Play With Fire

2011   108 x 178 cms

Eighty fires, many of them deliberately lit, have encircled the town. We become accustomed to breathing carbonized air. At night the rim of the eastern MacDonnell’s is alight, a long dazzling cord suspended above the valley.

Rodney and his brothers, together with Harry and Adrian junior, are rehearsing for a recording session at CAAMA. They know the buffel grass burns cool. It will come and pass quickly, scarring trees and shrubs without destroying them. Still the police and fire-fighters  attend camp to frantically confront the fires. The band plays on undeterred.

 The next morning, by arrangement, I cart most of the members to the studio. Norleen arrives a little later with husband Rodney and their baby girl.  The morning is for further rehearsal: the afternoon for the polished cut. Thankfully, Trevor Coulthard adds his vocals to Rodneys’. I’m told his voice is the equal of those Top End singers who’ve come to national prominence with the great, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Harry, Adrian and Vivian Ryan sit behind guitars and keyboards. The bass and solid drum kit grant gravity to the songs Rodney cut solo last time. Two things are immediately evident. Trevor’s alto-tenor is as astonishing as Rodney’s lower register. Their sibilant harmonies create an uncanny sense that their sound is emitted from one body. Vivian sits closest to me, gliding up and down the bass guitar. He is all willowy grace and his wide-eyed wonder at Trevor’s plaintive singing accords with mine. He catches my eye, grins toothily and dips his head over his instrument.

 There is no stable arrangement of player to instrument between songs. Everyone seems expert at each instrument causing a re-shuffling of personnel after each song to determine the best fit.

 Out east the fires continue unchecked. When the smoke thickens towards Antulye Norleen decides to check if the outstation is endangered. During lunch I follow her on the whim of getting photos of a fire front. Just past Emily Gap the grass fires lick the verges. This is what I’m looking for. Rodney has suggested I paint a cover for their CD and juxtaposing them with fire would be totally relevant, given that one song refers to fire. His father, deceased these recent years, had woken his sons at night to watch an encroaching fire. They’d stirred into action and beat it back from their camp. I see Rodney leading the band on through the flames. Perhaps their playing has incendiary implications.

 By afternoon the choices of who plays what are settled. Two of the slower numbers refer directly to Ukaka. In one, he sits on a hill at Antulye looking south-west towards home and thinking about the place. He;s sending the song there. The other reverses the roles with people at Ukaka calling the Coulthard men back home from Alice Springs.  I love that biographical quality, and it promotes the conviction of their playing.

 Rodney has programmed the keyboard component to each song. The even spread of instrumental mastery creates a fluent understanding between them which dispenses with verbal communications. Rodney occasionally motions to the others where to enter or exit solos and various emphases. The resultant mix of balladry, Blues and Rock is cinched. Though it’s a rough cut, Miko says if they supply a pack of a hundred discs and chuck in $50, they can get a cleaner product to distribute as they like.

 Back at camp, I set up the band members, Rodney raising his right fist a la Eugene Delacroix’s 1830 masterwork, Liberty Leading The People, guitar at his side leading his brothers. And the flames are superimposed rather after the fashion of the Tarkovsky’s transition from black and white through red burning coals, to the colored vision-splendid of Rublov’s icons. 


I’ve burned some extra copies of the CD. As I hand them to Rodney he tells me the band might play at Santa Teresa on the weekend. But who is in the band is up for grabs. Rodney casually remarks that Trevor won’t be playing with the band for a while.

 ‘He is on a DVO from his wife. Hidin’ somewhere. Police always come an’ ask me about my brothers,’ he adds with routine indifference.

 Nor will Adrian avail himself. He also is in Big House for breaking his parole. He consoles himself that the estate on which it’s constructed is his country, given to him by his grandfather, Patrick. There’s recording gear in prison. With Eden Coulthard already interred perhaps a Fulsom Prison Blues beckons.