Live - Grant McLennan, Robert Forster

from 'New Musical Express' magazine, 30 March 1991.

London Borderline

London Subterania

Who'd have thought they could ever have been in a band TOGETHER? Robert Forster, a windswept, posturing romantic, and Grant McLennan, wry, benign, romantic, always were a strange double act in The Go-Betweens, an uneasy cooperation of opposites. Nearly two years after the split, with blossoming solo careers, it seems more natural for them to be apart. There's no escape from the past, though, from that huge emotional and musical legacy...or from each other. It's some coincidence to make British solo debuts within a week of one another. Two arrogant declarations of independence? Two rebirths? Or evidence of a symbiotic relationship even now? Well...

First up and running, McLennan opts for total isolation - a one-man acoustic show, the classic justification folly of the singer/songwriter. Thankfully, the format suits him down to the ground. It's easy for him to wander off the set-list or spin a few anecdotes, especially when the crowd are as faithful and indulgent as this. And the songs are finely-crafted enough to survive the scaling-down, never becoming mere sketches of the originals. 'Right Here' is terrific tonight, slowed down and reflective, as is 'Was There Anything I Could Do?'

The focus, though, is on a sizeable batch of new material, mainly from the forthcoming 'Watershed' album. 'Easy Come Easy Go' has a deft boldness; 'Haven't I Been a Fool' takes this strand of lover's confessional to new heights; and 'Black Mule' harnesses a surreal narrative without getting twee.

Away from the tension of being straight man to Forster's posturing excesses - a talented Ernie Wise, if you like - McLennan is supremely relaxed, even when stumbling through an awkward, ill-advised 'Unkind and Unwise' or admitting his problems playing one or two of the new songs. Only one cover is played - Forster's 'Clouds'. We were touched.

Robert Forster, on the other hand, looks anything but relaxed as he, too, begins alone. Barely communicative, borrowing drinks from the audience, 'Is This What You Call Change' and 'Part Company' are edgy and quavering, open-heart surgery with a battered acoustic. But he has more muscle to call on, a drilled new German band to give his songs a more resolute, wired flavour.

More than so McLennan, Forster has re-invigorated his old songs, given them sharp new arrangements where Franc Schmiechen's swirling organs is as prominent as the twin guitars. So 'People Say' - "One of the ten best pop songs ever written", claims its writer modestly - gets a stirring exhumation and 'The House That Jack Kerouac Built' becomes the dense, rich epic it always threatened to be.

Forster soon finds his confidence, of course; an arch, detachedly flamboyant performer who behaves like a 19th century poet with an Open University degree in rock 'n' roll. Newer solo material like 'Dear Black Dream' and 'Leave Here Satisfied' balance faintly camp melodrama with cohesive power surges unimaginable in The Go-Betweens.

But they still haunt him. For an encore, he returns, inevitably, with Grant McLennan. 'Clouds' is a singalong duet, then 'Danger in the Past' (the title track of Forster's solo album) is used to torture his former partner. As McLennan retreats to play his guitar at the back of the stage, Forster unashamedly hogs the attention. He balances on the edge of the stage, claws the air, stares holes in the crowd and changes pace so often McLennan looks set to leave any minute.

Afterwards, Forster returns with his band to do penitence. Fittingly, it's a Grant song - a Grant HART song - '2541'. Genius. But what a bastard.

John Mulvey