Australia

Carving out closeness can’t be taken for granted

Mark Wilkinson ★★★
The Vanguard, August 13

The forging of a certain intimacy between artist and audience, once so highly prized in the gig format, has become standard procedure in a live-music scene shaped by continuing venue restrictions.

With only a numbered few others in a room, artists really are closer than ever. But at Mark Wilkinson’s show, select moments of true intimacy showed that carving out closeness – even with a small crowd – can’t be taken for granted.

Mark Wilkinson: rainy-day coffee-house music with moments of sharpness.

Mark Wilkinson: rainy-day coffee-house music with moments of sharpness.

Without fanfare, the Sydney singer-songwriter strode onto the Vanguard’s moody, teeny tiny stage, an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. After eight months without having played a single gig, he was playing two in a night.

In a set that spanned little more than an hour, his rich, warm vocals filled the small space. With no accompaniment, minimal lighting changes and unfussy production, there was a simplicity to Wilkinson’s set that mirrored his sound: amorphous lyrics, strummed guitar and semi-folksy, David Gray-esque melodies with a consistent tempo were his natural terrain.

Love songs abounded, as did songs about the loss of said love. The uncomplicated Everything to Me set standard, devotional lyrics against clipped guitar chords. “Don’t be away for too long,” crooned Wilkinson in the bridge, “’Cause I fall apart when you’re gone/Here in my arms you belong.”

Latest single We’re Not Alone was a sweeping ballad whose message of “building a better world” was predicated on uncontroversial vagaries such as “if we stay together, we’ll overcome”. Benny’s on the Rooftop was more maudlin, and perhaps too bluntly framed lyrically to have the emotional import it was intended to.

It’s essentially rainy-day coffee-house music – which, with its crowd-pleasing lack of specificity, has a tendency to blend into itself.

That’s not to say there weren’t moments of sharpness. Middle Ground wove a story detailing the dissatisfaction and longing of trying to save a dying relationship. All I Ever Wanted rose to a faster, more urgent tempo, shining a light on Wilkinson’s deft guitar playing, which was otherwise relegated mostly to the background. Champagne was gritty and sensitively drawn, showing off the clarity of Wilkinson’s rich, honeyed voice.

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For an encore, Wilkinson brought out the older, campfire singalong-style tune Hey Baby – and it delivered exactly the kind of easy escapism and nostalgia his crowd came out to find.

Mark Wilkinson plays two more shows at the Vanguard tonight (August 14).

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