Live Review

Judy Small at The Barn In Concert

“Judy Small is playing at Samford?!” It’s the kind of news that pricks your ears up. She may be one of the legendary names of Australian protest folk, but gigs for Judy Small have been extremely rare in the decade and a half since she was appointed a federal court judge. During the show she jokes about the fact that she hasn’t written a song in 20 years and how she has no CDs to plug because they are all long gone. But for people like me – keen students of protest music history but too young to have seen Judy when her gigs were more regular – this show is a must-see.


Not that there seem to be many that fit that description. The audience is mostly of an older vintage, and many of them seem to be dedicated Judy Small fans – one guy apparently manages to attend every single gig no matter where in the country they occur. She can still pull a crowd anyway – this show was a late addition after the initial concert sold out.


The venue deserves comment too – The Barn In Concert is a hundred year old wood and tin shed on an active farm. It’s nicely lit but sparsely decorated, and seems like it could have hosted country dances in between hay harvests a century ago. A bar and cheese platter station, manned by volunteers, raises money for the Maleny Folk Festival.


Judy Small takes the stage. She requires assistance getting up the stairs these days, but her guitar playing and singing are still in fine form. Her first couple of songs about Aboriginal Australia act as a kind of acknowledgement of country. Decades worth of writing topical songs means there’s a broad range of themes – certainly the lives of women get a good run, but so does sexual equality, war, the environment, protest movements, Australian history and a bit of Judy’s personal life. There are rousing choruses, gentle ballads, plenty of sadness but also abundant humour. Each song is given a detailed introduction in the folk music tradition, and the set must have stretched out past two hours, but Judy managed to keep the audience’s hushed attention with just her voice and a nylon string guitar.


Despite the discomforting realisation that a lot of these protest songs were written decades ago and are still relevant, the room has a distinctly joyful vibe. Partly that’s because so many of Judy’s songs are encouraging tunes about the power of people working together. But also there’s a sense that these songs belong to us – stories of everyday people doing what they can to live well, love fiercely, feel the pain of the world, hold on to hope and act to make things a bit better.


Interestingly, Judy opts not to finish with one of her own songs but instead sings an acapella version of the Emma’s Revolution tune Keep On Moving Forward. In a way it’s an honouring of the folk music tradition where songs belong to everyone, and a tribute to the sisterhood of songwriters who emerged out of the 70’s feminist movement. But it’s also a message that music can be more than the individual expression of an artist on stage to a consuming audience. That song is a chant, designed to soundtrack protest marches and keep the spirits up through the slow and hard work of creating social change. It’s like a sending out, a mantra prayer that the impact of these songs doesn’t end just because the concert is over and who knows when we will next see Judy Small playing in this part of the world.

Words by Andy Paine


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