When The Whitlams took the stage with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday night – the first of three performances – there was an immediate air of intrigue that soon turned to amazement. The orchestra sat in wait as Tim Freedman, Warwick Hornby, Jak Housden and Terepai Richmond joined them across the front of the stage, closely followed by conductor, Benjamin Northey. It’s hard to put into words the power that an orchestra backed rock band has over an audience, though the opening number Leave The Light On was a truly hair-raising moment. Freedman’s honest vocals were lifted tremendously by a vast array of strings that comprised a large majority of the orchestra ensemble for the evening and within seconds, the quality of the music that was to follow in the next two hours was already ensured.
A Whitlams favourite No Aphrodisiac followed and Freedman’s remarks about the band huddling back stage and promising “to play at 85 per cent” were completely put to rest as the Hamer Hall crowd sat in awe. The violin section took over on The Ease of the Midnight Visit, with first violinist Peter Edwards working some magic on his speedy arrangement. The amazing quality of Hamer Hall itself couldn’t have complemented The Whitlams more as another soft number, Her Floor Is My Ceiling followed, before everyone on stage began to increase their pace considerably.
Melbourne and Met My Match saw a sudden vibrancy arise from the MSO and Freedman could be seen clearly enjoying himself. “Now you’ve got a taste for the brass,” the excited front man proclaimed before he quickly introduced the pop-fueled Thank You For Loving Me At My Worst, which didn’t relent in letting the brass hijack the chorus from the band completely. The first half seemed to pass quickly, as Freedman encouraged all those of age to utilise the bar facilities to make them sound better. The self deprecating remark was completely redundant though, as the first half conclusion, Fondness Makes the Heart Grow Absentproved they sounded amazing, with the MSO building mini-climaxes with tempo and volume between each verse.
The Whitlams continued on with their hits as they returned after intermission, with Torch the Moon leading things off. The harmonies provided by Housden and Hornby for the track were impressive enough, but the addition of strings creeping up and taking those harmonies well beyond vocal ability was incredible. The lullaby, Breathing You In followed before Buy Now, Pay Later gave the MSO their first significant centre stage moment. Freedman confessed that the arrangement – composed by Brett Dean – was one of his favourites, and warned that many people often thought they were hearing wrong notes, but it was just because it was a modern composition. The band cleared the stage as the orchestra took over for an extended interlude during the track. It was then time for “lots of strings with some unadulterated rock,” according to Freedman as Housden delivered some much rockier guitar material on Out the Back alongside the orchestra, who included a “flock of seagulls”, thanks to a scratching of the vertical bass strings.
When Ben Folds played with the MSO, he described concerts such as these as wet t-shirt night for the orchestra. The inclusion of Whitlams numbers like Year of the Rat and You Sound Like Louis Burdett – in which Freedman semi-censored his bad language by singing away from the microphone – only proved Folds to be quite correct. Like the true professionals they are though, the orchestra played the more raucous material, showing an impressive display of the compositional ingenuity.
The set list was rounded off with the tracks Best Work and Blow Up The Pokies, before Freedman returned to the stage without the rest of his usual quartet to perform The Curse Stops Here. Finally, after the more serious moments had passed, all four of The Whitlams returned to centre stage for a shout out to their namesake, with a joyous delivery of Gough, complete with the return of the upbeat brass. A standing ovation ensued, which was more than deserving for the magnificent and beautiful display of musicianship that had been on show. If only more bands could perform in this setting, with such an amazing state orchestra.