Standing in the winding queue that snakes away from the venue’s door, an Australian accent is rare. Scottish brogues dominate tonight, as a band barely known in Australia but who have sold over six million albums back in the UK play the first of two Melbourne shows. “Australians don’t know Deacon Blue,” laughs one man as we make our way in. That’s not entirely true, but we certainly don’t know them like a middle-aged Glaswegian.
Singer-songwriter, and until recently bassist with 1927, Simon Shapiro makes the most of his support slot. Donning a harmonica and an acoustic guitar, his set is a mix of self-penned material and covers of 1980s hits delivered in a way that would be far more appropriate were he trying to be heard over a full-throttle rock band. If you ever thought Under The Milky Way, That’s When I Think Of You or Who’s That Girl? would be improved by being sung aggressively by a busker desperate for your attention or an X Factor contestant fearing elimination, Shapiro is your guy. Though a small but vocal fanbase will disagree, his forceful vocal style and barely contained passion seems out of place for those songs, though it does work well for his own. Scream and the closing Someday Son, which seem suited to his one-man set-up and make the most of his dynamic range, are standouts.
“To come all this way and play such a small venue, they’re not doing it for the money,” says one fan wearing a Deacon Blue T-shirt he proudly tells me was purchased in 1989. “I can not believe they’re playing in a tiny place like this,” he continues as we wait for the band to arrive. “Last time I saw them was at the fucking Hammersmith Apollo.”
As the band arrives, the venue feels like it’s full of competition winners – people who can’t believe they’re seeing the band at all, let alone in Melbourne in 2019. Opening with Circus Lights the six-piece instantly gel with a proficiency that can only be won from a cumulative century of performing. Keyboardist James Prime and drummer Douglas Vipond fill the back of the stage, while at the front stands guitarist Gregor Philip, bassist Lewis Gordon and the couple who form the nucleus of the band, vocalist Lorraine McIntosh and singer and writer of most of the songs we’ll hear tonight, Ricky Ross.
As the band ease into the set, it becomes clear it’s hard for them to fail. The passion for the music and the band’s faultless renditions of the songs we want to hear combine to give the entire evening the quality of a well-aged Scotch. The crowd recognise each song, the lesser known but much loved (Raintown, This Is A Love Song) as much as the euphoric UK hits (Wages Day, Chocolate Girl) which see the crowd erupt into a forest of arms and phones. Chocolate Girl gets a deviation into Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend which lets Ross give us the story of what happened to the song’s protagonist.
Ross strides over the foldback speakers with increasing regularity, to touch the outstretched hands of the crowd. References to the venue and Australia are woven into the set with consummate professionalism. For a show so polished and a crowd so keen to hear the familiar, it seems like there may be little chance for surprise, but then there is the voice of Lorraine McIntosh. Ross’ wife and co-founder of the band twists and vamps against the side of the stage for much of the night, until she takes its metaphorical centre. Love And Regret, becomes a showstopper with the band quieting and her voice taking on a keening richness similar to that of Mary Margaret O’Hara – a perfect counterpoint to Ross’s reedy lilt. New single, the anthemic Waterboys-esque City Of Love doesn’t sound out of place amid the set. Nor does Your Town, the band’s foray into early ’90s dance, which makes the most of a sound mix that favours Ross’ voice at the expense of drums and keyboards.
As the band play the opening of Real Gone Kid, a hit in Australia, the thrill of recognition is so cacophonous that it almost drowns out the band. Throughout the room, fans are jumping, dancing, singing and filming, often simultaneously. Subsequent songs Dignity and Fergus Sings The Blues also get huge responses. As we haul Deacon Blue back for an encore, they elect to close with a country-ish cover of Always On My Mind in which each member takes a turn singing the song’s title, a sweet and low-key end to a barnstorming night of Celtic rock.