Majesty and might: the long-awaited return of george

In 2002, alt-rock had well and truly taken hold of Australia’s throat. At every turn of the radio dial was a choppy guitar riff, dealt out by leather-jacketed males twisting around their microphones. Whether it was The Strokes, or Weezer, or Cake – we were well and truly lapping it up.

Then, into the fray, came george. Led by sister and brother Katie and Tyrone Noonan, the Brisbane five-piece shifted the focus so far left it may as well have been off the planet. When their debut album Polyserena landed in March of that year, it swept through the Australian music scene more like a blizzard than a breath. This was rock, yes, but delivered with lashings of jazz, opera, and even vaudeville. It was also unapologetically complex – the band slipped between time signatures and keys at the flick of a drumstick.

At the centre of it all was Katie Noonan, with a vocal that was so controlled, powerful, and beguiling that it deserves to be bottled for further study.

Polyserena ended up going double platinum, securing fans across generations and genres.

It turned out to be a lone lightning strike for george. Their second release, Unity, failed to reach the same audience as their debut – despite some undeniably excellent songs in the form of ‘Still Real’ and ‘Falling Inside’. From there it was a swift slide into obscurity, with the band finally declaring an hiatus at in 2005. They were gone, but definitely not forever.

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On Friday afternoon, mere hours before george were set to take the stage at Taronga, a fearsome thunderstorm began to sweep through Sydney. Lightning and hail struck the city as gutters bloated and overflowed. Organisers were frantically replying to messages on Facebook and Twitter, assuring punters that it was set to clear, that the gig would go ahead.

Turns out, they were right. By the time the crowd had unrolled their picnic rugs on the green slope at Taronga, the sun was cracking out between the storm clouds.

The biggest question looming now was whether george –  after 12 years away from the stage together – could reclaim that crackling energy that propelled them so strongly.

“Katie Noonan is an arresting performer – working her voice the way a conductor would an orchestra, changing keys and registers with accompanying flicks of her hand.”

From opener ‘Still Real’, initial fears were dispelled. Each member has been immersed in various side projects for the past decade, yet their group chemistry remains. Traversing tracks from both Polyserena and Unity (as well as a nice surprise in early EP track ‘Holiday’),  the band are as attuned to each other than they were many years before. ‘Still Real’ and ‘Holiday’ were delivered practically verbatim from their recordings, as were most of the Polyserena tracks. When Katie Noonan quips later in the evening: “does anyone feel like we’re stuck in an early noughties time warp?”, everyone agrees.

Only a couple of things had aged: Tyrone pulls back from hitting some of the higher notes on ‘Rain’ and ‘Run’, his vocals understandably just not up to the chop of his younger self. Perhaps due to the shoddy mix (there was next to no mid-section for the duration of the gig), the big punches of ‘Run’ and ‘Breaking It Slowly’ failed to materialise. Some beefier songs didn’t suffer quite as much: ‘Release’ and closer ‘Spawn’ still thundered (and yes, Katie Noonan can still hit and hold those incredible notes.)

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Both Tyrone and Katie are comfortable performers. When Katie Noonan made a couple of false starts by picking up the wrong key, it’s laughed off and twisted into an anecdote. They ran through amusing stories of dealing with Centrelink as broke musicians, of driving back and forth to Byron Bay for recording sessions, of that time they jack-knifed a trailer outside of Sydney’s Metro Theatre.

There were some beautiful standout moments. ‘Breathe In Now’ and ‘Special One’s were laid out back to back, giving plenty of space for Katie Noonan’s vocal flight. She’s arresting to watch – working her voice the way a conductor would an orchestra, changing keys and registers with accompanying flicks of her hand.

By the time the closer ‘Spawn’ had rolled around, any whispers of rain were long gone, the clouds having pulled back to reveal the night sky. Then with a quick bow, george vanished once more. Here’s hoping not for as long a time.

Jules LeFevre is a writer for FasterLouder and inthemix. She tweets at @jules_lefevre.  

Header image by Ian Laidlaw. Other images by Maclay Heriot. 

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