By Martin Buzacott
“DON’T cut me down, for I am innocent. Don’t cut me down, I am your friend.”
Ostensibly the lyrics are about old-growth forests, but on the opening night of her first solo Australian tour in nearly two decades, Olivia Newton-John’s song from the Gaia album could equally have been referring to herself. Visibly nervous, and with a catch in her voice that sometimes threatened to become a croak, the fiftysomething darling of the Australian burbs professed herself to be scared of how she would be received.
It’s a risk that leagues club and pop-nostalgia acts always face after long absences - have the fans moved on? As it turned out, the Queen of the 1980s full-body work-out needn’t have worried. It’s still virtually impossible to “cut down” Newton-John because to do so is to criticise a positive state of mind and the moral concept of wholesomeness.
Newton-John’s audience, like the star herself, is unrelentingly nice and she tells them so after each polite round of applause and in between sips of tea. To call her nearly 30-number set-list innocuous would be churlish. Finding her girl-next-door manner cloying is irrelevant. And far be it for us to criticise her loving relationship with 17-year-old daughter Chloe, who gets a solo spot and sings a couple of duets with mum.
Newton-John, after all, is a good old Aussie trooper, getting up there and having a go. And like a musical version of Reader’s Digest, her stultifying blandness is part of the successful formula.
Before a modestly sized audience she begins with a video retrospective of her long career and a snippet from I Honestly Love You, and then follows up with the hits from Xanadu, accompanied by scenes from the film playing overhead. All this occurs against a backdrop that looks suspiciously like two sets of lycra gym attire, mercifully devoid of the terry-towelling headbands.
Several numbers from her latest album of duets - called (2) - including a rocker from Keith Urban, suggest some semblance of modernity, but after a career spanning so many years, Newton-John knows what her audience wants and it’s not new.
In a sit-down bracket of the early hits If Not For You, Banks of the Ohio, Let Me Be There and Please Mr Please, she reveals a genuine country twang. There’s an interesting bossa nova version of Physical and a video duet with the late Peter Allen on Tenterfield Saddler. But beyond that, and despite the best rock-god efforts of guitarist Andy Timmons, the contribution from her seven-piece band and 25-piece orchestra resembles musical blancmange.
All the hits from Grease, including a desultory attempt at an audience singalong on Summer Nights, bring it to an end, before the obligatory encore of I Honestly Love You, which was greeted by her devoted fans with what appeared to be gasps of surprise. Perhaps they hadn’t expected it, despite the predictability of all that had gone before.
But outside of the music, it’s nice that Newton-John can look so well. Appropriately, she dressed in pure white - symbolic of innocence, of course, but also the colour of the line that goes straight down the middle of the road.