The Melbourne Festival had a hard act to follow after last years Seven Songs to Leave Behind but the demand was for more and even better of the same. So the ambitious notes from the hard road and beyond subtitled a musical collaboration from revolution to redemption was born. Many in the audience would have witnessed the Sixties as a significant stretch along that road, and thus would have expected to hear the featured songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. But, largely thanks to the iconic Mavis Staples, we were taken back to the origins of protest, workers rights and the US Civil Rights movement, through the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Billie Holiday and Staples own father, Roebuck Pops Staples. The honour of opening the gig went to Shane Howard and Paul Dempsey, and songs by Bob Dylan including A hard rains a-gonna fall. In the first of a number of ironic coincidences, a major rainstorm had hit the Music Bowl just as thousands were making their way to it. It didnt stop them settling on the lawns and staying for more than three hours. Images on the two large screens of boat people, the Vietnam war, freedom marches, strikes, the Stolen Generation gave a new relevance to the music throughout. As narrator Rachel Maza said: Tonights songs are a call for empathy. And empathy there surely was. An eclectic mix of performers widened the concept of revolution to include the struggles of Aboriginal Australians, and womens liberation and much more, with all performers such as Lou Bennett doubling as backing vocalists or pairing for duets throughout the night. Among them was the popular performer from last year, American Rickie Lee Jones, reputedly invited back by the Black Arm Band. The band provided exceptional support to a wide range of musical genres including hip hop, courtesy of Emmanuel Jal, former boy soldier in the Sudan, John Schumann (with his I Was Only Nineteen), the contemporary sound of Something for Kates Paul Dempsey and young English star Joss Stone, whose success has brought soul to new audiences world-wide. The bands own didjeridu player, Mark Atkins, put the audience in a trance with one of the most sustained performances I have ever heard on that instrument, evoking a time and place long before the political troubles of the 20th century. Archie Roach who has travelled his own hard road over the past year had the audience intent with his Took the Children Away, a lament followed by a rousing performance of Solid Rock with Shane Howard, the band using clap sticks and didjeridu to great effect. Space does not allow for mention of all the fine performances in the first half that catalogued the hard road. Mavis Staples led an up-tempo bluesy rendition of This Land is Your Land and was joined by all performers for Eyes on the Prize, a showpiece for the band as much as the singers. After Pop Staples 1961 exuberant Freedom Highway, the first half ended in a completely unexpected way. Rickie Lee Jones, with minimal accompaniment, and in her trademark breathy voice, sang Tom Waits Tom Trauberts Blues: Im an innocent victim of a blinded alley/ And tired of all those soldiers here. It was a highlight of the night. But, after that, the second half had to deliver on the promise of redemption. It came with the opening number, courtesy of Joss Stone and her powerful bluesy version of Its a New Day. Roach and Jones changed the pace, but not the mood of optimism, in their duet Somewhere followed by Staples rousing version (with strong female backing) of Ill Take You There. Next the whole ensemble grouped for a rocking version of the AC/DC classic It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll). In another of the nights ironies, reference was made to the campaign to keep live music alive in Melbourne and the fact that it had been banned in other parts of the very park where this concert was taking place. But if Staples represented a historic, proud tradition of protest, Stone was presented as the voice of the future. As such, she sang the final rallying call, Curtis Mayfields 1964 classic, People Get Ready/ There’s a Train a-Coming. Stone sang the song gently, almost seductively, but its lyrics encapsulated the empathy Maza had spoken of three hours earlier: Have pity on those/Whose chances grow thinner. The day before this concert, which closed the 2011 Melbourne Festival, Occupy Melbourne protestors were forcibly removed from the City Square. It was another ironic coincidence that could not have been anticipated by the organisers of this memorable concert. It was an inescapable thought that, world-wide, there will be more of the hard road to travel before that new day aspired to and longed for by the songwriters and artists we had been so fortunate to hear. Rating: Five stars notes from the hard road and beyond Melbourne Festival Closing Concert Sidney Myer Music Bowl October 22 Melbourne Festival October 6 22 The notes from the hard road and beyond concert will premiere on STVDIO (channel 132 on FOXTEL & AUSTAR), Friday 25 November at 8.30pm.