The Palais Theatre is up there as one of the best venues in Melbourne. I have lost count of how many concerts and events I have attended at this iconic venue. However, never would I have thought that I would ever be on that giant stage, looking out over the incredible auditorium and be joined by my favourite Australian musician, Chris Cheney.
No, I was not on stage as some strange backup singer or roadie. The entire venue had been flipped with the artist up on a riser, back towards the stunning Palais Theatre, with a selection of seats and a standing area on the actual stage. It sounds strange, but it is likely the best concert experience I will ever have.
Born out of lockdown, when limited capacities forced venues to come up with new ideas, the OnStage Series began. At the time, the capacity limit was much smaller of about 50 people and the idea allowed the venue to utilise the space the best they could. With restrictions now a thing of the past, the idea has been reborn and has created an incredible concert experience. With a capacity of just under 200 eager punters, we all walked down the aisle past the empty seats and took up position on the stage looking out. With two shows on the same day, I attended the 8pm session and secured a spot right at the front.
Since 1994, Chris Cheney has been killing it as the front man of the legendary Aussie rock band, The Living End. The group is arguably the best live act going around. Having seen them countless times, I have never been left disappointed. Cheney has also provided his incredible guitar skills and vocals to various side projects including but not limited to, The Beatles White Album Tour, and recording on various other records with the likes of Jimmy Barnes. However, something had been missing from his repertoire for a long time – a solo album! Finally, in 2022, The Calm Before the Storm was released and Cheney set out to play his new material live to audiences around the country.
Having never played at the Palais Theatre before, Cheney relished the opportunity and got straight into it, opening with two album tracks ‘2am’ and ‘The River’. Cheney then joked to the eager audience that not only was he finally up on the iconic Palais stage, but they had put him facing the wrong way around and that he had to share the stage with over 100 people.
Cheney then whipped out the acoustic guitar and introduced his next song, ‘Football Team’, dedicating it to playing juniors in Wheelers Hill and taking out the premiership. After a quick change of guitar, we were treated to a wonderful version of ‘Amsterdam’ from The Living End’s most recent album, Wunderbar.
Cheney also provided the intimate crowd with a late Christmas gift with his original Christmas song, ‘Street Parade’, describing how he was requested to perform a song for The Spirit of Christmas compilation album and did one better by writing his own, and it was stunning hearing it performed live. After an acoustic rendition of album track, ‘Corner Shop’, Cheney then whipped out a brand-new track titled ‘Tupelo’. He joked that he was not sure what was going to happen to the song, but I hope this is not the last time that I get to hear it. Marking the halfway point of the intimate set, Cheney broke up the evening of original songs with a cover of the 1968 Glen Campbell classic, ‘Wichita Lineman’.
With other album numbers on display with the short and punch ‘Little White Pills’, western inspired ‘Exile’, and ‘California’ complete with a beautiful fingerpicking intro of The Muppets’ Kermit the Frog’s song ’Rainbow Connection’, Cheney had the audience in the palm of his hands.
But how did Chris Cheney become the accomplished guitarist he is today? Thankfully, being the amazing storyteller that he is, Cheney broke into what I can best describe as a medley of how Chris Cheney discovered his unique sound. Taking us on a trip down memory lane, Cheney shared how he started out playing Bon Jovi as a kid and demonstrated the riff. Cheney then ripped into a quick riff of ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘Bad to the Bone’. He explained how he saw himself on that same runway to rock music until he heard this almighty riff which was none other than Elvis Presley’s ‘Mystery Train/Tiger Man’.
Going further back into the 1950s, Cheney took us on a musical journey by displaying another classic rockabilly riff. Discovering a new sound, he explained to the audience that he was impressed by what he was hearing, but then experimented on what would happen if he added 10% Eddie Van Halen. This theme continued as he added in 10% Angus Young’s sound. Cheney then joked about going back further again and added in 10% Michael J. Fox, making a cheeky reference to Back to the Future.
This medley was a clear highlight of the entire night. Not only was it a wonderful insight into how Chris Cheney discovered came to be the incredible musician that he is today, but it perfectly displays why he is arguably the best guitarist Australia has ever seen. The incredibly wide range of genres that Cheney is able to cover and the effortless ability to shift sound and meld them together is masterful.
Before closing out the set with another fantastic cover of Bill Haley’s 1950s classic ‘Rock The Joint’, Cheney picked up the acoustic guitar again for a stunning rendition of my favourite track from his solo album, ‘Still Got Friday on My Mind’, a beautiful love song about longing for someone that is no longer in your life. Whether it be a breakup or the loss of someone you love, the lyrics have such a powerful meaning that can translated into many forms of heartache. More proof that Cheney is not only an incredibly talented musician but that he has the songwriting skills to solidify his position as one of the best. Hearing this acoustically was a real treat.
Having normally seen these songs performed with a full band, experiencing this set in an intimate solo setting is something incredibly special. There is nowhere to hide, and Cheney absolutely smashed it. Add in the stunning backdrop of the beautiful Palais Theatre and you have an unforgettable experience. Palais Theatre’s Onstage Series needs to become an annual event that showcases the best Australian artists in a up-close and personal setting with an incredible venue as its backdrop.
Whilst Chris Cheney was a one-off event (or two if you count the matinee show that began at 5pm on the same date) with support by the wonderful Gabriella Cohen, there are still more artist on offer this week for Palais Theatre’s OnStage Series that runs until the 7th of January with The Merindas, Big Scary and Hatchie, and this is one must-do Melbourne experience that you do not want to miss.
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Photography by Grant Alexander.