Flamin’ legend
Kev Carmody at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival, 17 January 2016

Kev Carmody can do a lot with an acoustic guitar, and, it transpires, just as much without one. Before he appears in person on this warm Sydney afternoon, his audience gets a preview screening of Songman, directed by Brendan Fletcher, which will screen on the ABC later this year. The short film documents the making of Carmody’s most recent album, Recollections … Reflections … (A Journey). The album, released in October last year and recorded at Carmody’s property in south-east Queensland, is a four-disc collection of songs that Carmody has written over decades but never previously recorded. Aside from Carmody’s guitar and voice, the arrangements are non-traditional: gas bottles, butter knives and blocks of wood are equally his instruments.

Carmody performs a few of these new-old songs today, alone on stage with only his guitar, which he plays tunefully and sometimes percussively, making it rattle like a passing train. He begins though with one of his best-known tracks, ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’, from his 1988 debut Pillars of Society. The song is a stark indictment of colonial hypocrisy: “We gonna steal your land / And if you break our new British laws / For sure you’re gonna hang”. Carmody’s strong and rugged singing voice carries through the venue, but as he ends the song an expression of doubt – or maybe it’s nervousness – briefly crosses his face, as if he’s not certain of what he has to offer us.

Certainly he is self-deprecating to a fault, and also a warm, witty storyteller with an anecdote to introduce every song. He has the vernacular of a country man: “flamin’”, “bloody”, “crikey”. From Recollections … he plays ‘The Haunted Man’, drawn from a childhood recollection of a blind busker, and an instrumental, ‘Sliding Into Chaos’, with needling notes played near the bridge of his guitar – an alternative title was ‘Root Canal Therapy’. At one point he switches to the didgeridoo, and draws from it an extraordinarily resonant sound, a drone inflected by barking, almost laughing noises.

He’s told us at the start that there’ll be no politics today, but I don’t think anyone believes him, given that Carmody is one of the best protest singers – perhaps the best – that this country has ever produced. This is a man whose own tribute concert – also at the Sydney Festival, in 2008 – was called Cannot Buy My Soul. From his 1995 album Images & Illusions he plays ‘Needles In The Nursery’, which slams “banal bands” who play “hip shit for the parasites of power”, and the wonderful ‘Images of London’, inspired by a trip to that city. Homeless people he spoke to on the street were being charged 50p by department stores for the cardboard boxes they slept in. “Capitalism at its finest,” he laughs, darkly.

It’s a short set, and I would have gladly exchanged the film preview for another half-hour’s worth of songs from Carmody himself. He ends, inevitably, with ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’, a true folk anthem. “Been playin’ it for flamin’ 125 years,” he tells us. But this song never wears out, and the whole audience sing the chorus alongside Carmody. When it’s done he exits, rightly, to a standing ovation. Kev Carmody. Flamin’ legend.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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