Seeker Lover Keeper, Toby Martin @ Factory Theatre, Sydney (08/07/11)

Aside from a brief residency at Low Bar last year, no-one’s heard much from Youth Group mouthpiece Toby Martin as of late. With his main band on an extended break, Martin has quietly been at work on a solo record; with this tour being his first proper showcase of the new material. Given, it’s hard to get the exact flavour of the songs purely on the basis of their acoustic interpretations. With that said, Martin appeared to have maintained his knack for unique storytelling and subtle devastation within said stories – see the heartbroken balladry of All of New York Misses You, or the hazy traveller’s ode Postcard From Surfers.

As with any acoustic artist in a relatively big room, inane chatter often threatened to drown Martin out; but the guy is a pro and handled his audience remarkably well. He managed to establish an engagement with the songs themselves and throw in some wry self-deprecation in the banter between them. Whether his solo venture will deviate all that far from Youth Group is yet to be seen, but his pleasant charm and smooth vocals won him over this time. At least there were no call-outs for Forever Young.

Although the audience was quick to vocalise their love for Seeker Lover Keeper as they emerged onstage, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop the very second that Sarah Blasko picked up her acoustic guitar and lead the trio through a chilling rendition of album opener Bring Me Back. Experiencing their impeccably-gelled harmonies on the self-titled record is one thing, but to bear witness to them in the live environment is nothing short of stop-dead-in-your-tracks stunning. With only a simple strum as their guide, the three voices presented in their purest possible form truly was a sight to behold, the sound echoing throughout the entire Factory. It bode significantly well for the rest of the evening.

It was not only fascinating but simply inspiring to see these three musicians go right back to basics and start completely anew with this project. Tonight was their third-ever live performance, and teething problems were already on display – the drum machine cutting out during Light All My Lights, a series of missed cues here and there; plus there’s the fact that both Holly Throsby and Sally Seltmann still have absolutely no idea what to do with their hands when they are singing but not playing an instrument. These tiny flaws were never off-putting, however – if anything, you admired the band even more purely for their imperfections.

Swapping around instruments and lead vocals, each member took their cues from the music they have created in the past to blend into something not quite like any of them have worked on previously. Essentially playing the album with a shuffled tracklist, the trio moved through swaying piano-pop ( Bridges Burned, Even Though I’m a Woman ), driving acoustic rock ( Every Time ) and whispered, lilting folk ( We Will Know What It Is ), each highlighting a different aspect of how well the trio works together. Credit is also due to the rhythm section of bassist/keyboardist David Symes and Dirty Three drummer Jim White. The latter, in particular, added just the right level of dynamics to the sound, moving from racketing floor tom to lightly tapping away on a turned-off snare before adding in an unexpected cymbal crash somewhere in the mix. He remains quite possibly Australia’s finest drummer, and SLK could not have picked a better one to join them.

It’s during the four-song encore where things got even more interesting, as each member of the band lead a cover version of another’s song. Blasko turned Throsby’s We’re Good People But Why Don’t We Show It? into a sizzling jazz-swing, Throsby took Seltmann’s I’m the Drunk and You’re the Star into an acoustic swoon and Seltmann added her own dollop of optimism and cheery cuteness to Blasko’s We Won’t Run. It’s a sweet trade-off, and one that reflects the respect that each of them has for one another as musicians and songwriters.

To finish, the girls paid homage to Stevie Nicks with a gloriously harmonic rendition of Wild Heart a version they learned from a YouTube video of Nicks singing along to a demo of the song. It was simply but beautifully performed, which can more or less be said for each song in the set tonight. Yes, these are three outstanding singer-songwriters in their own individual respects. Even so, there aren’t enough hyperbole-laden phrases in the world that one can throw at them when they present themselves as a united force. Truly memorable stuff.