Bernard Fanning at the zoo

Published in The Music, January 2015

The rain has come, as promised, falling in a heavy mist from a pearl grey sky.

Those $70 tickets are non-refundable, so people are making the best of things, huddled on the grass under plastic sheets, drawn in under hooded macs. If you can ignore the damp it’s quite a nice scene, rich red stage lights glowing through the watery haze and the Zoo, green and hushed, pressing in around us.

On stage, Bernard Fanning is dressed in black jeans, denim jacket and checked shirt, carrying a red guitar; chugging through the easy country rhythm of Songbird from 2005’s Tea And Sympathy. He admires our fortitude in the face of a downpour, but he’s from Brisbane and they’re nervous about the weather.

Fanning is in a conversational mood and the Queensland vote is being counted as he plays, so his banter skews to the political. He brings support act Little May back to the stage to help him deliver a new tune, Belly Of The Beast. It’s a song “addressing the complete failure of political leadership in this country,” accompanied by a lovely, lilting violin. Later, Bernie praises the work of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and encourages people to drop some money in their buckets, which are circulating in the crowd. He then sits down at his electric piano to play the mournful opening lines of Weekend Of Mystery, which chugs to life in the chorus on a jaunty drumbeat. Not long afterward, he gets the news that LNP leader Campbell Newman has lost his seat, “which fills me with joy,” Bernie says.

Under the rotunda, a distinctively middle class barbecue chatter almost drowns out the music. Kids shriek and run underfoot while people talk about tennis, but none of it seems out of place. Bernie’s voice is still achingly lovely but the delicate shades of his life story are lost in this context and the music has a tired journeyman pace. He plays pleasant, MOR country rock and the audience listens with half an ear, waiting for the hit. Finally, at the end of the set, that brilliant bouncing riff opens Wish You Well and the crowd scrambles to its feet. “Maybe I should have played that earlier,” Bernie laughs. He seems happy enough and the crowd is pleased, despite the rain, but the performance falls short of what it should be. The stage is too big, the sky is too big and the audience is too old. Across this space, that lovely voice can’t find its way into your heart.