MARGRET ROADKNIGHT – Decade: ’75-’84 (Festival/Warner Music)
Review by Ian McFarlane
There are a number of reasons as to why it is that the critically acclaimed folk/blues singer Margret RoadKnight is not known to the Australian public on a higher level. She’s managed to sustain a career over 50 years, yet she’s not a pop singer for one and secondly she has never followed musical fashions. In fact, she called her 1981 album Out of Fashion… Not Out of Style.
Perhaps closer to the point is that RoadKnight is a masterful interpreter of other people’s songs so she has never made an impact as a songwriter in her own right. Yet her strength as a performer lies in her remarkable ability to ingest her own personality into the songs she sings. Add to that her soaring voice – which has been likened to those of Bessie Smith or Nina Simone – and imposing presence and you start to get to grips with what makes RoadKnight such a commanding performer.
Decade: ’75-’84 is a 26-track retrospective that covers nearly all bases of her career. It’s essentially an expansion on the 2001 CD release Silver Platter: The Collection ’75-’84 which took in only 18 tracks. I say “covers nearly all bases of her career” because you have to consider that she started her career in the early 1960s around the jazz and folk clubs of Melbourne. She was singing field hollers and spirituals as well as the standard folk songs of the day. Very few singers approached that range, perhaps only the likes of Dutch Tilders or Paul Marks spring to mind.
By the early ‘70s she had developed a wide repertoire that incorporated folk ballads, blues, gospel, calypso, ragtime and jazz material. She recorded her first album, People Get Ready, for the independent Move label in 1973. So to the span of years covering 1975-84, this was obviously her most prolific recording time, for Festival Records and in fact she has only recorded two albums since the late 1980s.
The Bob Hudson-penned ‘Girls in our Town’ is, if anything, the closest thing to a signature song or at least her most recognisable song. Lifted from her self-titled second album (1976), it remains a glorious song, a gentle tale of small town life that’s spot on in its elegiac minutiae. “Girls in our town go to parties in pairs / they sit round the barbeque, give themselves airs / then they go to the bathroom with their girlfriend who cares / girls in our town are so lonely”. Even as a music-besotted teenager whose main listening habits at that stage extended to hard rock, prog rock, glam rock and little else (pre-punk and new wave), whenever this song came on the radio I was always enthralled. It’s just one example of her craft. The range of material on this collection is breathtaking and it is always accessible.
So what you get ranges across: jazzy pop (‘Love Tastes like Strawberries’, ‘Two Ways’); dramatic, orchestrated set-pieces akin to Laura Nyro or early Carly Simon (‘House in Central Park’); soundtrack songs (‘In the Heat of the Night’, ‘Raw Deal’ for an Australian film but which sounds like it could have been the theme tune to a James Bond flick); folk-blues (Hoyt Axton’s ‘Sweet Misery’); traditional blues (Taj Mahal’s ‘Cakewalk into Town’, Ma Rainey’s ‘Misery Blues’); a jazz waltz (Miles Davis’ ‘All Blues’); novelty songs (‘Masculine Women, Feminine Men’); and haunting ‘60s psych folk (Donovan’s ‘Young Girl Blues’, which was very controversial at the time as it broached the subject of lonely girls and female masturbation).
Alongside ‘Girls in our Town’, the real core of this collection and RoadKnight’s repertoire in general, are the cover songs by key Australian songwriters. Her versions of Mike Rudd’s ‘I’ll be Gone’, Doug Ashdown’s ‘Winter in America’, Ross Wilson’s ‘Living in the Land of Oz’ and Colin Campbell’s amazing ‘Ice’ are instantly recognisable but such is her authoritative stamp that she makes them all her own. If I’m honest I find her vocal delivery on the otherwise enjoyably rockin’ ‘Living in the Land of Oz’ slightly overwrought and awkward; compare her sublime delivery on ‘Girls in our Town’ for example. But that’s only a minor quibble because this is a superb release.
REMAINING TOUR DATES:
Batemans Bay (NSW) – Wed JULY 24, 7.30pm. House Concert (Ring 0244722048)
Sydney (NSW) – Sat JULY 27, 8pm. Venue 505, Surry Hills click here for booking/info
Newcastle (NSW) – Wed JULY 31, 8pm Royal Exchange Hotel (Ring 0249294969)