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Lawrence Greenwood is a fascinating contradiction. Performing as Whitley since 2006, Greenwood has been celebrated for his self-aware songwriting: pensive but not pretentious, honest but not earnest, all the while retaining a knack for earworm-y melody and layered arrangement. Yet, on stage, he’s a far cry from the sensitive singer-songwriter stereotype. Greenwood is cantankerous. He’s curmudgeonly. He swears at his instruments and generally goes to great lengths to shoosh noisy audience members.
It’s a strange paradox given the sentimental orientation of his music, but bizarrely enough it’s one that made the Whitley brand stronger on Thursday night. There’s something uniquely compelling about watching Greenwood’s pendulum swing so violently between these two extremes – pouring his heart out one minute and dishing out backhands the next – if only because they somehow offset and complement each other so well. More broadly, it speaks to why he’s successful as a songwriter: the ability to simultaneously tug at your heartstrings and slap you across the face with mundane reality has always been a hallmark of good folk music, and Greenwood seems to have based his entire onstage persona around his.
Thankfully, an extended hiatus period did not mean Whitley neglected the older material in his catalogue, which provided some of the night’s biggest highlights. I Remember from debut The Submarine was a winning singalong, while The Piece You Took From Me from follow-up Go Forth Find Mammoth was poignant and perfect. This is not to discredit Whitley’s new album, Even The Stars Are A Mess, in any sense – songs from this record were fairly represented in his set list, and they were equally strong and vital as the hits. Given some time to establish familiarity and for gestation in a live setting, we can expect these songs – especially the gorgeous My Heart Is Not A Machine – to become anticipated staples as well.
Whitley’s four-piece band were on point throughout the set, hitting the all of the delicate marks required by Greenwood’s lyric-driven songs. For this reason, nobody is playing bass on this tour, which would have gone unnoticed outside of a couple of full-band crescendos toward the end of the set that did lack a little low end. Overall, though, it’s a very small complaint about what otherwise was a welcome return to the stage for the Melbourne singer songwriter. Here’s hoping he sticks around.