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Enmore Theatre, March 12

We think we have it bad, having to sit through shows we would normally stand – or jump or dance or both – and sweat in. Grateful as we are to be at shows semi-regularly now, it’s not really the same is it, sitting in our assigned seats, mindful of the closeness of our neighbour and the hovering staff ready to shut down too much physical exuberance?

But how hard must it be for the artists, especially those for whom polite performance, warm but contained response, and a sense of decorum are anathema? Not everyone can pull it off, or certainly not immediately. Northern Beaches habitues’ Midnight Oil – a better, bigger band, with a deeper catalogue than regional Victoria’s The Smith Street Band – struggled for a good half hour in this room a few weeks ago.

Yet here were “the Smiffies”, led – from the charging, grinning, guitar-touting front – by Wil Wagner, nailing it from the first moments. Not with volume: this was ostensibly an acoustic show, though everything was still plugged in, and arrangements had been adjusted for a new world. Nor exhortations for us to abandon our control: it wasn’t until the last song, the communal rush of the suburban anthem of existence-as-resistance, Death To The Lads, that the room said no más and stood up, stood on seats, stood out, belting “Death to the lads/As loud as we possibly can”.

It was not even with great sound (which the Oils managed, but this night never received, much to the wastage of Jess Locke and Lucy Wilson’s keyboards, and often Michael Fitzgerald’s bass) nor the preparedness of Wagner – who was drenched before the end of the second song - to sweat for us and Australia.

It happened with the group’s not so secret weapon: the connection between fan and band which immediately formed into the shape of a communal exchange of lyrics, of good humour, of genuine warmth – of oneness.

Wagner’s stories of the quotidian are without poetic flash but never without the eye for the resonant image and the truth, a pairing that works its own poetic path. And that can come in pictures of bruised young drunks, the symbolism of a plate of chips and gravy, or Wagner’s post-suicide attempt confessional, God Is Dead, which argues “tragedy is comedy if you can get through it”.

Packed into songs that in this arrangement emphasise the band’s connection to a roistering punk folk equal parts Weddings Parties Anything and The Pogues - more than with the contemporary indie rock that also runs through their work - The Smith Street Band made a seated room feel like a boot-stamping, air-punching, hug-your-mate session.

One, it should be noted from a room that would have been close to an even split of the sexes and the classes, that was never about bloke-iness, or chest-beating, or separateness of any sort (everyone could feel the gut punch of I Still Dream About You, here performed solo).

And it proved the lie, or at least the past tense, of Dirty Water’s lines that “I have fallen out of love with people”. Wagner hasn’t, and nor have his fans. And no one missed that message, seated, standing or wending our way out in covid-safe manner 70 minutes later.

A version of this review originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.


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