Phambamfest was a unique event, celebrating as it did the 25th birthday of Progressive guitar virtuoso Nguyen Phambam (Phambam, Alithia, Enlight), as well as being a fundraiser for Beyond Blue. With over $1,500 raised for Beyond Blue throughout the evening, the night was a roaring success, both in its live component and the live stream of the full event.
Given its particular goal of supporting mental health awareness, Phambamfest was drug and alcohol-free. This contributed to the very warm, supportive, and family-friendly atmosphere of the event, which was enhanced by the enchanting fairy lights illuminating the central performance area and merchandise booths, the heady aromas of the Essentials Lab table, and the magnificent catering provided by Phambam’s family ensuring everyone was well fed throughout the evening. Held in a school hall, the event didn’t boast a stage as such, but rather a well-lit space in the centre of the room for musicians to play and guests to gather, with the area ringed by seating as well as rubber mats for people to relax on the floor.
The line-up itself was something of a who’s who of the Melbourne Progressive scene, with a few surprises for good measure. The first of these was opening performer Tina Behrsin, who usually fronts electro / synthpop act Niine, but on this night performed purely with her acoustic guitar. Behrsin’s high, lilting voice proved captivating throughout her songs, with her lyrics and style reminiscent of Jennifer Kingwell (The Jane Austen Argument), for anyone familiar with Melbourne’s Punk Cabaret scene.
Next up was Jerome Knappett, frontman of “Hard Folk” outfit The Flying So High-Os. Insightful lyrics and storytelling were front and centre in Knappett’s set, fitting nicely into the vibe of the night. However, Knappett’s performance itself seemed to suffer the most from nerves, only somewhat offset by banter with Phambam between songs.
Soon afterwards Phambam himself took the stage to play alongside frontman Tobias Atkins of Glass Ocean. Atkins’ powerful voice soared throughout the venue in their songs, with a style reminiscent of the more measured performances of original Queensryche vocalist, Geoff Tate. Phambam of course provided excellent accompaniment, an early showing of his guitar skills that would only be bolstered further as the night unfolded.
Phambam wasn’t absent from the stage for long however, as the next portion of the evening saw him performing his own solo material, along with guests from his other bands including members of Infinity and Beyond, and bassist Sam Quinlan and drummer Max Missingham of Enlight. While he continued to demonstrate his enthralling guitar prowess, another point at which Phambam truly shone was in his vocal performance. As a member of Enlight, Phambam’s vocals are always an integral part of the mix, particularly his growls; however, his cleans share the spotlight in a band in which every member contributes backing vocals to lead vocalist Rachael Graham. With his solo material however, Phambam unleashes the full depth and range of tonality in clean vocals, casting a spell with his soulful sojourns. Up until this point, Phambam has surely been underrated as a vocalist, but that is something that will no doubt be rectified as his solo work gains momentum.
In addition to his own material, Phambam also performed a compelling acoustic cover of Message in a Bottle by The Police, with lyrics made all the more poignant by the cause of the evening, Phambam’s personal reflections on his own mental health, and the current state of the support systems available to people who are struggling.
Another highlight of Phambam’s set was that he was joined on stage by classical guitarists Mario Lattuada and Robert Bratetich, with Phambam quipping, “I’m making myself look awesome by having these guys play chords while I solo.” It wouldn’t be long, however, before Lattuada and Bratetich took up their own performance…
First though, there was a brief shift in focus to a Super Smash Brothers competition, with eight keen players vying to win two gift vouchers. The contest was intense, and certainly something not seen at a Prog gig before!
The frenetic game-playing was followed by even faster guitar work when Lattuada and Bratetich returned to wow the audience. The two put on an absolutely unparralleled performance of classical guitar, with the audience breaking out into appreciative applause, at which point the pair unleashed even more fire upon their strings – leaving the crowd rapturous with approval.
Lattuada and Bratetich were followed by a change of pace with Ro Han (I Built the Sky) recreating his instrumental Progressive tunes as acoustic odysseys. The move from classical guitar to modern Prog was intriguing, and shone a light on how notions of top-tier guitar playing have changed over the years, but have always, and will continue to be mesmerising, with Ro holding the audience in the palm of his hand as surely as the duo who played before him.
Closing the night were Ben Rechter and Ted Furuhashi of Progressive Metal band Circles. Despite admitting at the beginning of their set that their songs weren’t conceived or intended as acoustic, they played an intriguing array of songs that shone a light on yet another angle of Progressive guitar music. Far from seeming out of place, their songs were another entry on a continuum of beautiful music, rounding out the experience of the evening with aplomb.
Throughout the evening, the thought and care taken by all involved to ensure a seamless, fun, uplifting and generous event was clear to see. The hall was filled with smiles, excellent music, friendship and support, and it seems likely that many in attendance would have walked away with a greater appreciation of the diversity of music in even just this corner of the Melbourne scene. With a magnificent donation raised for Beyond Blue, the night was a triumph in every way.