Arab Strap and Xylouris White @ The Forum Theatre, Melbourne, Friday 3 June
All images by Ian Laidlaw

On support duty, Xylouris White – one of Rising Festival’s artists in residence, Jim White, plus Cretan laouto (lute) player/singer Giorgos Xylouris – lock into ever-shifting grooves and conjure sounds that make us suspect they’re communicating with ancestral spirits. Sometimes, the duo’s music reflects stumbling upon a shimmering desert mirage. At other times, Xylouris White sound like they’re busily exorcising demons.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a drummer who brandishes mallets with more effortless flair than White, and Xylouris makes his lute rock (weird, but true)! Their unique take on traditional Greek folk perfectly suits the Forum’s interior – with its busts of classic Greek and Roman statues and star-dusted, cerulean-blue fake-sky – and we reckon they’d be a shoo-in for house band (if such a thing existed). The virtuosic duo egg each other on, constantly testing tempo boundaries. Xylouris White’s non-verbal cues and the synergy of their playing is next-level.

Composite image of two men playing drums and lute respectively on stage

Jim White and Giorgos Xylouris of Xylouris White on stage @ The Forum Theatre

During interval, we notice beards aplenty in the house, and wouldn’t be at all surprised if the bars run out of whisky throughout the course of the evening.

This is the first time Arab Strap – vocalist Aidan Moffat and multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton – have performed here with a full band. They last toured Australia in duo mode over 20 years ago, and the audience anticipation crackles.

“I don’t give a f-ck about the past/ Our glory days gone by/ All I care about right now/ Is that wee mole inside your thigh…” – Arab Strap open proceedings with The Turning of Our Bones (the lead single from 2021’s incredible As Days Get Dark record – the pair’s first in 16 years), which was inspired by a Madagascan ritual wherein mourners dance with the corpses of loved ones.

Moffat’s Scottish brogue is alluring beyond belief, and we could listen to him speak-sing the word “scrutinise” on loop aaaaall night. “It’s so great to be here to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee with you!” – he’s most certainly a funny bastard as well. Moffat even admits he embraced the long-haul flight over, because not having to talk to anyone for 22 hours straight was pure bliss. He then offers to return any time: “How ‘bout next week?”

Girls Of Summer’s keys-led, rave-up outro is wonderfully complemented by every-colour-of-the-rainbow lighting and transfixing strobes. This all prompts a sizzle reel of raving highlights to shuffle through our thoughts. “We have seen all the ways our earthly bodies work/ Their successes and their failures, every kink and quirk” – Moffat’s surly delivery, both captivating and amusing, is underscored by curly riffs and skittish beats throughout the dancefloor meditation of Compersion, Pt. 1.

After a couple of identical false starts, a wee bit into Here Comes Comus!, Moffat blames “the machines”. Third time lucky, Arab Strap pass the glitchy mark and the crowd cheers, punching victorious fists skyward: “Just take a sip, just take a hit/ You can’t refuse, the fuse is lit/ It’s not a game you’ll win, but how you love to play.” At song’s conclusion, Moffat endearingly confesses, “I just realised during the song that those two f-ck-ups were my fault!”

A welcome re-run of aforementioned raving-highlights sizzle reel once again invades our thoughts, as heads nod vigorously along with set highlight The First Big Weekend: “Went out for the weekend and it lasted forever/ High with our friends, it’s officially summer.”

“What would you call the opposite of a comedian? Whatever it is, that’s what I wanted to be,” Moffat shares during the devastating Tears on Tour, which chronicles his debilitating grief upon learning – on two separate occasions – that one of his grandparents had died while Arab Strap were away touring. This tender song also celebrates emotional expression: there’s no shame in public “blubbering,” even (especially!) if you’re a geezer.

But Arab Strap’s songs of human fallibility are also just as likely to be about way less esoteric matters, such as “a lack of shagging.” Moffat’s captivating storytelling, which twinkles with inventive rhyming (“moanin’”, “serotonin”), peels back multi-faceted details surrounding the often-sordid minutiae of everyday life.

Man standing on stage singing into a microphone

Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap on stage @ The Forum Theatre

Arab Strap teased their latest comeback by announcing they were “back from the grave and ready to rave.” And what better way to describe exactly where we find ourselves at this particular point in history?

Only Moffat and multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton – Arab Strap’s masterminds – return to the stage for a victorious two-song encore. Utilising just voice and guitar, the worlds within these songs – the cocksure Packs of Three (“She was the best shag I’d ever had”) and about-face The Shy Retirer – crystallise as we hang on Moffat’s every intention-loaded syllable.

Discover Arab Strap at JB Hi-Fi.