Four First Nations Australians and their “whitefella” friend form the Warumpi Band, a rock group whose photos logically should be some of Australia’s most recognisable. But, despite having a great legacy and leaving an indelible mark on Aussie music and culture, the band isn’t well-known among younger generations today.
ILBIJERRI Theatre Company‘s Big Name, No Blankets revives the Warumpi Band’s story and songs, once again bringing them to the forefront. In the 1980s and 90s, their rock anthems made waves worldwide, garnering appreciation for First Nations culture and helping give birth to a new and empowering genre of Desert Reggae, as the show’s accompanying essay states.
Big Name, No Blankets is wonderfully directed by Rachael Maza and Anyupa Butcher, the latter being the daughter of former Warumpi Band member, Sammy Butcher. Importantly, there is an incredible sense of authenticity to the production, which can be credited to the creative team’s collaboration with Sammy in his role as cultural consultant.
As with their debut album, after which the stage show is named, Big Name, No Blankets intimately leads us into the humble lives of the Warumpi Band’s members, whose passion for music led them to fame and cultural impact rather than fortune. The show is almost like an onstage documentary, albeit an extremely engaging one. The audience relives everything from the band’s formation and travels to their brotherly bonds, up until Warumpi Band’s dissolution.
Transporting audiences to the deserts of the Northern Territory, we meet a younger Sammy (Baykali Ganambarr) who is soft-spoken and amiable. With an approachable manner, he assumes the role of a friendly guide as he introduces the other band members and provides a lens through which to see the close-knit First Nations community in Papunya.
George, the band’s boisterous lead singer from Galiwinku, is captured by Googoorewon Knox, who radiates an exuberant energy that has the audience screaming and stomping joyfully. Not only is he irresistibly alluring with a boyish charm, but he also adds a spark to the entire band’s performance with his soaring vocals and excellent guitar skills.
Another noteworthy character is the band’s only “whitefella” member, superbly played by Jackson Peele, presenting a down-to-earth bloke from the country. He is musically talented, playing guitar matched with pleasant vocals that are most notable when he leads the acoustic rendition of ‘Fitzroy Crossing’.
Big Name, No Blankets is an emotional ride, as the audience feels everything from the pain of being away from family and sorry business, to the comfort of being back in one’s own Country, to rising anger from arguments. The performers do a great job of easing the tension through their charisma and comedy, with many scenes – such as a group of German officers’ didgeridoo reactions – causing laughs to reverberate throughout the theatre.
Naturally, the show is also packed full of songs, and music director Gary Watling does a stellar job leading the musical components, making even those who aren’t rock fans (like this reviewer) enjoy the contagious energy. Spirited songs like ‘Stompin’ Ground’ and ‘Jailanguru Pakarnu’ got the audiences stomping, clapping and dancing. As the performers broke the fourth wall to interact with the audience, Big Name, No Blankets felt like being at an actual rock concert.
It also included songs that gave this reviewer goosebumps, like ‘We Shall Cry’, sung amid Redfern’s self-determination protest scene, and another beautifully delivered in Language by the Mum (Cassandra Williams). Among the most popular were ‘My Island Home’ sung in Gumatj and ‘Blackfella/Whitefella’ about racial unity.
With Warumpi Band being the first rock band to sing in Australian First Nations languages, Big Name, No Blankets’ integration of Luritja, Walpiri and Gumatj/Yolngu Matha languages was particularly important, adding an underlying feeling of First Nations cultural pride, plus warmth and a sense of community.
The set design by Emily Barrie was incredible and effectively transported audiences across various lands with vastly different environments through the use of large projections, innovative special effects and simple props. A memorable example was the band’s trip to Galiwin’ku, characterised by a beautiful ocean paradise projected behind and mist, which created an illusion of water as the performers rowed their imaginary boats.
Jenny Hector’s lighting also really added to the sensory experience, especially in making the performances feel even more electrifying. Heidi Brooks’ costume design was on point and eerily similar to the clothes the band wears in archival footage, including George’s iconic shiny Aboriginal flag outfit.
As the performance ended, it was clear that Big Name, No Blankets continued to share several important messages that once grounded the Warumpi Band – inspiring the next generation of First Nations Australians, building unity and fostering an appreciation of First Nations culture.
Big Name, No Blankets by Andrea James with Anyupa Butcher and Sammy Butcher
An ILBIJERRI Theatre Company commissioned by RISING, Sydney Festival, Darwin Festival, Brisbane Festival and Adelaide Festival
Co-directors: Dr Rachael Maza AM and Anyupa Butcher
Music director: Gary Watling
Cinematographer and sound designer: James Henry
Sound arrangements and composition: Crystal Butcher, David Bridie (mentor)
Set designer: Emily Barrie
Lighting designer: Jenny Hector
Costume designer: Heidi Brooks
Video content designer: Sean Bacon
Animation: Patrician McKean and Guck
Core band: Gary Watling, Jason Butcher, Jeremiah Butcher
Performers: Baykali Ganambarr, Googoorewon Knox, Teangi Knox, Aaron McGrath, Jackson Peele, Cassandra Williams, Tibian Wyles
Big Name, No Blankets was performed at Roslyn Packer Theatre as part of Sydney Festival 2024 from 10-14 January.