ADELAIDE FESTIVAL REVIEW: 1967 – MUSIC IN THE KEY OF YES, FESTIVAL THEATRE

When 91% of Australian voters wrote ‘Yes’ in the box on their ballot papers at the 1967 Referendum to change the Constitution and to recognise the citizenship of Indigenous Australians it was a momentous day in our history.

Whether or not the long-term impact of that vote fulfilled the hopes and dreams of the people who worked so hard to bring it into reality can be seen to be a positive one, there can be no doubt that, for a brief moment in our history, everybody was on the same page, and looking to move forward in harmony.

Secret Chord’s production, 1967: Songs In The Key Of Yes, has been designed to mark the 50th anniversary of this historically significant vote.

Gathering together some of our most talented indigenous performers, ably supported by other musical friends, the show combines a number of songs that have been written explicitly about the ongoing struggle for recognition and acceptance that Australia’s Indigenous population have had to endure, with other topical and relevant songs composed around similar themes from across the globe.

Indigenous writer and award winning novelist, Alexis Wright, was responsible for the selection of ideas and many of the words that were projected on to two giant screens at the rear of the stage, and these gave the audience a clear context in which to place the songs.

A number of newsreel videos containing soundbites of the views and attitudes that prevailed in 1967 Australia were also screened, often arousing uncomfortable gasps of disbelief at the insensitivity and, at times, outright hostile racism that these interviews had caught for posterity on film.

The song selection ranged from covers of Warumpi Band classics (My Island Home and Blackfella, Whitefella), through to versions of classics by Nina Simone and The Beatles.

There were also some, what now seem obligatory, interpretations of modern anthems such as Goanna’s Solid Rock, Midnight Oil’s Dead Heart, and Patti Smith’s People Have The Power, and all of these were sung with great passion by the ensemble of assembled singers. The ecstatic joy embodied in the dance hit Treaty, originally by Yothu Yindi, was also conveyed with great emphasis in this performance.

The evocative voice of Yirrmal Marika bookended the show, his vocals flying gracefully and emotionally throughout the hall, entrancing all who had the privilege of being there to listen.

The imposing figure of Radical Son belies the delicate sensitivity he brings to a song and he offered us his wonderful interpretations of Archie Roach’s heart-aching lament on the Stolen Generations, Took The Children Away and Sam Cooke’s moving declaration of hope and resilience, A Change Is Gonna Come.

The show-stopping performance of the night, however, came from Thelma Plum, whose version of Nina Simone’s Feelin’ Good was delivered with incredible power and clarity.

Guest performer, Adalita, seemed a little too polite in her performance, her usual grit and volume replaced by a sense of respectful restraint and careful enunciation.

All of the vocalists delivered heart-felt, in the moment, contributions in tune with the odd paradox that tempered the night’s mood – it was not only a celebration of a significant achievement but, at the same time, a eulogy for a naive optimism that has since been lost.

The only performer who seemed out of step with the occasion was Dan Sultan who, presumably, was on the bill to add some indie star power.

Sultan’s voice on the night was weak, and his timing and phrasing often out of kilter with the band. His rockstar attempts at having the audience cheer for him when he was giving them such a sub-standard effort were a little over-compensatory, and certainly out of step with the grace and humility of the other performers.

Creating the musical landscape behind the vocals, the band played beautifully throughout the evening, with Clio Renner’s simpatico piano, and Stephen Magnusson’s outstanding guitar breaks, adding particularly emotive flourishes to songs already engorged with high emotion.

An entertaining and well-designed production that provided appropriate, and somewhat overdue, recognition of an important historical event whose anniversary should really have received even wider acknowledgement in other media.