Tagged: Bernard Fanning

Powderfinger: Unreleased 1998-2010

Albums of Odds & Sods (the name the Who gave to one of the first compilations of rarities, released in 1974 in an attempt to short-circuit bootleggers) are often more interesting than best-of collections. While the latter are usually predictable roundups for casual fans of an artist, albums of outtakes, B-sides and strays are for the diehards. Done right, they are a glimpse into a parallel career, the songwriting process and what might have been.

Powderfinger were a democratic band with five headstrong members who all brought ideas into the rehearsal room and who didn’t always agree with one another. Songs would get cut up, rearranged and drift in and out of the conversation for recording. They were both prolific and fussy, so it’s not surprising that over a 20-year career there’s a lot of material in the archives that never saw the light of day.

All that said, it is extraordinary that a song as solid as Day By Day, this album’s hip-shaking lead single, was left off the 2003 album Vulture Street. Singer Bernard Fanning says he’s amazed they didn’t find a place for it; drummer Jon Coghill told me there were too many similar songs on the album. Maybe so, but Day By Day is probably better than half of them. It would hold its own on any best-of record, never mind this album of cast-asides.

It would be unrealistic to expect that the remainder of Unreleased: 1998-2010 – the band’s first record in more than a decade – maintains the standard of Day By Day. If that were the case, the band’s judgment of their own work would have been seriously askew. Only two other songs here were recorded at formal album sessions. The rest are demos, recorded in various home studios in Brisbane in the final stages of the band’s career.

These necessarily have a more rough-hewn quality, despite being buffed within an inch of their lives by the band’s producer Nick DiDia. Some of them are pleasingly raw: the jagged attack of Lou Doimand demonstrates the embarrassment of harder-rocking riches the band were working with during the Vulture Street era. Diamond Ring, recorded in 2009, sounds like a throwback to the band’s earlier grunge years.

There are four other tracks from that year, the time of the band’s final studio album Golden Rule, when interest in Powderfinger was beginning to wane. Happy bounces along with handclaps and an almost funky bassline by John Collins, and the band sound as though they’re having more fun than they did recording the album proper. Daybreak came closer to inclusion but is less arresting, falling victim to its own earnestness.

It’s easy, listening to these songs, to hear why Powderfinger called it a day after Golden Rule. They’d become victims of their own success and were becoming trapped in an idea of what the band ought to sound like in order to sustain it. A decade later, they’ve been away long enough to allow a resurgence of interest. Like most albums of widows and orphans, it’s for fans only, but it’s a more than worthwhile peek into Powderfinger’s back pages.

First published in the Guardian, 26 November 2020

Powderfinger: One Night Lonely

There were many poignant moments watching Powderfinger streaming their first show in a decade on Saturday night, but the biggest one was seeing bassist John Collins playing (like all the band members, in isolation) to an empty Fortitude Music Hall, one of two venues he part-owns in Brisbane. The grand 3,300-capacity room opened less than a year ago, and the empty space served as a symbol of what we have lost, what we are missing, and what was at stake.

Live music is a billion-dollar industry in Australia, yet the rooms that host it run on the smell of an oily rag and are in constant danger of being run out of town by governments and developers (Brisbane is fortunate in that both Fortitude Music Hall and The Triffid were built and are co-owned by one of those developers, Scott Hutchinson, a bona fide music tragic). Covid-19 lockdowns will drive many more venues to the wall.

So Powderfinger were back, singer Bernard Fanning told us, to put some smiles on people’s faces. The half-hour gig, watched by close to 100,000 people, aided both music industry charity Support Act and mental health organisation Beyond Blue, with Fanning in northern New South Wales, guitarist Darren Middleton in Melbourne, drummer Jon Coghill on the Sunshine Coast and Collins and lead guitarist Ian Haug in separate locations in Brisbane.

This, too, was poignant: the band was back together, yet alone, playing to an enormous audience who couldn’t get close to the band, despite the illusion of intimacy. And yet what was most immediately apparent was how tight they sounded. It was hard to believe Powderfinger were not playing in the same room; indeed, if you closed your eyes you could easily have been playing one of their albums.

To that extent, it barely sounded like a live gig at all: the recording was made weeks ago, and post-production had sanded away any rough edges, a common criticism of Powderfinger over the years. Nothing had been left to chance. One moment broke the earnestness: Middleton standing in front of a whirring fan, pulling stage moves in the privacy of his own home studio, hair flying. It looked ridiculous, and was meant to.

None of these caveats, though, deny the strength of Powderfinger’s set. By the time the band broke up in 2010, their ubiquity was working against them. After a decade’s hiatus, they’ve been away long enough to be missed, and to be reminded why they were so popular in the first place. The answer is simple: heartfelt classic rock songs, sold by an outstanding singer and a band that never overplays or gets in his way.

The band’s best and biggest-selling album, Odyssey Number Five, turns 20 this year, and rumours are rife of another reunion to go with the inevitable reissues. Three of the seven songs performed are pulled from it, the most surprising being Thrilloilogy (time has not softened the dreadful name, but it’s a fan favourite). My Happiness and closer These Days already felt nostalgic at the time they were released, and are more potent now.

Special credit must go to Coghill, who has barely picked up sticks since the band dissolved yet was as dexterous as ever behind his kit; his unique feel keeps Powderfinger on their toes, with a boxer’s punch and swing. Collins proposed a heck of a party when venues reopen, pleading with audiences to support live music. If Powderfinger do follow through with a tour, a warm-up gig at Collins’ own venue in the band’s home town would be appropriate.

First published in the Guardian, 24 May 2020

Bernard Fanning: “At least 50 percent good”

Bernard Fanning, former singer of Powderfinger, is ruminating about decisions and consequences. The theme runs throughout his third, back-to-basics solo album Civil Dusk. Over the finger-picked guitar of Unpicking A Puzzle, he sings a song from the bottom of the bottle: “Where silences are gold and secrets will abound / The hostage in your conscience will have tape across his mouth.”

On the equally spare piano ballad Rush Of Blood, at the album’s centre, he is even more plain-spoken. “In a rush of blood I threw it all away, oh Lord what was I thinking of that day?” It would be easy to listen to lines like this and presume Civil Dusk is a confessional album. Put to him that it sounds like he’s got a lot going on, though, and he laughs.

“Yeah, that’s what everyone keeps saying!” he says. “[But] hardly any of it’s about my life. It’s just talking about stuff I’ve observed. Some of it’s invented, and of course parts of it are me as well.” He’s not concerned about people mistaking the album for autobiography. “Once it’s out there you can’t control any of that anyway. I’ve got songs that I’ve never released that are way more personal.”

Fanning’s reality is considerably calmer, even ordinary. He and his Spanish wife Andrea have moved back to Australia, settling in New South Wales’ northern rivers region to put their two children, aged four and six, through school. Life is going rather well for the 46-year-old. “It’s probably a symptom of my age and my circumstances,” he says. “Having kids helps you to contextualise problems.”

It’s just that the type of songwriting on Civil Dusk – first-person, emotionally direct and, in his words, “unencumbered by coolness” – is what Fanning happens to do best. If that puts him squarely in the confessional singer-songwriter camp of the early 1970s – Jackson Browne, James Taylor et al – then that’s just fine with him. “Oh, fuckin’ James Taylor for sure,” he says enthusiastically.

“I’m gladly unhindered by the credibility meter. I don’t care about name-checking the right singers or anything like that … I was just actually debating with Andrea yesterday whether to introduce the kids to ABBA or not. I want to, but she doesn’t; she’s not an ABBA fan. I’m not really sure about that. I don’t know how you can’t be an ABBA fan.”

When Powderfinger were beginning their ascent in Brisbane in the early 1990s, there was a strong thread of folk music in the city as much as there was rock & roll. Essentially a post-grunge band, Powderfinger eventually were able to broaden their appeal to both camps, in their home city and beyond. Fanning’s last solo album, Departures, did everything as differently as possible; Civil Dusk sees him playing to his strengths.

“[The songs] could have been played in 1995 or 1975 or 2045; that’s kind of the way I approached it,” he says. “It’s not like I’ve gone in for a huge innovation music-wise. I just wanted to present the best work that I could do, and I was really comfortable just sitting around playing my guitar again, and the piano.”

Civil Dusk is actually the first part of what is effectively a themed double album: part two, Brutal Dawn, will follow in early 2017. Fanning and producer Nick DiDia were determined to make a 10-song record, but Fanning had a surplus of material, and splitting it up made sense. “It would be incredibly rare for people to listen to 20 songs by one artist in a row now. But there’s a chance they’ll listen to 10.”

Some of Civil Dusk, particularly harder-rocking numbers such as Change Of Pace, don’t sound that different to his old band, and guitarist Ian Haug (now playing with the Church) also appears on the album. But if there’s one thing we won’t be seeing any time soon, it’s a Powderfinger reunion. “Yeah, we do get asked it all the time,” Fanning says flatly. “And, no. There’s no plans to do that.”

Mostly, Fanning is just enjoying the greater control that goes with steering his own ship. Powderfinger were a very democratic band. “It’s certainly easier to have one or two people making decisions than seven [the five members of the band plus manager Paul Piticco, who is still with Fanning, and DiDia]. “In Powderfinger everyone was throwing ideas in.”

Not that he’s uncomfortable with his band’s legacy. “If you put my voice over a dirty guitar, then there’s a possibility that it’s going to sound like Powderfinger, but it would have been played and executed completely differently by them. I’m happy to embrace what we did in Powderfinger. I don’t adore all of it. But I think, on balance, we ended up at least 51 percent good, you know?”

First published in The Guardian, 5 August 2016