WHERE: Rod Laver Arena, Naarm/Melbourne VIC
WHEN: Friday August 12th, 2022
REVIEW: Ellie Robinson
Between all the heavy subject matter, kaleidoscopic soundscapes and ambitious sonic detours it presented, Angel In Realtime – Gang Of Youths’ statement-making third album, which arrived back in February – can’t be authentically represented live anywhere smaller than an arena. The Sydney-native, London-based quintet have played a few intimate shows off the back off it – most in clubs around their new stomping grounds – and footage from those show the songs translating well, but notably so in a much different light to their studio-mixed counterparts. This stately run of arena shows, though, promised a genuine reflection of the grandeur captured on Angel In Realtime: grandeur that Gang Of Youths have proved they’re more than capable of.
Before they presented it, Dave Le’aupepe and co. had some close friends warm us up. The first was hometown hero Gretta Ray, who was palpably stoked to be commanding the stage at Melbourne’s 15,000-capacity Rod Laver Arena. This, she pointed out, was the site of her first-ever concert, Alicia Keys in December 2008, which sent her spiralling down the rabbithole that led her to the very same stage. Her elation was channelled into an enrapturing performance, where every note she sung soared and struck with zealous intent, and every move she made seemed like it was directed by Hollywood’s best.
Her sultry, soulful vocals gave a unique richness to a cover of Billy Joel’s ‘Vienna’, while an as-yet-unreleased cut titled ‘Can’t Keep It Casual’ saw her lean into the buzz and buoyancy of schlocky ‘80s synthpop. The only real downside to Ray’s set was how depressingly little it utilised the skills of guitarist Hamish Patrick. He stole the show with his clean and crisp fretting on ‘Drive’, but with the rest of the shaw drawing from Ray’s synth-driven debut album, last year’s Begin To Look Around, Patrick’s efforts were largely buried in the mix. Nevertheless, Ray and her three-piece backing unit kicked the night off with infectious energy and striking radiance.
Unlike Ray and themselves, Gangs’ fellow Sydneysiders in Middle Kids are decidedly anti-spectacle. Their musical gravitas is instead depicted onstage with a loose (but very keyed-in) jaminess that allows the band’s chemistry, homely and affectionate, to shine as the focal point. That was true even here, on this swanky stage in this massive arena (replete with a catwalk!), where Hannah Joy strummed and sang with the same honey-sweetened warmth she does in theatres. Her tan Strat rang out with just the right balance of dust and twang, accented by the tasteful wailing of Middle Kids’ Tele-armed touring member, Miles Elkington.
However ill-fitting it seemed in this setting, the band’s ten-song showcase (split equally between 2018’s Lost Friends and last year’s Today We're The Greatest) was undeniably fun and left us grinning from ear to ear. It also ended with the revelation that Le’aupepe was integral in Middle Kids releasing their breakout single, ‘Edge Of Town’, in 2016 – a note echoing Ray’s declaration that Gangs were the first band to show their support when she released ‘Drive’ the same year. It felt even more special, then, that Middle Kids and Gretta Ray were the two acts enlisted to support this show, proving the devotion that Gangs have to uplifting and continuing to champion the scene they cut their teeth in.
“Melbourne was the first city in Australia that gave a shit about us,” Le’aupepe said in the first of many quip-laden chunks of banter he doled across Gangs’ two-hour set. He could’ve said that in every city on this run, for all we know – after all, every crowd a band plays to is “the best crowd we’ve ever seen,” etcetera – but we’d be remiss to argue; with the visceral, impassioned devotion they poured into every last beat and chord, Gangs performed as if tonight’s show was the last they’d ever play. It’s a shame, then, that their mix was so muddy. For much of the set, Le’aupepe’s vocals were almost entirely inaudible, while Jung Kim’s intricate fretwork and the sizzling whistle of Tom Hobden’s violin were buried under the bass and poorly situated synth tracks.
When their efforts could be discerned, it was doubtless that each member played a crucial role in recreating the opulent breadth of Angel In Realtime, and all nine of them – the core outfit of Le’aupepe, Kim, Hobden, bassist Max Dunn and drummer Donnie Borzestowski, plus four touring members – served their role as if their lives depended on it. Ray appeared alongside Simon Matafai as a backing vocalist, and though neither could be heard in that role, the former left concertgoers stunned when she took over Le’aupepe to sing lead on ‘The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows’, and the latter shone as a pianist with his impromptu run of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
On ancillary percussion were Louis Giannamore and James Larter, with the former also juggling guitar and piano duties, and the latter tasked with perhaps the most pressing of instrumental roles: the glittering marimba parts that add a pastel punch to much of the Angel cuts. Of course, none of the soundscape works without Le’aupepe crooning atop it. Even when his words were indiscernible by proxy of the poor mix, the frontman’s voice compelled, as if every syllable he intoned had been personally blessed by St. Cecilia.
He yelled with fiery passion on ‘What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out?’ and ‘The Heart Is A Muscle’, sunk into his leather-jacket cool on ‘Let Me Down Easy’ (which he restarted thrice in disgust for the crowd’s lack of energy) and hit the high notes on ‘In The Wake Of Your Leave’ with soul-battering aplomb. Too worth marvelling at was Le’aupepe’s near-Shakespearean theatricality, as he strutted down the catwalk like a natural-born model, singled punters out to join him in belting along to particularly poignant lyrics, and broke the tension between songs with swear-laden tangents that show he could easily moonlight as a comic.
The setlist, admittedly, left much to be desired: in performing all but two songs from Angel In Realtime, Gangs’ first two albums – The Positions (2015) and Go Farther In Lightness (2017) – were unfairly neglected, and 2016’s Let Me Be Clear EP was ignored altogether. Those aforementioned Lightness cuts earned the most emphatic responses from the sold-out audience (and rightfully so), while the biggest highlight of the entire set came at the hand of ‘Magnolia’, which was the only Positions cut Gangs played. Under normal circumstances, this would have severely marred the overall experience. But this show wasn’t played under normal circumstances.
See, Angel In Realtime is a concept album about family identity, the power of grief and the malleable concept of “legacy”, intrinsically tied to Le’aupepe’s late father Teleso and his labyrinthine life story. To authentically do it justice – on this particular tour, at least – almost every song on it was a pivotal inclusion in the setlist, with those few slivers of Gangs’ extended catalogue serving as the peaks to those more emotive and cerebral songs’ valleys. As a whole, the show served as a loving ode to Teleso – and though all we know of him is what Le’aupepe offers on Angel In Realtime, we’re certain he’d’ve been damn proud of the show his son and all his mates put on for him.