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Review: Women In Song at The Quartet Bar, Adelaide Festival Centre

By Lisa Lanzi

Four women walk into a bar… Barkindji woman Nancy Bates, Bidjara woman Jessica Wishart, Lebanese Australian Emily Davis and European descendant and folk artist Tara Carragher… stir heavy emotions and touch hearts with an evening of song.  A great gig to feature in National Reconciliation Week as part of DreamBIG Festival 2019 and just after National Sorry Day.

The night began with a Kaurna welcome and 'New Life' choreographed by Nikki Ashby and performed by the Of Desert and Sea dancers.  Moving into the Quartet Bar we start with Yill Lull by Joe Geia (1988).  Nancy Bates reminded us of the theme for National Reconciliation Week : Grounded in Truth - Walk Together with Courage.  She rightly challenged all of us to honour the truth of our land and history and to recognize the 60,000+ years of Aboriginal history and our impactful non-black, imposed history.

The recurring motif for the performance was a mix of pride, courage, tragedy and hope.  The hopefulness shone in the collaboration between these women, the combining of talents, the celebration of differences and the beauty of their song-writing.  The tragedy was portrayed through song and conversation about the Aboriginal experience.  Satire and light-heartedness also featured as a counterpoint to the depth of emotion but the audience is left with much to contemplate.  As Bates quipped later, “we’re funny… hilarious… we’ve been honing our jokes for 60,000 years!”  Then followed an audience participation number with a song about head lice!

Bates’ Old Black Woman told of the heartache of the Stolen Generation and the trauma passed down through families and communities: “she’s strong and wise but her heart is full of sorrow”.  Bates’ voice is gutsy, with a vibe of soul and rock chic, but above all expressive.  Her presence and talent is a revelation.

We shift into a celebration of grandmothers and matriarchs next with Emily Davis’ delicate and smoky voice and expressive guitar on Bring Forth the Queen of Mexico, dedicated to her strong ‘Teta’ - born in Mexico, returned to Lebanon then to Australia via boat and 94 when she died.  Also on families was Tara Carragher’s Miss You When You Go and Wicked World.  The combination of her sensitive vocals, perfect backing harmonies and the spare band accompaniment was haunting.  Also poignant was the fact that she will birth a son in about four weeks!

Jessica Wishart took the stage with Daydreaming from her new album.  The song was inspired by the country and western nights she attended with family in Alice Springs as a child.  These four Adelaide-based singer/songwriters came together while mentoring Wishart during the writing and production of her album in 2018. An appreciation of their diversity and shared experience was the catalyst for this evening of songs.  Wishart and Davis also performed Blackbird together.  They co-wrote this song for the Semaphore Song Project and it tells of some shady history from around the Port Adelaide area.  The two voices blend beautifully and the melody floats magically over Davis’ spare guitar playing.

One standout of the evening was Wishart’s Behind Bars, a song she wrote after learning that a relative was murdered in a WA jail.  Her voice simply soars and we hear its true power with the band backing.  The rich sound and the shaping of the song gave me shivers and was reminiscent of Natalie Merchant’s vocals style and storytelling genius.  The band also deserves huge kudos.  Allara Pattison on bass (Melbourne-based Yorta Yorta woman), Adelaide’s Emma Luker on fiddle, a stupendous female drummer (apologies for not hearing her name properly!) and Richard Coates in roles as musical director, superb backing vocalist and keyboard player.  Also featured on stage twice was Jessica Wishart’s eldest son on his yidaki (didgeridoo) made by his uncle.  Her last song Black Boy was written for this son about how he and others might fare in a world not generally kind to Aboriginal people.

Nancy Bates' last song was dedicated to fourteen year old Elijah Doughty from Kalgoorlie who was killed by a white driver chasing him down while searching for a stolen motorbike - the driver did not serve any jail time and Kalgoorlie was rocked by rioting and violence on top of the heartache of another young black life lost.  It is rare to be at a music gig and be as moved by the stories and powerful themes as by the music.  This performance was also staged earlier in the day for school students.  May we all continue to learn from our mistakes and may the next generations do better.

A testament to the unifying power of women's music…  four astonishingly talented and proud women walk into a bar… achieve more in honour of National Reconciliation Week than a truckload of politicians ever can.  Thank you.  And Sorry.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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