Weirdly, unknowingly until I was about to leave, I spent time last week in the house in the eastern suburbs where the Gibb family - once of the Isle Of Man, Manchester and Brisbane - lived in during their few years in Sydney during the 1960s. Kismet was at play given what I had been watching and listening to in the days prior.
The new Frank Marshall documentary about the brothers Gibb, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, has marvellous moments, promising touches, and some major absences and flaws (Paul Byrne’s review sums up many of my concerns in this review ).
Whatever your take on it though, it makes for the best excuse to explore their multi-faceted back catalogue. And, in the case of Wind Back Wednesday, a rare chance to see them towards the end of their performing career as a trio.
This 1999 concert was the official debut of the stadium, which was to host the bulk of the Olympic Games the next year, as a performance space. It was sold out and in most ways passed its tests. The parts which didn’t necessarily go smoothly were, as the review discusses, as much for the form as the venue.
Incidentally, this review not only saw me threatened with legal action by the promoter, whose head could be heard exploding down the phone line when he called to express outrage, but wearing the repercussions four years later when the same promoter toured Bruce Springsteen and banished the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer – that would be me – to the furthest reaches of the ground, while putting every other media in the first few rows. (That tour virtually bankrupted this promoter. The business never really recovered. But that’s another story.)
Stadium Australia, March 27
No-one will pay $200-plus just to hear music. Hardly anyone will pay more than S60 and settle for hearing songs performed well.
Partly because of the cost and partly because of the hype associated with any big event, the actual music is merely a part of the package. In the main, audiences want a "show" for their money.
For some artists the "show" means explosions and giant dolls, for others it's spectacular video presentations or massed dancers. Few of those artists (one notable exception being U2) actually give as much attention to the musical performances as the spectacle. But even U2 can't bring themselves to present their music in an environment conducive to actually listening to the music not when a bigger profit can be made.
Outdoor shows are not made for aural satisfaction, with both U2 (at the Football Stadium) and the Billy Joel and Elton John (SCG) concerts in recent years suffering annoying-to-bad echo problems for anyone outside the first bank of seats. The new Olympic venue, the arrogantly named Stadium Australia, is no exception with a resounding and deeply frustrating echo marring the Bee Gees' performance for nearly half the audience.
To the credit of the Bee Gees, however, their two-hour show was all about the music and less about a special effects budget, all about the history and less about the histrionics.
But making sure the music is not only centre stage but perfect does raise another vexing issue in late '90s music presentations: as long as we are hearing the songs we came to hear does it matter if we can't say for sure that everyone is actually playing or singing live?
Most significant artists use samplers and synthesizers on stage to replicate the full-bodied sound of their albums instead of relying on the four or five musicians in the band. No-one outside purists really objects to that any more. Shouldn't the same apply to vocals? Madonna, Janet and Michael Jackson for example, resort to backing/guide vocal tapes on stage because they are doing so much dancing, acting, performing that singing is almost impossible (and maybe their voices aren't up to it either). Few if any of their fans complain.
So if during Maurice Gibb's one solo spot (Closer Than Close) he shows a remarkable ability to sound the same irrespective of where his mouth is in relation to the microphone, there are probably several explanations. Later, it's quite possibly a delay between sound and vision on the big screen (which everyone outside the first few thousand resorts to watching at a stadium show) that explains why in a solo spot by Robin Gibb his voice appears to start before his mouth opens. After all his quavering tenor was definitely live and fragile as he led us into Massachusetts.
And the wonders of microphone technology could easily explain I am sure, how the brothers Gibbs' three-part harmonies remained strong and consistent even if one or two of the brothers jived and bobbed to and from the microphones in their quite obvious enthusiasm.
And anyway who am I to quibble? They did give us hit after hit from the wonderful Spicks And Specks onwards (albeit interspersed with some of their remarkably dull songs made famous by artists such as Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand and Dionne Warwick).
They did give us two bites of You Should Be Dancing (topping and tailing the show) and one Tragedy. And for every weak link such as the overwrought Words or the bland Alone we had a Don't Throw It All Away or a Too Much Heaven (fourth-form lyrics and all); for every curiously unfunky Night Fever we had a seriously black Jive Talking.
It was a perfect example of a late '90s show really, just ask the cheering audience. Suggesting flaws in approach and attitude would just be so '70s of me.