THE WAIFS @ Canberra Theatre 17 March 2017 (Live Review)
by Benjamin Smith
The Canberra theatre is a venue that lends itself to intimate performances. Its size and its setting enhance the relationship between audience and artist. Liz Stringer, support act for The Waifs tonight, picked up on this fact commenting that the room was so quiet you could hear the ptssshhh of her sparkling water opening. Stringer’s banter matches her songs, a self conscious levity which betrays a tender melancholy is her stock in trade. She’s kind of awkwardly adorable and the room warms to her because of it. She doesn’t play for long but by the end of the show there is a nice rapport and afterwards she hangs around the merch desk making friends, taking selfies and signing copies of her latest record ‘All the Bridges’.
The Waifs come on and do what they’ve been doing for 25 years. Sisters Vikki Thom and Donna Simpson harmonise their way through their catalogue getting hit ‘London Still’ out of the way two songs in and maintaining a barroom feel to the show throughout. They tell stories about children and family and love and music.
Thom lets loose on the blues harp every now and then and guitarist Josh Cunningham does amazing things with a seemingly never ending supply of six strings. Drummer David Ross MacDonald, who is also promoting solo album Thorns to Sleep does a nice job of keeping time while double bassist Ben Franz adds real depth to the sound.
The key to The Waifs’ success is their overwhelming relatability; the thickness of their accents, the simplicity of their lyrics. Playing a bunch of songs off their new album ‘Ironbark’ including ‘Something’s Coming’ really cements this relatability. They also play the darker track ‘Syria’, ostensibly about the humanitarian crisis but which Simpson explains is inspired by thoughts of her own family and children and the empathy those thoughts produce.
They round out the show by taking requests from the audience including from a long-time Canberran fan who begged them to play a few of the more obscure tracks from the trove. They oblige and the crowd sings along and they all forget about the world for a couple of hours.
The last time I saw the Waifs play was as part of the Twilight in Taronga sessions. During that show the band felt like one element of a much bigger moment. The dense green foliage, the sun setting over the city, the harbour lit red for Chinese New Year in the background. It was beautiful but there was also a temptation to think that it created such an atmosphere that all the hard work was done before the band hit the stage. Tonight, however, The Waifs showed that setting and charm and warmth will only get you so far. After that its all about the songs, and The Waifs have such a rich library to pick through that they just seem to flow so naturally from one to another. At one point they tell a story about their grandmother’s journey from Perth to San Francisco to meet her US Navy, husband-to-be, before launching into old favourite ‘Bridal Train’.
The Waifs are a good lesson in how good songwriting is about good storytelling and that good showmanship is about making it all feel fresh and spontaneous. They’re clearly people who like playing with each other, and if you believe them, people who need to play with each other, who cannot not play with each other. Its a pretty nice thing to witness if you ever get the chance.