I sing… in the car, listening to retro hits on Rage on New Year’s Eve, belting out “Bohemian Rhapsody” at a karaoke den in a country where no one knows my name. My voice has never cracked a window pane, but nor did it snare me a role in the high school performance of Grease. At best, it’s decidedly average.
Which is good news, because Pub Choir insists that being average should not stop you from doing something. In fact, facing a crowd of 1000-plus would-be singers at the Hindley Street Music Hall, Astrid Jorgensen states emphatically: “We don’t mind how shit you are!”
Jorgensen is the founder, composer, presenter and conductor of Pub Choir, a national phenomenon that began in Brisbane more than six years ago after she and a friend came up with the idea as a way of encouraging people to sing together.
Pub Choir, which involves the former music teacher arranging a popular song and teaching an audience at a pub or other licensed venue to sing it in three-part harmony, has since become such a hot ticket that most events sell out well in advance. Featured songs have ranged from Lior’s “This Old Love” (at the 2019 Adelaide Cabaret Festival) to Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” and ABBA’s “The Winner Takes it All”.
The crowd at this Adelaide event is clearly pumped, with many lubricating their vocal cords in the hour before Jorgensen appears on stage and gives the lowdown on how the evening will unfold.
With the assistance of an endearingly old-school PowerPoint presentation complete with cute animated GIFs, she advises us to relax and empty our minds. This is a trust-in-the-process kind of event, and as added encouragement we’re shown a video of a 2022 Pub Choir performance of a Queen medley. See, it really does all come together in the end.
“Everyone in this room is dead-set average,” Jorgensen says jovially, before going on to outline a few rules, including “don’t be a dickhead”. She is the boss and we are singing to her tune.
On this night, that tune is revealed to be a well-known ’80s hit that draws laughter and cheers from most of the crowd, and perhaps a few blank looks from anyone under 30. Jorgensen has composed an 18-part arrangement that her “choir” will perform, with backing drums and excellent live accompaniment from musician Sahara Beck on guitar.
The first step is to pick a team. “High ladies” (the highest voices) are directed to the left of the venue, “low ladies (“must be happy to rock a singing double-chin”) to the middle, and “men” (the lowest voices) to the right. The names, we are told, are just for context – “your gender is your business”.
Jorgensen is a charismatic and funny presenter who manages to make her choir both laugh and feel in safe hands as she guides us through the various harmonies, with voice-altering software attached to her mic assisting with the instructions issued to the low voices. Three rows of colour-coded lyrics are projected on the screen, and arrows indicate inflections and emphasis.
For a Leo, the urge to join all three harmonies is strong, but playing by the rules I stand firmly in the centre. Feeling confident after nailing the “ooooo ooooo ooooo” and “do do do do do do do do” sections (the latter accompanied by a baby shark GIF), we boldly sail forth into more complicated lyrics and harmonies, only to be pulled up when our sharp-eared conductor hears a bung note or incorrect words.
Jorgensen’s arrangement is clever and well suited to her amateur choir, but the pace is fast and it’s not as easy as you may think to stay on song when someone’s head is partially obscuring the lyrics and a group next to you is on a different harmony altogether.
“Oh, I see you just made up your own lyrics there,” she gently chides the low ladies. And later: “If you’re feeling lost, just hold the hand of the person next to you.”
She wrangles the hundreds of unruly voices brilliantly, exhorting us to ever greater heights. The high ladies sound practically professional, and it feels a little like they’re in a league of their own, but everyone encourages each other. We’re all fully engaged in the moment; there’s barely any quiet conversation and, unbelievably, not a single phone is in the air.
After a brief drinks break, Beck gives a solo performance of one of her own songs, which highlights the yawning gap between the amateur choir and professional voice. Nonetheless, we’re buoyed further when Adelaide musician Fleur Green joins Beck and Jorgensen on stage. Every Pub Choir performance has unique accompaniment, and for this event, the addition of Green’s vibraphone playing takes our efforts to a whole new level.
We’re finally ready to pull it all together and give the performance of our lives. The cameras are rolling and we’re in full voice, singing our hearts out and filling the Music Hall with song. Did we nail it? I don’t know… I was too busy singing to judge. Did we have fun? Hell, yes.
Pub Choir was in Adelaide for one night only and is currently touring nationally (dates here) before embarking on an overseas tour to the UK and the US.
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