Review: The Songs of Don @ The Festival Theatre


Review by Matthew Hocter


Creating a show celebrating the music of one of Australia’s most revered and prolific songwriters is never an easy task. Throw in the fact that said songwriter, Don Walker, who also happens to be an equally brilliant musician, playing keyboard for Australian rock royalty, Cold Chisel (1973 -1983) and performing as part of the trio Tex, Don and Charlie. It becomes increasingly apparent that attempting a feat of musicality this grand, not only comes with a responsibility to the artist himself, but the die hard fans who have paid to see his work reimagined and covered. Something that many may find sacrilegious, especially if done wrong.


Gathering some of Australia’s finest female voices in both rock and pop to come together for this celebration of Australian music, was not only genius in concept, but would also sadly prove to be harder than any of the singers could have imagined. Enter yet another COVID lockdown in Melbourne, preventing the incomparable Emma Donovan from rounding out the original quartet comprising of Katie Noonan, Sarah McLeod and Clare Bowditch and the search was on for a replacement. An announcement that Mahalia Barnes (Jimmy’s daughter) would then join the lineup, seemed not only serendipitous, but a choice that would make the show that little bit more holistic given the familial connection. Sadly, Barnes was struck down with an illness at the last hour and was unable to make it. Then there were three.


As Noonan sat at her keyboard, McLeod and Bowditch both took centre stage backing the singer up as they launched into the Chisel classic “Saturday Night.” From the get go it was clear that the singers had been thrown by the loss of Barnes presence on stage, and although there were glitches with forgotten lyrics, the trio’s sense of humour prevailed and the show went on. Backed by an all female three piece band consisting of Jess Green on guitar, Bree Van Reyk on drums and Zoe Hauptmann on Bass, the ability to showcase such traditionally masculine songs with a feminine infusion, was not only done with the utmost respect to the musics originators, but it was fresh and incredibly beautiful to witness, but also equally as powerful.


There were some standout moments throughout the night, with the main one belonging to Noonan and her ability at interpretation and story telling, which both sit in leagues of their own. As the band all left the stage, Noonan and her keyboard were left alone, under the spotlight, surrounded by darkness. Noonan spoke of the story that inspired “Choir gIrl” and the mood was set as she gave a powerful performance of one of Chisel’s greatest hits and one of Walker’s most profound and controversial songs. As each of the women took their turn on lead vocals, McLeod gave a grittily stunning performance of another Chisel classic “Flame Tree,” whilst Bowditch delivered some serious vocals on “Breakfast at Sweethearts.”


As the show came to a close with “Cheap Wine” and an encore of Tex, Don and Charlie’s “The Healing Power of Helpless Laughter,” it was hard not to forgive the trio and their sometimes clunkiness and lack of lyrical awareness at moments throughout the show. They faced some difficult challenges just getting to the Festival itself, not to mention the lineup changes, and for this, we all must remember the power of perseverance and pay respect where it is due. The audience and their applause was the greatest form of respect these musicians could have received and let’s be honest, well and truly deserved.


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