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Live Review: Gang Of Youths

15 August 2022 | 10:11 am | Christopher Lewis

“I guess this song is about forgiveness. And we all need to get better at that.”

(Pic by Andrew Briscoe)

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This moment was always coming. The last time Gang Of Youths stepped foot in Melbourne, it was on the back of their record-breaking, eight show run at The Forum and even back then the band seemed larger than the Roman statues that adorn the former State Theatre. With their gargantuan anthems and seemingly limitless ambition, they were made to play shows at Rod Laver Arena and although David Le'aupepe states bluntly that he fucking hates tennis, you can see that he’s pretty happy to have 12,800 adoring fans in front of him.

So, it says a lot about Gang Of Youths that they turn this coming-of-age moment into a love fest, bringing along hometown hero Gretta Ray, who sang vocals on their latest album, and their old friends Middle Kids (Le'aupepe later confesses he played at Hannah Joy and Tim Fitz wedding ceremony) as support acts. Both play brilliantly, even if they are a little in-awe of their cavernous surroundings. But the stellar line-up does make the night feel like a one stage indie-rock festival and tracks like Cellophane and Questions off Middle Kids’ Today We’re The Greatest – one of the best Australian albums of last year – is a pretty fantastic warm up for the main event.

Watching Gang Of Youths, it's impossible to overstate the stranglehold Le'aupepe has on the crowd in front of him. His fans do not sing his lyrics back to him, they bellow them until their voices are hoarse and at times the cacophony is so overwhelming that if Le'aupepe is even a note out of time, he becomes an echo of himself. But this is no accident. It’s a product of the conviction he injects into every lyric as if he’s in a confessional booth. Sometimes he takes this quite literally, admitting to his almost 13,000 closest friends, “I don’t know if I’m worthy of this stuff and I use humour as a mask for it all…but singing these super vulnerable things in these big arenas still scares the shit out of me.”

But every time Le'aupepe’s raw vulnerability threatens to be a buzzkill, it’s immediately juxtaposed by his showmanship. He’s the best rock’n’roll performer this country has produced since Michael Hutchence, but he’s so self-effacing that at one point he turns around and tells Gretta Ray that she should be on lead vocals, and he should be in a dumpster. This constant ego immolation is all part of his effortless charm. The dripping sexuality, the so-dorky-they’re-cool dance moves, the air-guitaring and shadow-boxing silliness, it all belies the seriousness of his craft. In one moment, he exhibits the overblown and shameless self-confidence of Bono, like the moment he pulls his fifth Jesus pose in the man himself and the next minute he’s magnanimously convincing the crowd that every band that has covered them on triple j’s Like A Version has bettered them.

And yet the crowd hang on every second of it. Their devotion is so magnified in concert that Gang Of Youths could be designated a personality cult. Equal parts preacher man and lothario, David Le'aupepe is what Father John Misty could be if he wasn’t such a misanthrope. But more than anything, he’s a man of the people. He might reference Shakespeare, Milan Kundera and Danish philosophers and theologians in his lyrics, but he also cusses like a sailor and compares his song (in the wake of your leave) to Tony Lockett kicking his 1000th AFL goal – he’s nothing if not a man of contradictions, shaped equally by his childhood in the pews of Hillsong and the drunken bar fights of his adolescence. And his acceptance of all that has made him lends itself to an infectious passion in their music (R level 16) and an undeniable swagger on stage.

Pic by Andrew Briscoe

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A part of this swagger is the fact that Gang Of Youths is back on home turf. After years of being stationed in London and touring the world to convert each 300-person bar crowd to their cause, they are back with their disciples, a nation that made Let Me Down Easy a double-platinum hit. And the band know it, teasing out three false starts because Le'aupepe isn’t happy with the level of excitement from the crowd. “And if you’re here to review this, I don’t give a fuck, I’m not starting this motherfucking song until you all are dancing and losing your minds.” What Le'aupepe wants; Le'aupepe gets. He knows they have the hits for this gig, and he keeps the aces up his sleeve strategically, doling out the sing-a-longs in a measured fashion between showcasing angel in realtime. at a ratio of 2:1. 

This could have backfired, it’s a lot of new material to unload to fans who are desperate to scream the lyrics to Say Yes To Life but they pull it off by deftly using stage craft to unravel the density of their new album. angel in realtime. is a superior record to Go Farther In Lightness in many ways, but it’s far more inaccessible at first glance without radio-ready mega hits like The Heart Is A Muscle sitting in the chamber.

An acoustic Mumford & Sons-y version of unison with the band members huddled together on the traverse was a cute way of accentuating the song’s second-half island-jam and the decision to lower the giant disco ball over the stage just in time for tend the garden to collapse into its ‘60s lounge-jazz outro was inspired. brothers is a whole other kettle of fish. With Le'aupepe playing solo on the piano, his paean to the sins but also the humanity of his father brings the tennis-cum-soccer crowd to a hush. With a lone spotlight on Le'aupepe as he pours out his family’s fragmented history, he comes to an epiphany, “I guess this song is about forgiveness. And we all need to get better at that.” The crowd, for the first time in 90 minutes, is silent.

But the old bangers are still the ones that shake the retractable roof and unsurprisingly, Magnolia receives one of the most raucous receptions – a song that Dave Le'aupepe wrote about his suicide attempt has become a song of hope and redemption for so many and its performance is an exorcism. An exorcism Le'aupepe celebrates by jumping into the crowd. Because, of course he does. It’s then unsurprising, as a bunch of quote unquote good blokes that the band give the stage once again to Gretta Ray to sing The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows with them, a duet that needs to be recorded as soon as possible.

But it’s during the encore that Gang Of Youths really show their cajones. It would have been easy to pander. There were punters screaming for Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane. They hadn’t played Achilles Come Down – their song with the most hits on Spotify. But this is a band looking forward and angel in realtime. happens to finish with the most devastatingly beautiful one-two punch Australian music has seen for a very long time. Le'aupepe has admitted in interview that his father spurred on his love of classical music as a child, and you can hear that proclivity for grandiosity as hand of god slowly transcends into goal of the century with a string section that would impress Sigur Rós. The fact he begins the suite with a cover of saman by Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds says everything and nothing about David Le'aupepe writing any more hands-in-the-air rock songs for Triple M.

Le'aupepe once told us to be part of the new sincere and it’s that characteristic that defines Gang Of Youths. In a genre that has been historically wrapped up in pretense and projection, Le'aupepe has become a poster boy for authenticity, he doesn’t so much wear his heart on his sleeve as he does throw it in your face. This isn’t Black Francis singing about swimming in the Caribbean with animals hiding behind rocks, this is life and death shit. These are the messy, painful, cathartic blessings and curses of our hearts. Falling in love. Getting your heart broken. Mourning the death of your family. Discovering yourself and your fallacies as a human. Falling into a deep depression and finding a way back to happiness. Gang Of Youths make it all sound worth celebrating as part of our possibly meaningless existence. I mean, not many bands bring out the confetti gun in their second song…

Pic by Andrew Briscoe