Words by Janelle Tai
Photos by Josh Groom
“Check out Magnolia”, said someone I just met circa 2015 – as they typed Gang of Youths’ most popular song into the YouTube search bar. The cascading riff spat out from the cheap speaker of a smartphone and the tiny screen that projected a character letting loose to a carefree, yet trapped chorus was enough to leave me a taste of wanting more.
More soul, more strength, more poignant yet hopeful lyrics, more grandiose choruses, more of Dave Le’aupepe’s voice.
It wasn’t long before said person (now a very good friend) and I caught a memorable gig by the band at a free stint by the City of Sydney, memorable in that barely anyone gave a shit about them. The socialite crowd were busy chattering over their drinks on the rooftop bar that hosted the event, while the few of us felt special as lead-singer Dave and guitarist Joji Malani treated us to a couple of acoustic ones off The Positions and even a self-professed cliché ‘Someday’ cover.
It’s a stark contrast when the Enmore joined Dave at the opening lines of ‘Fear and Trembling’ on Tuesday night, which was the fourth out of six sold-out Sydney shows celebrating the Say Yes to Life tour. A solid warm-up, but what really felt like the band at 100% was when ‘What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out’ came on. Maybe it’s the more headstrong, definitive cry in the way the lyrics were delivered, or because it was the construction of the song itself. Having multiple crescendos to a vociferous level commanded attention on the muscial prowess of the band, most notably drummer Donnie Borzestowski’s performance marked by the flurry of his hands and zealous concentration in delivering each beat.
It was easy to see Dave’s undeniable gift for music when he sat down at the piano for three powerful ballads from sophomore album Go Farther In Lightness. His velvety lower register, is every bit impressive on the slower numbers as the tracks that require more stamina. Both are equal grounds for obsession.
Dave’s penmanship reveals that he has no qualms about sharing his emotive side. We see each song stripping back a layer off at a time – ‘Keep Me in the Open’ about a faltering relationship with his ex-wife, ‘Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane’ reflects on missed opportunities when taking things for granted and ‘Go Farther in Lightness’ tells of his challenge with existentialism.
What made the gig so special was that Dave didn’t make it just an opportunity for us to listen to some catchy tunes; sure that was a given, but it was about connecting with us by giving us context to his lyrics. Most of the time, punters chant along to choruses while having absolutely no idea what they are saying, let alone what the lyrics actually mean. Sharing the heartbreak of losing his dad – his lifelong beacon of light and oasis of strength who taught him that being stronger means practicing empathy, saying sorry and loving more set us up for ‘The Heart is a Muscle’. Pumping our fists in the air to “Cause the heart, the heart, the heart/The heart is a muscle/And I wanna make it strong” certainly felt more purposeful and important than just singing along about some vague metamorphosis.
‘Let Me Down Easy’ was a sharp shift in gear, but a welcome one as Dave shimmied and pranced in a most flamboyant Freddie Mercury-like manner, with the onlookers following suit. The juxtaposition is startling at first, but quickly turned into amusement, and then respect as it reminds us to be more comfortable in our own skin.
A unanimous jolt of excitement surged when the familiar lines of ‘Magnolia’ played next, and what followed was an epic performance. We were breathless as Dave roared and soared across the stage, but even more so when he finished the second-half of the song crowdsurfing atop a sea of hands.
It’s rare these days to see musicians care so much about their role as influencers of thought, and to use their platform to share how heartache and feeling disoriented in life can be a lesson on liberation and hope. This is why Gang of Youths have resonated so strongly with us – they are accessible, sincerely human and they make damn good music.
The band’s last oomph of energy was saved to close the night with a simple, courageous message – to “Say yes to you! Say yes to me! Say yes to love! Say yes to life!”.
Check out the full photo gallery by Josh Groom –