Paul Kelly: the crowd was stunned into silence after Archie Roach sang Took the Children Away

When the Gunditjmara and Bundjalung singer opened for Kelly’s band in 1989, it altered the trajectory of both men’s lives

Sometimes the most memorable gigs are the worst but I don’t want to talk about the worst, which was at Mittagong RSL. I want to talk about the first time I met and played with Archie Roach.

It was 1989 and it was with my band, the Messengers. We’d been offered a show at the Melbourne Concert Hall [now Hamer Hall]. And it was a big deal for us – it was like, “All right, this is the big time,” so we wanted to do a special show. Around that time, [the late] Steve Connolly, who played guitar for me, saw Archie Roach singing Took the Children Away on an ABC TV show called Blackout. He said to me we should get this guy to come and open for us at the Concert Hall. I hadn’t heard the song but I trusted Steve.

Our agent tracked him down and we got him to the show. We were backstage ready to go on, and all of us were quite toey – we were very nervous. Archie arrived and I went and introduced myself and welcomed him. I would have thought I would have said my name, because that’s what I normally do but Archie was probably really nervous too, and I think he didn’t hear me, because he later said he thought I was the security guy.

Anyway, I said good luck and he went on and did his set. It was just a short 20-minute set, and we were to go on straight after him. So he did two long songs and the second one was Took the Children Away. I was watching from the side – I had goosebumps and the hairs went up on the back of my neck as he sang it, to dead silence from the audience. He finished the song and there was still dead silence.

He just stood there for a minute, and there was still silence. Archie thought he’d bombed, that everybody hated it, so he just turned and started to walk off stage. And as he walked off, this applause started to build and build and build. It was this incredible reaction. I’d never seen it before – people were so stunned at the end of the song that it took them a while just to gather themselves to applaud.

Me and my band walked straight on. Here I am talking about the most memorable gig of my life and I don’t remember a thing about what we did! Hopefully we did a good show. And when we finished, Archie had gone, into the night. That was the start of a long association and friendship with Archie.

L-R: Shane Howard, Archie Roach and Paul Kelly perform at The Domain in Sydney for a tribute concert to Ruby Hunter in January 2011.
L-R: Shane Howard, Archie Roach and Paul Kelly perform at the Domain in Sydney during a tribute concert to Ruby Hunter in January 2011. Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/AAP


Paul Kelly as told to Andrew Stafford

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