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