Given the amount of ex-pat Australians who come to London to make their fortune, it was surprising that these three gigs to promote Bernard Fanning’s solo album Tea And Sympathy were held at such a miniscule venue. Fanning and the band he is currently on hiatus from, Powderfinger, are national treasures in their homeland, who no self-respecting Aussie doesn’t love. He could have filled a venue three times this size.
That said, the intimacy of the Arts Theatre allowed a laid-back, good-natured vibe to make this evening a pleasure. You’d be hard pressed to find a more genial performer, or a crowd so obviously devoted to a man on stage. It was like a bunch of old friends meeting up after many years.
When I reviewed Fanning’s single, Wish You Well, I pointed out with my usual insight and acumen, that while he was signed to the country label Lost Highway, he wouldn’t be making that pretentious country record – going by the single, anyway. The first few tracks he and his five-piece band perform tonight prove that to be nonsense, with a mandolin, guitar slides and a mouth organ all on show.
But somehow the Americana-style material doesn’t sound contrived, thanks in equal parts to Fanning’s considerable songwriting talent and quite fantastic rock voice.
However, the majority of songs off the new album sound like Powderfinger. That is, loud, anthemic, guitar-driven rock in a ’70s vein. This propensity to rock, along with the new rootsy murmurings seem to allow Fanning to strike the right balance for a solo album of an artist in a major band – merely dabbling with a new style, and sticking in the main to what he knows will sell.
Fanning alternates between keyboard and guitar to perform his new songs, of which Down To The River and Songbird sound best, in their Neil Young-ish simplicity and volume, while he devotes Give It All Up to Steve Irwin, who died that morning. “That was fucking weird” says Fanning. He even does justice, thanks to his belting voice, to Sam Cooke‘s Lost and Looking.
Despite the Aussies of London lapping him up, Fanning and Powderfinger remain relatively anonymous in the UK, “I think I have about 14 English fans” he says. This can be put down to an affliction that has affected a few Antipodean bands over the years (Crowded House, Midnight Oil, Hunters And Collectors), that is, a chronic lack of image. With his check shirt, jeans and easy banter with the audience, Fanning oozes normal blokiness. And no one becomes a bona-fide rock star from being just a regular guy. So the happy and bubby fun of a tiny Bernard Fanning concert will remain attended, on these shores at least, by his adoring countrymen only.