In May 2009, a goodbye note appeared on the official web site for Melbourne pop group The Lucksmiths. In a post titled “A sad message to all our friends,” the band announced its breakup, apologizing for “the seemingly abrupt nature of this post”, and declaring that “this isn’t a hasty decision based on any falling-out between band members, but rather, an acceptance of the inevitable.” After 16 years of honing pop confections and gathering a devoted cult of fans, the show would soon draw to a close.
Following the announcement were several sold-out farewell shows, which took place through the fall of 2009 amidst great enthusiasm. Filmmaker Natalie van den Dungen documented the 29 August concert at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne, and that performance is preserved for posterity on the DVD Unfamiliar Stars, a fun and fitting sendoff for the hardworking band. The program will likely be a vital keepsake for longtime fans and also convince newcomers that they’ve a lot of catching up to do.
The crowd gathered for a final evening of the Lucksmiths is a happy, eager audience. Their energy does not wane during the 33-song set, and their cheer seems to propel the musicians, who never once seem like they’re going through the motions. Perhaps the most remarkable quality of the set is its perfectly balanced tone. The group wisely avoids a somber and self-serious approach and avoids revealing any ill will that might accompany a breakup. Unlike so many veteran bands (many of whom re-form after years apart to play another round of farewells), these men actually interact with each other on stage. We believe they’re having fun, and they communicate their retiring thoughts with humor rather than sentimentality.
In this setting, many of the group’s witty song lyrics become parting utterances. What better way to set disgruntled fans at ease than, “One day you’ll look back on this as a hiccup in your happiness” from “A Hiccup in Your Happiness”? Stage banter is similarly geared to a good-natured remembrance of things past, as guitarist Marty Donald introduces “Successlessness” as an allegory of the band’s career, “if you took a bleak view of it.” Bassist Mark Monnone responds by saying the show sold out and that tickets are being sold at a markup outside the venue, so they must have finally achieved success! The entire farewell is treated with this easygoing, clear-eyed attitude.
To hear the hand-picked career retrospective in one long set is to realize what made the Lucksmiths a pleasurable group that never quite broke through to huge international success. Song topics concern girls, cities, and seasons, and the music rarely strays from tried and true guitar pop. The music is graciously unfussy – a quality that becomes particularly apparent when seeing this final live show.
In comparison to other similar groups, Belle & Sebastian used a common musical starting point, but parlayed its mystique and bookish aesthetic to create widespread interest in an evolving sound. Barenaked Ladies’ gimmicky lyrics were a different sort of attention-getter, resulting in fame-fueling singles and extensive tours. The Lucksmiths enjoyed a lesser level of fame and fortune than those other acts by virtue of their understated consistency.
As such, another subject that arises during the set is the lifestyle of a band unburdened by luxury. Like a scene from Jaws, we hear about tour injuries such as wounds to the fingers from bass strings and gashes in the hands from opening beer cans. Marty Donald says “Stayaway Stars” is about the grind of touring and the unglamorous places they’ll “miss” once they’re finished. Before “Synchronised Sinking”, lead singer/drummer Tali White says, “This one’s a bit of a workout” and then literally rolls up his sleeves. This is a workingman’s gesture—a subtle part of their stage show that goes a long way towards defining their charm.
Though the set runs longer than two hours, the band provides enough variety to sustain interest. There are special guests, including Darren Hanlon, who contributes banjo to a couple of songs. Guitar player Louis Richter leaves for a few numbers, which are performed in their original three piece incarnation. His coming and going allows the viewer to judge the contribution he makes, which in my opinion is sizable. Having joined the group well into its run, Richter is a perennial “new guy” (think Jason Newsted or Ron Wood), but he’s also a bit of a secret weapon. Note here the personality he provides to “California in Popular Song” and to “Smokers in Love”, on which he plays melodica.
The technical aspects of the concert film are, like the music, unobtrusive and serviceable. Shot with multiple cameras, the show benefits from coverage and a cutting pace that gives us access to each member and time to take in their performances. The videography is mostly stable, with the exception of a shaky section at the beginning of “Take this Lying Down”, during which other camera angles must have been temporarily unavailable. Although the sound mix is not pristine, it effectively captures the energy of a Lucksmiths show, and the live mix does justice to each musician’s contribution.
Also included on the DVD is “Darkening Doors”, a short documentary also directed by Natalie van den Dungen. The film covers the band’s final weeks of activity: rehearsal, recording, and the farewell tour. There are some interesting minor revelations in the observational documentary. We learn that the group has been rehearsing 45 songs in anticipation of the final shows. Also, there appears to be some truth to the running joke about Marty Donald being a taskmaster. A difficult-to-hear section with an interviewer does cover the band members’ reasons for quitting, which are similar to those listed in the farewell announcement on the web site. In short, when the music stops being easy and fun and becomes difficult to balance with other priorities in life, it’s time to call it quits. This good-natured behind the scenes perspective reinforces the impression made by the concert film. The Lucksmiths might remain unfamiliar stars, but this DVD more than makes the case for renewed appreciation—perhaps a reunion tour?