Aboriginal singer-songwriter Archie Roach overcame heartache and personal suffering to release one of last year's finest albums: Into The Bloodstream. Like his classic 1990 outing Charcoal Lane that captured the hearts and minds of a nation, this new record spoke volumes about memory, suffering, connectedness and healing.
The indomitable singer, who is still reeling from the loss of his soul mate, Ruby Hunter - suffering a stroke and undergoing surgery to remove half a lung - was warmly greeted by the capacity audience when he walked on stage on Sunday night to perform the album in its entirety. Dressed in a black T shirt and a yellow scarf, he remained seated on a stool centre-stage until the show's final number.
For the next hour or so the much-loved performer's warm, strong voice backed by a 13-piece ensemble, a gospel choir that swelled to more than 20 members by the end of the evening, and Tim Cole's accompanying visuals, took us on an emotional journey that many will not forget in a hurry.
So early on in the Perth Festival there was a strong feeling that we were witnessing its defining moments.
Throughout the well-orchestrated show, the music was both powerful, joyous and life affirming. Surprisingly, after all he's gone through, the songs were not so much about suffering and pain, but about optimism, letting go, and the celebration of life. He urged the crowd to not worry about how far up the mountain we still had to climb but to look back and celebrate our accomplishments.
The gospel music that was first played to him while growing up by his kindly foster parents, the Coxes, was a big part of the performance. It strongly infused songs such as Little By Little, Song To Sing and Wash My Soul In The River's Flow. The surging Hammond organ and the choir's rich harmonies - fronted by Deline Brisco of Black Arm Band fame - evoked feelings of immense joy, at the same time as the deepest pain.
Written a couple of years before her death, Mulyawongk was a poignant tribute to his late partner Ruby Hunter, who died unexpectedly in February 2010. While an image of her white pelican spirit soared across the screen he sang the haunting love song named after the spirit that guards the part of the Murray River where Hunter had spent her childhood.
There was hardly a dry eye in the house when he sang Old Mission Road, the gut-wrenching song about being taken from his family when he was three years, old never to see them again. He imagines walking hand in hand with his mother along the road beside the Framlingham Mission in Victoria's southwest where he lived with his six older brothers and sisters before being forcibly removed.
The uplifting We Won't Cry, co-written with his friend Paul Kelly, was performed with white-haired veteran actor Jack Charles. The rollicking Big Black Train about the dark years when he lived on the streets in the grip of alcohol was also a plea to young people not to follow in his footsteps. In a night full of highlights these were a special treat.At the end there were no encores, no big hits from the past, only a well-deserved standing ovation and a brief appearance by the slightly out-of-breath living treasure of Australian music and storytelling explaining that he would like to go on but he had no more left to give.
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