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Van Dieman’s Land (R Morris/S Bourne) and Loch Ard Gorge (R Morris/S Bourne) and Sandakan (R Morris) and Sweetest Thing (R Morris/S Bourne) – Russell Morris 2014

In 2012 the hit album Sharkmouth had introduced Russell Morris to a new adult contemporary audience, its collection of intriguing characters from Australia’s past, imbued with a starkly unadorned blues treatment, confirmed that Morris was not hardwired into the past, but adaptable and transformative. He also emerged as a consummate storyteller, a niche that had been almost exclusively occupied in rock music in this country by Nick Cave and Paul Kelly to that time, and he had segued from the tenor and falsetto embellishments of earlier hits, to a more disciplined, selective range of vocal tones, often with a raw, raspier, edge in the middle to lower registers. In the upper registers there was less of the pretty, silky smoothness of The Girl That I Love, Sweet, Sweet Love, Wings of an Eagle, or Rachel, and grittier, penetrating, and more intimate vocals, that created space for the listener to ease into, and hear the clearly -enunciated lyrics that told the story of each song.

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Morris and his producer on Sharkmouth Mitch Cairns, had aimed for a low tech, highly organic sound on the first album, minimal reverb, or pitch modulation, no obvious use of synthesizers, drums were minimal with no gated reverb, and samplers were also eschewed. Cairns had described the unadorned sound as “fat, fleshy, but lifeless, and dry”, and Russell’s lived-in voice imbued the songs with the perfect amount of gravitas and animate the colourful panorama of characters to be found within. By the time Morris came to record his next album Van Dieman’s Land, a highly collaborative process between the singer, and Mitch Cairns (producer/engineer/bassist/keyboardist/ percussionist/co-composer), Shannon Bourne (guitarist (electric and acoustic)/dobro/ co-composer), and Adrian Violi (drums and percussion), had evolved. The workshopping period that had prefigured Sharkmouth and cemented the creative relationship between them, was once again evident, and Russell sounded like he was enjoying himself again, and this resonated with those who embraced what would become known as the hugely popular Russell Morris Blues Trilogy of albums, between 2012-2016. Below L-R – Garry Paige, Peter Robinson, and Shannon Bourne

Morris and Garry Paige had co-written five of the original tracks on Sharkmouth, with Cairns co-writing two, and on Van Dieman’s Land the creative input was shared by Morris who co-wrote three tracks with Peter Robinson, and two each with Garry Paige, Mitch Cairns, and Shannon Bourne, Morris had clearly re-discovered his songwriting mojo.

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When released in 2014 Van Dieman’s Land was again a revelation, Morris was focused on larger events and more notable individuals this time, from the grim prison ships of the title track, to the First and Second World Wars, the Eureka Rebellion, Breaker Morant, and more. The tone and musicality of the tracks, varied more extensively than on Sharkmouth with the delta blues of Sandakan, the pub rock of Dexter’s Big Tin Can, the rockabilly of Birdsville, the swampy gumbo of Slide on the River, and the boogie rock of Burning Rodney, and it resonated with fans, when it peaked at #4, so becoming the highest-charting album of Russell Morris’s 50-year career. Below- A convict ship below decks.

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The title track Van Dieman’s Land charted the harrowing journey endured by transported convicts from England to this country and Norfolk Island in the eighteenth century. The sea journey was perilous and many would die of disease before they reached the forbidding shores of a vast, and desolate country. Those who survived carved our new lives and became our ancestors, while others died in chains or perished in the outback attempting to escape, this song, and the accompanying music video, captured the life-or-death struggle to survive, that confronted Australia’s convict forebears.

“On a rolling sea to the end of the world on George’s prison ship/ Two hundred lost and hungry souls would feel a lash and whip/ A gale it howled all through the rigging on that first night/ It’s like the devil himself up there singing his lullaby/I’m going down, down, down. Van Diemans Land. I’m going down, hell bound. Van Diemens Land”.

Below L-R – Rob Hirst, Mitch Cairns, Steve Romig.

Brooding, stormy special effects and chugging, haunting electric guitar riffs introed the song, as Rob Hirst (Midnight Oil) drove the beat on drums, and the chemistry was electric between Morris’s voice and the guitar of Shannon Bourne, and the bass of Mitch Cairns. The bluesy harmony vocals of Steve Romig along with Morris in full cry, took the song to the outro via wailing guitars, feedback, and echoed riffs – Hirst’s drumming claimed the track, and it sounded like Midnight Oil revisited. The music video was shot in eerie monochrome, as a desperate escapee convict runs for freedom through a forbidding, and mordant landscape, only to stumble into an encampment of three men, and meet a violent end. Below Private Norman Morris.

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Sandakan was the story of Russell Morris’s father, Private Norman Morris of the 2/29th Battalion (ADF), who fought in the Malayan campaign in WW2. Following the fall of Singapore in 1942, the 2/29th were taken prisoner and forced to endure the infamous death march from Sandakan to Ranau in Borneo. During the march over two thousand allied troop died of starvation, cruelty, or were murdered at the hands of their captors. Norman Morris and four of his brothers-in-arms Bruce McWilliams, Allan Minty, Fred New and William Fairy, escaped and avoided capture for six months, while on the run in the jungles of Borneo – “For six months they ran every night, every day/ Mc.Williams, Morris and Minty, New and Willy got away/Into the jungle from the Sandakan, they did run and hide/ Living on things that creep and  crawl/ Only moving late at night…”. Below- Sandakan Death March.

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The five managed to secure a boat and supplies from Tek Sing of the local underground, but were recaptured at sea by a Japanese gunboat. The Aussies had secured the boat from Tek Sing by signing a promissory note to the value of £200, endorsed with such names as Winston Churchill, Robert Menzies, Mae West, and Shirley Temple, but after the war the Australian government honoured the promissory note and paid Tek Sing for his efforts.

Private Norman Morris would survive the Sandakan Death March, and return home to his family, but sadly pass away only 5 years later in 1950.

Musically this song was a tribute to legendary delta bluesmen like John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, and Blind Willie McTell, so it was a no-brainer that one of Australia’s greatest blues guitarists, Phil Manning (Chain) would play in this session. The recording is a simple, stripped back, basic 12-bar blues arrangement, with slide guitar, and beautiful trombone fills by Dave Palmer. Below – L-R Phil Manning, Robert Johnson and Dave Palmer.

Morris filtered his lived-in-vocals as if they were emerging from an old radio set, or echoing down the wires on a long-distance telephone call, so that it sounded like an old blues recording by John and Alan Lomax, who were chroniclers of the blues legends of America early in the last century. Below L-R – Peter Robinson, Collage of Loch Ard Gorge Shipwreck including images of Tom Pearce and Eva Cartwright, Cellist Anita Quayle

Loch Ard Gorge was the big, chaotic, scene-stealing track on the album, as guitar power chords, pounding drums and an ominous cello, took the listener “Into the jaws of the Loch Ard Gorge”, along with 52 souls who would not survive the disaster, as the ship founded on the rocks. The gorge is to be found close by the “Twelve Apostles” along the Great Ocean Road on Victoria’s south coast, it has been described as picturesque, a home to a smooth, pearlescent bay and an inlet of clear, blue water; flanked by two yellow-washed cliff faces and tufts of vibrant vegetation. But Loch Ard Gorge was not just a pretty face, on June 1st 1878 it was the scene of a terrible shipwreck, when the large clipper ship Loch Ard ran aground in shallow water and was beached on Muttonbird Island, only young seaman Tom Pearce and passenger Eva Carmichael survived.

“In the howl of the wind/ The yardarm is gone/ In the howl of the wind/ The soundings were wrong/ Come with me if you’re game into Neptune’s shore/ We will go together and emerge safe and be pure/Into the jaws of the Loch Ard Gorge…”

The song benefited from Shannon Bourne’s wailing guitar chords, Anita Quayle’s brilliantly ad-libbed cello flourishes, Adrian Violi’s resounding percussion, Mitch Cairns potent bass lines, and Russell Morris’s menacingly spectral vocals.

Below – Islanders coerced into slavery on Queensland’s sugar cane plantations-“Blackbirds”.

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Lively acoustic guitar picking introed the tastefully restrained stomp of Sweetest Thing, where Russell was joined by legendary guitarist, the late Ross Hannaford (Daddy Cool) and Joe Robinson. Lyrically the song cleverly counterpointed the sweet smell of burning sugar cane after the harvest, with the distinctly malodorous practice of “Blackbirding” in the period 1860-1910. “Blackbirding” was the practice of kidnapping islanders from their homes in Fiji, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, and New Guinea, to work on sugar cane plantations in northern Queensland, around Bundaberg, and over 60,000 islanders were enslaved in this way. It was an inglorious chapter in our colonial past, and as shameful and racist as the exploitation of African slave labor on the cotton plantations of America’s deep south, “Blackbirder’s souls will never be the same again/ The ones they took in the middle of the night/Who can know that pain/ From sunup to sundown/ I still hear them sing/ Run the flame through the sugar cane/ It’s the sweetest thing”. The message in the song is not delivered stridently, but seeps into the consciousness via beautifully layered acoustic and electric guitars, subtle drum fills, and Morris’s nuanced vocals.

“Smoke and haze swallowing the sun/Ash and flame the rain has come/Children of the islands living out their day/ When up from the south Blackbirders came…”

Van Dieman’s Land the album maintained the momentum of the Russell Morris comeback, it sold over 30,000 copies and its rootsy R&B showed that Russell was still evolving his sound, as he would do on the third part of his trilogy of hit albums, Red Dirt, Red Heart.

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    1. Hi bushboy, thanks for the feedback, most encouraging, this is an album where the music and storytelling are inseparable, 4TR will feature the third of Russell’s trilogy of blues albums on Thursday – Red Dirt Red Heart, enjoy, best regards Graeme Davy 4RE.

      Liked by 1 person

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