State Theatre, March 30
When he began singing A Child Was Born Here, you wondered if Archie Roach was up to completing the show, so much frailer was he than a year ago that he now needed oxygen on stage. Then Took the Children Away, his great anthem that is even more about healing than loss and desolation, affected him like a blood transfusion, and you knew that although Roach wasn’t in robust health, the inner strength that he’s poured into his songs would see him through.
We don’t usually review someone twice in 14 months doing much the same show, but then Roach isn’t just anyone. His visits are to be treasured, not only for his songs, the way he sings them, or the brilliant band he brings, but for his open heart and innate wisdom. His gentle stories of his songs’ origins were more like a fireside chat than being in a cavernous theatre.
Sally Dastey gave a master-class in the art of backing vocals, perfectly tracking his phrasing and buttressing the fragility of his held notes, without deflecting attention away from him. Much the same could be said of the band, led by pianist Paul Grabowsky, with guitarist Stephen Magnusson, violinist Veronique Serret, bassist Sam Anning and drummer Dave Beck. They left the songs almost as spare and simple as if Roach were still playing them alone on an acoustic guitar, but they engraved that simplicity with sepia shadows and muted highlights, and when solos came they were pithy and contained.
Guest singer Mindy Kwanten scorched the surface of Just a Closer Walk with Thee, while Roach rumbled down below, and the other guest was didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton, who sketched the soundscape for an epic Nopun Kurongk. About Roach and his late soul-mate Ruby Hunter together visiting her South Australian homeland, the floating music was as potent as the emotions ran deep. Roach has always evaded artifice, and as singing becomes more challenging, he just distils raw truth all the more. Thanks for making the trip, Archie.