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Live Review: John Williamson

8 October 2018 | 3:54 pm | Stephen Cribb

"The audience was commanded to rise for a rousing singalong of our unofficial national anthem 'Waltzing Matilda'. A national song owned by all Australians, but which Williamson has made his own."

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This night was as much about the fair dinkum Mallee Boy promoting his new album Butcherbird as it was celebrating 48 years of iconic Aussie bush ballads and yarns. Most of the audience would have come along hoping for more of the latter and not so much of the new stuff, but it was clear from the songs he performed from the new album that he had lost none of his ability to poignantly reflect Australian bush life.

Ever the consummate showman, he got the audience onside when he started with a shout out to the West Coast Eagles and a few jokes at the expense of Collingwood supporters. The set incorporated an Aussie bush backdrop, Southern Cross flag, kangaroo motif and an enamel mug as well as a campfire that the balladeer fanned occasionally with his bushman’s hat. No such thing as too much Australiana for this Aussie icon.

Williamson’s music is largely founded on his life experience and the people, and places (in particular, the bush) that are significant to him. His songs all tell stories and the audience were enthralled as he shared the background to those stories. Early favourites Mallee Boy and Cootamundra Wattle got the crowd in the mood but it was the personal stories behind songs about his family where he made the strongest connection with the audience. 

Salisbury Street was dedicated to his brother Robin who died of cancer in 1999. His favourite song of the more than 500 he has written, Galleries of Pink Galahs is for his mum and dad, and he tells us that he sang A Bushman Can’t Survive at the funerals of his mum and auntie. He recalled the emotion of singing Flower On The Water at the commemoration of the Bali bombings.

Songs from the Butcherbird album continue the poignant storytelling. Buddy & Slim is dedicated to the many pioneers of Australian country music who paved the way for him and his contemporaries. Looking For A Story was composed on a trip to Gallipoli and based on the life of a 14-year- old boy who lied about his age and “never even made it to shore”.

Williamson was supported by his “darling Meg” for a duet of Call Me Blue, and throughout the night by the very talented and energetic Claire O’Mara on fiddle and piano accordion, and renowned country muso Jeff McCormack on bass guitar. McCormack also doubling as Williamson’s straight man as they had a bit of fun with the novelty song Boogie With M' Baby. Williamson’s love of the bush sees him engaged in conservation activities and this was reflected in the anti-logging anthem Rip Rip Woodchip enthusiastically sung along with by the audience, as were the finales Raining On The Rock, and of course True Blue.

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“I’ve got nothing left,” he claimed when returning for the encore only for the calls of Old Man Emu from the audience to lead him into the unmistakable intro of the novelty song that first launched him onto the charts nearly 50 years ago. Old Man Emu was sung with as much energy and enthusiasm as it had ever been. What was left after that?  The audience was commanded to rise for a rousing singalong of our unofficial national anthem Waltzing Matilda. A national song owned by all Australians, but which Williamson has made his own.

It was a perfect way to finish, but he had one last emotional card to play.  Solo on a darkened stage with a single spotlight he sang the reflective Please Don’t Forget Me. It’s doubtful that the crowd in attendance will quickly forget a very memorable performance by Australia’s premier bush balladeer.