The best gig of the year: Cate Le Bon’s live show was transcendent and transfixing

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The best gig of the year: Cate Le Bon’s live show was transcendent and transfixing

Words by Augustus Welby

Her magnificent 2019 album Reward was on full display.

Cate Le Bon has been generating a curious variant of indie-pop for the last ten years. Her work recalls the experimental tendencies of acts like Anna Domino, Split Enz and Captain Beefheart while radiating a voice all her own.

On 2019’s Reward, Le Bon tightened her songwriting and production to create the most engrossing body of work in her five-album catalogue. She brought a five-piece band with her to Melbourne, all of whom could sing and jump between a variety of guitars, synths and percussion instruments as well as marimba and dual saxophones.

Le Bon spent more than half the show freed from her guitar. In a recent Pitchfork interview, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy spoke of his fondness for Le Bon’s guitar playing. “I can always tell when it’s her playing guitar,” he said. “Whenever I try to figure out her guitar parts, they’re way harder than they sound.”

The times when Le Bon did strap on the guitar – such as during ‘Daylight Matters’, ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Magnificent Gestures’ – were a testament to Tweedy’s appraisal, but the band were more than capable of picking up the slack otherwise, allowing Le Bon to properly inhabit the songs.

Le Bon comes from the tiny hamlet of Penboyr in South West Wales and her debut record, 2009’s Me Oh My, includes the Welsh language song ‘Oh Am Gariad’. If this wasn’t indication enough, her between-song patter proved she really is quite Welsh. She’s also pals with Cool Cymru figureheads Super Furry Animals, but her songwriting is far too singular for “Welsh” to be used as a stylistic descriptor.

On record, Le Bon’s voice can sound a bit abstract or aloof, but tonight we were shown just what a set of pipes she has. She frequently took expressive liberty with the vocal lines, moving from a stern lower register up to a melancholic high. She often traded lines with the saxophone or a whining lead guitar, summoning a touch of surrealist drama.

The majority of songs from Reward featured. It’s a tremendous record and we all came to the gig with high hopes, but the trance Le Bon and band put the Croxton crowd under was genuinely special.

2016’s Crab Day, a more spasmodic art-pop record, deposited a few songs to the setlist. ‘Wonderful’ was the night’s most frenetic, closely matched by Reward’s ‘Magnificent Gestures’, both of them igniting a sort of chaotic, jazz-punk communion on stage.

The set also included a cover of Arthur Russell’s ‘Habit of You’, one of the late experimentalist’s more conventionally catchy new wave songs. With lines about birthday cakes and falling in love, it slipped precisely into Le Bon’s bent world of emotive longing and still life impressionism.

Le Bon was a magnetic frontperson; not especially animated, but very much there. The band have clearly been playing the heck out of these songs and you could tell they were having a great time. Bass player Stephen Black was thrashing it out from the off and the multi-instrumentalists seemed totally involved in the songs throughout.

Really, when it comes down to it, it’s hard to think of a superior show this year.

Highlight: ‘Mother’s Mother’s Magazines’.

Lowlight: Boris Johnson.

Crowd favourite: The tearing ‘What’s Not Mine’ guitar solo.