No band defines ’90s Sydney like The Whitlams, and for this night at least, chief writer and lone original member Tim Freedman was happy to quench a near-capacity crowd’s thirst for nostalgia.
One song from The Whitlams’ last album of original material, 2006’s Little Cloud, was as close as we got to new in a two-hour set that flapped around their zeitgeist-capturing era “like a flannelette shirt”, as the 54-year-old singer and pianist put it.
Celebrating its twentieth anniversary, fourth album Love This City was the focus and it has held up as well as Freedman’s affecting tenor.
The portrait of a sex pest that is Pretty As You, for instance, was cast by Freedman as “a #metoo anthem way ahead of its time”, and his intense, sneering delivery justified the claim.
He maintained that tone for 400 Miles From Darwin, which at the time asked how Australians in 20 years would feel about their apathy toward the East Timorese and their bloody struggle for independence. The fact that most recently we’ve played hardball with them for gas fields was written all over Freedman’s face.
Depressingly, Blow Up The Pokies – about the downfall of founding bassist Andy Lewis – and takedown of Sydney vapidity You Gotta Love This City were as relevant as ever too. At least their enduring melodies and soaring treatment from this four-piece made them less bitter pills to swallow.
Given the untimely deaths of two of the three original Whitlams, and the revolving door of musicians that played on their biggest records of the late ’90s, the band today is considered as “Tim and the other guys” by most.
This night proved that is unfair, and not just because this line-up with Jak Housden on guitar, Warwick Hornby on bass and Terepai Richmond on drums has been constant since 2001.
Their jazz-level chops were enough to make one forget the missing strings and horn sections, grooving brightly on Thank You (For Loving Me At My Worst) and I Make Hamburgers, rocking hard on Royal In The Afternoon and rousing closer I Will Not Go Quietly, pushing-and-pulling on the mosh-worthy You Sound Like Louis Burdett and Year Of The Rat (boasting a showstopping solo from Richmond ), and striking minor-key solemnity on God Drinks At The Sando – Freedman noting wryly that he hadn’t been “allowed into a bar on King Street after 10pm” for some time.
The band also added gorgeous harmonies throughout, none prettier than on touring lament, There’s No-One.
They were too loud on No Aphrodisiac, drowning out whatever 21st-century lyrical additions Freedman was declaiming in its coda.
However the words from twenty-odd years ago were fine by this crowd, which sung through Buy Now Pay Later (Charlie No.2) in its entirety, Freedman alone at the keyboard calling over the top for another fallen friend.
Earlier, solo sets from the frontpeople of two other big ’90s bands – Bob Evans (aka Kevin Mitchell from Jebediah) and Ella Hooper (Killing Heidi) – transcended nostalgia with highlight songs from this decade.
In Evans’ case it was Wonderful You, a love song that obvious hero Bob Dylan would be proud to claim, and for Hooper The Red Shoes, which showed a gift for building drama and a big voice with falsetto intact.