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John Williamson - photo by Shotweiler Photography
John Williamson - photo by Shotweiler Photography

13 MARCH 2021
Photos By Chris Symes, Shotweiler Photography

After a week of unseasonably humid weather, Perth turned on a beautiful autumn day of sunshine, cool breezes and that mild after sundown chill that tells you that, though winter is coming, everything is going to be OK.  This was the welcome awaiting John Williamson and some pretty special supports last Saturday at Kings park.  Oh, and an audience of many thousands, showing that there is life post COVID for live music in Australia.  The collective mood was set to ‘good’ and continued to improve as the evening unfolded, revealing layer upon layer of what many punters have been missing for a year or more, the pure joy of being able to experience the connection between performer and audience.

By the time Williamson had traversed ‘Mallee Boy’ and a little bit later on, ‘Salisbury Street’, written in memory of his brother, I’m hoping there wasn’t a single dry eye in the house that we shared this night under the stars.

Things got underway with Perth singer / song writer, Timothy Nelson, doing the early shift to what was, for this timeslot, a surprisingly large crowd.  Either people got in early to make sure they wouldn’t be delayed by the event’s COVID safe requirements or word was already on the street about just how good Nelson is.  I’m going to go with the latter, because, if people didn’t know what a treat they were in for before they saw Nelson’s set, they would have been in no doubt of his prowess as he bade people farewell, commenting on just how great it was to be back in the saddle again.

Accompanied by Cecilia Brandolini on keyboard and backing vocals, Nelson played a brand of transcontinental pop that as is much a reflection of his roots right here in Perth as it is of his musical travels on the West Coast of the United States.  Possessing probably one of the most effortless falsettos I’ve heard for a while, Nelson has at his fingertips a catalogue of songs that draws as much on the canon of acoustic balladeers as it does on the likes of perennial pop geniuses Electric Light Orchestra and more subversive acts like Dexys Midnight Runners.  In other words, Nelson has it all and, with his Jeff Lynne haircut to top it all off, he had those of us who had the foresight to turn up in time to see him perform tonight eating out of the palm of his hand.  This was sublime pop delivered by an already seasoned pro.  I still can’t get his song, ‘Mary Lou’, out of my head; there should be a law against choruses that sticky. Hopefully tonight’s performance will propel Nelson on to later spots in front of bigger audiences.  I’d love to see him perform in such a setting after sundown with his full band.  That would blow so many socks off!

Next up was Fanny Lumsden, all the way from the Snowy Mountains in rural New South Wales which, in her own words is, “about seven hours’ drive from the nearest beach, you’re so lucky here in Perth!”  Yes, we are!  Fortunate, also, now that borders are opening up, to be able to host artists like Lumsden.  It’s not that our local crop isn’t good, because it bloody well is, but variety is the spice of life and Lumsden added to that tonight with her brand of observational country music that focuses on learning how to deal with the minutiae of life with grace and strength.

Lumsden’s performance this evening marked the one-year anniversary of the release of her ARIA Award-winning album, Fallow, a collection of songs born out of the adversity of last year’s pre-COVID bush fires (Lumsden is also a volunteer firefighter as well as a farmer) and recorded in the landscape it’s songs bring to life in music that is as uplifting as it is incisive and articulate.  Her performance this evening — ably abetted by her band consisting of husband, Dan Freemans, on stand-up bass and backing vocals and brother, Tom Lumsden, on backing vocals — was upbeat and warm, tending toward the major key side of country music while delivering a punch with her beautifully nuanced lyrics and the delicate strength of her vocals.  Lumsden claimed nerves a number of times during her performance and I wouldn’t doubt her for a moment, but they must have only served to enhance what was a set that will whet Perth audiences’ appetites for many more returns to our side of the world in the near future.

Immediately preceding John Williamson was Tex Perkins with the Men In Black, singing the songs of Johnny Cash.  Last time I spoke to Perkins was in the lead up to his show at Perth Concert Hall in November 2019, when he told me straight up that would be the last time he’d bring his take on Johnny Cash to the west.  I’m glad he was wrong!  With a baritone as rich and sonorous as the dark matter that holds together the universe and a reputation (in the past, at least) for living as hard and fast as Cash ever did, Perkins is the perfect person to inhabit these songs and he brought all of this to Kings Park last Saturday evening.

Traversing through Cash’s songs from the early favourites to his later work on the American recordings, with a rendition of Cash’s take on Nine Inch nails’ ‘Hurt’, Perkins slaked the by now full house’s thirst for the very best in country music.  He did it with reverence and care, humour and innuendo and that little boy glint in his eye that Perkins has been known for throughout his career.  Perkins is a superstar in his own right, an icon of Aussie rock, revered for his groundbreaking work with bands like The Beasts Of Bourbon and The Cruel Sea.  He doesn’t need to sing Johnny Cash’s songs, but, somehow, it’s a marriage made in the seedy spaces where country and rock intersect as artists share a bourbon or two and maybe a little something to help them sleep or stay awake, whatever feeds their hungry souls. 

Whatever it is that compels him, you can be sure that when Perkins does Cash you’re getting the real deal, and so it was tonight.  Backed by a band comprising legendary Perth musicians — including guitarist, Luke Dux, who just the evening before I’d seen shredding with his band, The Floors, until very, very late, and who, by rights, should not have been upright and vertical this evening — Perkins gave the audience just what they wanted, an hour with Johnny Cash and his songs delivered with ease and authenticity and just the right amount of that Tex Perkins swagger.  Perkins was joined at the end of his set by Donna Simpson from The Waifs for lively duets on ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ and ‘Jackson’, showcasing more of the WA riches that we’re fortunate to have among us.  It was the perfect lead up to what was to come next.

John Williamson finished his encore and farewelled his adoring fans with the first song he released back in 1970, ‘Old Man Emu’.  Last year was intended to be Williamson’s 50th anniversary celebration, but COVID put paid to that.  So, tonight was something of a substitute anniversary show and, as you might expect, it was filled with celebration, reflection on years gone by and every emotion on the spectrum from joy to sadness to nostalgia for the Australia that Williamson has captured over his career with his poetry wrapped in music.

If you’re anything like me, your enduring memories of John Williamson are somehow tied up with the golden years of Australian television, shows like The Mike Walsh Show and Burke’s Backyard before all the controversy.  This was a time when Australia was beginning to establish its cultural identity and there was one artist, often appearing on the very same shows, who was creating an image of who we were back then with his music — John Williamson.  In my mind, Williamson’s always been a TV star as much as a musician so, while it wasn’t in any way unexpected, it was thrilling to see Williamson the accomplished musician and performer in the flesh.  Playing acoustic guitar, harmonica and a stomp box the size of Uluru, Williamson was accompanied by Clare O’Meara on violin and piano accordion, and Brendan Radford on guitar and bass, a combination that provided sparse but rich accompaniment for his songs.

Also unexpected for me, although I’ve never doubted Williamson’s status as a true-blue Aussie icon, was the adoration of his fans.  Sitting amongst the audience, it was evident that people had travelled from all over WA for tonight’s performance.  Williamson’s pulling power obviously hasn’t diminished over the course of his 50+-year career.  This was never clearer than when, having sighted their idol moving behind the hessian fence that divided the punters from the musicians just before go time, the few thousand people sitting close up broke into the sort of cheering and ardent applause that’s usually reserved for the likes of The Beatles.  It was very cool.

Settling himself on the stage, Williamson could have been forgiven for being a bit bemused by all the fuss, but he just got on with the show, quietly and powerfully showing everyone sitting with him under the Southern Cross just why he’s still so revered.  Williamson’s songs are, literally, country music.  He writes and sings about the land, the flora, the fauna and the people.  With his observational eye and knack for painting vivid pictures with very few words, Williamson took his audience on a tour of Australia this evening, beginning in WA (always play to the home crowd) and traversing through the red centre, the far north, windswept South Australia and the far east coast. 

Giving us ‘Islands Of Ocean’ early in his set, Williamson epitomised what he does in the lyric, I will bring you glory with everything I do, Australia.  Williamson and his songs are part of the beating heart of an Australia that is tinged with nostalgia.  We’re looking backwards with many of his songs, but we’re doing so with joy in our hearts and a lump in our throats.  By the time Williamson had traversed ‘Mallee Boy’ and a little bit later on, ‘Salisbury Street’, written in memory of his brother, I’m hoping there wasn’t a single dry eye in the house that we shared this night under the stars.  I certainly didn’t hold back.  Williamson has that knack for moving people —  transporting them to a time and place —  that few artists have, and he flexed this muscle well and often during the course of a 90-minute set that finished with the song for which he’s best known, ‘True Blue,’ leading the crowd in a rousing sing along.

He could have let it rest right there.  Everyone wanted more, but they would have understood if Williamson had exited stage left and not returned for an encore.  But he returned for ‘Rip Rip Woodchip’ and then took us back to where it all began, on New Faces, with ‘Old Man Emu’. 

Happy belated 50th anniversary, John.  I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Promoters don’t usually get a mention in reviews, because they’re just the ones who risk the shirts off their backs on enough people turning up on the night.  It’s not like they play the music or anything.  I’m going to make an exception in this instance.  Saturday’s event was promoted and run by Mellen Events, who did a fabulous job.  The staff were genuinely friendly, helpful and enduringly patient.  Though this was a COVID safe event there were no hold ups or hitches, the only way you would have known were the messages on the big screen asking people to maintain social distancing and use hand sanitiser, and the legroom between the rows of seats.  Ah, legroom, it was lush!

So, my thanks go to Mellen Events and DB Publicity, not only for hosting myself and my photographer colleague, but also for running such a slick event.  It was comfortable, relaxed and the vibes were great.

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