“We’re scared, but we’re confident,” declared Go-Betweens co-frontman Robert Forster in the program for the band’s June 27th concert in London. Yes, a program for a rock concert. But, then, this was no ordinary rock concert. For one thing, it was in the Barbican Center, an all-seater venue usually used for classical concerts. For another thing, the Go-Betweens were to play all evening, without support. Nor was this part of a tour—Forster and fellow singer-songwriter Grant McLennan had come all the way from their home in Brisbane, Australia to play just two concerts: this one and another in Dublin, Ireland. This was a unique opportunity.
Still, it was never a fait accompli that the concert would (as it did) sell out. For, despite the almost universal acclaim with which the Go-Betweens’ first six albums were greeted by the press, they never achieved anything like commensurate commercial success. The band’s frustration at this eventually led to a split at the end of the ’80s, right after releasing 16 Lovers Lane, which, in my humble opinion, is one of the top five best albums of all time. Thankfully, Forster and McLennan got back together at the beginning of the new millennium, and have since released another two wonderful albums.
But this concert was to be as much about their back catalogue as about their new material. (Indeed, they only played two tracks from their latest album, Bright Yellow, Bright Orange.) The first half of the concert featured the band in their original three-piece form, with McLennan on bass. The highlight of this triumphant run through their early post-punk material was undoubtedly “Karen,” an understatedly hilarious song about the young Forster’s lust for the local librarian (“She helps me find James Joyce/ She always makes the right choice”).
After the interval, the band acquired another bassist, allowing McLennan to graduate to acoustic guitar. A few songs later, a string quartet filed onto the stage to add a glorious new dimension to the Go-Betweens’ characteristic mixture of electric and acoustic guitar. Indeed, the first track they graced, “He Lives My Life,” was, for me, the highlight of the evening, so soul-stoppingly beautiful that a tear still comes to my eye when I recall it.
But the truth is that I was never far from tears all evening. It was just such a joy to see “the Australian Lennon and McCartney” reunited and so obviously engaged by what they were playing. Indeed, McLennan (the McCartney of the partnership, with his penchant for melodious, romantic pop songs) spent the entire concert grinning from ear to ear; Forster (taller, dryer, more unpredictable) was more stony-faced, even displaying irritation when the otherwise impeccable band fluffed a couple of intros. Nevertheless, it was him who seemed the most reluctant to leave the stage at the end of the third encore. “We could play pure quality for, I’d say, four and a half, five hours; it wouldn’t dip,” he had declared in the program, with characteristic arrogance. None of the thirtysomethings in the audience would have complained if they had gone on all night.