Live Review: Camp Cope, Melbourne 13/05/22

Camp Cope. Credit: Nick Mckk
(Image credit: Nick Mckk)

WHERE: The Forum, Naarm/Melbourne VIC
WHEN: Friday May 13th, 2022
REVIEW: Ellie Robinson

Catching her breath after showing off her ravishing dance moves, Georgia Maq chuckled slyly, “I really like not playing the guitar.” Opening with a breathtaking yidaki performance from Dharug luminary Kiernan Ironfield, Camp Cope kicked off their hometown show at Melbourne’s Forum – a gig we’ve spent years eagerly awaiting, in a venue we’ve always wished the band would one day headline – with ‘Keep Growing’, one of the oldest songs in their catalogue and a bonafide staple of their setlists. It felt like a statement: bands usually hold off on their biggest hits ’til the end of the set, but when every song feels utterly enormous, why not start off on a banger?

Embracing its ironclad themes of self-love and empowerment, Maq slunk freely around the stage, shaking her hips and vibing out with the crowd – her biggest ever on home turf, swooning over and latching on to every word she sung – like nothing else mattered. Filling her role on the fretboard was new touring guitarist Jennifer Aslett (ex-San Cisco), who alongside the gig’s Auslan interpreter, appearing via Auslan Stage Left, gelled effortlessly with Maq and her chosen sisters. 

Though she made the most of her newfound freedom whenever Aslett took over on the guitar, Maq stopped in her tracks regularly, taking stock of her grandiose surrounds, the sea of dancing bodies in front of her, and her similarly elated bandmates with the biggest, dorkiest and most authentic smile on her face. When she, drummer Sarah “Thomo” Thompson and bassist Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich formed Camp Cope in the halcyon days of 2015, they never thought they’d become one of the biggest alt-rock bands in the country, let alone the world. 

A show at the Forum always seemed like a pipe dream, but finally having it become a reality felt right: we’ve seen the trio play in pubs and parking lots, backyards and even their local council hall, but it’s here – with a towering stage flanked by ceramic statues, where the ceiling is studded with glittering lights to emulate stars in a night sky – that Camp Cope absolutely belong. Tonight’s show came in support of their recent third album, Running With The Hurricane. The songs on it were purpose-made for theatres, and that was unquestionably clear here. Their cinematic breadth shone with the Forum’s reverberant acoustics, every twangy, noodly note and crisp beat struck with intense poignancy.

An early highlight was ‘One Wink At A Time’, where Cable Ties drummer Shauna Boyle appeared to perform the trumpet part she plays on the album version. Her appearance drew rapturous applause from the crowd, but little did we know she’d only be the first in a stacked roster of cameos. Angie McMahon was brought out to duet with Maq on ‘The Screaming Planet’, which Maq opened with an anecdote about how the pair wrote it together on a whim in McMahon’s living room. The fellow Naarm artist’s harmonies elevated the song to inconceivable heights, turning the already powerful ballad into a heady, heart-melting anthem.

Sandwiched between those two songs was ‘The Mountain’, which Maq explained was inspired heavily by Frightened Rabbit. A cover of ‘Heads Roll Off’ had been a staple in Camp Cope’s set ever since Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison died in 2018, and as Maq clued us in, ‘The Mountain’ owes a creative debt to it. Learning that they finished and released the song as somewhat of a tribute to Hutchison, aiming to encapsulate his spirit and ethos, made their performance of it a thousand times more impactful. 

Maq weaved these song-enhancing tidbits of context fluidly into the set, using humour and storytelling to make it a more enriching performance (for both us and the band). She’d never been much for stage banter in years past, but it adds a wealth of character to these songs. We learned, for example, that ‘One Wink At A Time’ was named after The Replacements’ own 1990 song in the hope that they’d sue (and in turn acknowledge) Maq. Before taking to a grand piano to perform ‘Sing Your Heart Out’ unaccompanied, the frontwoman cited Kanye West and The Chicks as its two extremely unpredictable influences. 

“I wanted there to be a piano song on Running With The Hurricane because I am, like, deceptively good at it,” Maq said as her band slinked off. The solo performance was mesmerising, but it was when Courtney Barnett came out for the soaring crescendo – of course wielding her dazzling red Jaguar – that we truly melted into the moment. The stage became crowded for a harmony section, for which Maq and her bandmates, Barnett, Boyle and McMahon were joined by Cecil Coleman of Body Type, Julia Jacklin, Jacob Diamond and Fred Leone. “Phenomenal” doesn’t even come close to describing it. 

Barnett made another cameo earlier in the set, adding her signature dirty, grunge-adjacent bite to the otherwise ultra-pretty ‘Caroline’. It set the tone for Maq’s own playing to shine on ‘Blue’, into which she interpolated the iconic refrain of Wheatus’ ‘Teenage Dirtbag’. She admitted afterwards that she was “embarrassingly obsessed” with the 2000 hit in her teens, before declaring that “emo’s not dead” and officially branding Camp Cope “a power-emo band”.

Tight as all the new songs were, it was equally great to see how Camp Cope’s older material shone in new ways, both with the band’s evolution over the last four years and the Forum’s stateliness. Cuts from 2016’s self-titled album – cosier and more lowkey, with minimalist structures and lyrical runs that follow Maq on her labyrinthine streams of consciousness – soared with a homely, yet authentically powerful energy. The first time we saw Maq perform ‘Done’, it was to a crowd of no more than ten in the corner of a suburban pub. Watching her play it at the Forum, we felt like parents in the crowd of our kid’s uni graduation.

Of course, no part of the night felt as enthralling as the set-ending performance of ‘The Opener’. Again joined by their full cast of special guests, Camp Cope delivered an infectiously impassioned performance of their 2018 hit. Several times throughout the set, Maq had stressed the notion of inclusivity – that Camp Cope shows are safe spaces where anybody can be themselves without judgement. It’s a sentiment many bands spout but often rings hollow – but here, it didn’t just feel genuine, it was genuine. Nothing made that clearer than seeing a sea of people, galvanised by their community, scream along to every word of a song that was written in response to division, but has gone on to become an anthem of unity.

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…