In 1985 I began high school. I remember an ad on the local TV station for Radio Songs, a compilation of songs by Cold Chisel. I didn't know who they were. I had a vague familiarity with Forever Now but for the most part they had, to that point, sailed past me. Three years later, once my love for music became more embedded, Ian Moss topped the charts with a song called Tucker's Daughter, but I remained ignorant of its co-author Don Walker, the man behind so many of Cold Chisel's hits. I had no idea that Don Walker had released his first solo album the year before under the name of Catfish.
My familiarity with Chisel grew through the 90's – ah yes, the glory days of Adelaide FM radio – but in 1997 I bought a second-hand cassette of Circus Animals from a friend. The album remains in my top five of all time. And it wasn't the singles that were the highlights for me (it's a little reflected fact that no Don Walker song was lifted as a single from that album), it was the album tracks: Taipan, Numbers Fall, the Jimmy Barnes Biography of The Wild Colonial Boy the diary notes of a life on the road in Hounddog. I realised that he didn't just write the hits, he wrote their best songs.
I've grown my collection of Walker songs, both through Chisel and his back catalogue of five solo albums, together with other songs that had been recorded by other artists or which he'd recorded with his sometimes-almost-a-supergroup-act 'Tex, Don and Charlie'. So his performance last night at the Gov was a 'must see'. We use the word 'legend' so lightly, but surely that is what Don Walker is within the world of Australian music. Perhaps he has equals. There are none better.
The Gov had a fair size crowd for Don and his band, the Suave F**ks. (Yep.) Chisel might be the band that he found fortune with, but the SF's have been alongside Walker on stage for years now. Garrett Costigan's pedal steel continues to create melodies that seem to drift in like the wind through an open window, Michael Vidale works (and dances with) his bass like he's trying to pluck those strings right off of the fretboard, and Hamish Stuart drives the rhythm for the band from his drumkit masterfully. Roy Payne and Ash Naylor provide the guitars that seem surprisingly prominent for music written by a pianist. But last night Walker only played the first six songs from the keyboard, and spent the rest of the night standing by the microphone at the front of the stage, until the very last song of the evening, which he played alone on his piano.
Don Walker and the S F's
His songs often have an achingly dry humour running through them, and last night opened with one of his best, Angry Women, which eventually wound up on his Hully Gully album of 2011. The song details a fella who could put more effort into his home life, but is surrounded by angry women who rally around one another in bemoaning his lack of contribution, despite him having 'done nothing wrong all day'. Walker's unique drawled vocals painted the picture of this man's day perfectly, and the crowd loved it.
When I've seen Don play with 'Tex, Don and Charlie', he (probably understandably) leaves the stage banter to Tex Perkins. Last night, before he started the third song of the night, he turned and asked if we wanted to hear the story of the song, a new one. He received unanimous response in the affirmative. Walker then unexpectedly invested at least eight minutes (think about it – that doesn't happen often) in describing the travels he'd been on, and the call he received on one of these drives from Jeff Lang ("he doesn't drink or take drugs of any kind, so he's unique in the Australian music business as being in possession of a full count of brain cells") where, among many things, they discussed those towns that ultimately are populated by people who are escaping a previous life. "Cairns is one of them", he said. "So is Darwin."
He then turned the story to describe his friendship with the late Andrew McMillan, a Darwin "impressionist writer" who stayed there when a Midnight Oil tour introduced him to the place. The song he described isn't about him, but certainly references him. "He was the sort of writer who would write a review of a Cold Chisel gig by starting with a comment about the street view outside, and finish it off 400 words later with something like 'finished the night at a Cold Chisel concert. They were good'." The song told the story of the person who has escaped the life they want to forget, taking up a new identity and pretending that the earlier years just didn't happen. He sang "I've got my Darwin story straight, I've got my Darwin name", and to top it off the character even confirmed that he had his Territory number plates, too.
It's songs like these that make Walker so unique in the Australian songwriting landscape. Who else writes songs about these characters? Towards the end of the main set, he sang Harry Was a Bad Bugger from Tex, Don and Charlie's All is Forgiven album (well, 'sang' may be a stretch). Chisel fans probably aren't familiar with it, but Don Walker fans have a particular fondness for this song – surely because it's such a unique, story song. I can't think of many similar songs to have come from our shores. And the crowd sang 'Harry was a bad bugger' with Don at the end of every verse.
Victims of misfortune (or poor decisions) were documented in No Reason and Johnny's Gone (the only Catfish song to get an airing for the evening). Adelaide's Dave Blight, a long time friend of Walker and Chisel and a recent inductee into the South Australian Music Hall of Fame (and who also constructs the floats for the Christmas pageant each November), joined the band on stage for a number of songs. Walker's apparent dream escape story of Young Girls was a particular highlight, with the musical breaks mid-song and at its conclusion a thing of pub rock beauty, his piano dancing beautifully around Naylor's riffs.
Dave Blight joins Don Walker on stage
Walker's solo catalogue is much more guitar-driven than a lot of his Chisel output, despite the majesty of Ian Moss' contributions there. The S F's played a couple of songs last night, such as Eternity and Four in the Morning, that could almost have been categorised as rockabilly, with Stuart and Vidale hitting their skins and strings with a pulsating rhythm for the band to follow. But when he stepped away from the piano, Walker didn't move with their rhythm at all. He stood in his black suit, occasionally turning from the crowd, turning only to face them again when he had a line to deliver. But it's undeniable – the crowd took in his every word.
The encore began with Walker introducing the first song in his typically dry humour. "We've all had it happen. You're driving on an outback highway, you stop in at a steak house, and the waitress is an old girlfriend". The band bounced into the sole Chisel-only song for the evening, Our Old Flame from 2015's The Perfect Crime album. The band then played their final song for the night with The Good Book from 1994's We're All Gunna Die, before they departed the stage for Walker to close out the night with The Way You Are Tonight, a song he wrote about the New Year's Eve that took us all into our current millennium. (Missy Higgins covered the song on her Oz covers album a few years back.)
The performance was a gem. Walker is not a natural vocalist – when he started his solo career he joked that he had to get half-happy on drink to face the thought of singing as the lead. Tonight was not a performance to appreciate the voice, but to appreciate the skill of a songwriter who has written much of the soundtrack of our lives. And so many other songs that many haven't taken the opportunity to hear. It shouldn't be so.
My Darwin Story
I Would Follow You To Heaven
The Perfect Crime
Four in the Morning
Harry Was a Bad Bugger
Our Old Flame
The Good Book
The Way You Are Tonight