Cold Chisel @ Hordern Pavilion, Sydney (18/04/2012)

Despite being one of the country’s most beloved groups, Cold Chisel have often been dogged, at least in some circles, by a certain cultural cringe – one that aligns them with a rougher, dumber, Australia. And that’s a hard thing to escape. For a band as ubiquitous and embedded in our culture as Cold Chisel, context is huge, and that’s often where one person’s poet becomes another’s bogan rock band.

But with a reformation and re-issue campaign well underway, it’s time for a fresh look at the group, both on-stage and recorded. And so, amidst quite horrible weather, the Hordern Pavillion slowly filled with a fairly diverse audience that spanned generations and subcultures.

It’s half-full when Lanie Lane opens well with a set that balanced country, rockabilly and indie into a very easygoing package. She’s become a fairly big deal of late, and it’s easy to see why. While her nostalgic 1950s country/rockabilly aesthetic has been adopted by a number of other groups, she isn’t bogged down by it – rather, it’s a colourful backdrop for a pop songwriting knack that would be compelling regardless. And while at times her set was a little too innocuous to engage a rather restless crowd, it was consistently good and at times great – particularly the brooding My Man and closer Bang Bang.

A few minutes before they took the stage, the lights dimmed, the volume rose, and Muddy Waters’ blues classic Mannish Boy blared over the PA. And it fits that the group didn’t take the stage until the song’s closing notes – it felt less like an entrance song than a statement of intent from a band eager to prove their place in Australian rock’s canon. And they made a compelling case, opening a crowd-pleasing career retrospective with a rousing Standing On The Outside. The group were clearly enjoying themselves on-stage, and Barnes’ eternally strained voice sounded particularly impressive. They may be on a victory-lap tour, but their enthusiasm made it feel more like a celebration than a cash-in.

The hits, of course, dominated the set. Their catalog gives them the luxury of being able to pace a two-hour set without dull moments, and only a handful of songs from their new album No Plans punctuated their hits. They worked with varying success – comeback single All For You fit in well, while other tracks like HQ 454 suffered in comparison to Cheap Wine, Saturday Night, Forever Now, Choir Girl, and many, many more of their better-known songs. The biggest highlights were saved for the end though, with a set-ending run of Flame Trees, Khe Sanh and Bow River being answered with an encore-opening When The War Is Over – all songs that were received with incredible warmth from the audience.

That warmth is well-deserved – after all, they’re all incredibly well-known songs, and that’s no accident. Cold Chisel trade in a songwriting craft that’s at times beautiful, but also incredibly relatable and uniquely Australian. And yeah, we’ve all heard the songs a million times, and they’re so embedded in our culture that some mistake their universality as being lowest-common-denominator. But it’s a foolish mistake to make, one that severely underrates one of the finest voices our music community has produced.