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Photo by Jordan Munns


Sydney Opera House Forecourt, April 9

Holly Rankin had large ambitions for this night, which is admirable, and she pretty much pulled it off, which is impressive. But even more admirable and impressive may be that she would have known that those ambitions meant she was likely to be relegated to, at best, an equal role in proceedings, and she was fine with that.

And that’s not even taking into account that the show was the first contemporary music event at Sydney Opera House since – I may need to confirm my notes here but I’m going to take a guess and say 40 years now – the plague descended on us. A free show at that.

Rankin, who when not studying law or bossing the netball courts of the Shoalhaven operates under the name Jack River, called the evening “Visions Of Us”, and around her and her multi-purpose band she brought in people who are shaping – re-shaping really – exactly what that vision is.

While her songs, which appeared variously in electric, acoustic and rocking mode, did a bit of travelling (Sugar, sans Peking Duk, came over more tender than its original playful setting; the ‘90s indie rock model, Adolescent, teetered between snotty and knowing; Faultline upped the pop and the power in equal measure), Rankin made her intentions clear from before the start.

Gunai writer, and last year’s NSW Aboriginal Woman Of The Year, Kirli Saunders acknowledged country and sprang from there to prompt us to consider a broader connection, via poetry and tempered optimism. Later, Gamilaroi journalist Brooke Boney went in harder, urging not just engagement (“Every time you show up you are having an impact”) but action on racism, equality and morality – the latter word underpinning her quietly forceful address.

Grace Tame (photo by Jordan Munns)

Most impressive of all, as is becoming familiar since her appearance alongside a diminished-by-comparison prime minister in January, was Australian Of The Year, Grace Tame.

Taking up both the manner and the methods of Saunders and Boney, and the thoughtfulness of Rankin/Jack River, Tame trafficked in poetry and power as she measured the change underway (“United we have risen up”), the tools at hand (“We are passionate but rational”) and the past/future (“We will survive … We are the teachers now”).

Between these speeches, the two-song appearance of young Badjalung man, Budjerah, softly reinforced many of those points, especially in his duet with Rankin on Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, where his church-soul voice was simply beautiful.

If the night closed a bit messily, with Rankin and bandmate Annie Hamilton joined by Isabella Manfredi for a rousing but flawed take on Big Yellow Taxi (the pregnant Manfredi joking that it was “baby brain” responsible for her forgetting some lyrics), it nonetheless completed a multi-prong message and did it collectively.

Which was after all, the goal of this Jack River show.

A version of this review originally ran in The Sydney Morning Herald.


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