‘Someone Important Arrived’: That First Night Archie Roach Opened For Paul Kelly

4 January 2022 | 12:31 pm | Staff Writer

Archie Roach, Paul Kelly and Linda Bull have recently recalled the iconic musical milestone when Roach first opened for Kelly at the Melbourne Concert Hall in 1990.

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In 1990, ahead of the release of the landmark Charcoal Lane album, the then-unknown Archie Roach was selected to open for Paul Kelly at the Melbourne Concert Hall (the 2,466-seater is now known as Hamer Hall).

As he performed on the night – a giant leap from the intimate shows he normally played - Roach thought his set was bombing. As he tells Steve Bell on the latest season of the Rewind podcast – An Oral History Of Archie Roach’s Charcoal Lane, Roach explains what happened after he performed his first song: “I think it was Beautiful Child first… I just sang it and finished singing and gave a little nod - not a bow or anything, just a little nod - and there was silence - crickets - couldn't hear anything else at all.

“So I go, ‘Well, I've got one more song to go, I hope you like this one,’ now I was being a little sarcastic… ‘It's about children being taken away from their families and I sung Took The Children Away. And, after I sung that it was still in silence for a long time. And I thought, ‘Oh, well, I might not be doing this again it looks like.’” 

But in the next second, according to Roach, that all changed: “I'm about to walk off stage and it was quite surreal really. Then you could hear this applause someone started clapping somewhere and then somebody else, and it just built up, a wave upon wave of this applause and was quite… if you can imagine a wave, a tidal wave coming down on somebody, you know, it just swamped me. And that's the best way to explain that. I think, and I walk off stage with my guitar held in the air I said, ‘Well, they did like it.’ And I walked off.” 

Paul Kelly recalls the moment as well, “We only had a 20-minute set for him. And, if I remember rightly, he just did two songs, the longer songs, Munjana, which is a long one and then he did Took The Children Away. He finished with it and he finished the song and there was dead silence. And, Archie thought that he’d just bombed, he just sort of started to walk off. The silence was just the audience gathering themselves after hearing this song. They were stunned. And then as Archie walked off, the applause started to build and just got bigger and bigger and bigger. It was amazing. I got chills at the back of my neck. I was watching from the side of the stage and it got an incredible reaction.”

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Another person in attendance that night was future Archie Roach collaborator Linda Bull (she was accompanied by her sister and musical partner Vika): “We were sitting there in the full Hamer Hall and it was silent and Archie walked on with his guitar and plugged in, started playing. And it was really quiet because he really took his time. I think he was nervous, he seemed really calm, but I think he was nervous after talking to him years later. He started playing Took The Children Away and, I mean, I think Vika and I both looked at each and went, ‘Oh my goodness me, listen to his voice.’ You could really hear a pin drop and everyone was on his side and he played the song and no one said anything. It was quiet, deathly silence actually. And I think everyone was stunned. You know at what we've just heard, not just his voice, but the song, the power of the song. No one had really talked about that before - not that I'd heard of.

“And, Archie I think thought it bombed, so he just got his guitar, unplugged it and took off. And then, as he was sort of walking just a bit off the side of the stage, everyone went crazy, the whole place erupted, and it was just this thunderous applause in Hamer Hall and everyone was kind of like… everyone had goosebumps, and I can just… it's like yesterday and he just knocked everybody's socks off. It was a very emotional moment. We knew someone important arrived on the scene. We knew he was a very, very humble man. And it was just made all the more powerful because it’s just delivered so simply and from the heart and just, I don't think Melbourne’s ever been the same again, or the music scene really.” 

All episodes of this five-part season are available to stream now. Check out Rewind’s oral history of Charcoal Lane on euphony.com.au, Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or anywhere you listen to your favourite podcasts.