A very rare performance by the legendary protest singer is full of songs, stories and special guests
The best artists don’t always attract the biggest crowds.
This weekend’s Byron Bay Bluesfest lineup is full of familiar names. Some of the country’s biggest stars – Midnight Oil, Missy Higgins, Paul Kelly and countless others – are in County Byron to perform in front of tens of thousands of hungry music lovers.
In the small Delta tent on Saturday night, a smaller, more subdued crowd gathers to see the Murri man Kev Carmodya singer-songwriter who has inspired all of these aforementioned artists and countless others since the release of his groundbreaking debut album Pillars of society in 1988.
Much of the crowd may not know it, but its very appearance is a huge blow to the festival and an extremely rare treat for those who see it.
This is Kev Carmody’s first live show in many years, and there’s no indication there will be more to come.
He hasn’t officially retired from performing, but you wouldn’t need many hands to count the number of shows he’s performed over the past decade.
“I don’t know how Peter Noble, who runs this place, got me back here,” Carmody said at the start of his set.
“He waved the carrot. Then he started talking about the fucking big stick!”
Speaking to Double J’s Zan Rowe last week, Carmody said there was one thing that made him cross the line.
“I do it to bring people together,” he said.
He knows his work still speaks to the current climate, even if it’s not a particularly pleasant achievement.
“I was going through the list of what I was going to play, and looking back and some of the stuff that I wrote even 50 years ago, it’s kind of disconcerting, because it’s still relevant” , he told Zan.
“I’ll put a number of happy songs in the thing, but there are a few that still make sense. Like ‘Thou Shalt Not Fly’.”
It’s the song he opens with tonight, a powerful reflection on how he found some Christian teachings hypocritical, given Australia’s history with First Nations people.
He knows that at Bluesfest he’s probably singing in some sort of echo chamber.
“I don’t need to convince you,” he says, referring to the constitutional recognition of First Nations peoples, acknowledging that it is those in power who can ultimately bring about change.
On songs like this and the epic “Droving Women,” Carmody hits the guitar and delivers his missives straight to the point with a force that belies his 76 years.
Songs like “Moonstruck” remind us that Carmody is one hell of a country singer. ‘Cannot Buy My Soul’ proves he’s still a skilled fingertip. Half of his songs are punctuated by Dylan-style harmonica explosions that add an extra melodic and textural dimension.
John Butler joins Carmody on stage for a chinwag and a version of ‘I’ve Been Moved’, his slide guitar making the song a little stronger in our hearts.
There is no pretension to the way he plays. It’s like we’re all sitting on the veranda listening to stories and songs on the fly.
He drops a song halfway through and carelessly ignores it.
He plugs in his albums saying “the fucking capitalists in the back” ordered him to.
He calls his family members in the crowd by name.
It’s bare bones. No kidding. It’s perfect.
Our best storyteller
“A song has no meaning if it has no story,” Carmody said during his set.
He tells a lot.
Stories of traveling through Wallangarra with Sammy and Gordon Butcher of Warumpi Band. Stories of his mother’s strength, of his time working as a wool presser, of the poverty he witnessed on a trip to London.
His stories are peppered with small but meticulous details, just enough to make it seem like you’re in the room where it all happens.
The back of the cereal packet he wrote ‘I’ve Been Moved’ on, the living room he was in when he first heard Archie Roach’s ‘Take The Children Away’, the scribbled red marks on his homework when he used the oral history of The Elders as academic sources at the university.
These stories are sprinkled with jokes, of the objectively funny kind: innocuous and told with good humor. A bit of levity that might seem at odds with his protest songs, but which shows Carmody’s warmth even more.
Telling stories is Carmody’s ultimate goal, and he encourages everyone in the audience to do the same.
“I never went to school until I was 10,” he told Zan last week. “I was brought up in the oral tradition where word pictures meant more because they stayed in your head.”
What it offers is as powerful and educational as any book. Nowhere is this more evident than on his best-known song, “From Little Things Big Things Grow.”
Carmody wrote it sitting around a campfire with Paul Kelly at Wivenhoe Dam in South East Queensland. It is now one of Australia’s most treasured songs, its conquering power after such humble beginnings making its chorus a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“It’s become people’s song, not just Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly, it’s become everyone’s song, which is awesome,” Carmody told Zan last week.
He ends his set tonight with this anthem, joined by Butler, Mama Kin, Jess Hitchcock and Keir Nuttal, and, more importantly, every person in the tent, who knows every word of its iconic chorus.
“I still really like to sing it flamboyantly,” Carmody told Zan of the song.
“And the best part is you could ask the audience, ‘Would you mind helping me? Because I’m a pensioner. I’m geriatric. Try it.’
“It’s just amazing how it brings people of all persuasions together.”
A shining star
Carmody’s loose and emotional set ending is as surprising and unorthodox as the rest of the series.
First, it goes over ten minutes, a cardinal sin for any festival act. Nobody else would have got away with it.
Next, festival director Peter Noble makes a rare appearance on stage, holding a star-shaped trophy.
“We want to give you this as a reward to thank you for all you’ve given,” Noble said as he presented the trophy to Carmody.
“This man was and still is one of the great voices of Indigenous Australia. One of the great voices of Australia.”
Carmody, clearly taken aback and humbled by this surprise turn of events, is as quick with a quip as ever.
“I’m a star now!” he beams, before turning to Noble. “I’ll charge you more next time!” »
If Kev Carmody returns to the stage – at Bluesfest or elsewhere – he will be worth every penny.
Watching him play anywhere is a rare treat that shouldn’t be taken for granted. To see him in Bundjalung country, the country of his grandmother, is very special.
To see him with a crowd that might be smaller than his peers who idolize him, but who remain silent as they latch on to each of his songs and stories, proves that Carmody has succeeded in what he wanted to do.
He shared his stories and he brought us together. We think Kev Carmody would consider this a good day at work.
The Byron Bay Bluesfest continues until Monday 18th April. Head here to follow all the action happening on the ground.