The Triffids at PIAF

Last night I saw my favourite band, perhaps for the last time. Actually, I saw my favourite band sans their long-dead lead singer, David McComb. Like many young denizens of Perth in the 1980s, I was a rabid fan of the indie-rock band, The Triffids. From 1983 until 1988, the year I left my home town, The Triffids were the sound of summer. The band, on a mission to conquer the world, returned to Perth during the holiday season to visit family, recuperate, and replenish their financial stocks by playing as many gigs as they could find. Sometimes, I saw the band three times in one week. The Triffids, despite an impeccable set of finely crafted, literate pop songs, found fame elusive. They never had a major hit in their own country, although their reputation has grown over the last 25 years or so, and I suspect they are better known in Australia today than they were in the 80s. The band’s supremely talented front man, David McComb, died in 1999, a few days shy of his 37th birthday.

In recent years, the band has reformed sporadically to pay tribute to their fallen friend and musical leader. The Triffids, of course, can never be the same without the man who wrote most of their songs, but the band’s recent gigs reverently pay homage to David McComb rather than seek adulation for their glory days. Last night’s performance was, by turns, a little bit ragged, sometimes sublime and achingly poignant. Joined by a small group of guest artists including, Gareth Liddiard, Rob Snarski, Chris Abrahams and J.P. Shilo, the Triffids performed most of their best material.

 
Like the band members themselves, the Triffids audience are mainly middle-aged. I found it hard to believe that my generation now sports grey hair and carries excess weight. We look old and just a little bit weary. Could these people be the same lithe, black clad folks that frequented The Stoned Crow, The Shenton Park Hotel, The Old Melbourne and other almost forgotten haunts of the Triffids and their loyal band of fans? A quick glance in the mirror confirms the truth that it’s getting late in the day for all of us. The passage of time mocks all mortal souls, and last night’s performance underscored this truism in so many ways. The stage was decked out with scattered floral arrangements, lending a ritualistic tone to proceedings. The concert, for me, felt like a public wake for a dear friend.

 
Let’s not forget that the genius of David McComb lives on in his peerless body of work. The Triffids’ raison d’etre was music; it was always about the songs, and last night I recalled just how precious these songs are for me. For the most part, the guest singers approached their work in a good spirit, but I have to single out J.P. Shilo and Gareth Liddiard. Both artists in different ways, channeled the spirit of David McComb. Liddiard with his physicality and energy, and Shilo with his uncanny ability to sound almost exactly like the Triffids’ late singer. Shilo’s phrasing and booming baritone captured the magical qualities of McComb’s vocal stylings. I felt the shivers running up and down my back every time Shilo opened his mouth. I also appreciated Rob Snarski’s velvet croon, which provided a different, yet thoroughly compelling experience. Somewhat expectantly, the most poignant moments came from Graeme Lee, Jill Birt, and Alsy MacDonald. Lee opened proceedings with one of my favourite Triffids’ songs, ‘Too Hot to Move’. This early composition captures something of the balmy, laconic atmosphere of a Perth Summer, something Queenslander, Graeme Lee, can obviously relate to. Let’s be frank, Jill and Asy are not singers in the conventional sense, yet I always enjoyed their compositions on Triffids’ records. Last night, we were treated to Birt’s ‘New Fortune Rose’, a song I always thought McComb had written for Birt, and several other moody, atmospheric songs sung by the Triffids’ second vocalist. Birt is living proof that attitude and character will always trump technical prowess. When Jill and Alsy sang ‘Tender is the Night’ I almost cried. The song’s lyrics always seemed to reflect the arc of McComb’s life, and last night’s version of the song struck me as a heartfelt message to friend ensconced in a remote and inaccessible place.

 
Sitting up in the stand in front of the stage, I took this photograph, which includes a projected image of David, framed by the stars and the city lights of his hometown. I gazed at this scene for a long time, as the balmy summer wind dried the tears that ran down my face, and my thoughts turned to fallen friends and lost time. Thank you, David. And thank you to all your loyal friends who paid tribute to your beautiful soul.

 

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