Review By Emily White
It was February 3, 1959 ‘the day the music died’. The tragic loss of great American musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson marked the end of an era, and of the ‘social innocence’ held within early rock and roll. Two years later American singer-songwriter and guitarist Don Mclean released American Pie, a revolutionary moment for popular music, and the beginning of a career that was set to last over fifty years.
Taking a seat in the iconic Palais Theatre on this beautiful, frosted winter’s evening, it was impossible not to notice the rich history concealed within the century-old building - a most fitting venue for what was to be a historical night filled with some of music’s greats.
Andrew Farriss; the name may not initially ring a bell, but the music composed by the Australian rock musician and multi-instrumentalist is recognisable to an entire generation. Best known for being the backbone of INXS, it was difficult not to expect anything less than perfection from his upcoming set. Having released his debut solo album in 2021, Andrew is making a name for himself not only in Australian music but through leaning into his country-American audience.
The raw talent of this man is unmistakable – his creative genius and sublime instrumentalism is something that can only come of a legendary artist, more than 45 years into his career. Lighting up the Palais with an intimate acoustic set, I couldn’t help but feel I was witnessing a fleetingly rare performance, a collation of decades worth of musical mastery. Joining him on stage were three other musicians – humbly appearing as his equal, stationed behind a row of freestanding mics.
Andrew’s solo tracks have an unmistakeable modern country feel, clearly influenced by his time living and writing in Nashville, Tennessee. The set of four cowboy hats and boots also adding a touch of Americana to the simply dressed stage. Much of the set provided a gorgeously romantic premise; with deep ringing guitars making each song warm and homely. Remaining unequivocally humble, the only reference Andrew made to his success in INXS came as he offhandedly mentioned how he ‘used to write songs for a band called INXS, and this one’s called Beautiful Girl’.
The velvet smooth harmonies and fresh acoustic sound of the set truly took my mind from the bustle of the city, and deep into the stories Andrew had to tell. The same goes for the latter end of the night – where poetry was set to meet world-class instrumentalism. One of his latest solo tracks, Love Makes the World Go Round, was met with an exceptional reception, the upbeat seventies feel bringing such joy to the audience of the ‘peace and love’ era.
Although he was here to debut some of his solo tracks, the incomparable highlight of the set was Andrew’s acoustic rendition of the ARIA Award Winning single, Never Tear Us Apart. A shout came from the crowd ‘you’re a legend!’ A reminder that there were diehard fans in the audience who had come to get a glimpse of what was one of the biggest bands of the time. The song was retold as a beautiful yet heart-breaking dedication to his bandmate and close friend Michael Hutchence. The moment truly stopped time, making me think how ridiculous it was that this set had been an opening act. Thinking it would be impossible to top such an iconic set, we were in for an absolute treat.
Being comedically introduced by his pianist as the man behind ‘South Korea’s president’s favourite song’, the 77-year-old Grammy-award honouree took to the stage in Melbourne for what would be the last time. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the cultural touchstone that is American Pie, the singer was surprisingly casual in his demeaner, ‘I’m just gonna ramble and sing a few songs that I feel like’… and ramble he did, but in the most hypnotic of ways – I wished the night would have gone on forever.
Beginning his ninety-minute musical tirade with So Doggone Lonesome, originally performed by Johnny Cash, was a perfectly fitting introduction. Mclean’s musical career has in a way been dedicated to Cash, with his musical legacy being the inspiration behind many of Don’s lyrics and compositions. The upbeat country feel of the track plunged the audience deep into the Americana sound – backed by steel-string guitar and a jazzy keys, this night was set to be a blessing for the ears.
‘This is our last tour of Australia; we’ve done twenty and I’ve loved every one of them’, the singer announced as he settled into his next original track, Fool’s Paradise. A heavy kick of bass guitar and a steady drumbeat counted the song in. Much of the cheerful music taking my mind to a 60s school dance filled with mid-length dresses and limitless, innocent dancing. Even fifty years on, these songs hold onto their youthful charm – Don’s voice as clear and belting as it was all those years ago.
As the night went on it became clear that Mclean may fancy himself as somewhat of a jokester, as he certainly had the crowd in hysterics with every monologue he delivered. ‘It’s so nice of you to applaud songs you don’t know’. There was an assumption that tonight’s audience was here for one song only – but I cannot believe this to be the case with the overwhelmingly positive reception of even his B-side tracks.
Moving into his newer record Botanical Gardens, Don showed off another side of his song writing, using less of a metaphorical structure, but rather a storytelling approach. The Lucky Guy was another favourite, a gorgeous light-hearted love song, with its faster pace truly showing off the composition of his band, who are distinguished in their own rights. Guitarist Kerry Marx is a highlight of Don’s live shows, with the pair playing together for the past 37 years, and prior being Johnny Cash’s guitarist. There is such an authentic sound to his playing… a true musical god.
At this point of the night the mood began to pick up incrementally, as Don played old-time favourites from the American Pie album, all in the lead up to the title track. Crossroads being one of the standouts was accompanied by a lone piano instrumental, and Mclean’s signature works of poetry; ‘you alone can make me whole’. The storytelling continued through the night, with the six-piece band playing what sounded like a produced album live on stage.
The stage suddenly darkened as the first lighting state for the night threw thousands of stars across the stage… ‘Starry starry night’… there was a roaring cheer that bellowed from the audience. The acoustic ballad being Mclean’s second-most celebrated song could not have been any more moving than what was experienced that night during Vincent.
“I could have told you Vincent, this world was never made for someone as beautiful as you”
Fans were left with nothing more to desire following covers of Elvis’ That’s All Right and Little Sister, and Roy Orbison’s Crying. The songs reaching such a crescendo that the room shook, the keyboard appearing to almost fall right off its stand – and with that, it was time for American Pie.
The room took to their feet, a crowd surging towards the stage. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to catch a glimpse of the ‘song of the 20th century’ in the flesh. The iconic bass riff and stunning keys played out the eight-and-a-half-minute song as Mclean looked out across the audience, as if to say one final goodbye. It was truly an honour to bask in the joy of American Pie, but I can’t help but feel that February 3, 1959 was not ‘the day the music died’ – in fact, music had never been more alive than it was in this moment.