Head to boot-clad toe in black, Australian Jen Cloher takes centre stage of Manchester’s cosy Deaf Institute. She is flanked by her girlfriend Courtney Barnett on guitar, Bones Sloane on bass and Jen Sholakis on drums. With Cloher’s mullet-cut and layered bangs, coupled with Sloane’s straggly shoulder-length hair and faded plaid shirt, the foursome look like a throwback to Sex Pistols-era 70s punk-rock. From a little booth perched above both the stage and the crowd, I had the perfect bird’s eye view. The band mirrored the crowd in style and vibe – both had an average age of about 35 – and one could almost envision the same crowd fifteen years ago as early members of the thriving punk-rock scene.
Opening with ‘Regional Echo’, Cloher has the audience swaying to the melancholy rolls of ‘the Australian dream is fading away/ stolen away’. This doesn’t last long though. Dragging the audience with them, the band quickly descends into the bitter resentment that characterises much of Cloher’s music. Screaming sections of ‘Forgot Myself’ into the mic amid Barnett’s insane guitar riffs, Cloher explodes with emotion that closely resembles teenage angst. She muses with searing honesty about the difficulty of dealing with her girlfriend Barnett’s musical success, and the long-distance relationship that ensued when Barnett left Australia to tour. With envy and a certain inferiority-complex featuring as a running theme in a large chunk of Cloher’s music, one can’t help but wonder about the couple’s dynamic – especially with Barnett playing guitar on one of Cloher’s first UK tours.
For all the melancholy and angst in Cloher’s music, the band is endearingly affable and very laid back. Sholakis randomly declares between songs that it “wasn’t a good idea to have curry before playing the drums”, to which the audience has a good laugh and Cloher responds with a wry, “way to go for a bad visual. Now… for a romantic little song about my life”, leading into ‘Sensory Memory’. Both Cloher and the Sloane change instruments regularly, selecting from a collection of nearly 10 electric and bass guitars that sits casually on stage. There is something endearing about the way they switch guitars in between each track, tuning them on stage while chatting casually to the crowd.
It is especially heart-warming watching the crowd. As Cloher transitions from bangers like ‘Stone Age Brain’, where she yells into the mic, teeth bared, brow screwed up and red in the face, to a quieter ‘Fear is Like a Forest’, a song she wrote for Barnett, the crowd visibly shifts in mood along to the music. An especially keen fan jiving right by the stage particularly stands out. Clad in a leather jacket, leather bangle, and lots of silver jewellery, the middle-aged man goes from head-banging enthusiastically, to hugging the speaker stood at the edge of the stage and gazing at Cloher fully absorbed as she croons.
At points, Cloher’s music and lyrics is dripping with a very particular style of self-deprecation and sarcasm. Beginning ‘Shoegazers’ with ‘Indie rock is full of privileged white kids/ I know because I’m one of them’ she proceeds to make a quick jibe at music critics that had me reaaly amused: ‘most critics are pussies who want to look cool/ those can, they do/ those who can’t review’. Her lyrics also have an underlying current of LGBT and gender politics. With ‘Analysis Paralysis’, which she wrote before Australia had legalised same-sex marriage, she muses about how ‘the Hansonites/ take a plebiscite to decide if I can have a wife’. Banger ‘Strong Woman’ tells of the struggles of growing up amid the societal demands of womanhood, especially as a lesbian. As she screamed ‘I know I am a Strong Woman/ Never questioned my strength it was passed on/ Proud that my Mother wanted respect more than love’, I watched a lesbian couple dancing hard at the front of the crowd with a welling sense of pride, love and hope.
Closing on an acoustic solo of ‘Dark Art’ followed by encore ‘Name In Lights’ for which the band returns to the stage, the night ends on Cloher’s classic melancholic observations of love, imbibed with a subtle yet integral sense of hope. As the lights come on and the crowd disperses and the Deaf Institute’s trademark disco ball begins revolving again, the band humbly interacts with the stragglers, hugging fans, indulging in selfies and signing vinyls. It all culminates in such warmth that the last of us don’t want to leave. Security ushers us along, and as we exit the venue into the cold wintry winds of Manchester, one can’t help but feel washed over with the poignancy of existence, cloaked, Jen Cloher style, in an embedded sense of hope.