LIVE FILES: William Crighton

William Crighton is a songwriter for the 21st century. And he is a formidable force.

Hailing from the Riverina district and now settled in the hinterland of the Hunter Valley, singer/songwriter William Crighton had his 2022 capped off by winning the ARIA Award for Best Blues/Roots Release. The album is called Water And Dust. If you haven’t taken time out to listen to it, you should. It’s that good.

Crighton also spent parts of 2022 touring with Midnight Oil, opening shows in Europe and Australia. It was a defining year in many ways for William Crighton. Water And Dust is an album that demands repeated listens and, with each one, you peel back the layers and discover more of Crighton’s powerful spirit and his astute observations and narratives about the many aspects of the Australian character, each resonating more deeply with every listen.

Crighton’s story-telling is compelling. Like older songs such as 2000 Clicks and Riverina Kid, the new album delivers This Is Magic, a narrative that hits home with its opening line Drivin’ down the street of Cessnock, past the servo and the swimming pool. Crighton snapshots a series of vignettes that are, for most Australians, immediately relatable. Bushfires, police, country towns, rural landscapes, typical shops and more. Then Crighton is able to weave in the personal story of Dylan Brown and the omnipresent didgeridoo gives the whole work a strong sense of place.

The plight of our indigenous people and their custodianship of the land in the face of corporate greed and government malaise feature prominently in Crighton’s work. A song like Your Country from Water And Dust is immensely powerful, with Crighton fierce and furious in his delivery, reflecting the view of many of us: I don’t understand why they’re still clearing the land, why they’re poisoning the water now I don’t understand . . .  With its underlying T-Rex guitar feel and driving rock rhythm, the song packs a power-punch. 

As does the extraordinary Killara, a woeful tale echoing the brutality and indignity suffered by so many during this country’s shameful colonial past. Apart from relating an incendiary story of injustice, Crighton’s gift as a songwriter shines here as he deftly intertwines the narratives of a convict, an indigenous woman and a troop of soldiers, a saga that sears with blistering force as he tells of rape, floggings and death by fire.

And religion too gets a look-in, with songs like Jesus Blues and Priest, where Crighton takes traditional musical forms such as blues and celtic-infused folk and contemporises them within his rock framework to make his point.

Then there are the positive songs where Crighton simply encourages us to be better human beings. Like earlier songs where Crighton seeks to find meaning in life from a metaphorical insect in Happiness or his advice in the face of adversity to Let Love Come First, Crighton’s Water And Dust features the affirmation-like Keep Facing The Sunshine and the glorious Stand, where he counsels us on being surrounded by the right kinds of people. Crighton’s ability to convey epic historical tales as well as highly personal, even intensely intimate interactions in song is masterful. He, at once, seems to be part seer, part advocate, part activist and part soothsayer, blending together the old world to make sense of the new.

Crighton’s unabashedly Australian voice can be fatalistic and furious, booming as he enlightens us about the injustices that plague humanity or, conversely, it can cocoon itself to be as whisper-soft as a caress when he sings of love and seeing the grandeur of natural beauty. There are times when Crighton’s songs take on an ethereal quality that captures either the arc of time between now and the past or somehow creates a feeling of otherworldliness, of a spirituality that is present and can be heard by keen ears. It’s these moments where the contribution of Crighton’s life partner and collaborator Julieanne makes a visceral impact. Her harmonies in songs like Your Country, This Is Magic and 999 add a dimension to the music that gives it greater depth and appeal. She takes the 2nd verse of Stand and her delivery of the line you got a lot to learn is perfect, counterbalancing Crighton’s bellowing tones with a voice wrapped in a softer strength that is no less potent. The combination of the two is spellbinding. 

Photo: Anna Urik @anna.urik

Like Richard Clapton before him in the final decades of the 20th century, Crighton’s songs mirror the values, landscapes and concerns of Australian culture today. He transports us to inhospitable deserts, takes us for journeys along long, isolated roads and immerses us in situations that are as dark and confronting as they are undeniable. He sings truth with such energy and conviction that we are bolted upright by the candour, and the urge to actually do something positive in a world battling incomprehensible levels of craziness and chaos. 

If there was actually a church that really did practise love and kindness and spurned injustice of any kind, against animals, the planet or other humans by way of leading us to a more environmentally sustainable and spiritually awakened existence, William Crighton could well be the preacher. And if Water And Dust is the sermon, it is so relevant and powerful that his congregation can only grow in the years ahead. 

After his self-titled debut and the follow-up Empire, Crighton’s third album Water And Dust is a landmark release that is destined to be canonised as a genuine classic. And to catch him delivering these songs live with Julieanne and his band is an experience you will savour musically but it can also change you with the power of his insights.

One colleague of mine said that seeing Crighton live was akin to watching a man take the stage, place his hands on his chest and claw open his ribcage to reveal all that lives within his heart and soul. One could argue that this is perhaps hyperbole. One could also go and see Crighton for themselves and find out.

The Cambridge Hotel, Friday March 24 with Liz Stringer