We happened to acquire some free tickets for The Choir of Hard Knocks at the Vodaphone Arena. Jenny, Polly and I. Auntie Sarah and Lynne decided to take advantage. It was a warm Melbourne night. We travelled in on the train. Beneath a seat Jenny spied a pool of vomitus. 'That person has been eating dog food. Look," she said.
Now, it’s going to be hard putting the following into words without it sounding offensive - but I’d like to be critical about what I saw. A thing like The Choir of Hard Knocks, because it is – to quote Schindler’s List – an absolute good, is a slippery thing on which to pass judgement. But I’m not sure if that means it should not be criticised at all.
Having not seen the television series, I wasn’t certain what to expect, but I had positive expectations, as did we all. I gathered that the ABC had distilled something of genuine high quality from the ranks of the dispossessed and the ill-fated.
At the turnstiles there were clouds of flies, feasting on the sweat of patrons.
We were seated at a great distance from the stage, but there were giant video screens to compensate. On the screens there was what I took to be the choir’s logo; a heart with wings. We waited at least half an hour for the show to begin, and I spent some of this time in contemplation of the logo. I came to the decision that it was, well … facile.
Directly behind me sat an emaciated man with a heavy beard, whom I suspect had a form of Tourette’s Syndrome. Once the show began he would whoop loudly whenever the audience was called upon to applaud. The volume, the particular frequency and the unexpectedness of these whoops caused me to jump out of my skin each time they occurred. I could quite plainly feel the vibrations they caused in the bone around my ears. The guy apologised profusely each time; but I don’t think he was in command of himself.
The whooping was one reason we only stayed for the first half, another was the writhing Polly, another was … well, let me explain.
The show was hosted by the choir’s founder, Jonathon Welch, a man with no small resemblance to Johnny Young. Dressed in a cream jacket and black trousers, he assumed the manner of a game show host, patrolling the stage with his mike, giving quirky little aside glances to the audience …
Indeed, the format was quite reminiscent of a television special. Perhaps that was to be expected, given the origins of the concept, but all the talking and self-congratulation rather got in the way of the music, which – because it is music – might have been allowed to speak for itself.
As each soloist stepped forward, Welch would interview them, and, if they were not already there, would move them quickly to the subject of their problems with drugs, alcohol or disease. If it wasn’t for his game-show host persona and his obvious taste for the limelight this might have been moving, but instead it came across as faintly ghoulish. Particularly when placed within the over-arching Harry Seacombe slash Patti Newton vibe to the songlist
‘I’m so many days clean and clear today’, they would declare confidently to the audience. And all power to them. Most are doing better than me. But we weren’t at an NA meeting and I couldn’t help worrying for those guys, offering their misery to the world so that Mr Welch could prance the boards.
That was probably a little too harsh. The man has dedicated himself to something worthy and should not be judged too strictly because of his style.
Yet I need to voice my reservations. I could not escape the feeling that he was bearing the burden of the choir’s success squarely upon his shoulders. Could not a little more humility have been in order, rather than the talk of record sales and attendance numbers and the spruiking of merchandise? For me, personally, some of what was said bore the sour note of exploitation.
Could I be prejudiced by my tastes? Admittedly, I expected something, well … grittier, edgier, more confronting. Instead, the evening seemed aimed towards the staid and ordinary; there was nothing challenging about it.
When Welch breathlessly mentioned the imminent arrival of a Young Talent Team member, all those in my group expected it to be Debbie Byrne. It would have made sense. When Karen Knowles emerged and gave a big-voiced rendition of a song in praise of Jesus, it co-joined a Channel Nine style atmosphere with the evangelical and I began wondering if they were drifting ‘off message’.
Part of the choir’s raison d’etre is to give the talented but disadvantaged a chance to work with professionals, but unfortunately few of those chosen were professionals that I liked. May I suggest that the demi-monde of addiction and disadvantage might better be represented by genres other than what you might find in your grandmother’s vinyl collection? There do exist forms which express the horror, the agony, the victory and despair far more eloquently, and far more personally than worn out favourites like Imagine and Silent Night
The closest I saw the choir come to something dangerous was a woman’s shaky but moving rendition of Missy Higgin’s Special Me. Another highlight was the astonishing voice of muscular dystrophy victim Tim McCallum. Indeed, there were many talented professionals featured, some of them the victims of terrible diseases, some of them champions of the disadvantaged … but few of them straying far from the middle of the road …
And the recovering addicts? They had an edge, but they were left behind by the big voices.
I don’t know … Perhaps I just can’t shut my mouth and The Choir of Hard Knocks should be left well enough alone. Perhaps it was just the manner of the host. Perhaps I am suggesting another concept entirely.
I wish I could have enjoyed it, but I didn’t. It just wasn’t my thing.