A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
#24 Q&A (John Schumann fields questions from the floor)
First published in Trad and Now magazine, March 2011
How an artist builds a rapport (or not) with their audience on stage has always fascinated me. Especially if it’s an artist whose work has become very familiar, I find the gaze wandering from the stage to the crowd. Gauging others’ reactions becomes the main game.
Not everyone makes the audience the main game. I’ve never seen Van Morrison perform live, but his self-confessed lack of focus on, or regard for, those watching is legendary. Just plug ‘”van morrison” audience disdain’ into a web search and read for yourself.
On topic, I often recall a rock gig several years ago where two headline acts could only manage one complete, barely-coherent sentence between them that was roughly aimed in the direction of the paying punters. I left early and, passing one of the band cars, left a one-line critique in the dust on the rear windshield.
So I was doubly motivated to get along to a gig in Canberra last month that held a dual attraction. Firstly, it was two all-time favourite performers (John Schumann and Hugh McDonald, ex-Redgum, currently John Schumann and the Vagabond crew, parts thereof). The duo was joined by Alexander Stuart Black on fiddle, mandolin and vocals.
AND the gig was being promoted as incorporating a question and answer element, the brain-child of promoter Brian ‘Frog’ Harris of Songland, Tuggeranong. Frog had conscripted two local media personnel to facilitate the Q&A: City News editor (and long-time friend of Schumann’s) Ian Meikle, and ABC 666’s Genevieve Jacobs.
The Q&A concept has been used before elsewhere, but it was a first for this punter.
Ian Meikle had written a review of Redgum in the early days, which prompted them to invite Ian to have a beer with them. That was a quarter of a century ago, “… and John Schumann and I have never stopped having beers ever since”.
The venue was the relatively intimate function room at the Canberra Southern Cross Club in Tuggeranong. And while the crowd enjoyed the musical stylings of support act, Ashleigh Mannix, we were also invited to scribble down questions on bright yellow question sheets. Yellow, of course, being the colour scientifically proven to best evoke thoughtfulness, poignancy and correct spelling.
I may have made that up.
Question moderator Ian Meikle believed the questions to the performers would be at the very least revealing. “Welcome to John Schumann naked!”
“It’s a night of music and mouth, hits and memories, and a little bit of ‘kiss and tell’, I hope. I’m here to keep the questions moving, but the music is everything.”
And the music IS everything. Quintessentially Australian (“No yankee accents or big hats!”), and much of it burned into the psyches and memory banks of those in the audience.
Conversely, the first question was posed by someone possibly a little less familiar with the Redgum/Schumann/McDonald back-catalogue.
“Jack’s asking the first question, and it’s the toughest of the evening. Jack’s admitted he’s ten; how old are you?”
John Schumann: “Jack, you are NOT a good boy! In my view, with a question like that, you should be in bed now!”
Then there are the more predictable questions such as what is Schumann’s favourite song of those he’s written and recorded.
“Asking me my favourite song I’ve written is like asking me to choose between my children, and I won’t do it. In some moods I really love that song we just did (‘Thunder Across the Reef’) – I’m really proud of that – sometimes it’s “[I Was Only] Nineteen”, sometimes it’s obscure album tracks.
“Tonight, of all the songs we’ve done [all three of them], it’s “Thunder Across the Reef!”
Topics such as Schumann incurring parking fines in Canberra get a light dusting.
But of more interest is the Vagabond Crew album, Lawson, a collection of interpretations of the work of Australian poet, Henry Lawson. Questions on the derivation of the name and Schumann’s inspiration for the album allow an answer that chronicles John’s engaging with Lawson’s work at a holiday house from age 10 to university studies through to recording the album in 2005 and continuing to play the songs.
“At one point a journalist was writing about Redgum, and grasping around in the darkness for an analogy of some sort, he said, ‘If Henry Lawson had had a bastard grandchild, it might be John Schumann’.
“I wasn’t too sure about that because Henry Lawson was a bit of a pisspot!”
Which gives the trio the impetus to launch into one of the finest songs from the collection, the heart-rending ‘Scots of the Riverina’.
Inevitably, there is a question about politics, referencing Schumann’s run against Alexander Downer for the seat of Mayo in South Australia in 1998, and drawing comparisons with fellow musician Peter Garrett.
“If there’s any question as to whether there’s a god or not, the fact that I didn’t win proves that there IS a god, or at least a half-way decent guardian angel.”
“Because I think my life would have changed, and not for the better, but it was good to take Alexander Downer down to the wire.”
Schumann’s story of door-knocking as part of the election campaign was priceless.
John Schumann was a willing participant in the format. “I thought the idea was great, “ he said. “Particularly when you do the sort of stuff that we do, because it can sustain those questions.”
“And I talk a lot in the show anyway, as you saw tonight.
“It was just a bit more talk, but answering some questions that people wanted asked.”
And the questions?
“Some of them were quite predictable, some of them were interesting, some of them I was quite glad to be able to address.”
“I’m not sure how well I was able to answer all of them, but they were honest answers.”
Were there any questions he wished hadn’t been asked?
“Not really. I think the one that took me somewhere….. grumpy, was the one about why Redgum wasn’t included in the Australian Top 100 albums and I spoke at some length about how the establishment didn’t like bands like us then, bands who said what we thought.
The format went down well with the viewing public over two nights in Canberra, and if Frog had his druthers, he’d take the show on the road. So keep your eyes peeled and maybe dream up a question three in case it comes your way.
John Schumann and the Vagabond Crew will be playing Bluesfest in Byron Bay over Easter.