Clarendon Guesthouse, November 8
War artists have been around since ancient Egypt, glorifying carnage until people like Goya in Napoleon’s time and Mathew Brady in the American Civil War dared to depict truth. Ben Quilty’s powerful, confronting paintings from his time in Afghanistan join that lineage, matched by Fred Smith’s songs from his experiences as a political adviser in Uruzgan.
These songs are so evocative that you seem to feel your mouth thickening with dust as he sings, and a mad mix of danger, horror, camaraderie, courage and desolation assailing the room.
Smith’s are neither pro-war nor condemnatory of our 12-year involvement in an unwinnable conflict. Rather they are finely observed snapshots of a harsh, sad and funny reality, laced with an optimism that is probably the mark of the man.
It is an optimism that is empirically rather than ideologically driven. Smith believes we leave Afghanistan a better place for its inhabitants to live, work, love and, above all, learn, than it was before the invasion.
In concert he has a knack for balancing drama and humour; for punctuating the poignant with a laugh, and sometimes vice versa. He exudes an easy charm that finds its perfect counterpoint in his long-term collaborator, the effervescent bassist, singer and fellow-songwriter Liz Frencham.
His lyrics are a constant strength with their wit and insight, and his singing is convincing enough to carry them. The cause is immeasurably aided by Frencham’s harmonies and the appeal of her own lead vocals.
If the quality of the composing does not always match the lyrics, it is consistently better than competent, and some songs, such as Trembling Sky (penned from the perspective of an Afghani refugee) are simply gorgeous. Dust of Uruzgan hits with the force of a blow to the solar plexus, although a sharper, starker arrangement (for a quartet completed by pianist Nick Southcott and drummer Tim Bradley) could have increased the impact.
But such quibbles are atomised before Smith’s towering artistic achievement: truth.