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Review: Greg Phillips

It wasn’t too long ago that ARIA Hall of Famer and legendary Australian singer songwriter Russell Morris would never have imagined playing to packed theatres around Australia in 2023 backed by a ten piece band and an orchestra. Yet here he was again at the prestigious Hamer Hall for the first of two Melbourne shows in a re-run of his successful ‘The Real Thing’ gigs from July (which were recorded and now available as a 2 disc set). It’s no secret that this was all made possible courtesy of funding by mining magnate and polarising politician Clive Palmer, a Russell Morris superfan, who had decided to invest his money into something useful.

The impressive 54 piece Southern Cross Symphony, led by Peter Morris and Russell’s own ten piece band of local musical luminaries took their positions and began the beautiful overture, morphing into Part 3: Into Paper Walls, the flip side of his 1969 hit ‘The Girl That I Love’. The sound at Hamer Hall is perfect and the stage view from all points of the room are unimpeded, an ideal setting for this very special production.

As Russell freely admits, some fans may find it hard keeping up with his changes in musical stylings over many decades. As he tells us, “I like to eat from different tables.” For the last decade, Russell has been enjoying a bluesy, story-telling phase and two tracks from his 2012 Sharkmouth album, ‘Black Dog Blues’ and The Drifter’ are a fine example of his grittier wares.

A grand version of ’Rachel’ follows, showcasing the full force of the orchestra and pleasing the ‘classic pop-era’ Morris fans in the audience too. While in epic-mode Russell delivers a soaring vocal on The Moody Blues cover ‘Nights in White Satin’. Musical arranger for the project David Hirschfelder (an audience member tonight) adds a complexity to the piece that creates an opportunity for Russell to make the song his own. ’Mr America’ is particularly grand, also presenting guitarists Pete Robinson and Troy Downward a chance to rock out into the night’s interval.

Dylan’s ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ opens the second half of the night, harking back to 1967 when Russell released the track as a single with his band Somebody’s Image. The orchestra takes a back seat for a spell as backing vocalist Jason Vorherr dons a banjo and joins Russell on an organic rendition of ’Squizzy’ from the Sharkmouth album. Russell’s chatty tonight too, telling many intriguing tales behind the songs and relating anecdotes from his days living in Richmond as a kid. ‘Doctor in the House’ from ’79’s Foot In The Door spotlights the orchestra’s brass section, which combined with the dual keyboard sounds of Richard Tankard and Nikolas Pringadi make for a rich band sound.

Russell exits the stage for a wardrobe change/bathroom stop and leaves the keys to the orchestra with Jason Vorherr, who performs a spectacular version of ‘I Will Wait For You’, aided by his wonderful backing vox cohorts Johnny Creech, Michelle Serret-Cursio and Janine Maunder. Russ returns and by the time we get to ‘Hush’, his first real hit single, shit’s beginning to get real as the orchestra’s woodwind, brass and strings kick in spectacularly. Russell dedicates the next one to “all the flower children” prompting the opening strains of his biggest hit, the iconic ‘Real Thing’, written by Young Talent Time’s (It was a TV show kids) Johnny Young and famously produced by Molly Meldrum. The song was already majestic, add an orchestra and as Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel would say, this one goes to eleven! Also onboard tonight is one of our finest rhythm sections in drummer Gerry Pantazis and bass player Craig Newman, who give the classic song an additional boost of energy. ‘Wings of an Eagle’ and ’Sweet, Sweet Love’ bring the show home and highlight Russell Morris’ magnificent vocal range. Where so many other ‘heritage’ acts struggle to retain their pipes, there’s no question that Russell’s still got it.

Russell Morris is a member of the ARIA Hall of Fame and Australian Songwriters Hall of Fame with a career spanning more than five decades. He was awarded an Order of Australia on Australia Day 2018 for “significant service to the performing arts as a musician, singer, songwriter and entertainer (and as a supporter of charitable organisations). Judging by tonight’s performance, there’s plenty more to come. Catch this superlative show while you can.

The Real Thing Symphonic Concert is back again tonight at Hamer Hall, followed by Perth (Nov 11), Adelaide (Nov 17), Sydney (Nov 22) and Brisbane (Dec 9).

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