THE TIVOLI, BRISBANE 26 AUGUST 2023
When do you ever hear a chorus of deep male voices in an audience singing along at a concert?
I’ve never witnessed this phenomenon until seeing John Schumann sing ‘I was only 19’ and ‘It doesn’t matter to me’ in ‘The Redgum Years’ at the Brisbane Tivoli on a cool August night.
Full disclosure: my husband, a teenager in the 1970s, is the big Redgum fan in our house – often singing lyrics from the lesser known songs like ‘Brown Rice and Kerosine’ and ‘The Long Run’.
I was a teenager in the 1980s when ‘I was only 19’ came out. To this day I can’t hear it without tearing up or tingling all over (my Spidey sense for good writing).
I suspect the mostly male crowd at The Tiv on Saturday night were in the ‘big fans’ camp, though we all listened rapturously while Schumann and his band, The Vagabond Crew, held us in the palms of their hands.
He’s still got it
Schumann is a showman. Walking on stage quietly, hands in pockets, all ‘nothin to see here’ he soon unleashes his trademark acerbic humour and social commentary in what is arguably one of the iconic voices of Australia. He knows his core audience (blokes with an education and a conscience) and plays to them with his wry, dry humour and in your face banter.
From the day Redgum started recording in 1975, they delivered protest songs, bush ballads and witty political commentary in an Australian vernacular they refused to water down for a wider audience.
The songs hold up a mirror to Australian society which is sometimes unflattering: such as ‘One more boring night in Adelaide’, and ‘The Beaumont Rag’ poking fun at the idiot sons of the Adelaide establishment.
Other songs like ‘I’ve been to Bali too’ are observational and relatable while songs like ‘Diamantina Drover’, ‘Peter the Cabby’ and ‘Gladstone Pier’ are moving slices of authentic Australian life.
The show is a tribute to Redgum, not the original band. While the songs do sound a little different without the flute and female vocals of the original line-up, Schumann and his band do a sterling job giving them new life in the 21st century.
There’s a shit hot back-up band
It’s no cobbled together back-up band either. These are musicians with doctorates and serious musical pedigrees. The Vagabond Crew are Julian Ferraretto, a storyteller on violin and mandolin, Enrico Morena on drums and percussion, Rohan Powell on guitar and vocals; Ian Polites on piano and vocals, Anthony Thyer (aka the Rock God) on electric guitar, harmonica, slide and vocals and Jamie Harrison on bass.
The night we saw them, the musicianship, unity and heart of The Vagabond Crew supporting Schumann’s showmanship and storytelling made for a magic show. A show where the audience is hanging off every word and you feel like you are part of something special.
The old timey theatre vibe of The Tivoli and local support act Tobias (a skilled musical storyteller in his own right) were all part of the magic.
Schumann has lost none of his firebrand style. He’s still got edge to him too, telling a vocal wag in the audience ‘I do the funny stuff mate’.
The songs are about weatherboard houses, cab drivers, drug squads, working girls, civil rights, drinking beer, poking fun at Liberal voters and watching the country ‘shimmer though the windscreen’.
It doesn’t get more Australian than that. The lyrics are about the lives of real Australian people, so rare in these days of Spotify algorithms privileging whiney American songs for Australian audiences.
The young ones are liking it too
No wonder gritty hiphop band The Herd covered ‘I was only 19’ bringing it into Triple J’s Hot 100 and soulful Augie March covered the song for Anzac Day. Check out the young crowd loving The Herd’s version here.
Schumann will release a re-recording of ‘I was only 19’ with The Waifs, produced by Shane Nicholson, to mark the song’s 40th anniversary in September 2023.
Why are this song and this singer so enduring? There are probably many answers to that question but in my view, it’s just good writing. A former English teacher, Schumann can write a song to make you cry, make you laugh and make you angry.
If you give a shit about Australian music, Australian history or important stories told in authentic Australian voices, or if you just like good music, check out John Schumann and the Vagabond Crew. Gigs and recordings below.