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Live Review: The Whitlams @ The Triffid, 05.09.15

Roughly 50 years ago, Australia had a prime minister who axed military conscription, made university free, and introduced universal health care. In short he did what a prime minister is elected to do, making the country a better place for the public rather than looking after those wielding power.

Referencing the immense improvement Gough Whitlam’s choices made to Australian culture, a Newtown band borrowed the name back in the 90’s, subsequently doing it proud with a beautifully crafted sound uniquely owned by The Whitlams.

We find ourselves in a deteriorated political system where Gough’s efforts for a liberally thinking nation are gradually eroded, however The Whitlams are still doing a fine job of performing. The four piece played to a sold out audience last Saturday night at the Triffid, showcasing their scope of rich, piano-herded tunes about the peaks and troughs of urban life.

The band’s talent fits one another like a glove, with the voices of Jak Houdsen, Warwick Hornby, and Terepai Richmond working harmoniously with Tim Freedman’s colourful piano performance and gravelly timbre. Yet Freedman is undeniably the heart of The Whitlams. A true blues musician, he pours his soul into his musicianship.

‘No Aphrodisiac’ punctuates the previous track’s debauched joviality with slowed up strings and a melancholy tale of ‘truth, beauty, and a picture of you’. As the single that topped Triple J’s Hottest 100 in 1997, this number is palpably relished by the audience.

Freedman’s resemblance to Dylan Moran is conspicuous as he launches into the next song, turns around to uncap a wine bottle and pour himself a glass upon the amp behind him, then casually turns around to sing into the mic while still pouring. The crowd is too excited to notice this, cheering as frolicsome ‘You Sound Like Louis Burdett' begins. With its superb piano riff and periodical declaration ‘all my friends are fuck ups, but they’re fun to have around’, it sits at the janglier, more upbeat end of their spectrum.

An audience member sporting a Whitlams shirt bought from the merch table is hoisted on stage to model his ‘nice, classic white number featuring a Gough cartoon’. He epically rocks out dad-style, to a whole song: air guitar, running man — with no intention of leaving until Freedman eventually changes tempo announcing, ‘Right now we're going to bring you down with a song about depression and snow. Put that fucking phone down.’

Freedman remains the only original band member, with tracks from Eternal Nightcap particularly reflecting the passing of original band members. At this point, the rest of the
band leaves the stage as moody lighting illuminates Freedman playing piano ballad ‘Charlie no. 2’.

Hearing The Whitlams play live takes me back to my childhood, and not just because my parents regularly played their albums. Often through a critical lens, the music paints grungy inner-city Sydney as a backdrop to destructive habits and loss. There's a latent heaviness woven into The Whitlams’ poppy sound, betraying lyrically and thematically the hardships the band has endured.

Although I’m disappointed not to have heard the eccentric, lilting ‘Melbourne’, The Whitlams did play for almost two hours, returning for two separate encores. They clearly live for their music and their audience, running back on stage as the crowd chants ‘encore,’ picking up a mic to say, ‘We’d like to,’ and embarking on another six or so tracks.

Oscillating between grave and celebratory but always witty; The Whitlams' music balances an intelligent social commentary of Australian culture with the affection of an artistic perspective. In the very least, they provide an excellent legacy to one of the few politicians who sought to serve the Australian people’s interests.

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