Ben Lee ★★★★
Sunset Piazza, Hyde Park, February 21
He’s almost the forgotten man of Australian pop – so much so that there’s an actual audible gasp of recognition when this balmy summer evening’s last song, We’re All in This Together, reminds people who sang the catchy song off that advert.
But if there’s anything to be remembered after an hour and a bit in Ben Lee’s company, at this socially distanced pop-up venue in front of St Mary’s Cathedral, it’s how good he is with both lyrics and melody, and what a charming entertainer he can be.
The Sydney expat lives in Los Angeles these days, so it’s not as though he was touring Australia often back when people could tour anywhere often, but his return gets you on board from the moment he ambles onstage in T-shirt, cut-off jeans and wide-brimmed hat, as though he just drove down from Byron.
He seems to have only a handful of acoustic guitars at his disposal but he quickly points out his backing “band”: an old-school cassette player with a handful of tapes on top of them. (You can see some of their teasing titles on the stage-side video screens – “CATCH” implying his aptly infectious ARIA single of the year Catch My Disease, which he will of course eventually play; “SUNFLOWER” implying the less well-known I Am a Sunflower, which he doesn’t. But it’s nice to have options, right?)
These cassettes not only provide simple drum-machine-and-synth backing tracks for half the tunes Lee performs, they also give him a wealth of comedy material as he swaps, rewinds and presses play on them as required.
Whether singing and strumming along to the tapes or accompanied only by one of his guitars, he plucks out the gorgeous melodies to heartfelt tunes such as Love Me Like the World Is Ending and a terrific Cigarettes Will Kill You, or rambles amiably through the more lyrical songs such as The Debt Collectors and the tongue-twisting Happiness.
There are lovable new songs from his next album, which he says will be titled I’m Fun. Such is his wry delivery of this information, it’s hard to tell if he’s serious, although Parents Get High and Born for This Bullshit suggest he’s probably telling the truth.
But new or old, the songs prove perfect for a sedate Sunday night. The overall performance is a delight and it feels good to have Ben Lee back.
Events at the Sunset Piazza run until March 21, www.sunsetpiazza.com.au