Australian Music

Black country
In review: Roger Knox, The Aurora, Sydney, 25 January 2015

Roger Knox
The Aurora
25 January 2015, Sydney Festival

When Roger Knox walks on stage, tall, broad and dapper, I think he’s wearing a paisley shirt. Then the lights go up and I realise that his shirt is patterned with dot paintings, and that his sharp black waistcoat bears the yellow and red stripes of the Aboriginal flag. Knox is a country singer and a proud Gamilaroi man; his decades-long musical career has melded the showmanship of Nashville with the urgent concerns of Aboriginal justice. The words are pointed and the music is zestful, which isn’t a contradiction — more than anything, the songs Knox sings are a celebration of survival.

This show draws heavily upon Knox’s 2013 album, Stranger In My Land, recorded jointly in Tamworth and in California. The subtitle of that album is Roger Knox and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts perform the Aboriginal Country & Western Songbook — it is an album that lovingly resurrects a whole body of Indigenous songwriting, most which remains little known outside of Aboriginal communities. There are songs of reverie (Maisie Kelly’s ‘Home In The Valley’), songs of drunken mishap (Dougie Young’s ‘Scobie’s Dream’, which gets a raucous rendition here), and, always, songs of dispossession. Each narrative is guided by Knox’s marvellous, velvety baritone.

In the best country tradition, Knox’s band is a family affair. Knox himself is pushing 67 years old now: his son Buddy Knox plays electric guitar, and two of his grandsons are on bass and drums. It’s a crowded stage of six, sometimes seven musicians, including Jon Langford “from Old South Wales” on acoustic guitar and backing vocals. Langford is a founding member of The Mekons, who formed in Britain in 1977 and remain active to this day. The Mekons were one of the few British punk bands to whom the idea of revolution meant more than a canny marketing angle — they were and are committed radicals, whose musical style took a turn towards country in the mid-1980s. It was Langford, now based in Chicago, who produced Stranger In My Land and who helped to bring Knox and his repertoire to American audiences.

The only disappointment of this show is that it takes place in a seated venue. Knox’s band has an irresistible country swing — they make music to get up and move to, music that brings a room alive. Knox himself has described his work as “healing music”, and he is a tireless performer at prisons, youth centres and folk festivals both locally and internationally. His irregular touring partner Vic Simms — a legend of Aboriginal music in his own right — guests here on ‘Stranger In My Country’, a song originally released on Simms’ 1973 album The Loner. It's the day before the 227th anniversary of the British invasion. “In early years we were put down / Cast aside as vermin,” the two men sing, “Women, men and kids shot down / Then paid by Bible sermon”.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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