Live Review: The Whitlams

28 September 2022 | 2:00 pm | David James Young

At the end of the day, we're all here to celebrate one of the great survival stories in Australian music history.

More The Whitlams More The Whitlams

Although tonight is ostensibly about celebrating one particular album's milestone anniversary, that doesn't mean we can't throw in another for good measure. 

Veteran Sydney singer-songwriter Perry Keyes put out his second (and best) studio album The Last Ghost Train Home 15 years ago this year, and tonight he and his band are playing every song from it. Keyes has always been a songwriter's songwriter, with his tracks covered by the likes of Missy Higgins and even tonight's headliner. Keyes himself, however, has sadly never gotten the same degree of recognition. As such, it's wonderful to see him get his roses in front of a reverent, respectful audience that fully appreciates both the minutiae of his suburban storytelling and the rustic alt-country he soundtracks it with. In-between these diamonds in the rough, Keyes tells tale of doing songwriter nights at the Sandringham Hotel in the early 90s with a dishevelled twentysomething named Tim Freedman. Wonder what became of him?

If we've learned anything over the last 30-plus years of Custard, it's this: They have absolutely no tickets on themselves. They're one of Australian music's most perfectly imperfect units – rambunctious, irreverent and unabashedly unconventional. Every tour they've done of late feels like a victory lap, and frontman Dave McCormack is revelling in being in front of an audience that knows him as him and not... well, y'know, Bandit. With no new album in tow – not to mention nothing to prove – it's primarily an all-smiles greatest-hits affair that promptly flies by. Even in the face of some tech difficulties that kill off the keyboards for a few songs, the band soldier on in their own endearing and unpretentious way. Besides, when you've got songs like Apartment and Girls Like That in the back pocket – elder millennial and gen-X firestarters if there ever were – you can handle a snafu or two.

In 1997, on the brink of collapse, The Whitlams took one last shot at the big time with an erratic, mood-swinging album ruminating on grief, love, friendship and the inner west. In the wake of unspeakable personal tragedy within the band, Eternal Nightcap became The Whitlams' ticket to immortality. Within a year they'd topped the album charts, been presented with an ARIA by their ministerial namesake and won the Hottest 100. Now, some 25 years on, frontman Tim Freedman is back in the inner-west celebrating his biggest album's silver jubilee.

None of the people he made the album with are on stage with him – in fact, this tour marks the first-ever for newcomer bassist/keyboardist Ian Peres. Mainstay members Jak Housden on guitar and Terepai Richmond on drums, however, have spent much of the last two decades playing many of these songs each and every night. With this combination, then, you're presented with a lively and inspired run-through of the entire album. Not only do you have Freedman playing several deep cuts not played live either in decades or at all, you have Peres injecting new life into set staples like 'Melbourne' (his multi-tasking on the chorus, playing keys with one hand and bass with the other, is absolutely inspired) and both Housden and Richmond adding their own seasoned flair to tracks that, despite not writing, have long since become part of their own musical DNA.

Slight changes are afoot – the beloved Charlie trilogy is played in numerical order, for one, rather than its original placement on the album. Elsewhere, Housden takes lead on Where's the Enemy? and Freedman tackles the Dylan cover Tangled Up in Blue, which were both sung on the album by former guitarist Tim Hall. In the case of the former, it's utterly compelling to see it play out as originally envisioned; for the latter, it's a clever re-routing of tracks that might otherwise be discarded. A perfect balance is struck across the play-through – each song remains as emotive and vital as the first time you heard it, but the tweaks and twists along the way allow for the album as a whole to be appreciated in a new light. 

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

Once the Irish-pub sway of Band On Every Corner waltzes out of view, it's onto a brief history of the band with a song or two picked from all of their studio albums to date. Most are spot-on choices – you can't go past Gough from their debut, or Thank You from Love This City – but if there's any minor gripe to be made, it's with the selections from January's Sancho. The low-key Man About a Dog and the wry In the Last Life are both not without their charm, but tracks like Ballad of Bertie Kidd, Nobody Knows I Love You and Cambridge Three would serve as better showcases to those in the audience that may not have even been aware the band put out a new album this year.

Still, by the time Royal In The Afternoon rolls around, such trivial super-fan annoyances have well and truly flown out the window. At the end of the day, we're all here to celebrate one of the great survival stories in Australian music history. Long may The Whitlams reign.