It had been a long time between drinks for me, since the last time I saw The Waifs was in 2009. That night they played at the beautiful Bangalow A & I Hall, with its walls and ceilings covered in pressed tin reliefs, and its flat, open floor worn smooth from a century of gathering.
Last night, the same band in the same venue brought back memories of that first magical night, the relaxed crowd milling around, finding their spot, chatting as they carry their eskys and wine bottles, waiting for the first act to come on stage.
This time Mia Dyson is the opener, brandishing her vanilla icecream-coloured Tone Deluxe Standard, a guitar built by her father. She takes to the stage and a few people mutter, asking who she is. The rest of us are tuning our ears to her soulful, heavy vocals and emotional electric blues, instantly recognisable if you’ve ever heard any of her music
In the hot hall, though, without her band backing her as she revs up for each stinging solo, attentions start to drift and the chatter rises. She brings us back with the catchy When the Moment Comes, and I find myself singing along without knowing the lyrics. A little tune about spending time with a loved one before they pass away, She Can’t Take the World, from her newest album, Idyllwild, is uplifting despite its subject. It showcases her gift for seeing right to the heart of a moment and condensing those feelings into one small package.
On the ceiling there are no fans, and the small, hinged windows that run the length of the walls above our heads are hardly able to provide enough ventilation for the now-crowded hall. Jackets are removed, brows wiped.
The Waifs have been together 23 years, and are touring their recently released 7th studio album, Beautiful You. They bounce onto the stage with the audience already at their whim. Donna Simpson launches the performance with her familiar raw vocals, her relationship with the other four musicians so free and easy after all this time together.
Guitarist and singer, Josh Cunningham, is hardly recognisable under a huge bushranger beard, but as soon as his voice emerges, smooth and effortless from beneath all the fuzz, you know it can’t be anyone else. Within three songs he has changed guitars three times, from electric to acoustic, to electric ukulele and back again.
Vikki Thorn’s skills on harmonica marry up beautifully, and barely a song passes which doesn’t benefit from a bluesy burst inserted expertly between vocals and guitar solos.
Mia Dyson jumps back on stage to join Josh in a “gospel shred off”, jokes Vikki, and they lurch into their blues/gospel masterpiece, Temptation. It fills the hall with a wall of harmonies as they work their way to a dueling guitar call-and-response solo midway through. Josh’s Born to Love on banjo is country enough to avoid any comparison with the current crop of hipster urban hillbilly tunes, cemented by a stomping drum beat and anchored by the trio’s close harmonies in all the right places.
Part of The Waifs’ enduring appeal lies in their ability to create music as a close-knit group with a shared history, while still allowing each member to maintain their individual storytelling and songwriting styles.
With each new song, the emotion in the room changes, and I have a lump in my throat as Vikki and Josh begin to play Gillian, a song Josh wrote for his mother in his early days with the band. The love, the weight of parental responsibility, the honour of being someone’s child all impossibly conveyed in a few simple lines.
Donna sings her heart out for the title track from the new album, Beautiful You, which, she explains, was written as a plea to a friend struggling with addiction. The pain is palpable and her rawness leaves the crowd awkwardly searching for somewhere else to look.
Classics from their back catalogue, like London Still and Lighthouse, are as sweet as ever, with the sisters taking turns at the mic while Josh expertly recreates each line so that it matches with the melodies burned into the minds of everyone present.
At one point I notice I have started swaying in time without realising it, but the song ends just as I become aware. With my mind wandering and my feet tapping, the validity of our day-to-day struggles and the joys and pains of a simple life are sung with such conviction and honesty that you can’t help but feel happy to be alive.