Melbourne Cricket Ground, March 14 2009

I’ve never been a great ‘joiner’ but I felt compelled to attend the Sound Relief concert as soon as the event was announced. I felt swept up by the spirit of how this show had come together with bands, agents, promoters, press and road crews volunteering their time and skills to support those effected by the devastating Black Saturday bushfires of February 2009. Tragedy begets community. The show was going to be wonderful – the wave of energy that had facilitated its genesis assured me of that. And Midnight Oil were getting together for ,what was at the time, one last hurrah.

I bought two tickets, including one for my twelve year old son, Tenzin. If it is a huge test of self-reflection to really grasp what I had been through in the weeks following Black Saturday, then it is even more difficult to understand what the experience might have been like for a boy of his age. We were at home the day the fire came through and the flames got to within two minutes of our place in St Andrews before a wind change redirected the inferno away from us and toward the town of Kinglake. The furious unpredictability of the fire hit everyone hard. Perhaps the music would heal whatever needed soothing, for both of us.

When the Sound Relief concert was announced, I tempted Tenzin with the prospect of seeing some of the bands like Kings of Leon and Wolfmother that he loved but had never seen live. I was also wanted him to experience some of my history: the grunt and power of Hunters and Collectors, the twisted melodic magic of Split Enz and the earthy majesty of Midnight Oil.

The day was panoramic and ten hours of live music was too long for those of us already exhausted by the fire experiences. My memories of the concert are clear but fragmented (rather like my fire memories). I recall the rain, blown angular by an unseasonal southerly… thousands of glistening, swaying ponchos … Paul Kelly welcomed, quite rightly, as royalty, and Royalty (the Two Princes, William and Harry, on the big screen) greeted with bemusement by the crowd … the unexpected wallop of Wolfmother as they ate up the giant stage and (almost) came to terms with the acoustics of the ‘G… and the dazzling, heartfelt, uniformly brilliant quality of the performances of the three headliners; Hunters and Collectors, Split Enz and Midnight Oil.

Through a chilly wind, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson produced perhaps the warmest music of the concert, their sparse arrangements overcoming the sonic limitations of the venue. Their exquisite, mesmerising harmonies floated on the wind and took me back to the first time I heard Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris singing together. Their alchemical voices stopped time, eased my trauma and held me to the spot.

The lyrics of Shane and Kasey’s opening song, Rattlin’ Bones, were apocalyptic and disorienting but somehow strangely comforting after our fire experiences – Smoke don’t rise, fuel don’t burn / Sun don’t shine no more. After nearly four weeks of smoke, flame and scorching heat, the lyrical negation of these elements was welcome. The lyrics document what seems like a journey through adversity with God and prayers and souls and dust, sorrow, sadness and songbirds. The loping beat gently rocked me while the words offered tenacious solace.

The message I heard was: ‘Keep going. It’s ok. All you can do is keep going’.

The memory of Kasey and Shane’s four song set lingered and was reinforced the next day when I went out and bought their CD. The earthy beauty of the sounds it contained continued to soothe me in the months that followed.

Sound Relief was an Event. Tenzin bought a souvenir t-shirt. I felt moved by the medicinal power of the music. I allowed the passing of the Hunnas, the Enz and the Oils to ink into my exhausted memory. I would never see these great bands again and yet there was no grief. Instead I felt grateful, (an odd emotion at a rock concert, I grant you), warmed and carried by the music. It was an immensely personal, almost private experience that occurred while intimately connected to an enormous crowd of strangers. In his weary smile, I could see that my son had been touched by the day as well. The Sound Relief concert had delivered what its title had promised.


More stories about Black Saturday: Midnight Oil, The Cat Empire, Status Quo, Joy Division.

Stephen Andrew is a psychotherapist, writer and musician. A former contributor to Rolling Stone Australia, Rhythms and Juke, he is also a multi-instrumentalist of The Stereo Stories Band. Guitar, bass, vocals, drums...