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Live Review: Gareth Liddiard w/ Dan Kelly, June 12 @ The Basement

Words by Scenewave Australia - Published on June 17, 2014

The Basement is a really amazing venue. Traditionally home to jazz and blues, it also opens its doors to singer-songwriters and, on a night like this, an exceptionally diverse crowd. We were all there for Gareth Liddiard, frontman of The Drones. (my personal favourite Australian band) Liddiard was using the intimate Sydney setting for a rare solo show.

The gig had been postponed a few weeks, meaning that the original opening act was replaced by the one and only Dan Kelly. Nephew of, and guitarist for Aussie legend Paul Kelly, Dan brought his whimsy, humour and effortless talent to the stage.

An old friend and former bandmate of Liddiard, he explained that the opening gig was planned at the last minute, and asked if he could test out some of his newest songs on us. Rife with eccentric Australiana, we enjoyed some wonderfully quirky tracks. From the sensitive Goths in Byron Bay, to moving to Brisbane, and a funny fable about life as a Sea Shepherd cook, every track was as entertaining as the last.

The set was rounded off by a totally acoustic version of the Bindi Irwin Apocalypse Jam. If you don’t know it, this one of the funniest and strangest songs you’ll ever hear. Written when Irwin was a 14 years old, Kelly included Terri Irwin as “the world’s first song chaperone,” in a tale about a post-apocalyptic world under the sea. Ringo Starr and Jimi Hendrix were there too, of course. Breaking out of acoustic  mode for a moment, Kelly slammed out a seriously psychedelic electric guitar solo mid-way through, and a totally fuzzed-up, “underwater” rendition of Hendrix’s famous Star Spangled Banner. All in all, an amazing set. I’ll be sure to catch Dan next time he performs in Sydney.

After a brief break, it was time for the main event. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a whiskey-filled water bottle, the formidable Gareth Liddiard sat on a stool, took a swig and began fiddling with his strings. After some barely-intelligible crowd interaction, it soon dawned on me that he appeared to be really, really drunk (which explains a lot of the next two hours.) Settling in after a few minutes of un-PC banter, he opened with A Moat You Can Stand In, one of the three Drones songs of the night.

In such an intimate setting, it was remarkable to see how different his persona was when speaking and singing. His harmlessly grumpy humour draws constant laughs. But his music tells dark, haunting tales of melancholy, through which the audience remained impressively silent.

I have to admit that his mumbled ramblings really got on my nerves throughout the night. Whether inviting the crowd to shout out conversation topics, “Rolf Harris!” “Rik Mayall!” or responding to minor heckles, “Why is your hair so short?” it seemed like Liddiard was wasting time between songs. At times it seemed like the songs were interruptions to the banter, rather than the other way around. It was really, really frustrating.

Part troubled poet, part drunken fool (though these may be the same thing,) there were truly brilliant moments in each track. His booming voice sang of dark, bitter times, while his long-flowing guitar work, more prose than verse, served as endlessly evocative accompaniment.

But for every shining moment, there was a slip-up, a bunk chord or a messed up verse. No, it’s not that I’m being overly finicky about tuning or correct chord progressions or anything like that (why bother seeing live music if you’re a perfectionist?) It was more that the mistakes seemed to be due to a lack of care or focus, and it snapped me out of the otherwise intense, engaging songs.

The set certainly picked up halfway through. Did She Scare All Your Friends Away  tells a heartbreakingly bleak tale which, for a good ten minutes, kept the audience attentive and dead silent. This was followed by the phenomenal, crowd pleasing Drones’ tracks Sixteen Straws and Shark Fin Blues. Liddiard’s strength and ability as a performer mostly shone through those irritating cracks, a testament to his talent and stage presence.

Final track was the intense and evocative The Radicalisation of D. Liddiard slowly worked his way through the already long track (16 minutes on Strange Tourist.) Despite the depth and power of the song, reportedly about Australian terror suspect and former Guantanamo Bay inmate David Hicks, it unfortunately seemed like the momentum was dropping. Much of the audience were clearly preparing  for the set, which was 30 minutes over time, to conclude.

It was a unique and excellent performance. Liddiard is a truly brilliant, enigmatic performer, and despite the shortfalls, I greatly enjoyed the set. Both Liddiard and that spectacular oddball, Dan Kelly, are immensely gifted storytellers. With unbridled skill and a knack for audience engagement, it was an interesting night indeed.

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