A fraction of the Hole: Courtney Love, Festival Hall, Melbourne, 16/8/14

I never thought that watching Courtney Love would be boring. The woman is a born agitator, and one of the most divisive figures that rock ’n’ roll has ever produced. Her fans are loyal and fiercely protective; her detractors, of whom there are many, take vindictive pleasure in tearing her down. The naysayers would find little to provoke them this evening at Festival Hall: Love appears on stage punctually, exits again after an efficient 90 minute set, and tells us between songs that she has “nothing to say.” Courtney Love with nothing to say? How disappointing.

It’s not entirely true. She does talk, but only to ask us whether we’re having a great evening, or which song from her back catalogue we’d like to hear next. She’s here to please, which is strange – Love has never before seemed to care whether she pleased anyone. Her set relies heavily on songs from her band Hole’s most popular albums, Live Through This (1994) and Celebrity Skin (1998), but this isn’t a Hole show, and that’s the problem.

Though Love was always the centre of attention, Hole was a band that added up to more than just the magnetism of their lead singer. Guitarist Eric Erlandson, drummer Patty Schemel and bassist Melissa Auf der Mer, the “classic” Hole lineup, had a power all their own. Together they took full advantage of the loud-soft-loud dynamic that characterised alternative rock in the 1990s, creating music that burst open and then subsided beneath Love’s confrontational lyrics and roaring voice. It was important, too, that three out of four Hole members were women. These were feminist songs.

How odd it feels, then, to watch Love play them with an all-male band of slick, anonymous session players. Like Morrissey, another beloved artist whose solo career has never lived up to the quality of his work as band member, Love has chosen musicians to back her who are competent but uninspired. They play each song at the same pace (fast) and the same volume (loud). Festival Hall’s punishing acoustics – each note bounces off the concrete walls and floor, turning the whole into a buzzing, trebly assault – don’t help much, either.

Songs from Live Through This get the biggest audience reaction, as well they should: the album was Hole’s commercial and critical breakthrough. ‘Plump’, played early in the set, is the evening’s highlight, and the one moment where the band members live up to a song’s emotional weight. ‘Doll Parts’, played last, is the low point, performed on autopilot and devoid of poignancy.

Love’s voice is shot, these days – more Marianne Faithful than Poly Styrene – and whoever is behind the mixing desk keeps piling on the reverb, trying to fill out her raspy tone. It’s cheesy, as is the handler who appears onstage between the main set and the encore, encouraging us to chant “Courtney!” I keep trying to imagine this show as an acoustic set, devoid of showbiz frills — just Love and her songs and her broken voice. It would have been more honest than the performance she’s given us tonight. Love’s rock star arrogance has always provoked people, but it’s arrogance combined with acute vulnerability that made her so compelling. Without the latter she’s just going through the motions – passable but not dangerous. Love should be dangerous. 

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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