Archie Roach, we were unworthy of your benevolence and nobility

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Archie Roach, we were unworthy of your benevolence and nobility

Sidney Myer Music Bowl
Sidney Myer Music Bowl
Sidney Myer Music Bowl
Sidney Myer Music Bowl
1 / 5
Words by August Billy
Photos by David Harris

We look back on one of Archie Roach's final Melbourne shows, which delivered a crowning performance.

My mother’s family moved here from England in the 1950s when my mum was just a toddler. I am a beneficiary of this move. I enjoyed a comfortable, lower-middle class upbringing and my life experiences haven’t been tarred by intergenerational trauma. As a consequence of the prevailing NSW public school curriculum of the ‘90s/’00s – and an embarrassing lack of curiosity – my understanding of the history of this land’s First Peoples was pretty surface-level until quite recently.

It’s no overstatement to say that no one has taught me more about the disgusting treatment of the Stolen Generations – and these generations’ corresponding resilience and spirited survivalism – than Gunditjmara and Bundjalung man, Archie Roach.

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The chance to see Roach at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl on what’s likely his final ever Melbourne headline show was a true privilege. That it occurred on just our second day freed from lockdown and close to a year after Roach’s Tell Me Why tour was originally scheduled made it even more so.

Roach suffers from chronic lung disease and was in ICU as recently as November. He arrived onstage in a wheelchair, clutching an oxygen tank, and kept a cannula in his nose throughout the performance. But, as with his exit from ICU to perform at the ARIAs last November, as soon as he stepped into the world of his songs, he was positively brimming with life.

The show title, Tell Me Why, is borrowed from Roach’s award-winning memoir. The setlist drew exclusively from the book’s accompanying album, which Roach put together with jazz pianist and arranger Paul Grabowsky. The record predominantly contains old songs – including epochal constructions ‘Took the Children Away’ and ‘Down City Streets’ – into which Grabowsky has injected additional harmonic nuance that’s fleshed out by guitarist Stephen Magnusson, drummer Dave Beck, violinist Erkki Veltheim and double bassist Sam Anning.

But what defines the album and indeed defined this performance is the emotional resonance of Roach’s voice and storytelling. Now a sexagenarian with decades of smoking behind him, Roach’s vocal timbre is totemic, embodying the pain and hard-learned lessons inherent in his songs.

The show began with ‘A Child Was Born Here’, which encourages us to tread lighter on country and not be so preoccupied with greed and selfish desire. It brought the excitable, doting amphitheatre into a kind of rapt union with the man on-stage. It’s probably too late for this disclaimer, but while I’d usually watch my use of superlatives, the emotional connectivity of this performance was such that it inspired a sort of born-again fervour.

This sensation was helped along by backing vocalist Sally Dastey (of Tiddas fame), who took the lead on a rendition of the gospel standard ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee’. Paul Kelly also made an appearance for ‘Rally Round the Drum’, a song he wrote after hearing about Roach’s time working for tent boxing spiv Billy Leach in the 1970s.

Roach spoke at length between songs, telling us of his experiences in foster care, his days drinking in the pubs, parks and laneways of Fitzroy and Collingwood, and his deep love for the late Ruby Hunter. As such, the show stretched out for over two hours despite including just 12 songs.

But rather than breaking the spell of the musical bewitchment, Roach’s storytelling was integral in making this feel like not just his big night, but a night for all of us to connect, to process pain, to heal and to be reminded of our essential obligation to treat each other and the land we walk on with respect.

Closing number, ‘Place of Fire’, encompassed and potentially actualised many of these sentiments. “Don’t you realise, that we all come from this place,” sang Roach, the band beginning to soar behind him. “Open up your eyes, look and see.” By the song’s end, Roach looked renewed and absolutely at home.

Keep up to date with Archie Roach via his website.