Set to close proceedings at this year’s Melbourne Festival, Notes From The Hard Road & Beyond, following on from last year’s Seven Songs To Leave Behind, will see a range of legendary performers, both contemporary and classic, take to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl stage to pay tribute to the tradition of protest music. The show will see artists such as Mavis Staples, Joss Stone and our own Paul Dempesey reinterpreting the timeless songs of seminal protest music artists Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday amongst others, the show meant to highlight the passion and courage inherent in the music, as well as their messages of rebellion and compassion.
We caught up with the man behind the show, Steven Richardson, to discuss how the show came together, the concept behind it and its relevance to the turbulent world that we find ourselves in.
SR: The show has taken a full year to put together from initial conception and research of artists and repertoire, inviting artists into the project, commissioning musical scores and arrangements, the spoken word script, design of the staging to all the staging directions … this all started back in November last year.
To book a band, albeit a big name band, is a walk in the park comparatively because they are bringing their own material and usually performing material that they are very familiar with. This is a once-in-a-lifetime unique show and a one off.
MF: These types of shows, where you have contemporary artists re-interpreting songs from the past, are becoming more and more widespread; everyone from Nick Drake, to The Beatles to Icehouse to Tim and Neil Finn having been given the treatment in the last few years, not to mention the massive trend within popular music of going retro. What is it, do you think, that has made nostalgia such a bankable quality in music these days? Have you found that you get a better response with these kinds of shows than normal ones?
SR: Perhaps there is a hankering for some old school values as espoused in some songs from the past … I’m not sure. I know people are after an authentic experience and the shows from Melbourne Festival are shows that no other presenter can do because of the size and scale. A sense of community and connection from a shared experience from a large-scale music event is what people have come to expect from Melbourne Festival’s closing night spectacular.
Mavis Staples has been singing protest songs for close on fifty years and her association with Dr Martin Luther King and the struggle for civil rights in the US is legendary. Her voice remains astonishing.
Joss Stone is an extraordinarily versatile soul singer, a multiple Grammy award winner with 11 million albums sold worldwide, whose voice is like honey.
Rickie Lee Jones is recognized as pioneering the incredible vocal style now imitated by so many breathy pop performers.
Emmanuel Jal is a former child soldier from Sudan who has an amazing story of survival delivered with unbridled energy and passion.
The Black Arm Band features many of the most significant Australian Aboriginal artists, including Archie Roach.
MF: Looking at all the bands involved, there is some sense of relatability between them, but not as much as the material they’re performing, if you know what I mean. Was that a conscious decision, to try and inject a little variety into the show, or was it just a happy coincidence?
SR: The show had to have an energetic and emotional flow, not just be an animated musical historical lecture. The second half material – the ‘Beyond’ in Notes From he Hard Road and Beyond is really important because it gives us a sense of the future, what is possible, and hearing artists sing songs of love, hope and inspiration is so moving.
MF: Notes From the Hard Road is all about songs of rebellion and protest; what made you want to explore those traditions for this event?
SR: The connecting thread is all about empathy. The best songs from this canon are a call to empathy.
When local live music was threatened a little while back (with the possible closure of the Tote in Collingwood due to onerous OHS compliance issues) AC DC’s Long Way To the Top became an unofficial rallying song as people took to the streets to defend live music.
This appeared to be a genuine grass roots issue when thousands rallied outside Parliament House. The politicians took notice, falling over themselves to be photographed with the rock stars and finally understanding the importance of the local music scene to our economy and cultural health. The Tote was saved and the City of Melbourne pumped close to $700,000 into a new (albeit some would say ill conceived) live music event.
The spin off being that Long Way To The Top had a new guise as an unlikely protest song. While at first this may seem incongruous – even given the song’s place in the collective consciousness of Australian pub rock, the driving guitar and bagpipes, the song has one of the characteristics that is present in most of the more recognized ‘protest’ songs.
Simply it is, like so many successful songs from the canon, a call to empathy. It asks us to consider what it would actually be like to be on the road slugging it out as a struggling jobbing muso.
“… Gettin` beat up, Broken boned; Gettin` had, Gettin` took; I tell you folks, It’s harder than it looks…”…”If you think it’s easy doin` one night stands, Try playin` in a rock roll band.”
So many of the great songs of protest are also musically on the money.
MF: Does it fit in with the full Melbourne Festival programme or does it stand alone? Was that intentional and why?
SR: Yes, Brett Sheehy, the Artistic Director for Melbourne Festival, elicited this project with his broad thematic of ‘politics’ for this year’s Festival.
MF: Was part of your motivation to try and spread the message of these artists to a broad mainstream audience, or is it more the characteristics of the music and the other attending qualities such as passion and courage that drove you to put the event together?
SR: These are the performing artists with souls brave enough to perform in the context of protest, resistance, and reimagining our global future to inspire and shine a light on that future.
Songs associated with political change and the struggle for human rights have been with us since Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was sung in support of the concept of universal brotherhood. Civil rights, anti war, women’s suffrage, environmentalism, feminism, and the abolition movement are just a few of the social and political movements to have inspired some great music and song.
At a time when the world is deeply troubled in so many places, we have invited amazing voices from around the world to revisit and reinterpret this inspiring canon of music to endeavour to distill a common humanity … to find what binds us rather than divides; to call us to a place of empathy.
This will be a performance presented in two halves – the first being a retrospective look into the inspiring repertoire of music and songs of protest and social action. The second half will be a transformative exploration of songs of love, hope and inspiration … a future dreaming.
Songs can shape and shift perceptions; they create a language between people unbounded by ethnicity, religion or class. Through song we have the power to transcend any particular issue or moment; song reflects and reviews the experience of being human.
Notes From the Hard Road and other places is conceived as a celebration of humanity and a chance for change. It is time again for artistic voices to remind us of the fragility of life; the wonderfully difficult impermanence of the human condition and the challenges the world faces right now.
If ever the world needed more empathy it is now.
MF: It’s a very timely message though, what with all the upheaval in the world politically from everywhere from Libya, Egypt and Syria to the US and the UK. Was that something you considered when putting together the event?
SR: Yes, of course – we have today a protest in our own City Square – so it is incredibly timely to reflect on past struggles and how relevant they are within a global context. But a worthy message delivered without the musical ‘chops’ will just not cut it. Songs such as Strange Fruit (made famous by Billie Holiday) and Took the Children Away (Archie Roach) – both with their horrific imagery, haunting vocals and beautiful melodies – are songs where the message does not overwhelm the beautiful artistry of the song.
MF: How do you personally feel about protest, and protests happening around the world today? If you weren’t doing this would you be out marching?
SR: I do believe in exemplary behavior … the possibility that my actions will impact on others. I don’t believe that shouting at people really changes anyone’s mind. This is where the power of music really has great currency as it affects the heart and the mind … and this is the first step in political change – when masses of people have a change of heart.
MF: This event follows on from the Seven Songs To Leave Behind show last year; should we be expecting another such event next year?
SR: Not sure – each festival is different, but we have quickly established a new, much-loved festival tradition, but even those traditions are there to be broken!!