With over four decades in the industry Robert Forster has lived through a lot. When the Go-Betweens started at Brisbane University in 1977 Americana wasn’t yet a thing and their artistic and indeed commercial dilemma for much of their early years was where they could be slotted on the indie rock to pop spectrum. Famously, the band had long term and pretty much universal critical admiration but that never translated to financial success. All this of course pre internet when people had to pay for the content, errm music. Tonight, Forster is playing a tightly sold out Lafayette which thankfully has come out of covid still operating and, within literally a stone’s throw of Kings Cross and St Pancras stations, it certainly has location on its side for travelling gig goers. Forster picks out the venue’s sound for special mention and whether it’s the acoustics or his guitar choice the sound in the room is rich and deep throughout.
Forster himself has always had his core sound based on simple sounding yet carefully crafted songs built around his understated delicately nuanced vocal style, which often hovers in some middle ground of song and speaking with rhythm. Acoustic guitar is at the heart of much of it. The combination of his songs’ structures, his lyrics and his voice mean that nothing else sounds quite like a Forster song does. More than most he is a wordsmith, to the extent that he has won awards for his music criticism (yep you read that right) and his debut novel is due for publication this year. He takes pains to get things just so – he is on record as saying he writes just “Two or three songs a year….. four and I’m on fire”.
This tour is built around his latest just-released album ‘The Candle and the Flame’ which was largely polished in the covid era and also before his wife of over 30 years, Karin Baumler, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This adds poignancy to the songs which reflect on their longevity as partners such as jingling opener ‘Always’, ‘She’s a Fighter’ and the excellent ‘Tender Years’ which picks out highlights from their shared lives, starting with their first meeting in Heidelberg – “See how far we’ve come.” Forster’s lyrics make clear that his role as family man and parent is always integrated with his creative commitments. Nothing illustrates this better than his being joined onstage for the set by his son Louis, a very accomplished bassist and guitarist who shares his father’s looks from his younger days.
Lyrically things have, now he’s in his 60s, evolved from what he penned when he was only just out of his teens, however precocious he was in his early days (or pretentious, as he self-deprecatingly assesses his much younger self). ‘The Roads’ is one of the evening’s numerous standouts and is a fine example of this. ‘Inferno’ gallops along at pace describing a distorted world from the first jarring line “The juggler is coming up to the door”. New song ‘When I was a Young Man’ has strong Go-Betweens tones, the narrator looking back to his “unheralded and undone” days. ‘Learn to Burn’ concerns the singer living at a frenetic pace, forever seeking the next high – “ I’ve got no desire to be the fourth person in line” and “I open presents before Christmas”.
There is a generous spread of Go-Betweens classics from both their incarnations (they split in the early 1990s before reforming in 2000) – the likes of ‘Here Comes The City’ and the memorable ‘Darlinghurst Nights’ from the early 2000s and ‘Spring Rain’ from the earliest days. From his earlier solo days there is ‘Danger In The Past’ which will always dazzle with its edgy narrative of previous episodes of life.
The set closes with ‘Surfing Magazines’, taking Forster way back to the earliest pre-music days of his life, and he invites, and succeeds, in bringing in the audience to carry the song’s melody. After some years away from the UK it’s a poignant conclusion to an extensive 20 songs in this joyous and memorable set.