“It’s very healing”: If you think Archie Roach has played his last-ever show, think again

“It’s very healing”: If you think Archie Roach has played his last-ever show, think again

Words By August Billy

Archie Roach will be performing his new album, Koorie 1988, at The Espy on Saturday March 27.

Archie Roach suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as well as mobility issues stemming from a stroke he experienced in 2010. Due to lung complications, Roach was taken into intensive care last November. But he was back onstage within months – first for Songlines’ Share the Spirit invasion day event and then for a headline performance at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in mid-February.

The latter gig was one of several dates on Roach’s Tell Me Why tour, which had originally been scheduled for autumn 2020. Despite the recent urgency of his illness, Roach’s performance was no less awe-inspiring, spotlighting the Gunditjmara and Bundjalung artist’s brilliant storytelling and time-wizened, totemic voice.

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At the beginning of the show, Roach pointed out that no one was pressuring him to be there. Later that evening, he spoke of how live performance is a form of healing, something that keeps him going. And so while the Tell Me Why shows were touted as his final ever, Roach returns to Melbourne this week for a special performance at The Espy.

“It’s about the relationship I have with the audience,” Roach says of the inclination to keep playing live. “I feel the energy they give me in return for what I give them and it’s very healing. It picks me up and helps me to keep doing what I love to do. Good medicine.”

Roach will be performing his new album Koorie 1988 in its entirety. The event is part of the City of Port Phillip’s Yaluk-ut Weelam Ngargee First Peoples Arts and Cultural Festival, which takes place on Boonwurrung country.

Due out in April, Koorie 1988 is a collection of previously-unreleased protest songs recorded in the late 1980s, a few years before Roach’s debut album, Charcoal Lane. The songs were written at Roach’s kitchen table in St Kilda in the lead up to the bicentenary of Australia, which was, for all intents and purposes, a celebration of 200 years of white settlement on Aboriginal land.

As detailed in Roach’s award-winning memoir, Tell Me Why, Roach and his late wife Ruby Hunter travelled to Sydney to join the protest against the colony’s bicentennial celebrations. The occasion stirred up a lot of strong emotions in Roach.

“It seemed that most people only saw the 200 years of European settlement in Australia and not the bigger picture where the First Peoples’ lands were taken from them and they were pushed to the outer fringes of the new society,” Roach says.

“Writing these songs helped me to process that anger in a more positive way than I did before through drinking, fighting and going to jail.”

The album features Roach on guitar and lead vocals, Hunter on backing vocals and Wayne Thorpe on didgeridoo. While some songs from Koorie were re-recorded for 1990’s Charcoal Lane – namely ‘No, No, No’ and the heartbreaking ‘Beautiful Child’ – the majority haven’t seen proper release until now.

The collection captures Roach as a man in his early 30s who couldn’t have anticipated the fame and cultural influence that would soon become an inextricable part of his life story.

“Certainly my voice was a lot different over 30 years ago,” Roach says. “I was trying to harmonise with Ruby and our voices weren’t as experienced back then as they are today. I actually thought my guitar playing, even though I suppose it was pretty simple, was really, really good. The rhythms that I played in those days – that I don’t today because of the stroke I had in 2010 – were pretty deadly.”

Roach moved away from St Kilda long ago and now lives on Gunditjmara country near Warrnambool. In the song ‘A Child Was Born Here’, from 1997’s Looking For Butter Boy, Roach brings attention to the responsibility that one has to respect the land upon which they walk.

Should I walk softly in a garden of children?” he sings. “Or scream like a madman and go rushing in?” It’s a moment of characteristic eloquence that’s at once poetic and politically resonant. Having adopted the life of a nomad as a teenager, Roach understands the responsibility that comes with such frequent travelling.

“When we are on the road touring to different venues around the country, most of the time we are welcomed to that particular country by a traditional owner, to make sure that our journey in that country is safe and we are doing the right thing respecting other people’s country and not infringing upon that country,” he says.

Roach’s regular offsiders, guitarist Steve Magnusson and double bass player Sam Anning, will be joining him for the afternoon performance at The Espy. You can also expect guest appearances from Thorpe on didgeridoo and Roach’s niece, Nola Lauch, on accompanying vocals.

So will this be Roach’s final Melbourne show? That’s to be determined.

“No one is forcing me to keep touring and performing,” he says. “It’s something that I want to do. I am grateful to the people around me that travel with me on this journey. It must be said I could not do this without their support, in particular my dearest friend and manager, Jill Shelton.”

Before Yaluk-ut Weelam Ngargee Festival ends on Sunday March 28, there’s a bunch of events to come as part of the St Kilda extravaganza. A performance from Ngiyampaa man and First Nations singer-songwriter Pirritu as part of the festival’s Acland Street Pop-Up Series on Friday March 26, will be accompanied by appearances from Amos Roach at South Melbourne Market on Sunday March 28, and Lauren Sheree at St Kilda Esplanade Market on the same day. And that’s just the start.

Archie Roach performs Koorie 1988 at The Espy on Saturday March 27 (sold out) as part of Yaluk-ut Weelam Ngargee Festival. Check out the rest of the festival program here.