Death bookended Tim Minchin’s first concert in 18 months, at a point in a pandemic that has cruelled touring artist performances and choked us all with visitations of mortality, contemplating a toll of 3.8 million lives and counting.
Minchin re-launched the postponed encore of his BACK tour – a retrospective of “old songs, new songs, f**k you songs”, which premiered in 2019 and will this week take him to New Zealand before dates around Australia and then the UK – with If This Plane Goes Down, contemplating a crash from 30,000 feet: “Remember me as someone who tried / To find a balance between self-loathing and pride.”
Tim Minchin. Photograph supplied
Three hours later, he was wishing for a bifurcated demise that might allot him two tombstones, one reading “Who’s the world going to revolve around now?” and the other, “I talked too much and stayed too long”, also the title of another song from Minchin’s 2020 album Apart Together. This is where a witness might eulogise the obvious: hell no, he didn’t.
Dressed in a white-collared shirt, tie, woollen vest and black jeans nattily befitting the Adelaide Cabaret Festival setting, Minchin’s feet were bare, ready to leap. With his beard and long, lustrous ginger locks, he joked about being Jesus but, by god or more likely through the confirmation bias of a reverential crowd of 2000 at the Festival Centre, the energy exchange fired Minchin’s synapses and resulted in a fully present performance by an artist at the top of his game.
Peak velocity was achieved five songs into the 90-minute first act with Airport Piano, then sustained. This song, about creating while waiting a flight home to Sydney, replaces Rock N Roll Nerd in the BACK set list. During Airport Piano, a curtain dropped behind Minchin, who was front of stage at his piano, revealing a cracking band of seven, including three horn players, all framed by two sets of six Roman columns, atop each of which little cones of light flashed as Christian crosses or spiralled like jet engines as the song required.
It was then clear Minchin would match the energy and stagecraft of his gold standard Ready for This? gigs of 2008-10. Prior to 2019, he had been absent from touring for seven years, during which time he spent four years scoring the animated Dreamworks musical Larrikins, only to have Universal dump the $90 million film as a tax write-off, returning home to Australia for the much happier experience, starring in and scoring part of the television comedy Upright.
Now the middle-aged father of teens, “neither of them neurotypical”, the linking tissue between Ready for This? and BACK is Minchin’s contemplation of faith to his wife, Sarah, with whom he has been partnered for 28 years. The only song shared between these concerts a dozen years apart is If I Didn’t Have You, with its lyrical teasing twist of probability (“someone else would do”), benefitting from the full-bodied oomph of baritone saxophone and trumpet.
We are again reassured Sarah shares her husband’s dark humour and gives back as good as she gets; when Minchin relates a story of telling his wife her body is like a “wonderland theme park”, her rejoinder is that’s he’s like one of those little fiberglass Thomas the Tank Engine rides at a shopping centre.
For this iteration of the BACK encore, Minchin has also added I’ll Take Lonely Tonight. This is the album track I keep hitting replay on, and I wonder why a song he introduced twice at the cabaret festival (the first time at the opening variety gala) with the explanation it was “about trying not to have sex with other people” should be so emotionally affecting.
Perhaps it’s the late-night burnished quality of the “blissfully lonely” voice, or the singer’s relatable self-awareness of his love for a woman “half a planet away” from his 3.5-star boutique hotel with only a minibar for company. (3.5 stars? Surely not at this stage of success.)
Even with all the trimmings of materiality, Minchin remains relatable, perhaps because he credits his audience’s intelligence to grasp irony and recognise the shit of the rich still stinks even while expelled during the contemplation of ocean views.
The audience engagement flows throughout. Minchin helpfully defines cabaret as “mostly lectures drawn together by men in eyeliner and women in spangly dresses”. Tonight’s lecture lampoons American conservatives for mixing the eternity of Jesus with the right to bear semi-automatic weapons but also critiques progressives for fighting other progressives whose opinions deviate even one degree from proscribed social media orthodoxy.
I found myself wanting to hit rewind to hear these streams of wit broken down, to chew them over and digest more slowly. For that, I’ll happily catch another leg of the tour featuring a rich body of work that makes art from melancholic absence and resonates in its cry for home and togetherness.
Tim Minchin – BACK plays at Newcastle’s Civic Theatre on 28–29 June, Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on 1–3 July, Brisbane’s Fortitude Music Hall on 6–9 July, and Sydney’s Enmore Theatre 11–15 July