Review: 1967: Music In The Key of Yes

‘1967: Music In The Key of Yes’ is, on paper, a tribute to the Holt-era referendum that saw an overwhelming ‘Yes’ verdict amend the constitution to better include Indigenous Australians. But in its single performance at Adelaide Festival, this multi-artist collaboration is a more wide-reaching tribute to Aboriginal voices and political empowerment through the years.

Making its debut at Sydney Festival in January, the production comes at juncture of uncomfortable contradiction. On the one hand, progress beckons as moves to shift the date of Australia Day gain more mainstream traction than ever. On the other, remote communities continue to have services cut while the nation is swept into a debate of the right of national broadsheets to publish racist caricatures. But ‘1967’ is, for the most part, a celebratory affair, reflecting upon and celebrating progress made and unity achieved with the unspoken acknowledgement that there’s still work to be done.

The night begins with an air of light nostalgia with Yirrmal, Emily Wurramara and Alice Skye performing the Christine Anu via Warumpi Band hit My Island Home. Setting out some breezy, adult contemporary pop arrangements, the backing band offer a light, unchallenging backing for Radical Son (David Leha) to croon a striking rendition of Took The Children Away. Stripped of the harmonies that help make Archie Roach’s original so potent, Leha’s subtle yet impassioned delivery requires no embellishment.

The volume is cranked when the sounds of a Yidaki usher in a brooding, powerful take on Goanna Band’s Solid Rock fronted by Adalita. Driven by thumping drums, Adalita is joined by a blast of harmonies from Ursula Yovich, Leah Flanagan, Emily Wurramara and Alice Skye. Each of them would take their own moment in the spotlight throughout the night, with Yovich’s performance of Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free a real showstopper.

The swagger increases tenfold as Dan Sultan slides onstage, daring the audience to raise their voices with his fists pumping (perhaps the crowd was a little more excitable at his WOMADelaide appearance over the weekend with recent A.M.P. winners A.B. Original). Charming and at times a little rough around the edges, Sultan cruised around the stage trading a few cheeky grins and elbowed cues with his fellow performers. But he meant business every time he stepped up to the microphone and let rip.

The set is a mix of Australian classics cherry-picked from across the few decades, song from the period like Nina Simone’s Feelin’ Good (delivered with restrained potency by Thelma Plum) and a few timely originals such as Yirrmal’s Deep Blue Sea and Alice Skye’s pensive You Are The Mountains. Throughout the night we’re shown a montage of footage from the campaign, along with pointedly contrasting images of protest and 1960s consumerism. At one point clips from concurrent civil rights protests in the United States draw a trans-pacific parallel.

Later in the show, as if to arrest the onset of smug complacency from the largely white crowd that the 1967 measure was passed with such a walloping majority, we’re shown interviews with a handful of no voters. It’s striking just how closely their sentiments echo those heard in some corners of the polity today.

The one-two punch of Midnight Oil’s The Dead Heart and that untouchable Yothu Yindi classic Treaty finally realises Sultan’s night-long quest to rouse the crowd to their feet, though he’s thoroughly overshadowed on the latter track by Yirrmal who practically screams that signature Yolgnu lead vocal line that’s burned into the memories of everyone who lived through Australia in the 1990s. Following a standing ovation and a group singalong of With A Little Help From My Friends (the Joe Cocker version, which of course Sultan nails), Yirrmal again brings the night to a close with a medley of Gurrumul’s Wukun and a track of his own. It’s a plaintive, resonant finish to a night of reflective celebration.

1967: Music In The Key of Yes was performed at the Festival Theatre as part of Adelaide Festival on Wednesday, March 15 2017

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