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Peter Milton Walsh (The Apartments) – Cologne.

Peter Milton Walsh (The Apartments) solo show.
16.11.2018, King Georg, Cologne.

Review by Gavin Fearnley.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”William Faulkner

He’s a star in France. At least, that’s the line rolled out every time someone writes about Peter Milton Walsh, the man behind The Apartments. Sure, it is an interesting journalistic angle, with the story going like this: he’s an Australian singer-songwriter almost unknown in his home country, yet performs to sold-out audiences on the other side of the world, to people who don’t even share his native language.

It certainly is a weird one. But it’s not quite true. So, they don’t like him in France? Non, au contraire… that’s the correct bit of the myth. They revere him, having form in celebrating lone troubadour-like figures. Gainsbourg, Hallyday, Aznavour, Brel to name but a few.

But Walsh is ending a tour tonight which has seen him play two sold-out shows in London (his wife, Kate, tells me one gig was so full she couldn’t get anywhere close to seeing her husband on stage), a successful concert in Rotterdam and now here we are in Cologne, Germany. This is by no means an exclusively French phenomenon.

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Germany’s had a long wait. This is the first time he’s ever played songs by The Apartments in this country, 39 years after the first EP release (‘The Return of the Hypnotist’). “I was told by Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens to come here and play,” Walsh will say later about his old band-mate.

It’s easy to see why Forster would recommend King Georg, tonight’s venue. With low ceilings and dim lighting, it has the air of a former 1970s gentlemen’s club where ladies-of-the-night would come and ply their wares to whiskey-drinking, tuxedo-wearing fellas. And that’s because that’s exactly what it is; a former city-centre brothel. Don’t let that put you off though, this venue has more than its fair share of charms. The ghosts which inhabit this place certainly help it beat the likes of Munich’s Schlachthof, a former slaughterhouse no less, as a venue.

The lengthy queue of gig-goers outside King Georg demonstrates he’s not quite as unknown outside of France as some journalists suggest. Indeed, it’s also worth noting what a mix of ages there are here. The three teenage girls next to me waiting in line, for example, who – and I do mean this in the nicest possible way – look like they are in the wrong place. Surely 16 and 17-year-old German girls don’t know the music of The Apartments? (I catch them singing along to almost every song in the set. They were in exactly the right place.)

Walsh doesn’t immediately start playing. Instead he speaks to the audience for a couple of minutes thanking them for coming and the organisers for setting it up. It’s then he kicks off with ‘Mr Somewhere’, from 1985’s The Evening Visits… and Stays for Years, a song once covered by This Mortal Coil. With lyrics such as “That was once a home, home no more”, we get an early insight into the running thread through Walsh’s work: the passing of time, love letters to faces and cities of a time gone by and how they are all still very much with us. In our thoughts, in our heads, in our hearts.

Peter Milton Walsh

Peter Milton Walsh

From a debut album to one which appeared thirty years after, we hear ‘Please, Don’t Say Remember’ from the critically acclaimed ‘
No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal (more of which later). It’s then we are given what is possibly the opus of Walsh’s long and distinguished career. ‘Everything Is Given To be Taken Away’, the closing semi-orchestral epic from 1997’s Apart album, achingly depicting the disappointment and heartbreak of loss. You can hear a pin drop, and suddenly we’re reaching out to the departed, “So tell me what happens after the big sleep, do you dream of all the drums you never beat anymore?”.

There is a lot of talking between songs, with genuinely humorous explanations about how these songs came to be. Before ‘All You Wanted’ Walsh explains how “strangers who are kind” had made two years as a young man in New York “everything I thought it would be and more”, before moving back to Australia. A country he originally departed because “the humidity of Brisbane” played havoc with his hair. Maudlin this isn’t.

Therein lies the interesting chasm between the inter-song patter and the tunes themselves. Whereas the former is jolly and light-hearted the latter are gapingly raw. “The last look is a stare, all you wanted is there,” sings Walsh about leaving New York.

‘Black Ribbons’, we are told, is a song about looking back at a past relationship that just didn’t work, whilst commenting on how great it sometimes was. “When your beauty is a memory, I’ll still be around. My fabulous past, what good is it now?” Again, dipping our hands in to a time gone by.

‘A World of Liars’, ‘Sunset Hotel’ and ‘Thank You for Making Me Beg’ are played, reminding us why Walsh is so revered, not just in France, while baffling us as to why he isn’t singing these masterpieces in larger venues than this. ‘Knowing You Were Loved’ from 1992’s Drift gloriously ends the set, before an encore of ‘Twenty-One’.

This is one of a few traumatic songs from the last album, which according to a 2015 interview in the Guardian almost never saw the light of day. Given the subject matter, it’s clear why. A lot of No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal is about the tragic, senseless death of Walsh’s son Riley as a toddler, after contracting a rare auto-immune disorder. These songs must be incredibly hard for Walsh to sing. “I carried you on my hip at first, I carried you on my shoulders, I carried you to a long black car, you will never get any older.” We clap, there are shouts of gratitude, someone whoops. But it’s hard to be too celebratory, considering the devastation of what we’ve just heard. Time passes, but every time he plays this, it must be agony to perform for Walsh. In fact, for parents who suffer the loss of a child, maybe that’s the point. Time doesn’t pass. Things stand still.

Walsh is a genius. Easily up there with Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner or Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous. This is clear tonight. Why he isn’t bigger in his home country of Australia is as an absolute mystery. To over-egg this would be a disservice, however, as he isn’t as unknown there as is sometimes portrayed. But, indeed, his following in Europe is nothing short of loyal and devoted. And considering some of the events in his life, maybe Walsh is wise enough not to really care about whatever success means in different territories. Some things matter more, and time doesn’t always heal.

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The Apartments official website.

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