“I’ll disappoint you, and I’ll let you down,” intoned Robert Forster early on during his set at the Oxford Art Factory. It was the only mistruth he spoke the entire night. Every other word that fell from his lips was rich with honesty; swollen with truth. In fact, he turned the art of playing live into a kind of self-portraiture, revealing more and more of his very essential being with each song performed.
Backed by a stunningly tight band, Forster strutted and lunged across the stage, frequently leaning past the microphone the way one would lean around a wall, his voice unamplified and raw. He paid particular attention to his brilliant new album – versions of I Love Myself (And I Always Have) and Let Me Imagine You proved to be stand outs – but his set wasn’t wholly comprised of recent material. An anthemic rendition of Head Full Of Steam sent The Go-Betweens enthusiasts into peals of delight, and spotted throughout the proceedings were songs drawn from every inch of Forster’s back catalogue.
Even the random force of chaos couldn’t undo Forster: though his guitar unplugged itself halfway throughout one of his songs, he reconnected the instrument without missing a beat, his face fixed with a wry smile. It seemed as though nothing could stop Forster – as though no force was willing to try, and as he blasted through Songwriters On The Run and the ravaged and ravaging A Poet Walks, the set took on increasing levels of power.
When Twerps, his very special guests and support act, rejoined him on stage, it wasn’t the case of the newer generation paying tribute to the old; it was the case of two vital forces intertwining. As Forster ripped through Twerps’ He’s In Stock, his voice encased the song, solidifying it, as all players involved looked on with a mixture of awe and deep seated respect.
Indeed, perhaps that’s the key word of the night. Forster spoke to the audience with humour, but more than that, with respect. When he thanked the assembled crowd, his eyes wide, every word of acknowledgement seemed to ring with solidarity. It wasn’t a case of the artist appearing larger than his audience: Forster was within; amongst; one of.
During his very final number, the beautiful and exquisitely wrought Surfing Magazines, Forster encouraged the audience to sing the wordless chorus. As one, the room sang. The sound filled the space; transformed it. “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard,” Forster said, his eyes twinkling. It wasn’t hyperbole, either. In that moment, as the entire audience sang to the living legend, their voices were filled with the beauty only unity can bring.