Amongst lions, tigers and chairs (oh my), the annual Melbourne Zoo Twilights kicked off last weekend. In between unpredictable weather patterns and intermittent thunderstorms, veteran Australian country-folk band The Waifs managed an unscathed, much loved set, with support from alt-country troubadour Ruby Boots. Boots (real name Bex Chilcott) emerged to a fairly full crowd in the evening, as families began to settle in for the night. With a black fedora atop her flame-hair and a stride in her step, the Western Australian and her two-piece band cruised through a string of originals and collaborations.
Her latest album Solitude got a good outing with singles such as ‘Middle of Nowhere’ (written with The Waifs’ Vikki Thorn), ‘Baby Pull Over’, ’Ruby Blue’ and ‘Wrap Me In A Fever’ translating effortlessly live. Her voice – tinged in an Americana twang – cut through Ben Franz’ gentle slide guitar notes and bolstered by Belle Harvey’s double bass action. She smiled a lot, and never more so than when introducing recent collaborator and friend Jordie Lane onto the stage for their duet, ‘Lovin’ In The Fall’.
By the time The Waifs were due to come on, every teeny tiny patch of green lawn was smothered by a blanket or picnic rug of some kind. Chairs (even the usual low back ones) were not permitted in the front half of the area, so it was a cross-legged affair for those of us wanting a good view.
The band came out to a rapturous applause, and it was clear that many of the fans in the crowd had been around since the group started back in 1992. Lead by the husky, heartfelt and Australiana vocals of founding sisters Thorn and Donna Simpson and original guitarist and vocalist Josh Cunningham (now sporting an impressive Ned Kelly-esque beard), regular touring members Franz (yep, the same one from Boots’ band) was on bass and David Ross Macdonald was on drums.
Their five-month-old new album, Beautiful You, was received surprisingly very well by the old fans, with popular songs ‘Somebody’s Gonna Get Hurt’, ‘Black Dirt Track’ and Cunningham’s solo numbers ‘Dark Highway’ and ‘Born To Love’ even garnering a sing-a-long. Thorn’s ode to Australia (since marrying a “beautiful American man” and moving to Utah) ‘6000 Miles’ also went down a treat, as did Simpson’s dark and moving tragic tale of teen love ‘Rowena and Wallace’, with the spine-tingling chorus “We are young / we gonna run”.
The down-to-earth group looked super happy to be there, interacting with fans and each other in-between songs. Their casual stage presence comes with being a band for over 24 years, and whether it was doing anything and everything from the tambourine to a guitar, the girls in particular had it covered. Personally, I think Thorn was at her most impressive on the harmonica, which wonderfully got a hell of a lot of use. Some harmonica solos went for seconds, others minutes, and it was obvious from the body thrusting that she was putting everything into it.
Songs went from ballads to raucous numbers, with older fan favourites ‘Bridal Train’, ‘Lighthouse’ and ‘London Still’ getting the biggest response, and the later getting everyone swaying and singing along. Some young girls against the barrier held up a sign “Willow Tree please” much to Simpson’s delight, and the band naturally obliged soon after seeing it. We were serenaded as the sun set and the stars came out and The Waifs finished up their choc-a-block set (with an encore, of course) pleasing everyone with a generous smattering of old, new and everything in-between. “We’re the band that never leaves the stage!” Thorn mused, and it would’ve been just fine by everyone if they had done just that.