REVIEW: Black Arm Band Present DIRTSONG

Musically superb, but connections were lost…

By Anastasia Russell-Head

A palpable sense of anticipation filled the darkened Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre, the diverse audience ready to be transported and transfixed by the music and artistry of some of Australia’s finest Indigenous musicians. And the musicians did not disappoint.

From the country-tinged vocals of Dan Sultan, to the superb and virtuosic didgeridoo playing of Mark Atkins and the soaring harmonies of an a-capella trio led by the band’s artistic director Lou Bennett, the performances were accomplished, heartfelt and beautiful.

Yet I felt a bit let-down by this performance. Having been blown away by the Black Arm Band’s inaugural production, murundak, at the Melbourne Festival in 2006, I was really looking forward to this newer show. Somehow, though, it just seemed to miss the mark slightly, and didn’t have quite the power or the energy of the earlier work.

The musicianship and talent of the performers could not be questioned – both the featured performers and the backing band were top-quality and produced excellent performances all round. The projected imagery on the backdrop was also visually engaging and often poignant.

However, this performance didn’t reach out and grab me. I was not drawn in by the performers. There was no program or translation to be able to understand the songs that, according to the publicity material, were performed in eleven different Aboriginal languages.

That is something that should be celebrated – but it’s meaningless to us, the audience, if we’re not given some context and explanation. The performers were not introduced, and the audience were not given any hint of what the songs meant to the musicians or why they were being performed that day.

It was a pity that more thought wasn’t given to the audience’s experience of this work, as the Black Arm Band is one of the most important musical ensembles in Australia today, and they have the opportunity and the talent to communicate something powerful and world-changing. Unfortunately, for this reviewer and on this day, this particular show didn’t quite live up to that promise.

Dirtsong was performed by Black Arm Band at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Saturday September 1, 2012