Beer, bass notes and the Bee Gees

I am sitting on the edge of a crowd of several thousand people gathered at Riverstage in Brisbane, and suddenly I’m feeling very nervous. I am about to be part of the latest (and, so far, biggest ever) live rendition of Pub Choir, and the legendary Barry Gibb, the sole survivor of the Bee Gees – who began their performing careers here in Pub Choir’s birthplace – is appearing on a screen above the stage.

He tells us the song we’re about to sing is their early hit To Love Somebody, and he promises “it’ll be about as easy as it was in 1967 for me”, but that he’s sure it will sound wonderful. I am less convinced – or at least, am unsure I can get even close to the orchestral pop classic’s complex melody, let alone pitch. Fortunately, I’ll be drowned out by everyone else, which is (a) merciful and (b) the whole point, but all I can think is that this is going to be a disaster.

Of course, if Pub Choir was about virtuosity, it would not exist. Founded by conductor Astrid Jorgensen in 2017, it works on the same principle as other community choral groups, including churches: that everyone can sing, no matter how well or badly, and that it feels good, especially when it’s done in large groups and alcohol is added. We’ve also got Jorgensen and her musical partner Waveney Yasso there to encourage/yell at us.

It’s a blend of music, standup and theatre, and it’s very successful: in 2019, Pub Choir sold 60,000 tickets in Australia, before embarking on a tour of the US in early 2020. The Covid pandemic forced that to be abandoned, and soon the Couch Choir concept was born, with singers participating via video link. Debuting with a version of the Carpenters’ Close To You on 22 March last year, it has since hosted tens of thousands of singers from more than 50 countries.

In June, Pub Choir will make its small-screen debut, rebadged as Australia’s Biggest Singalong by SBS, hosted by Julia Zemiro and Miranda Tapsell, with Jorgensen. After decades of singing talent quests, it’s a no-talent-required karaoke session for everyone, and the first song – again, highlighting the human need to connect in a time blighted by separation and grief – will be Hunters & Collectors’ Throw Your Arms Around Me.

In the meantime, the return of Pub Choir to the stage in its hometown has special significance, because the communal joy of gathering and singing in a safe space has more meaning. It hasn’t come without a fight, either. Around the bend of the Brisbane River, an AFL match is taking place at the Gabba to a full-capacity crowd. Jorgensen is literally preaching to the choir when she asks, rhetorically, how is a live music event less safe than a sporting event?

As it is, Riverstage is at around half capacity, with seating and social distancing in place throughout the amphitheatre. To the left of the stage we have the “high ladies” voices (think Cyndi Lauper, the PowerPoint slide tells us). In the middle are the “low ladies” (think Cher). I’m over on the right with the men (think Paul Kelly – the singing one, naturally), wondering how the heck we’re going to pull this off.

That’s where Jorgensen and Yasso come in. Jorgensen implores us to follow the instructions on the PowerPoint, which are entertainingly amateurish and enhanced with memes and gifs. But it’s hard to take your eyes off her, because she’s full of charm and exaggerated movements as she guides everyone through their respective parts, switching to a male voice via a vocal effect on her microphone when it’s time to instruct the blokes.

It all starts off well. The high ladies in particular are in enthusiastic spirits and easily up to the Bee Gees’ higher register. It’s over the other side of the stage – mine – where things get wobbly. I forget what my natural range is. Am I a baritone, tenor or just plain crap? I lose my way entirely in the section where Gibb sings “And I’m blind, so, so, so blind” and my lungs struggle with the song’s longer phrases. Jorgensen reminds us all to breathe.

After the intermission, an orchestra is brought on to the stage, and it’s time to do the whole song. We’ve been learning it for the better part of two hours, and I’m still cringing at the sound of my own voice. It’s all over the shop. But it doesn’t matter: the visceral effect of more than 3,000 people singing a song in unison is euphoric. That we are privileged enough to do it at all during a time of global misery is celebratory in itself.

Mostly, though, I’m just grateful it wasn’t Stayin’ Alive.

First published in the Guardian, 10 May 2021

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