When the First Nations folk trio Tiddas disbanded back in 2000, fans of the group lamented that the split was premature. Greater success and acknowledgement had seemed such a sure thing. Ever since then, these same fans have hoped that band members Amy Saunders, Sally Dastey and Lou Bennett would reunite. Now, 18 years on, their wishes have been rewarded.
It was a warm welcome back to the stage for the group on Sunday night, when they joined Archie Roach at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall to perform his recently released 13th album, Dancing With My Spirit. The buzz over the reunion easily overshadowed the appearance of Roach, a performer whose legendary status on the Australian music landscape is widely accepted. Despite Roach putting on a masterful performance of his own, it was Tiddas who received several standing ovations when they led the second half of the show, with rousing renditions of classics including Inside My Kitchen and Anthem.
Roach has worked with the individual members of Tiddas on a number of projects over the years. Saunders performed backing vocals on a couple of albums, Bennett worked with him on the 2012 release, Into the Bloodstream, and Dastey has been a mainstay on his most recent touring lineup. But it took a remastered set of 22-year-old demos and some key groundwork by Roach’s manager, Jill Shelton, to get the celebrated trio performing onstage together again. Those demos – initially recorded by Roach back in the mid-90s and produced by Jen Anderson with Tiddas – formed the basis of Dancing With My Spirit.
On the phone before the gig, Roach tells Guardian Australia that the recordings hadn’t disappeared into the annals of time. “Every now and then I’d go back and listen to these demos that Jen produced and they were fantastic,” he says. “And a few of the musicians that played on the demos – like [keyboardist] Bruce Haymes for one – he says the recording has always been a favourite.”
Roach, Haymes and the Tiddas members are joined on the new album’s national tour by Archie Cuthbertson, the original percussionist from those demos, guitarist Craig Pilkington and Anderson on strings. Roach credits Anderson and Pilkington as being pivotal to the remastering of Dancing With My Spirit.
The early part of this first performance of the tour saw Roach interspersing song with yarns about what inspired them. The album’s titular track opened the show, followed by three or four solemn numbers. It was highly polished, but all-too composed until Roach sang F-Troop, the absorbing ode to his early years drinking in Melbourne’s inner-city suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood. Mention of Fitzroy’s former Champion Hotel induced cheerful howls from the stalls, while an emotional Roach shed tears upon delivering the line “F-troop doesn’t ride here anymore”.
Soon afterwards, he left the stage and Tiddas took the limelight. The trio belted out the crowd favourite Inside My Kitchen with as much power, beauty and exuberance as when they burst onto the music scene in 1992. Sally Dastey then unleashed a very pointed delivery of the politically charged song Anthem. Roach joined them for a stirring take on the the Scottish folk song Wild Mountain Thyme, before the evening loosened up with Roach’s rollicking track Dancing Shoes.
Imbued with Roach’s rumbling, tender mesmeric beauty, the first half of the show is a measure of reverence and rapture that will suit fans of his 2016 album Let Love Rule. But something really special happens to the night when Tiddas take the reins.