In a perfect world, 2020 would have been one that fans of Archie Roach would remember forever. While it not only brought with it the 30th anniversary of his iconic Charcoal Lane record, it was announced in February that the year would also feature the final ever national tour from the iconic artist and Gunditjmara and Bundjalung man.
Planned to begin last May, the tour – subtitled ‘The Final Round’ – would’ve seen Roach traversing the country, playing shows in Canberra, Melbourne, Perth, Hobart, Launceston, Adelaide, and Sydney over the course of just two months. Unfortunately, these dates were not to be, and just weeks after these dates were announced, COVID restrictions saw them postponed, with a full run of replacement shows still yet to be announced.
However, with time on his side during a year on hold, Roach still managed to add more accolades to his resumé, with his Tell Me Why autobiography receiving the 2020 Indie Book of the Year Non-Fiction award, being named the 2020 Victorian Australian of the Year, and being inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame.
With lemonade being made out of the lemons of 2020, Roach kicked off this new year with the addition of his “final and only Melbourne show” as part of the Live at the Bowl concert series. As hundreds poured into the iconic inner-city venue on Friday, February 19th, it quickly became clear that this was a performance to be remembered forever – and not just due to the COVID-safe seating arrangements.
As showtime rolled around, a five-piece band – led by Paul Grabowsky on piano – took to the stage, before a traditional welcome greeted the crowd and prefaced the events of the event. As stories of Archie Roach were told, so too were a raft of descriptors used to outline his story. Songwriter, poet, teacher, storyteller, survivor; there are words that if spoken about any other individual would appear hyperbolic. For Archie, they’re barely scratching the surface.
A standing ovation takes place as the man of the hour appears on stage, wheeled before us on a wheelchair and armed with an oxygen tank – a necessity following the removal of much of his lung during a cancer battle. Despite the somewhat frail appearance that he gives off, Archie wastes no time getting stuck into the events of the evening.
Almost immediately, he launches into a speech of gratitude, labelling everyone before him as not only a “blessing”, but a source of great comfort and support. A note hasn’t even been played yet, and already it would be safe to say a few tears have been shed.
There’s something incredibly unique about an Archie Roach performance in that you’re never really sure where it truly begins. At what point does he go from being Uncle Archie Roach telling you a story of his vast lived experiences, to becoming Archie Roach the performer? The truth is, the lines are blurred because they’re one and the same. One does not exist without the other, and if anything, it’s solely dependent on the message he wishes to convey at any given moment.
As the evening’s set begins with a rendition of his moving “A Child Was Born Here”, Archie regales the crowd with a story of the importance of Country. As he continues into the moving “Took the Children Away”, he offers a tale of being inspired to write a song of his own experience as a member of the Stolen Generation, despite being only around two years old at the time.
Each track, and therefore each chapter of the evening’s story, arrives by way of a standard approach – that is, Uncle Archie shares the origin story of each song (told to an audience who are transfixed upon every word), before the song itself is sung in powerful strains by Archie Roach the performer. It’s a powerful routine, and one which not only adds a dose of important humanity to his poetic lyrics, but offers important personal and historical context throughout.
Accompanied by vocalist Sally Dastey for much of the evening, the set leans heavily on material from Archie’s 2019 album, Tell Me Why, with a handful of familiar tracks (including “F Troop” and the Ruby Hunter-penned “Down City Streets”). Of course, there’s always room for a few surprises, delivered by way of a spirited rendition of the gospel classic “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” (as inspired by Mahalia Jackson), and a special guest appearance by close friend and collaborator Paul Kelly for “Rally Round the Drum”.
While a performance of “Tell Me Why” (the first song Archie ever penned) provides one last look into his early career, it’s the final two tracks which help to cap off the evening in an incredible manner. Skipping forward again to the powerful “Nopun Kurongk”, passionate movements and spirited lyrics from Archie as he describes a tale from Ruby Hunter’s life in Ngarrindjeri country once again bring tears to the eyes of the crowd, before the mesmerising “Place Of Fire” prefaces a truly genuine thank you from Archie and yet another standing ovation from the crowd.
As Archie departs to the side of the stage, many in the audience are left rightly stunned. For most, this will be the last time they see Archie, and the last time they get a chance to hear his story, song, and spirituality. Thankfully, they were in attendance to witness one of the country’s finest artists baring his soul for all of us once again, and providing an experience that none will ever forget.
Archie Roach @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne 19/02/21 Setlist
“A Child Was Born Here”
“Took the Children Away”
“Down City Streets”
“Just A Closer Walk With Thee”
“One For Each Person And One For The Pot”
“Rally Round The Drum” (with Paul Kelly)
“Always Be Here”
“Tell Me Why”
“Open Up Your Eyes”
“Place Of Fire”