Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Beating Round the Bush

I can’t tell you what a success it was.

The meal went with a will. So much of a will, indeed, that one beefy Australian called the second waiter (me, in my latest metamorphosis), after devouring Del’s chicken course, and asked if there were any second helpings. There were. This is Australia.

And then came the show.

I didn’t really know what was coming. My experience of nineteenth-century Australian bush songs and humour has really been limited to flipping through a book about the goldfields balladeer Charles Thatcher, and a little outback research for my books on Willie Gill, Emily Soldene and Lydia Thompson. Reading about something, and actually hearing it performed are, anyway, utterly not the same thing.
I also didn’t know who Warren Fahey was. Well, I do now, and I’m telling you I’m not about to forget. Not only is he an historian, who has dug and delved to rescue the old songs and stories of the Aussie outback from being lost, he is a performer who has the great gift. He can take an audience into his hand, make them laugh, make them shiver, make them think and then make them laugh (a lot) all over again. ‘Endearing’ is the wrong word, but he reaches out to you and makes you want to reach back. I’ll think of the right word eventually. But it’s special.
Warrren’s material is, much of it, pretty blueish. The outback men of the nineteenth century – the ‘convicts, bushrangers, shearers, drovers’ and others whose words and music he gives us -- had the usual preoccupations. And most of those nestled six and a half inches below the belt buckle. But none of his songs and jokes come over as oath-littered smut, or as raucous crudity of the kind so-called comedians often purvey. It’s all got a sort of genuineness and realness and warmth too it. You don’t snigger, you laugh out loud, and sometimes from the belly, at this twinkling man with the concertina who seems to have his legs growing directly out of the richest Australian soil.
An awful lot of the material, too, is pretty lumpy stuff. ‘Crude’ as in roughly-made. The tunes are street minstrelsy and popular melodies from the Old Country, the songwords are basic in vocab and in thought, and often fitted decidedly ill to the melody. But it doesn’t matter. In a way it even adds to the verity of it all. And as delivered in Warren’s crackly bass-baritone (I think he should keep the cold he was sporting this weekend) .. well, all I know is that at one moment I was laughing loudly at an Aussie version of an old ballad I once knew in a rather different form, and the next I (who am a blasé theatre specialist who simply doesn’t let ‘performance’ get at him) was feeling real shivers down my back, listening to Warren’s rendition of the terrified refrain of a mother watching her son transported to the colonies – ‘Son, son, what have you done’. I shivered again, now, just writing it.

Warren was supported by ‘the Larrikins’: Garry Steel, an extraordinarily sensitive keyboard player (you try being sensitive on an accordion), and Marcus Holden, who did virtuosic things on a variety of stringed instruments as well as playing (‘very badly’ so Warren confided) on the musical saw. In the few moments of the show in which the front man took a breather, the musicians gave us some rousing stuff which had sixty-five people (yes, even me) clapping away like a bunch of Irish reelers.

So, the whole world had a ball (Warren would, here, probably say something like ‘only because they couldn’t get a hand around two’) and the boys’ success was underlined in one more way that only someone like me – an old man of the theatre and of books – could understand. I took it on myself to man the ‘merchandise’ stand: Warren’s books and his and the musicians’ CDs. To an audience of 65 people – mostly couples – so lets say an audience of 35 units, I sold 18 books and recordings. That’s a percentage of audience-to-sales that I don’t think even The Phantom of the Opéra could match.

And then it was over, and entrepreneur, performers and ancillary workers collapsed around tables laden with a great heap of leftovers and the odd bottle of wine. I even bludged a cigarette from Garry as we sat in the darkening hotel courtyard swapping ‘recent bereavement’ tales. It may sound glutinous, but it helps, you know, listening to someone else’s sadness. It somehow relieves your own.

And then it was time for us all to crash. But my evening was to have an unexpected and special end. As I went to climb aboard Haddon’s truck, Garry put his arms around me and gave the most wonderful big hug. Well, he’ll never read this, so he’ll never know what it meant to me, to have a big, totally straight man, whom I’d know but a few hours, out of pure warmth and heartfelt empathy … Well, a little bit of my lostness and loneliness (yes, that’s where I still am) chipped off my vitals and flew away. God bless you, Garry.

When we got home, and everyone else went straight off to bed, I made myself a cup of camomile and sat in the kitchen and gently thought back over a great day. Yes, OK. I don’t need to say it. Grand though it had all been, I thought, of course, most of all of the hug.

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