The biggest moments in Australian live entertainment

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

For a nation that flocks to live performances like bees to honey, it’s bizarre to look back on a time when the very idea of it was taboo. Way back when Australia was established as a penal colony, the joys of English-style theatre were considered at odds with trying to mete out punishments. Happily, the killjoy authorities ultimately didn’t get their way and Australia is nowadays home to a billion dollar live entertainment industry that is one of the world’s most vibrant and diverse.

A beloved band reunites

For the CEO of Live Performance Australia (LPA) Evelyn Richardson, last year’s performances by Crowded House at the Sydney Opera House were a really special moment. The four concerts marked the 20th anniversary since the iconic band performed its landmark show, ‘Farewell to the World’ in front of 100,000 people at the same magnificent venue.

“It was so great to see them again live and still on top of their game,” said Richardson, who was among the audience of 5,000.

Photo by Yvette de Wit on Unsplash
Photo by Yvette de Wit on Unsplash

Burning the midnight oil

A stalwart of Australian stages is Midnight Oil, whose sheer stamina and lasting popularity is impressive: the band started out in the seventies and are still selling out shows as we speak. Midnight Oil grew its dedicated fan base organically by regularly performing in pubs that were willing to play host to their wild ways. In 1979, Midnight Oil played a riot-inspiring gig at Sydney’s Stagedoor Tavern that is still remembered fondly today, despite the police being called in to shut the doors for crowd control. Sydney mourned the loss of the Stagedoor Tavern, which shut its doors in 2009.

‘Like a sermon’

Singer-songwriter Lachlan Bryan can’t go past a particular performance by another Australian great, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. For Bryan, who is the front-man of the award-winning alternative-country band Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes, the performance by the ‘Prince of Darkness’ epitomized Cave’s ethereal qualities and lasting appeal.

“A warm summer night had fallen by the time Nick and the band finally took to the stage, immaculately dressed and bathed in soft white and purple light,” Bryan recalled.

“The show was stunning: in some moments Nick leant over the front rows, as if delivering a sermon, while at other times he sat at the piano and crooned his more delicate songs… Here was a genuine Australian hero on the stage – deep, intelligent, articulate and imposing.”

Photo by Matty Adame on Unsplash
Photo by Matty Adame on Unsplash

Smells like what?

Internationally, one of the biggest moments in the modern history of Australian live entertainment came about because of a forward-thinking booking agent. In 1992, Sydney’s Magnet Promotions took a punt on a little-known band called Nirvana, after liking what they heard on their debut album, Mudhoney. Part of Nirvana’s tour included playing at what was then a new festival – The Big Day Out – and by the time they arrived, Smells Like Teen Spirit had become the anthem of a grunge-inspired generation.

Recognising the greats

In 2001, Live Performance Australia (LPA) founded the annual Helpmann Awards, which recognize excellence in the many disciplines of Australia’s vibrant live performance sectors. Last year’s winners included stand-up comedian Tom Ballard, who takes down IS (alas only figuratively speaking), Justin Bieber and our general inhumanity. Also on the list of winners was theatre director Lee Lewis for The Bleeding Tree, which came about as a result of Lewis’ desire to rewrite the law around punishment for domestic violence victims who kill their abuser in self-defence.

A must-see adaption

Richardson said that Secret River, by the Sydney Theatre Company, was an incredibly powerful depiction of white settler’s impact on Australia’s indigenous peoples. The play is an adaption of Kate Grenville’s book of the same name, which was shortlisted for Miles Franklin Award and the Man Booker Prize in 2006.

“It was a fantastic night at the theatre, beautifully presented and so moving. Every Australian should see it,” Richardson said.

Photo by jens johnsson on Unsplash
Photo by jens johnsson on Unsplash

When it’s more than a moment

Rolling Stone contributor and author, Andrew P. Street, said that live performances can be significant not just because of the quality of the performance itself, but because it signals a change in tastes and genres.

For Street, whose upcoming book The Long and Winding Way to the Top: 50 (Or So) Songs That Made Australia will be released in November, it was a performance by the Hilltop Hoods at the 2004 Big Day Out in Adelaide that made him rethink his views on contemporary Australian music.

“I wanted to see the Hilltops Hoods live, since I knew them vaguely from our families living in neighbouring suburbs, but I couldn’t get close to the Atrium Stage: there were thousands of people jammed in, climbing up trees and dangling from supports to see them over the intense, jam-packed crowd,” said Street.

“That was the moment I realised that Australian hip hop had arrived and that my beloved musical genre of scrawny chaps with fringes and guitars were on the way out.”


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Jessica Mudditt is an Australian freelance journalist whose articles have been published by The Economist, BBC, CNN, Marie Claire, GQ and Australian Geographic.

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