Singer, pianist, musicologist, activist and proud Wolastoqey man, Dutcher will be performing his award-winning mash-ups of ancient song and contemporary music at Sydney Festival later this week. Wednesday night’s salon concert was, however, an opportunity to hear the artist without the backing band and rock star lights.
It was a moving experience, and not just because of his music. Dutcher’s set layered recordings of First Nations Wolastoq songs – retrieved from wax cylinders dating from 1907 – under and over rippling, improvisatory piano and his distinctive, classically trained voice.
He also paid homage to Joni Mitchell’s Cherokee Louise and Buffy Sainte Marie’s Until It’s Time for You To Go. Unfiltered by a sound mixing desk, his performances were refreshingly unpolished, ranging from a gently crooned lullaby to raw, heart-cracked cries to the earth.
The real impact, however, was from the cumulative effect of these songs alongside an off-the-cuff commentary delivered before, after and sometimes during songs. For while Dutcher sang, triumphantly, in the original Wolastoqey language, he also offered a translation, both of the words and of the function of the traditional melodies, musing on the power of land, of memory, of community and song.
Indeed, as the set unfolded it became clear that, in spite of its beguiling exterior, this was not music designed merely to entertain, distract or console. It was a message which is becoming a common refrain at the 2020 Sydney Festival, as international artists fly into our country through the great pall of smoke.
Behind Dutcher’s self-deprecating backchat and folky, queeny vocals was an urgent call to listen to First Nations and to each other in this time of crisis.
Jeremy Dutcher appears in concert at City Recital Hall, 7pm, January 17