with a little gob-iron solo.
And where to finish but the life-affirming ‘Surfing Magazines’ from triumphant Go-Betweens 2000 comeback LP The Friends of Rachel Worth, an inevitable crowd singalong bringing matters to a joyous conclusion. A final characterising moment followed, Robert referencing surf hotspots at the climax, losing his thread while trying to recall a few apt UK locations, Fistral, Sennen and the Vortex lost on the tip of the tongue, our esteemed visitor instead offering ‘Cornwall’, somehow perfectly illustrating what he’s all about. Nothing over-waxed here.
He wasn’t likely to disappear to a private function backstage, promising to return shortly to sign anything, even Pavement records. And he did, your scribe there with his already well-thumbed copy of Inferno. So how did that conversation go? Well, anyone who’s been in that situation possibly already knows, questions evaporating in the air as the moment arrives.
Finding myself at the right end of the queue when a familiar accent piped up behind as I headed towards the bar seemed to throw me. I switched direction – nonchalantly of course – towards the merch stall, my friend Jim’s ‘Want a pint, fella?’ ignored, prising my copy of the CD from a back pocket. And soon we were eye to eye, my blurting, ‘Great show tonight … loved it!’ suggesting I might as well have been requesting a song on Steve Wright’s Radio 2 show. Yet his response was genuine.
“Thank you! Who should I sign it to?’
“Erm … Malc …that’d be great!”
“Malc … as in Malcolm McLaren.”
Malcolm McLaren? Why him, I thought? He looked me square in the eyes, searchingly.
“But you’re nicer than him … right?”
“Oh God, yeah!”
Borderline self-congratulatory this time. Over-thinking it, as if I was being interviewed for a job I didn’t really want. I tried a weak smile. He smiled back, our conversation as good as dead, neither of us more enlightened for the experience. I thanked him, shook hands again and moved on so the next punter could take my place, doing my best not to smudge the signature.
All the subjects I could have brought up soon flooded back. Something about his writing partnership with Grant, how he manages to split his time between Australia and Germany, how much those last three albums meant to me, how I loved Grant and I, or maybe how entertaining he was in conversation with Marc Riley – as always – during his latest BBC 6 Music live session. I might also have mentioned my 1990/91 travels Down Under, The Go-Betweens a key part of the soundtrack in my head, those lyrics all the more real in those settings. And as I couldn’t see Scott, I wanted to mention how I too had family around Wynnum, and that it was in Brisbane that a mate and I bought a VW Kombi in which we clocked up 10,000 miles in a few months. That’s why when I first heard it I almost mistook ‘Surfing Magazines’ for a self-addressed, late-arriving postcard (see what I did there) I must have sent a decade earlier. But no, instead I mentioned Malcolm McFuckingClaren. Even mention of Malcolm McDowell or Malcolm Turnbull might have made for more interesting discourse. Nothing though … till next time.
For more about Robert Forster, his live schedule (including dates in Australia in July, then the USA and Europe from November, including shows in Dublin and Birmingham) and new album Inferno, head to his Facebook page here.