The unofficial title of the World’s Greatest Living Australian is up for grabs at the moment. Don Bradman departed a few years back to the great pavilion in the sky, where more recently Richie Benaud has delivered a laconic ‘morning everyone’, and a certain artist and children’s entertainer is now forever disgraced.
For my money one of the main contenders is Jimmy Barnes, even if he was born in Scotland. A multi million seller down under, both as singer of Cold Chisel and in a long solo career, with a unique voice, he has perfectly fitted the hard living, larger than life larrikin persona, as recounted in a pair of recent autobiographies.
On these shores he has been rather more of a cult figure, yet the Islington Academy was sold out months in advance for this rare UK date, and not only with the Australians who used to pack out his shows in the nineties, when Aussies were rather more ubiquitous around London than they are now.
I hadn’t seen him in only a decade, having missed fleeting jaunts as a solo artist and with Chisel in that time, and had unfinished business. However I understood that after some health scares in recent years, he had mellowed and even toned down the famous guttural bellow.
So it was double delight as his band took the stage; first when Danny Spencer played the slide guitar intro to ‘Driving Wheels’, the lead off cut from ‘Freight Train Heart’ which is one of my desert island discs, yet one he hadn’t played that much from on recent shows. Then, when that voice kicked in, it was clear that he had lost none of his raucous power and raw passion. It was followed by ‘Ride The Night Away’, remarkably the third time I’d heard the song live this year following on from Southside Johnny and its writer Steve Van Zandt.
With the odd exception – a punchy ‘Love And Fear’ and the supercharged R’n’B of ‘Red Hot’ – the setlist focused on what for me are his holy trinity of solo albums – ‘For The Working Class Man’, the aforementioned ‘FTH’ and ‘Two Fires’. The blues and soul covers that had increasingly become his stock in trade were kept to a minimum.
As a result a recurring theme of the night was my gig companion and I turning to each other in delight at hearing the opening bars to a succession of classics we’d forgotten about- ‘Lay Down Your Guns, ‘I’d Die To Be With You Tonight’ and ‘Love Is Enough’ to name but three, while – described as the near title track from ‘Freight Train Heart’ – I was delighted to hear the classy ballad ‘Still On Your Side’, as another friend who had come to the rescue and sold me his ticket had described it pre-gig as his favourite song.
The hair may now be grey and close cropped but there was no mistaking Barnesy’s vitality, his face bulging as he put every emotion into the songs. Chat was kept to a minimum as he rattled through over 20 songs in an hour and 40 minute set with barely a pause for breath, except arguably when a cover of ‘Resurrection Shuffle’ became something of a jam.
His band was also excellent with a feel of whatever the antipodean equivalent of Americana is, while both guitarists had a complementary style. A left handed guitarist whose name was not announced had a tougher more rock n roll feel, epitomised by his solo on the surprise inclusion of the raucous ‘Boys Cry Out For War’. Danny Spencer had a more subtle touch, showcased on a marvellous solo, bluesy but rough-edged on ‘Too Much Ain’t Enough Love’, as re-popularised by the association with another JB in Joe Bonamassa.
As the set wore on the Aussies in the crowd were delighted by a smattering of Cold Chisel classics which they sang along to word perfect – ‘Flame Trees’, ‘Merry Go Round’ and above all ‘Khe Sanh’, something of a national anthem as people sang along to its ‘last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone’ lyric.
They were accompanied by some other straight ahead numbers that fitted the looser stage of late gig proceedings, such as ‘No Second Prize’ and ‘Seven Days’ before a brilliant version of ‘Working Class Man’, the appropriate title of his autobiography, closed the main set.
A four song encore included a rare cover with a powerful ‘I Put a Spell On You’ before the Barnes family was introduced, including drummer Jackie who is the spit of his Dad, and a trio of daughter backing singers, one of whom, Mahalia, came forward to play the Michael Hutchence role on a rattling ‘Good Times’ which somehow seemed appropriate, though I was raising a metaphorical stubby to the memory of its co-writer George Young, not to mention brother Malcolm.
‘Goodbye Astrid Goodbye’ was a suitable closer, Jimmy’s face bulging as he roared over a rolling piano rhythm in a manner which called to mind the vintage Australian pub rock tradition.
I never expected him to be this good at this stage of his life: whether or not he is the Greatest Living Australian, this was certainly right up there as gig of the year.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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