Daniel Merriweather returned to Melbourne’s Toff in Town this week for a special once-off acoustic gig to make up for a cancelled show earlier in the year. This was to be an intimate affair, free of extraneous distractions. There were no opening acts, no fanfare, nothing. Just two names, a voice, a guitar and the promise of some soulfully delivered tunes.

At half past nine, Daniel and compatriot Bradley Green took their seats on the stage in front of a reasonably full house. A sultry red light emanating from behind the DJ decks provided the only embellishment to an otherwise bare stage. Without any introduction, the pair launched into a pair of unfamiliar r’n’b tracks, ostensibly to showcase Merriweather’s voice outside the context of his own self-penned tunes. The crowd were suitably impressed, but it wasn’t until album highlight “Getting Out” that the gig made the transition from being merely ‘quiet’ to ‘intimate.’ Merriweather’s delivery was sexy and confident, and we were immediately drawn in.

The rest of the gig showcased tracks from Love & War and some other as-yet-unreleased songs. During the set, Merriweather explained that based on the crowd response to each track he would decide whether to release them on an upcoming free mix tape, or his next album. The highlight was a new song entitled “Love,” a slow-burning and highly introspective ballad that is musically remarkably complex; Green’s chords constantly blurred the lines between major and minor, leaving the audience unsure of whether to be swept away by its grandiosity or left drowning in its melancholy. With a disarmingly simple chorus that ends with the catch-all “love is all of me, and love is all of you,” it has all the makings of a breakout single that will appease fans and purists alike.

In contrast to the Mark Ronson-produced big beat soul of his album Love & War, this gig had a much more loose and jazzy feel. Merriweather and Green played off each other’s adlibs, alternately picking up the pace and slowing back down depending on the other’s delivery. The pairing worked beautifully; Green’s acoustic featured lots of diminished chords, tasteful slides and fills, all of which encouraged Merriweather to follow his lead into improvised territory. Green also provided rare vocal harmonies during some songs; given that they were probably the emotional high points of the show, it was a shame that there were so few of them. Love & War‘s most upbeat track, “Change,” came halfway through the set, and it was impressive how well it translated into an acoustic setting. Green transcribed the intro into a palm-muted guitar riff and never missed a note; Merriweather, for his part, took the opportunity to let loose and enjoy the song for what it is, rather than over-embellishing.

The duo also played a few old unreleased racks; “Falling Down” and “The Sun is Shining Down on Me” were the most memorable, but showed a decidedly less mature side to the musician we hear now on Love & War. The set’s strangest inclusion was arguably “In the Pines,” a cover-of-a-cover of a traditional American folk song made popular by Nirvana, but given its proper, soulful treatment by Merriweather and Green.

Despite his fame and reputation, Merriweather is not much of a conversationalist. Any time he attempted to contextualise one of his songs, it was as if he realised he didn’t actually want to give too much away, cutting himself short mid-sentence and hurriedly slurring “d’ya know what I mean?” I usually didn’t. Perhaps when performing with a full band (and when standing upright as opposed to sitting), his indifference would translate better into rock star swagger, but in such an intimate setting too much talk isn’t necessarily a good thing. Daniel’s voice was obviously the centrepiece of the night, and the first half of his performance was delivered with a confidence both beguiling and intoxicating. While he lacks the purity of a traditional soul singer like Sam Cooke or the brutal honesty of an Otis Redding, it’s hard to argue that for a suburban white boy from Melbourne he does pretty well for himself. He’s an unconventional vocalist from the rock school; he usually has to push to reach his high notes, but when he gets there, the results can be disarming. In the latter half of the gig, one could hear his voice tiring, and he lost some momentum, but won it back with his last few songs.

In an ironic twist, the only change to the ambience of the show came as Merriweather and Green returned to the stage for their encore. After crooning his way through the main part of the set against a red backdrop, the lighting changed to blue for his soaring ballad “Red.” Perhaps the pair were trying to avoid overdoing the metaphor, but the effect was striking. It was a fitting song to end with, although Daniel’s repeated attempts to engage the crowd in a singalong never really took off. Thankfully, he wrested back his control and momentum towards the end of the song for a suitably emotional crescendo to what was a thoroughly enjoyable and unique performance.

After putting the final touches on “Red,” Merriweather said with unmistakable earnest, “Thank you, Melbourne, you’re the best in the world.” The crowd dissipated as quickly as they had arrived, and outside Swanston Street was still clinging to the heat of the afternoon.

– Darren Gubbins