On the evening of the 28th of January 2019, myself, I sat in the sold out concert hall of the Sydney Opera House, amidst an audience of all ages, as the lights went off and images of the ocean, backed by a cinematic sounding instrumental piece began. As the track reached its climax a burning ship came into view, and then everything went dark. A lone figure playing a marching drum was lit up by a single spotlight, and thus began the second show of the debut Australian tour of the Grammy award winning band for KING & COUNTRY, fronted by brothers Joel & Luke Smallbone.
The show which followed involved eight men on stage, playing over forty instruments including cellos, violin, electric, acoustic and bass guitars, trumpets, keyboards, and lots…and lots of drums. The well timed stage lighting, (including lanterns, which flashed on and off in time to the music for a couple of songs) added an almost theatrical quality to the performance. For the two brothers on stage it was more than just a concert in the most iconic musical venue in Australia, it was a homecoming.
As the show progressed, the two brothers, who were born in Sydney (in the suburb of Wahroonga), shared how their father had worked as a concert promoter when they were younger, and even organised several shows in the Opera House. However, when one tour lost a lot of money, they basically lost everything and had to move over to America when he was offered a job in Nashville. The family of six kids, with a seventh on the way, left Australia with the hopes of a fresh start. Unfortunately, shortly after they moved he lost that job and they found themselves on the other side of the world, sleeping on their clothes in an unfurnished house, with no car. Luke said he remembered them getting together as a family and praying, because they didn’t know what else to do, or sometimes even where their next meal would come from. He said this experience made them grow closer as a family. They saw many “miracles” take place during this difficult time, from whole truckloads of furniture being donated, someone anonymously paying the bill for their youngest sister to be born in a hospital, and a father giving a new car to the family after a Thanksgiving dinner. This show at the Opera House was full circle for them and their dad, who is also their manager. Their father had left Australia somewhat disgraced but had now returned for a sold out show in the Sydney Opera House played by two of his sons.
The older of the two brothers, Joel, took time out of the show to deliver what they call the “Priceless message.” He reminded the ladies in the audience that they have an inherent dignity and worth because they are made in the image of God, and this is where they should find their value, regardless of their past. He encouraged the men in the audience to treat women with dignity and respect, and to be chivalrous in the way they love. He also related that when they’d first started giving the Priceless message they’d made a bunch of necklaces with hole-punched American pennies on them as reminders that women are worth more than all the money in the world, before realising that it was illegal to deface useable currency, so they’d quickly stopped that and shipped over a half a million Australian 1 cent coins which they use instead. Joel’s wife, Moriah, then joined them on stage to sing their song Priceless, which is inspired by this message. The song shares its title with a film they made in 2016 which deals with these issues through a love story drama revolving around human trafficking.
The second last song they played was Burn the Ships, the title track off their newest album. Before the song Luke related how his wife Courtney, while pregnant with their second son, had become addicted to the medication she’d been given to deal with severe nausea. One night while on tour Luke received a call from Courtney asking him to come home because she needed help. After undergoing therapy she reached a point where she was able to flush the pills down the toilet as a physical sign that she had overcome the addiction. Luke said this reminded him of a story about some Spanish explorers who arrived at an uncharted island, but refused to disembark and explore because they had become used to the comfort and familiarity of the ships. The captain then ordered all of the men to come ashore and had the ships burned, telling them that they had to go onwards into the unknown. In the same way the song Burn the Ships is an encouragement to “step into a new day” and leave behind all the things that bring us down and prevent us from going forward. To “light a match, leave the past, burn the ships, and don’t you look back.”
The Sydney shows, and other ones throughout Australia (Melbourne, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Newcastle, Adelaide, Perth) were apparently the longest shows they’d ever played, with a 2 hour runtime and setlist of over 18 songs. The energy of the band was amazing, as the lead singers managed amazing harmonies, while also playing drums, glockenspiel, and harmonium (an Indian squeeze-box instrument a bit like an accordion). The stage crew had their hands full making sure all the instruments were in working order, even catching a flying cello as it was cast aside by one of the band members as he rushed to switch to another instrument. One of the highlights of the night was when Luke’s wife Courtney joined him on an emotional piano based duet called “Without You” which was written after he had nearly died of an illness several years ago. Joel and Luke seemed genuinely moved and excited to be privileged to play at the Opera House and their enthusiasm translated to the audience. There were also plenty of upbeat songs that had everyone up on their feet, dancing and clapping along and they even came out into the audience for one of the songs.
The concert closed with a song called Joy. Before it started the screens filled with images of news stories which grew louder and almost overwhelming, to illustrate the barrage of negativity that comes at us from all sides through the media and world events. The song which followed had everyone up and dancing, encouraging us to choose joy, though we “walk through the valley of the shadow of night.” It is a powerful, and joyful reminder that while we cannot determine the events of the world we live in, we always have the ability to choose how we respond. Like for KING & COUNTRY, we too can “choose joy.”