Music – Notes from the Hard Road and Beyond

By Tess Jaeger | 27 Oct 11

The 2011 Melbourne Festival closed with a collaborative musical performance on Saturday 22 October at the open-air Sidney Myer Music Bowl. Notes from the Hard Road and Beyond began at twilight, just a few hours after the Bureau of Meteorology had cancelled a severe thunderstorm warning for the city and surrounding areas.

The evening featured a host of noteworthy international and local artists, opening with a performance from Something for Kate’s Paul Dempsey and Goanna’s Shane Howard, who sang the Bob Dylan classic “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall”. Two large flat-screens forming a backdrop to the stage were used to broadcast images of the performers to the crowd, interspersed with file footage and multimedia displays topical to each song. Images of embattled boats carrying asylum seekers, and children in Australia’s detention centres accompanied Dempsey and Howard’s introduction.

The performance consisted of two sets, with the first half showcasing songs of protest and action that were written throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The second set told of love, inspiration and hope for change.

Emmanuel Jal … gave standout performances of his songs “War Child” and “Emma” …

Rachael Maza Long introduced many of the night’s acts, which included the inimitable blues singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples; soul singer-songwriter Joss Stone; diverse vocalist Rickie Lee Jones; and The Black Arm Band, featuring Archie Roach, Lou Bennett and Shane Howard, among many others.

Emmanuel Jal – a former child soldier who became an activist and hip-hop artist – gave standout performances of his songs “War Child” and “Emma”, which is dedicated to the British aid worker, Emma McCune, who rescued Jal from war-torn Sudan when he was 11 years old.

Notes from the Hard Road and Beyond coincided with Melbourne’s celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Part-way through the first set, as Rickie Lee Jones took to the stage to perform an aching rendition of Laura Nyro’s “Christmas in my soul”, a fireworks display began close to the nearby Federation Square.

Although the thunderstorm that earlier threatened the evening’s festivities had by then subsided, there was a low-lying fog hanging over the city. Listening to songs that told stories of remote war and desolation seemed surreal when, not far into the distance, the crowd could see the city’s skyscrapers hugging clouds, bats circling and remnant fireworks fizzing out.

While many of the acts lent naturally to an overall theme engendering inclusivity and respect … there were those that failed to convince.

While many of the acts lent naturally to an overall theme engendering inclusivity and respect – most notably Archie Roach’s “The children came back” and his reinterpretation of “Into my arms” (originally by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds); Mavis Staples’ “Freedom highway”; and other powerful numbers – there were those that failed to convince. Elements of the night’s performances were contrived and detracted from the show’s intended message.

Rachael Maza Long’s introductory addresses felt forced at times; as though they were simply employed as a prop to dramatise the musicians’ personal stories and the often tragic narratives their work gave voice to. The stories, in fact, resonated on their own: this distraction only diminished the show’s effect.

Archival footage depicting past events of war and protest was similarly inappropriate in many cases. Perhaps the distancing, and often alienating, effects of graphic documentary film can partly explain this. Pairing powerful imagery with music, if carried out skilfully, can evoke profound emotion in an audience. Often, however, it can have the opposite effect of appearing deliberate and casually manipulative.

Images of the Vietnam War that accompanied the performance of Redgum’s “I was only 19” seemed almost exploitative, though they were undoubtedly not intended for use to this end. Key lyrics appeared on the twin flat-screens as Paul Dempsey sang Leonard Cohen’s scathing estimation “The future”. Presenting the lyrics in this way merely trivialised them and undermined the audience’s wit to deduce their very obvious – and rather unforgiving – meaning. Dempsey’s strange decision to end the cover with an excerpt from Green Day’s patronising MTV-style release “American idiot” added a dimension of proselytising to his modern-day revision.

The communal performance of ACDC’s “It’s a long way to the top (if you wanna rock ’n’ roll)” … was a powerhouse not to be faulted.

Joss Stone emphatically delivered her trademark voice, with performances of Helen Reddy’s anthem “I am woman” and a duet of Hunters and Collectors’ oft-covered “Throw your arms around me” with Paul Dempsey. Unfortunately, Stone’s scene stealing – which arose throughout the evening, but especially during her performance with Dempsey – gave the impression she was singing the song on her own, with Dempsey rather sheepishly standing to one side. Stone’s numerous costume changes and re-emergence for a solo encore (of the unforgettable “People get ready”) after the show’s conclusion only added to this impression.

The communal performance of ACDC’s “It’s a long way to the top (if you wanna rock ’n’ roll)”, the final song of the second set, was a powerhouse not to be faulted. Although Notes from the Hard Road and Beyond was in some ways flawed, the event ended on a high note of optimism that buoyed the crowd. The show inspired us to dance, but, regrettably, did not have an enduring effect. As the crowd dispersed, it left the impression that “notes from the hard road” are merely fodder for entertainment’s sake. This lack of sincerity or passion reflected a reality of loss in what the evening’s celebrated activists had struggled for.

Notes from the Hard Road and Beyond was staged at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl as part of the Melbourne Festival on Saturday 22 October at 8 pm. Read more about the event’s featured artists and watch selected clips of their work here.