Performance review: Song Circle, QPAC

An emotional evening of Australian stories from First Nations legends of music.
Song Circle. Image is five First Nations musicians standing and sitting on stage, four men, one woman and some guitars.

Song Circle was a rare and unique night of storytelling with five iconic artists coming together on stage for the 10th anniversary of the First Nations Festival, Clancestry.

Performed in QPAC’s Concert Hall, Song Circle was one of the larger events in the festival this year, but it couldn’t have felt more intimate with Shane Howard, Troy Cassar-Daley, Dan Sultan, Neil Murray and Sara Storer taking us on a journey through stories of their lives and of Country. Coming from different genres and generations, they sat together onstage, connecting us all through songs of the past, present and future. 

The concert opened with Jem Cassar-Daley, Troy Cassar-Daley’s daughter, who is paving a musical path all her own with her indie pop sound. She delivered a moving set that captivated the crowd from the very first note. 

After a brief interval it was time for the main event, where the five masters of music graced the stage, sitting in a semi-circle with the audience completing the circle in the Concert Hall. There was no band or orchestra, no percussion except for clapping sticks and a hand-held drum with the occasional harmonica thrown in. It was one guitar each with guitarist Brendan Radford accompanying the icons on stage. This pared-back concert made it feel as if we were sitting around a campfire.

With the show kicking off with a group rendition of Goanna’s classic ‘Solid Rock, Sacred Ground’, the audience couldn’t help but sing along. 

Taking turns around the circle, they each performed three memorable songs from their many years of making music. To choose three tracks from decades of hits would have been a tough choice for all the musicians on stage.

It was a heartfelt concert through story, with images projected above the musicians to give even more context to the songs being performed.

Shane Howard delved deep into the past with his great-grandmother’s story in ‘Silvermines’, sending shivers through the crowd with his music.

Troy Cassar-Daley led us through a haunting rendition of ‘Shadows on the Hill’ where even Dan Sultan didn’t want to follow up after that performance.

Sultan may have been surrounded by his heroes, but the admiration was mutual, with Cassar-Daley ‘needing a moment’ after Sultan played his son’s favourite song of his, ‘Story’. 

Neil Murray’s ‘My Island Home’ brought the house down and the crowd together.

The only female in the friendship circle, Sara Storer, sang of lovegrass and Katherine floods like no one else could.

The finale saw everyone in QPAC’s Concert Hall on their feet singing ‘stand up and be counted’ in the Warumpi Band’s ‘Blackfella/Whitefella’.

With stories from their travels all across the country, this would be an ideal show to take on the road. It was a gift for Brisbane audiences to experience these five legends of music being brought together for the first time for Clancestry.

Read: Exhibition review: Daniel Boyd: Rainbow Serpent (Version), Institute of Modern Art

In the words of Cassar-Daley, ‘[It was an] open arms to culture, for people to come in and share it and live it with us through songs and story.’

Song Circle
Presented by QPAC
Concert Hall, Brisbane
Musicians: Shane Howard, Troy Cassar-Daley, Dan Sultan, Neil Murray, Sara Storer, Jem Cassar-Daley, Brendan Radford

Song Circle was performed for one night only on 11 November 2023 as part of QPAC’s Clancestry First Nations arts and culture festival.

Lisette Drew is a writer, theatre maker and youth literature advocate, who has worked nationally and overseas on over 50 theatrical productions. Her play, Breakwater, was shortlisted for two playwriting awards and her novel The Cloud Factory was longlisted for The Hawkeye Prize. In 2022 she received a Kill Your Darlings Mentorship and was a City of Melbourne Writer-in-Residence. Lisette shares her love for stories and storytelling running writing and theatre workshops for children.