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Words by Kate Lockyer

Photography by Paul Blackburn @wysiwyg.pix


Soulful performances ruled this Tuesday at Riverstage as Teddy Swims, performing with his band Freak Freely, and opening act Meg Mac masterfully coloured their rich vocals with their two unique sonic palettes. It seems that Swims singlehandedly scared off the forecast rain for us to enjoy the open air of the venue with his pyrotechnic performance – and I mean that both figuratively and literally. The show marked part of the Atlanta singer-songwriter’s ‘I’ve Tried Everything But Therapy’ Tour. 

But first, the night began with iconic Aussie musician Meg Mac, who immediately entranced us in her hypnotic track I’m Not Coming Back, with its airy guitar and thundery electronic drum beat, it had us all thinking of that time when we’ve wanted to say that – “Where you gonna go to? / I’m not coming back / Who you gonna call when / I’m not coming back?”

Maybe It’s My First Time has me intrigued by Mac’s cryptic lyrics, “Superstitious folk wouldn’t ask me back again / I’m just bad news to them”. But I find the message in the chorus – she is cruising past the bad times with her signature soulfulness, and she wields this in her nonchalant vocals. 

The next song, Mac tells us, is a new one, not recorded yet, that she is nervous to sing. 17, with pensive electric guitar and pensive lyrics, was a hit with the crowd, detailing her decision to give someone a call – “My head is full of poison / My head is full of dust” and “This time I’m not gonna hesitate / 17 reasons not to call / But I’ll call.”

A pool of red lights, thumping drums and a slow and steady clap sets the scene for Grandma’s Hands. This song, from her first EP in 2015, is in the hallowed tradition of soul and gospel tracks and she brings the full force of the deep tones in her lower register, like the salt water of the ocean that swirls and shares glimpses of what is within on a clear day. 

Then we get a cover as Mac gets behind the keyboard for Home by Good Neighbours which is the perfect feel-good song after the sombreness of the previous song. The feel-good vibes continue into the next track with a boppy drumbeat, reflections on a life lived the way she wants – “When will I learn / When will I see? / It’s gonna burn eventually”.

Then, her breakout hit Roll Up Your Sleeves gets the crowd going with its infectious optimism and chorus – “Ooh / Everything is gonna be alright”. The last song in her set, Never Be, continues this energy from the crowd, featuring Mac’s silky voice, bass and sparse keys. She thanks those onstage – Pete and her sister Hannah before finishing her performance.

Teddy Swims strode onstage dressed for safari in shorts, singlet, green vest, a wide-brim hat adorned by a bandana, and sunglasses perched above his eyes. Little did we know it was us that would get a full tour of the wild side, Swims-soul-style. Gold and white lights heralded his arrival, singing the sassy, tongue-in-cheek song Goodbye’s Been Good to You with those powerhouse vocals we know and love him for. I know a kindred spirit in an artist when I get a glimpse of their humour, and I chuckled at his lyrics “You took the dog and the Honda and half my shit / Kinda mad that my mama’s just a friend”. The band makes a splash from the start as well, an awesome drum section adding momentum into the final chorus, when a flash of light before the lights get turned down signals an electric guitar solo. Swims finishes the song with a heady ‘Whoooah’ at the end, leaving us already floored at the music. 

Then the lights glow blue and yellow, a diffusion that suits the melancholic but still slightly hopeful What More Can I Say, where Swims continues to shower us in bluesy vocal tones. Slight digression – I heard Bruce Springsteen’s voice described recently as like there is shattered glass in his throat. Swims has that same husky quality, but his voice is more crème brulée, crackly like toffee but with a smooth sweetness underneath. 

Broke is another fun track with a great classic bassline, imagining all the things he can buy now he has some money, after spending so long being broke. This one has a definite country twang and Swims tips his hat with a Southern charm that has us all rooting for him to continue living the high life. And certainly, at the end of this song, a chant starts, “Teddy, Teddy, Teddy!”

I really love the jazzy, and let’s face it, rizzed lyrics of 911. Playful piano and nimble guitar licks set the scene and Swims glides through with lines like “Ain’t gotta call 911, you can hit me up… / Girl, you know I’m the one whenever you need something / An emergency, or when you just can’t sleep / And I’ll slide through for ya with that urgency”. He calls to the crowd to put our hands in the air, and we do, then break into clapping on 1 and 3 (I know!) for the last chorus. Seeing that we’re getting into it, Swims calls out “Shake it if you got it!” to the delighted response of the crowd. 

Then he breaks into an old one, Dose, which continues the grooves with more great bass and tambourines. This one really evokes that honeymoon period when you can’t stop thinking of your lover, and Swims leans into this feeling, putting a growl into his voice on a couple of lines that brings out some heat. 

He pauses to remind everyone to looks after themselves. “Quick lil’ rule,” he says. “Back home in Georgia we have this thing where you say, you stay with it.” That means checking on your friends, and drinking water. Boy, were we thirsty after those first songs, and he was just getting started, launching into the catchy Hammer to the Heart. Devasting, and devastatingly catchy, I can just tell this one will be a great drunk belter at karaoke. 

From that he goes into the more tender All That Really Matters, and we start to see the teddy-bear-like side of Teddy. Flashing lights, which at one point form teeny little hearts, perfectly capture the mood of the song, with lyrics like “Find something you can hold onto / Find someone who’ll be there for you / Cause that’s all that really matters in the end”. Crashing drums in the bridge lead into a burst of streamers into the crowd, and synth seems to add a coda to the song. Or so we thought. A thunderous drum solo with flashing white lights rains down on us, and when I hear the drummer pause and chuckle, I think he is finished. But then he launches back in, a fun end to the track. 

Those drums were just warning us of what was coming next – the sizzling Devil in a Dress. Fittingly, red beams light up the stage, and Swims works his magic, absolutely soaring on the notes that fly up to “devil in a dress”

Swims stops to chat to us again. “I’m having so much fun, I don’t know about you guys,” he says. “You know how crazy this is? As far as the eye can see there’s people”. Then he asks if we would like to hear something new. A cheer greets this suggestion. In a testament to his humility, he says to us. “It’s ok if you tell me it sucks, but the only way we’ll find out is by playing it.” We all know that was never going to happen. 

The song, Funeral, was actually one of my favourites from the show. I looooved the slick-as-all-hell lyrics and the play on words and themes – it sounds grim, I know, Funeral, but it was bloody brilliant and not at all grim. He sings, “Are you a devil or an angel? / I forget because when we’re skin to skin…” and my favourite – “You wore that little black dress to my funeral”, talking about how he felt when he looked at her. It was ultra bluesy and had a great guitar solo at the end. 

Apple Juice is another super fun one, and Swims doesn’t beat around the bush, introducing it as “a song about drinking”. It’s almost like he’s at a party recounting this conversation to his friends, with the carefree feel and utter lack of remorse for any excess of drinking! The band is clearly having fun too, and I spot the guitarist spin around on his heel as he strums away. 

We get another sweet and slow one then, Simple Things, and he starts by saying, “I see a lot of you have your phones in your hands. While you’ve got them out, do me a favour and text someone you haven’t talked to in a long time and tell them you love them.” Singing about the bittersweet feeling of returning to your small hometown with an acoustic guitar framing it, he creates a beautiful moment. Drums tapped with a light touch and a patter on the cymbals, and butterfly-like electric guitar and piano in the chorus complete the sound. I’m sure there were plenty of damp eyes at Riverstage at the end of this one.

After a cute interaction with a kid named Austin in the audience, where Swims seems to be in turmoil about the influence his “fuck off” necklace on the young fellow, he launches into another slow one, the lovestruck, sugar sweet Amazing. Once again, he turns to the audience. “Let’s get serious for a moment. I’m gonna cry… I cry anywhere from 1 to 20 times a week. Now I want to tell you something.” He then very ambitiously tries to get a moment of silence in the audience, but the belligerent Queensland audience was unfortunately not cut out for creating peace just then, and he quickly changes tack. “Can’t do it? That’s fine,” he says with good humour and goes on with his vulnerable moment. “People walk out of your life… The older I get, the less I believe in closure. When people walk out of your life they don’t really tell you why they do it, they just go. And you’re left with a bunch of questions, like why did this happen, why am I not enough? …The only closure I’ve ever gotten is through accepting some things I can’t control.”

He begins to sing Some Things I’ll Never Know. Unfortunately, one of the things we will never know is why some people at the front started a fight, meaning Swims paused the song so it could be dealt with. It turned into a gracious moment of humour for us all though, and he says, “I thought we were having a moment. Let’s all get back to the place where we were.” He restarts, a bold white spotlight focused on him, and his emotions really come through in the performance. His voice quivers with emotion, and he wears his heart on his sleeve, accompanied by a rippling, trickle of piano. It was exquisite. 

Swims then begins to bring the mood back up, joking, “Thanks for letting me trauma dump on y’all.” Then he asks, “Is anyone here with their mum?” His cover of Shania Twain’s You’re Still the One, which he dedicated to his mum when he first released it on YouTube, touched a chord with the audience, getting everyone singing along. It’s the kind of tenderness that makes your knees buckle. 

Bed on Fire switches up the mood with fiery lights, steel guitar and the tap of cymbals, not to mention the smoke rising above the audience. His vocals in this song were like the burn of the hardwood in the bottom of the fire, a slow burn, accompanied by a fountain of sparks coming from the stage. 

Blue lights and almost extraterrestrial sounding synth, gradually added to by strings and bass, marked the interlude before the encore. Soon the crowd was shouting out for him, and Swims bounded back out for Tell Me. The anxious feeling of knowing there is something a person isn’t telling you is captured in this song with a barrage of quick strums, building to a thumping middle section where he sings, “You don’t even look me in the eyes when you tell me”. 

The second last song is his iconic track Lose Control, a soulful behemoth loaded up with emotive vocals. Jazzy piano and minor chords on the keys kick off the song. A kid from the audience is brought up onstage, and the very adorable but very shy kid is given a few lines to sing, melting the hearts of us all as Swims stands with his arm over the fellow’s shoulder. Swims’ incredible voice is at its best in this one. The night was finished off with the boppy The Door, a song about ultimately choosing yourself. Well, let’s hope Swims continues to travel this path of choosing what is best for him, because we need to hear more from him soon!

Thanks to Frontier Touring

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