There’s something bizarre about being a national treasure of Jimmy Barnes’ standing. Australians everywhere feel a sense of ownership over the performer but, until this year, Barnes has kept much of his life very private.
Of course, stories about his wild, drug and alcohol-fuelled years on the road with Cold Chisel are well known, but the story about how an immigrant from Glasgow grew up and came to front one of the country’s favourite bands had never really been told.
Earlier this year, the 60-year-old singer released his memoir, Working Class Boy, revealing the story of his tumultuous and violent early years. It’s a wonderful and evocative read, told in a forthright and straight-forward way, covering the bleak and dangerous beginnings of his life, from Glasgow to the suburbs of Adelaide.
But Barnes is, first and foremost, a performer, so hearing these stories come to life in a live setting is even more powerful.
Barnes is currently halfway through his tour, Working Class Boy: An Evening of Stories of Songs, which is exactly what it’s described as. He tells some of the more momentous stories from his memoir, interspersed with songs from those chapters in his life ,and songs inspired by those stories.
There are numbers from legends that inspired him — Mahalia Jackson, Tina Turner and Big Joe Turner — as well as songs his grandmother and parents used to sing. It’s a great opportunity to hear Barnes singing a little more gently than the balls-to-the-wall screaming vocals his audience is used to, but the show still gives him a few opportunities to unleash the full power of his voice. A few Cold Chisel numbers are the cherry on top, closing out the show.
It’s a sophisticated and very moving piece of storytelling, and the songs are mostly seamlessly integrated. Barnes spins a yarn as well as he fronts a rock band and is confident, charismatic and wonderfully emotive throughout, managing to make the darkest stories funny and give them just a touch of hope.
The show is essentially a cabaret, but one with a very distinctive Jimmy Barnes signature.
This is a man who sang the line: “But oh, who needs that sentimental bullshit anyway? It takes more than just a memory to make me cry.” There’s no sentimental bullshit here, but the Barnes of today certainly isn’t afraid to open up about how his trauma has affected him and those around him, and show a little emotion.
Last night the tour came to the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall for a very special performance. The touring band is made up of Barnes’ son Jackie Barnes, son-in-law Ben Rodgers, and daughter Mahalia Barnes, who is a brilliant singer in her own right and gets a few moments in the spotlight, including a scorching solo on The Upper Room.
But last night was truly a family affair, with Barnes’ daughter Elly-May Barnes and son David Campbell making surprise appearances.
Campbell famously grew up not knowing that Barnes was his father, and only discovered the truth when he was 12 years old. Barnes says that he’s often asked if he has any regrets and says that he’s pleased that everything he’s done has led him to the fulfilled place he is now. But he wishes he’d been around when Campbell was growing up.
Campbell was standing side-stage listening to Barnes tell this story and was overcome with emotion when he then appeared to duet with Barnes on Marmalade’s Reflections of My Life. The pair sang together beautifully. It was a beautiful and unforgettable moment.
Working Class Boy is subtitled “a memoir of running away” and, at the end of the performance Barnes offered a simple truth to the audience: you can run as fast and as far as you like, but the truth will catch up with you eventually. You’re better to be open and deal with things as they arise.
He then launched into an acoustic performance of Flame Trees so rough, resonant and throbbing with heartache, muffled sobs were ringing out throughout the Concert Hall.
Barnes shares his story not just because that’s what great artists, storytellers, and national treasures do, he’s sharing it in the hope that it will help others to heal. He tells his audience what he’s learnt about family violence and trauma from his own experience, and directs his audience to resources that may help, imploring them to bring domestic violence out of the shadows by speaking when they see it.
This is a man, despite his ratbag reputation, with a clear sense of justice and social responsibility.
But the thing which made last night so special was the sense that Barnes’ own family was going through some kind of healing of their own, joining him on stage and hearing this life laid out with honesty and clarity. To share that with an audience is extraordinarily generous.
No wonder we love him.