It’s hard to believe the prince of polyester has been reigning for a quarter-century. Then again, it’s probably going on 20 years since I first saw him, at North Ryde rissole.
The most delirious thing about that performance was I’m sure many of the patrons thought he was just another polished club entertainer-in-earnest. It could’ve been Normie Rowe. Or Jack Jones. Or Ol’ Blue Eyes, as far as that goes. They would hardly have known the diff. Or cared. They were there for a prawn cocktail, a decent steak, a glass of Cold Duck, or DA, a few laughs and some snappy numbers. And, just maybe to cut a bit of a rug, with some tipsy toe-stepping. Since, rissoles, even in burbs adjoining the bible belt, have changed. And so have the patrons. Well, a bit. These days, they might have a ‘cup o’ chino’ to finish up.
Bob Downe hasn’t changed much, even if he has moved with the times sociopolitically. In that sense, he’s as valuable a barometer as the census, or that doyen of trends who talks such sense, Hugh Mackay. Bob is 53 and proud. “Getting old is great? You know why? ‘Cause you don’t give a shit, any more!” Of course, having made this pithy observation, he’s not averse to pointing out to the odd audience member (and, by inference, everyone else) she’s had a are life. He might be a little undiplomatic, but perhaps he’s sensitive range of greeting cards will compensate. There seems to be one for almost every real-world occasion.
He might have been born in Melbourne, but neither is he averse to taking the, ah, mickey out of that city, often with an unmistakable, shaky hand gesture deployed below the waist. He empathises with the plight of the brazen Sydneysider, disembarking in the southern capital, only to immediately feel embarrassed by what he or she is wearing, which doesn’t fare well against the unrelentingly black attire of funereal Melbournians. We go, unwittingly, to our sartorial doom; final judgment by everyday fashionstas. Yet he touts, like a bent tourist guide, Melbourne’s penchant for laneways, where one can take one’s double-decaf chai latte in a terracotta pot, perched on a rickety wire stool, about to topple on the even bluestone pavement. “In Sydney, we know what laneways are for: they’re where you put the fuckin’ rubbish!”
Ten’s entertainment reporter Amanda Bishop is next to me and, given the ongoing exchange between them, I mortally fear the gaze of a hot spot and a gaudily-clad poof. Not even the young man caught short could sneak out without a “where do you think you’re going?” and spontaneous dissertation on his capacity for urethral containment. Poor bastard. Nor did I dare shout out the answers I knew in the trivia quiz; apprehensive, as I was, of the self-same attention. Pity. I could have garnered a trophy: a CD of a concert he gave some years ago at the State Theatre, that he burned himself, on his home Epson. “Don’t get it near water,” he counselled Sean Rennie, the musical theatre star who lucked-in.
Bob’s wardrobe didn’t disappoint. Despite his advancing years, he still looked sleek and svelte in his “Pepsi Max” tracky dax. Mind you, he needs to be, given his competitive status in the forthcoming Olympics in, as you might predict, the 100m girls’ running. And, as he points out, now the Thorpedo has misfired, he’s the only poof left in it. But he’s reasonably quick to correct: “I’m only joking; I’m not a poof.”
He might self-deprecatingly acknowledge a sameness in successive performances (“don’t worry, there’s nothing you haven’t head before”) but he usually pulls a queer rabbit out of his pants, nonetheless. On this occasion, he chose to champion Shauna Jensen, one of Australia’s sassiest R ‘n’ B singers, who recently got a unanimous thumbs down on The Voice, to which she famously responded: “Are you mental?!” Shauna and daughter, Rebecca, relegated Bob to backup singer and it was a clear case of ‘you go, girl!’, ’cause he’s got all the moves. Finally, there was a portrayal of Delta as a shrieking, long-necked goose as delicious icing on the indulgently defamatory cake.
Given his unrivalled status as a tastemaker, one might care to note his new do which, at first, he joked was inspired by One Direction. Then, however, he confessed he’d never heard of One Direction until last Saturday and everyone would have forgotten ’em by Saturday next. No, he assured us, it’s more Margaret Pomeranz: “A bit of Blu-Tack for the ears and I’d have it down pat.” And, naturally (or unnaturally) plaudits to his dental team, who’ve managed to extract the most sparkling smile seen since Mrs Philip Adams was the Macleans girl.
On a more serious note, when one watches Bob dance and listens to him sing, it’s not hard to spot that behind the mangled, garbled, trailing-off lyrics and none-too-subtle readings is a very musical man: an example of you have to be really, really good to look and sound that bad.
Sydney Theatre is an impressive, but queer (nay, odd) venue for Downe. (Cate wanted to be part of the show but Bob told her to fuck off.) A live band would’ve generated more excitement, colour and movement, much as the dagga backing tracks maketh the man and much as he fairly commands the stage. As Seal, on The Voice, would say, he really owns it.
A lot of the material is old, tried, tested, familiar and regurgitated (nay, chundered); for the most part tweaked, updated and adapted. It’s not going to knock your polyester socks off, but it will give you a therapeutic night of really good, unchallenging entertainment, a commodity rather thinner on the ground than it once was, it seems, despite the mining boom.
The details: Bob Downe: 20 Golden Greats played Sydney Theatre on May 23-26.