Sydney Festival Review: 16 Lovers Lane was a celebration of love & it’s beautiful messiness

This year marks the 30th anniversary of The Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers Lane. Three former members of the band played a special tribute at the State Theatre for Sydney Festival. And rather than dive for the group’s memory, the artists rose up and soared in a sea of nostalgia while supported by a cast of contemporaries and youngsters. It was a fitting tribute to one great yet underappreciated Australian band.

The 16 Lovers Lane Show first premiered at Queensland Festival thanks to Festival director, singer-song-writer and former george member, Katie Noonan developing the idea. Whereas that line-up featured former members of The Go-Betweens: drummer, Lindy Morrison and versatile multi-instrumentalists, Amanda Brown and John Willsteed accompanied by singers predominantly from the band’s hometown of Queensland, the Sydney Festival show predominantly saw its guest vocalists calling the likes of New South Wales home.

The idea for 16 Lovers Lane was a fantastic one. This is an album that is considered by many fans to be The Go-Betweens’ magnum opus. It was certainly a critically acclaimed album even though it failed to make huge waves in a commercial sense. Although it was released in 1988 that incarnation of the band would break-up rather acrimoniously the following year, which meant that many of these tracks had never been performed live before the Queensland gig. While the 1988 line-up of The Go-Betweens can no longer reunite (Grant McLennan passed away prematurely in 2006 and Robert Forster has given his blessings but has said he refuses to take part in a reunion without his friend and former co-writer) this show was perhaps the closest you’ll get to witnessing The Go-Betweens in action in 2018.

This concert did not rely on crazy bells, whistles or other pageantry. Instead it allowed these beautifully poetic and literate pop songs to take centre stage and speak in and of themselves. The album originally featured ten songs that McLennan and Forster wrote about the many facets of love, from the intoxicating honeymoon stage to overwhelming feelings of lust and even the dysfunctional end and break-down of a relationship. It was often considered Australia’s answer to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours but you also get the sense that it can now be considered a companion piece to a literary work such as Alain de Botton’s The Course Of Love.

The band at the 16 Lovers Lane Show also included: Dan Kelly, Danny Widdicombe (The Wilson Pickers) and Luke Daniel Peacock. They played fairly faithful arrangements of the original songs. There were some tracks that suited the guests’ vocal style and range more than others. “Boundary Rider” had three part harmonies that positively soared thanks to Brown and Clouds’ members Jodi Phillis and Patricia Young. Izzi Manfredi of The Preatures was pure sweetness and charm and with a prop to boot in “Apples In Bed.”

The proceedings had a very casual and loose feel. The guest singers often waltzed out onto the stage with little fan-fare and sometimes not even an announcement of who they were or their connection to the band. Well that is save for Messer Steve Kilbey of The Church who played up the show business aspect when he delivered some witty but long-winded anecdotes before a stunning, “Streets Of Your Town.” It is interesting to note that the Go-Betweens’ biggest hit was written after McLennan was tinkering away playing The Church’s “Under The Milky Way.” It seems that the shimmering and white McLennan was spying was the sun-dappled Queensland light of his own city.

Kirin J. Callinan dialled up the theatrics and certainly dressed the part in a green dress that was a joke and a nod to Forster, but there were times when he was a tad too flamboyant for his own good. Romy Vager (RVG)’s vocals while pleasant enough but were also far too deep for “Love Is A Sign.” Robert Snarski (The Blackeyed Susans) meanwhile, did a deliciously wistful version of the gentle, “Quiet Heart.” Also in appearance were Dave Mason (The Reels), Shogun (Royal Headache) and Peter Milton Walsh (The Apartments.)

At the climax of the seminal album Morrison brought out a vinyl copy and declared that that part of the programme had finished. The group then worked their way through some B-sides and other favourites from the band’s discography. While the crowd no doubt appreciated hearing the glorious “Cattle & Cane,” this song suffered from a couple of miss-fires and most notably lacked the magic pixie dust the peppers the original. At least there is always the vinyl recording.

16 Lovers Lane had been one emotive and evocative journey through the shimmering, jangly pop of The Go-Betweens. It was an absolute treat to hear what is considered by many to be the soundtrack of a generation celebrated for old and new fans alike to sup and enjoy. This was ultimately a celebration of true love- one that isn’t neat and tidy but multi-faceted, complex and often messy, but that is also what makes it oh so beautiful.

The set-list for 16 Lovers Lane for Sydney Festival at State Theatre included:

1. Love Goes On
2. Quiet Heart
3. Love Is A Sign
4. You Can’t Say No Forever
5. The Devil’s Eye
6. Streets Of Your Town
7. Clouds
8. Was There Anything I Could Do?
9. I’m Alright
10. Dive For Your Memory
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11. Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend
12. Twin Layers Of Lightening
13. Apples In Bed
14. Apology Accepted
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15. Cattle & Cane
16. Boundary Rider
17. The House That Jack Kerouac Built

All photos supplied and used with permission. Photo credit: Prudence Upton