Sunday, February 20, 2011

Stephen Walker Benefit Show

Reflecting on the recent Stephen Walker Benefit Gig brings on a montage of remarkable moments elegantly framed in the deep blues of the Forum’s interior skyline. These images would surely differ from attendees to performers to organisers to Walker himself, but there was an undeniable focus of energy that night. We found ourselves in glorious surrounds to enjoy a ripper of a party put on by a selfless few to help a man who has given a part of himself to the music community for thirty years. Given that all proceeds would contribute to stem-cell treatment for Walker’s MS, there was a gravity attached to the night that transcended the flawless, often stirring performances by all comers—an assortment of local artists that have moved Walker to move his listeners throughout the years.

These sentiments were invariably shared by the performers and DJs I spoke to about the night. “It’s the Ghost, you couldn’t fuck this up,” says Breakfaster Fee B-Squared. “You couldn’t have some lame-arse shit happening, you’d have to be on your game. It was exciting, wondering who they would end up with. And to end up with genuine fans of Stephen’s like Dirty Three and Warren Ellis saying what a privilege it was—it was amazing. I think Triple R listeners really get what music is, what it can do for you and how it makes you feel. The greatest honour as a broadcaster is when somebody tells you that you’ve somehow shaped their music collection. On the night you heard that a number of times, that Stephen had been this integral part of Triple R, the soundscape that became community radio throughout Melbourne and a real alternative to all the other shit that’s out there. They wanted to give something back to him.”

“He always gave people the freedom to play and say what they needed to on the station,” says fellow on-the-night DJ and Kinky Afro host Karen Leng of Walker’s tenure as Triple R Program Manager. “There was always a philosophy and an aesthetic there and he intuitively understood what was good about Triple R, where it should sit in terms of media in Melbourne and how it should agitate and stir the pot but also be accessible to the people as well. There was such a great feeling in the room on the night. When he spoke, it was everything you get on air. You could tell how much he loves the station, how much he values the audience and how happy he was that everybody was there, it was very touching.”

Given the quality of the music on the night, highlights are difficult to pinpoint. From the first bars of Sand Pebbles’ Wild Season to the death throes of Dirty Three’s Authentic Celestial Music, the standard of delivery bordered on astonishing. Walker commented that if he had have had a microphone with him for the night he could have presented the thing as a Skull Cave instalment with twenty minute brackets. With a different guest singer for each song, each indicative of a particular element of Walker’s musical tastes, it was the Skull Cave All-Stars that truly captured the ethos of the evening—a rag-tag bunch of misfits together especially for this one-off occasion. When I suggest to band facilitator (a term he’s not entirely comfortable with) and guitar player Phil Wales that any chance to permanently alter the trajectory of a man’s life for the positive is a rare and powerful thing, he tells me that by reading the smile on Walker’s face you’d realise that we already have.

By make-up the All-Stars—Phil Wales, Gary Young, David Bridie, Rob Craw, Pete Lawler and assorted guests—was representative of the association between the radio station and the wider music community. “It’s one of those things that Triple R and the music community do well,” Wales says. “The relationship between the two has been acknowledged time and again. They put together an event that you’d pay for even without a cause. That it does have a cause attached to it makes it very easy for everyone to get behind it. There was an amazing spirit in the room that night. It was very evident on stage.”

With each of the All-Stars’ hand-picked cover songs, the matching of vocalist to tune accentuated the connection between Walker’s ears and the breadth of his listener base through the musicians he’s spruiked over his thirty years of broadcasting. The All-Stars’ set built through David Bridie’s rendition of Magazine’s A Song From Under The Floorboards, Black Cab’s Andrew Coates and James Lee’s version of Joy Division’s Transmission, Kerri Simpson’s chanting and prowling interpretation of Patti Smith’s Gone Again, Rob Craw’s channelling of Iggy Pop’s Johanna and The Wolfgramm Sisters’ absolute nailing of MC 900 Foot Jesus’ Killer Inside Me and Tim Buckley’s ghostly Song to the Siren. It was an all-enveloping snapshot of any given Skull Cave episode and evidence of not only Triple R’s own but the wider music community’s respect for The Ghost himself.

“With these sorts of things you tend to do one run through with the band and one with the singers and that’s it,” Wales continues. “When I said to [ bassist] Pete Lawler that the hardest thing about organising these things is working out when the fuck everybody can get into the same room at the same time, Pete said, ‘that and working out which pair of leather pants to wear’.”

“I knew the Wolfgramm Sisters would nail it. I cast a vague eye upwards during Song to the Siren and thought, well, if you’re not fuckin’ happy with that! It’s a tricky song to pull off ‘cause there’s no time to it and you listen for this winding melody to work out where the chords should fall. It sounded pretty good from where I was.”

Referring to MS as ‘a mess’ on the night, Walker also quipped that it’s a bitter joke when your surname is the one thing you can’t do. Though open about his deteriorating health, Walker has never been of the nature to focus on this aspect of his life on air and therefore the announcement of the benefit show equated to a public outing of himself as an MS sufferer. “It’s irrelevant to most people who listen on the radio,” Walker says. “It’s like saying I’ve got pink shoes on today; they may think so what? It’s been a very positive thing coming out about it, there have been great bonuses. I’ve had some great emails and I met people on the night that have just been diagnosed, people who’ve tried different things or just wanted to know about it.”

Walker admits that he was terrified by the notion of a benefit on his behalf and he hoped for the Forum to be half full to at least avoid discomfort among the paying guests and performers. “It’s only a radio show, I’m the first to say that,” he continues, “but the show does seem to mean a lot to different people. Being an Australian I was a little twitchy about how it would go. Rather than say something good about someone we’d rather put shit on them, it’s a sign of affection. I do the radio show; I get maybe five or ten emails when I get home and a handful of phone calls during the show. I’m really not aware of how many people are out there and who’s listening.

“We do it [radio] for love; I certainly do. It’s a wonderful thing and a wonderful town to do it in. It’s just been a joy to me. I never thought I’d find myself in the position I did on the night of the benefit. I joked that it was like being able to go to my own wake. There were all of these amazing people being able to say how they felt about me and me to them without the filters. It was so lovely to meet all these listeners, the friends I haven’t met before, and find that we share so much in common. If not ‘the’, it was one of the greatest nights of my life.”

Samson McDougall

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