At the beginning of One Song, pianist Paul Grabowsky speaks about the place yarning held in Archie Roach’s music practice. The power in the yarning practice is integral to this concert through the sharing of Roach’s life and the ways he touched those around him. The audience is invited into the stories of each song.
The vocals of ARIA-nominated singer-songwriter Emma Donovan, known for her work with The Putbacks and the Black Arm Band, set the tone for the evening with their rich and expressive soul sound. The depth of her voice is gorgeous.
Without any percussion behind the band, Grabowsky provides Roach’s 1997 song “Dancing With My Spirit” with percussive piano textures to define the feel. The lack of percussion creates a real intimacy, like storytelling accompanied by music.
Many of the night’s songs are from Roach’s 2019 album Tell Me Why and were crafted on the hill just behind the venue, Grabowsky explains, gesturing to the Twin Peaks cottage which sits on Mt Barker summit, framed by UKARIA’s panoramic windows and coloured by the evening’s sunset. Some of the songs were written alongside Roach’s memoir of the same name while he was staying at the cottage.
Melbourne-based Indigenous singer-songwriter Jess Hitchcock takes the lead to sing “There is a Garden”. Her voice is so strong and clear it brings a real sweetness to Roach’s songs.
It is not long before the work of Roach’s long-time musical partner and wife Ruby Hunter is introduced. During “Down City Streets”, written by Hunter, Grabowsky evokes a soft and cosy sound from UKARIA’s Steinway D.
The three voices of Donovan, Hitchcock and singer-songwriter Lior blend beautifully, with the room’s acoustics letting them soar.
Grabowsky introduces the last song Roach wrote, “One Song”, and tells the story of its creation from the belief that one song began everything and unites us all, becoming part of every song since.
A highlight of the night is the close of the first set with a rendition of the blues-infused song “Little by Little”. The backing vocals behind Lior and the addition of a tambourine lift it all. Grabowsky really pushes the piano here.
“The Jetty Song” and “One for Each Person, and One for the Pot” tell stories of Roach’s foster family and the familial traditions and sense of belonging they passed on to him. Both were co-written by Grabowsky and are performed by Hitchcock.
Donovan is unleashed in the traditional gospel song “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”, oozing blues and soul. Grabowsky’s solo strolls in and out of the jazz changes while Donovan leads the metaphorical choir. Listening to her raw vocals is a divine experience.
Lior performs Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” like a jazz lullaby, with a silky voice and tenderness that is hard to match.
Throughout the evening various instruments are introduced to add simple but sweet layers to the songs. Lior plays four different types of guitars, Hitchcock plays ukulele and other percussive instruments, and Donovan plays a tom drum in “Jamu Dreaming”.
“Summer of My Life”, “Place of Fire”, “Love in the Morning” and “Small Child” close a very warm evening of music and stories. Not a note is out of place in the performance. Each word sung seems to hold reverence for Uncle Archie. His impact is palpable.
The threads of his legacy are weaved not just into the music shared but into each of these musicians, and the result is a performance that is sure to have moved all those present.
Emma Donovan, Jess Hitchcock, Lior and Paul Grabowsky performed One Song at UKARIA Cultural Centre on November 3.
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