It should be no surprise that politically savvy Canberra played a big role in the unlikely success of a 1980s folk-rock band from Adelaide fronted by a bloke with a distinctive Aussie accent.
In a world of Countdown pop that believed young Australians did not want to hear about social justice, political struggles or their own stories in voices they could recognise, Redgum broke the mould, says its former frontman and writer of ‘I Was Only 19’, the iconic song that made the band a household name, John Schumann.
He has now gone where he thought he never would – a tribute tour of Redgum songs.
Schumann says he resisted the idea for a long time, but it was his own band, The Vagabond Crew, who recognised the value of the songs, along with the stalwart Redgum fans from across Australia who supported the first gigs, that convinced him to take the Redgum catalogue on tour.
Shows at the Adelaide Fringe in 2021 sold out, as did shows in Melbourne the following year. Word got out on social media and Schumann realised that the demand was there for a full national tour, The Redgum Years.
The show comes to the Street Theatre on 31 March.
Schumann says Canberra, in many ways, was the lynchpin in Redgum’s success, finding fans in the political elite of the early Hawke Government years and building a significantly larger following than in many other centres.
“We called it a hotspot,” he says.
“If you reflect on our music and stances on a range of things, it’s not surprising that kind of following remained fairly strong and grew for the life of Redgum.”
The band first played in what is now the Mercure Hotel in Braddon and it was the first time they realised just how strong a following there was in Canberra.
Schumann said he didn’t want to be one of those artists who tours on the back of a heritage catalogue, but when his band began rehearsing the old songs, he realised just how well they held up and resonated today, and how prescient they were.
“It was almost like back then we were peering into the 21st century,” he said.
“‘Where you gonna run to’ is about nuclear waste and, wow, guess what’s happening? We’re having a debate about a nuclear waste dump in Kimba in South Australia.”
So it isn’t all nostalgia, although there are cultural touchstones that audiences of a certain age relate to.
But Schumann has been pleasantly surprised at the age mix of the crowds, with the children of original fans joining their parents along with the 20-somethings who have discovered the band’s music.
“I’m gobsmacked when I sign an album for a 25-year-old who wasn’t even born when I left Redgum,” he says.
The success that came with ‘I Was Only 19’ took the band to the UK, where they carved out a following in the small club and festival scene.
Schumann says it was there that they realised just how good a band they were after years of constant playing around Australia.
“We were really slick after playing five nights a week for eight years,” he says.
But with that overseas success came pressure to broaden the band’s appeal and write songs for an international audience.
Schumann hadn’t signed up for that, though, and left.
“I said, ‘It’s not who we are or what we do. Why change it?'” he recalls.
Schumann will bring a crack band to Canberra to celebrate those songs.
The Vagabond Crew consists of Julian Ferraretto on violin and mandolin and Enrico Morena on drums and percussion, both with doctorates from the Adelaide University Elder Conservatorium of Music; Rohan Powell on guitar and vocals; Polly Politis on piano and vocals; Anthony Thyer on electric guitar, harmonica, slide and vocals; and Jamie Harrison on bass.
“In terms of musicianship, dynamics and vocal harmonies, I’d line this band up against any band in Australia,” says Schumann.
The Redgum Years starring John Schumann & The Vagabond Crew will perform at The Street on 31 March. Tickets here.