It started with a declaration of love. Tara from Canada, a boisterous punter, beer in hand, stood forward from her gaggle of friends. The room had quietened to a soft lull in between songs, and she boldly took her chance proclaiming, “I love Justin Beiber, but by god you’re hot!”
And so set the theme of the night. A crowded band room at the Northcote Social Club were treated to an intimate and comical night of acoustic non-sequiturs and heartfelt whimsy. With the thrill of a love declaration behind him, Melbourne-based folk singer-songwriter Broni owned the stage with bare feet. Tara from Canada already won over, he charmed the rest of us with simple acoustic guitar-driven ditties and cute sing-alongs. The title of his closing song “Sing Away The Blues” was certainly quite fitting.
Relatively unknown to the mainstream Australian audience, yet with an impressive repertoire of production roles, an opening slot for Morrisey, and eleven full-length albums behind him, Canadian Hawksley Workman struts on to the stage with little fanfare. He comes across as a no-fuss kinda guy, and the choice of only using his guitar and his undeniably impressive vocals to perform exemplifies a laid-back vibe. Tonight, Workman is simply a man with his stories and boundless charisma to match.
As Hawksley is often described in music circles as ‘enigmatic’, this reviewer can’t help but muse on this observation. A lot of Workman’s performance is his in-between song banter, trailing from one seemingly random topic to the next, sprouting non-sequiturs like he’s been doing it all his life. He’s certainly got the crowd for it tonight; adoring fans politely giggle at his punchy one-liners and random tales of Christmas dinner with Grandma, cooking at home while saying the proverbial “up yours” to following step-by-step recipes, and dodging out on paying for in-room rental movies at a Canadian hotel with US-based band Interpol. These little insights into Workman’s life at home and on the road make the audience feel as though they are getting to know him on a personal level, and his ‘enigmatic’ tag no longer seems fitting.
Starting with a humourous song reflective of personal woe – “Common Cold” – from his 2001 Christmas album Almost A Full Moon, Workman changes the pace and dips into his more well-known repertoire of hits. He performs “Your Beauty Must Be Rubbing Off”, “Smoke Baby” and “Safe and Sound” in succession, crowd-pleasing numbers greeted by the audience with audible joy and recognition.
Yet the banter between songs continues. “I try to write words into songs you don’t usually hear,” he says. It cannot be denied Workman is a wonderful wordsmith, but this starts to wear a little thin. I can’t help but feel his show descending into vaudeville. Context is a funny thing; standing here on stage he is a charming and heartfelt performer, revealing his personal life to his adoring audience. Yet at any other place or time he could just be a comedian holding a guitar, his performance veering towards musical comedy.
Towards the end of the set this reviewer spots two friends swaying together to 2003’s release “We Will Still Need a Song”. Workman’s voice growls, soars to a crescendo then falls to a whisper. Perhaps his performance may be a little showy, a little reliant on rambling musings on his life, his set more comedic than a proper showcase of his musical talent. But if there’s one thing that Workman has done tonight, it’s create an intimate and pleasurable atmosphere. He has yet again won over his fans with his brand of heartfelt acoustic alt-country, showed off his vocal panache, and made us laugh, all at the same time. A genuine performer indeed.
– Felicity Powell