Native born
Archie Roach at the Sydney Festival 2015

Archie Roach
The Aurora
10 January 2015, Sydney Festival

The Aurora Spiegeltent, nestled inside Sydney Festival’s temporary Hyde Park “village”, has the feel of an old-fashioned travelling big-top. The stage is small and low to the ground; the audience sit on wooden folding chairs. It’s a congenial space, with a hint of magic – appropriate surrounds for Archie Roach, a true elder of Australian songwriting, who builds passionate music out of modest materials.

Tonight’s performance is a showcase for Roach’s early albums, including his debut, Charcoal Lane (1990), which established his reputation and won two ARIA awards, and Looking For Butter Boy (1997), which won three. But this is no museum piece, stifled by false reverence. Roach and his small band – Steve Hadley on double bass, Craig Pilkington on acoustic guitar, and Jen Anderson on mandolin and violin – bring the songs alive in the moment, their playing supple and strong.

Roach’s singing voice is perfectly suited to popular music’s foundational genres of blues, country and soul. It is a weathered voice, gruffer in the lower range than it once was, but lyrical. He has a vibrato that brings to mind the great American rhythm and blues singer Aaron Neville, and an ear for vocal melody reminiscent of British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, creating moods that are at once melancholy and buoyant. Tonight he is supported by two excellent backing vocalists, Nancy Bates and Mindy Kwanten. “Song women, strong women,” as Roach describes them.

So many of Roach’s songs concern childhood, in part because his own was so fractured, and in part, as he tells us, because he identifies so strongly with children and their undiminished sense of wonder. ‘Took the Children Away’ arrives early in his set, introduced matter-of-factly as “the song I’m best known for”. It’s a song that shouldn’t have to exist, its very presence in the world evidence of an indelible wound, a grief both personal and collective. Because and not in spite of this, it is a song of hard-won grace, a secular hymn into which Roach, very generously, invites the mostly white audience sat in front of him, for a chance at understanding and what might be redemption.

Roach tells us anecdotes of his adoptive Scottish parents, his childhood friends, his fellow musicians, and of his late partner, singer-songwriter Ruby Hunter. In prose he is an elliptical storyteller, pausing frequently, nervously strumming upon on his acoustic guitar. But the songs are direct: ‘Down City Streets’, a song of Hunter’s that appeared on Charcoal Lane; ‘Beggar Man’, which echoes it. Songs of penury, but also of camaraderie – those old street fellas were real gentlemen, Roach tells us. “I didn’t exactly mean to survive myself,” writes the African-American poet Saeed Jones, and the line comes to my mind: what it means to have survived official policies designed to erase you, and the kind of impulse to self-destruction that might arise in the face of this.

“Won’t you tell me the stories of when I was a child?” sings Roach on ‘Old Mission Road’, a more recent song, a classic country ballad with which he closes his set. He’s talked too much, he apologises; we’ve run out of time for more – but what he has given us is enough. Roach has a great musical gift: no matter the circumstances or the era, he would surely have been a songwriter. But his gift has been honed and practised through the decades, in the face of real and particular hardship, and now his presence, just there within arm’s reach of his audience, feels very precious.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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