Emma Donovan and the Putbacks – Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne (7/2/21)

There is something very communal about Heide. Perhaps it’s the sense of space lent by the expansive gardens surrounding the buildings, full of native plants and gnarled eucalypts. Or maybe it is to do with the original farmhouse, in which John and Sunday Reed lived, loved and held court for their artistic friends, whose works still adorn the walls with names now revered worldwide. Perhaps the quasi-commune of ‘the Heide Circle’ created an atmosphere so welcoming upon the ex-dairy farm that the excitement of creative exchange remains palpable. Or maybe it’s something older, something to do with the land itself and the stories embedded in the dirt, witnessed by those very trees. It seemed like the perfect place to share a yarn, maybe sing a song.

My favourite song from Crossover, the album Emma Donovan and the Putbacks released in November, was the one which they began with, after ambling down the hill to the small stage, pausing to greet familiar faces, a relaxed smile across Donovan’s lips. Like much of Crossover, ‘Pink Skirt’ is a story of family, a remembrance of childhood and an ode to bloodline. There is pain and pride in Donovan’s rich, warm voice; you could never mistake that she feels these intensely personal songs every time that she draws them out. The Putbacks add honey to the mixture, providing a subtle groove that is solid enough to support Donovan’s stories but tasteful enough to not distract with technical displays or bombast.

The Putbacks on their own are an extremely locked in unit who play with an empathetic ear for the material, their own arrangements and each other’s playing at all times. As understated as they can be, they also have funk in their bones, a soulful grit suggesting a reverence of the Stax Records catalogue. Their 2018 self-titled album was an excellent showcase for their skills as instrumental quintet, and they revisited one of its standout grooves for Crossover’s ‘Hold On’, providing a moment for Donovan to explore sensuality over mid-tempo funk.

“You all look very comfortable,” she remarked, as the groups and families lazed on picnic rugs and the mild wind moved and removed clouds, revealing a baking sun one moment, only to be covered by mottled grey. By the side of the stage a group of children danced, showing each other cartwheels and ordering younger siblings into position.

Important to each of the songs were their introductions, a way in which for Emma Donovan to explain the importance of their stories to herself and the people that they concerned, who were, invariably, family. ‘Warrell Creek Song’ is a version of a traditional Gumbaynggirr tune that had been sung by Donovan’s great-great grandmother and was another example of the complimentary powers of the singer and the band. The music was soulful yet original enough to not feel overly indebted to American music, the Putbacks offering a propulsive groove under an arrangement that slowly unfurled and revealed its beauty like a memory, passed down through generations.

I find it particularly endearing how vulnerable Paul Kelly looks when he sings without a guitar. It’s something to do with his arms, how they hang by his side like he’s not sure what to do with them. Occasionally he raises his hands to emphasise a line before they drop again, pointing to the stage floor. Following their earlier cover of ‘Yarian Mitji’, Kelly had been called up for a second Ruby Hunter song, ‘Down City Streets’, the original recording of which he had produced on Archie Roach’s 1990 classic Charcoal Lane and which Donovan and the Putbacks had recorded, again with Roach, in 2015. Slightly hesitant to begin with, Kelly shot Donovan an appreciative smile once she found a harmony above his ever distinctive voice during the final chorus.

Having lived through lockdown in New South Wales before returning to Melbourne, this was the band’s fourth show back together in just over a week and Donovan was revelling in the opportunity to sing again and connect with an appreciative audience. Her voice well and truly warmed up, she delivered a passionate rendition of Crossover’s ‘Mob March’. With the Putbacks going for broke, over drum fills and organ swells she closed the show with the words ‘Aboriginal land, sacred land, mother land, home land’.

As soon as the song finished Donovan’s young daughter jumped onstage, clasping her mother as we stood in ovation and became aware of the cover band singing Jimmy Barnes from the golf course next door.

Published in Beat Magazine. Image supplied.

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