With the dust barely starting to settle, it feels almost surreal to contemplate that on Saturday night, Buried Country: Live in Concert didn’t just survive its world premiere up in Newcastle, it grew wings and took flight as I think it was Roger Knox who put it so after the show. It was headshaking for me, just sort of awe-inspiring I mean: to sit passively and watch unfold on stage what we’d all worked on intensively for the previous few days plus more than six months in the long lead-up (and for me more than twenty years!); to see the audience around me thrill at song after song, to laugh and cry and really roar at the end. I was just so kind of gobsmacked I just floated through it. Nothing went wrong. Everything was good; it was beautiful.
The tears were both tears of joy and tears of sorrow. It was occasionally boisterous but also introspective to a whole other world: tapped into a deep soul. Voices casting out, the band on their elbow, drawing in the audience, the songs and stories seeming more alive than ever…
The singers, the songs and the band were always the least of my worries in the lead-up to the show. That is to say, I had so much confidence in them all that, with virtual impunity, I could expect they would do the absolute utmost with any given material. A few songs had to be re-shuffled around due to the unavoidable absence of Warren H. Williams, and for Auriel Andrew, who couldn’t make it to the Tamworth sessions earlier in the year, the rehearsals in Newcastle were her first workout with the band. And so there were four all-new songs to work up – two by Auriel and one each by Luke and Buddy filling in for Warren – plus refine the remaining ten in the set. But once again the whole cast made good my every confidence.
No, what I was worried about, what I was mostly hanging out to see, was how that performance aspect of the show would integrate with the other elements being introduced, like the animated backdrops based on artwork by the Blak Douglas, and the video interludes drawn from the original BCdocumentary.
But there was a sense of real calm and obvious purpose about the pre-production; no-one got too stressed, certainly there were no bullshit star turns or anything like that, no tantrums – the psychochemistry as I call it was supremely harmonious; there was flexibility as well as total commitment – and while there were the occasional choppy waters that’s just part of the process anyway, to push through to get to the best result.
The show was extra-special to Auriel, not just because it was in her hometown. “It’s quite exciting for me to be part of this,” she told Newcastle Weekly, “because my grandson Teangi Knox will be playing bass in the backing band the Backtrackers, so it’s very much like coming full circle.
“It’s great we’ve got the young people in the show as well, mixed in with us oldies because that’s how you ensure that these stories and songs continue to be told.
“I’m 70 next year and I have to use a stool because my back’s gone, but the voice is still there and as long as that’s there I’ll keep doing it.”
Auriel’s funnybone’s still there too! And her chickendance, and her true spirit - the whole bit.
And again, everything including the multi-media components just seemed to come together smoothly on the night – “a cavalcade of culture,” L.J. called it. Naturally there are many tweaks we will make to improve the next shows at the Melbourne Festival in October, but our confidence remains unshaken that the guts of it, its shape, is basically sound-as.
A special commendation goes out, at two poles, to our oldest and youngest: to the elders like Roger, Auriel and L.J. for finding all the endurance required, and to the youngest, bassist T.J., for really stepping up generally and especially for being there for his nan; and to his nan Auriel for toughing it out and just doing it brilliantly. To the Backtrackers for their absolute aplomb, and Brendan leading it all with the patience and gracious magnanimity that everybody else showed too. To Luke and Buddy for stepping up on new vocal turns (so much so that those numbers seem to have already entrenched themselves in the set) and to Franny for just totally playing outside herself as they say in footy terms, just rising up to meet the moment. And to L.J. for cutting through as ever and to Roger, like Leah, for making it hard to give praise because they both just so consistently hit the bar they set so high for themselves. Everybody lifted everybody else and out in the audience I was myself moved, both by the show itself and by the efforts of a team I take enormous pride in being part of.
This was the set-list:
1 Ticket to Nowhere (Joan Fairbridge) Sung by Luke
2 Run, Dingo, Run (Black Allan Barker) Sung by Buddy
3 Ghost Gums (Higginbotham/Andrew/Hudson) Sung by Auriel
4 Arnhem Land Lullaby (Ted Egan) Sung by Auriel
5 Brown Skin Baby (Bob Randall) Sung by Leah
6 September Song (Leah Flanagan) Sung by Leah
7 Pretty Bird Tree (L.J. Hill) Sung by L.J.
8 18th Day of May (L.J. Hill) Sung by L.J.
9 Yorta Yorta Man (Jimmy Little) Sung by Franny
10 Blacktracker (Jimmy Little) Sung by Franny
11 Wayward Dreams (Bobby McLeod) Sung by Roger
12 Streets of Tamworth (Harry Williams) Sung by Roger
13 Stranger in My Country (Vic Simms) Sung by Luke
14 Blue Gums Calling Me Back Home (Harry Williams) Led by Roger
I received a number of cards and letters as they used to be – in other words, emails now – and among those here’s one from Jim Kable:
My wife and I attended the Playhouse Civic Theatre Newcastle Buried Country concert last night. It was fantastic - there we were (thanks to you) in the presence (live and screen) of Indigenous singer-song-writer royalty. We're in our latter 60s, "whitefellas" (though links on various levels to Indigenous Aussies) aware of past injustices (and continuing - the Intervention/Don Dale/Cleveland/etc) so were - of course - appreciative of the themes (messages) from the songs and singers in front of us. I grew up in Tamworth - when one of the songs reflected that place - it was lovely - but another which stood out for me was "Pretty Bird Tree" - beautiful and moody! Reminding me of Jimmy Little's Messenger which I had with me in Japan and played on many a night - my wife far away back in Australia caring for her ageing mother in Swansea. We both recall seeing Jimmy sing "Royal Telephone" when we were kids a half-century ago - for me it was in Ashfield Town Hall in 1966. And magical to have his daughter Franny sing some of his songs hearkening further back to her black-tracker grand-father...and in another song - references to Cummeragunga (I taught a year in 1973 in Deniliquin). During my time in Japan (nearly two decades), Archie Roach's "Took the Children Away" was a song I taught to successive middle school classes - alerting them to darker aspects of the otherwise shiny Australian image - but at the same time then space was opened up for discussion re equivalent injustices against Japanese Indigenous Ainu people. Please pass along our appreciation to the band - to the singers - and take some yourself - brilliant concert!
Roll on Melbourne!