The Adelaide Fringe is a community festival that has expanded over the last couple of years from the central business district of Adelaide to the outer suburbs and rural and regional South Australia. In keeping with that expansion, it was time that I ventured beyond concerts in the Spiegeltent to an outer suburban event in order to assess the landscape. The event that caught my eye was a tribute show to the legendary bass-baritone, civil rights activist and socialist, Paul Robeson at the Anglican Church of St Peters, just a few blocks from Glenelg’s popular sandy beachfront.

Gary Sanderson and Damien Mansfield

That said, while I was up for adventure, I didn’t expect to encounter a William Warfield or Willard White when the ticket price was $15, although I was pleasantly surprised nevertheless with the quality of what I experienced. Vocalist Gary Sanderson and accompanist Damien Mansfield both began as choristers at the Church. Both had gone on to study music and perform for local amateur light opera companies and Sanderson has been a fan of the spiritual for 45 years. The show consisted of him interposing biographical information about Robeson with some of his best known songs and while there’s a danger in the age of Wikipedia that biography is redundant, Sanderson was on safe ground with his audience of mostly retirees.

Sanderson is not a bass-baritone and indeed sang some of the songs an octave above the originals, thereby placing him at a disadvantage, particularly in generating the resonance needed in the lower range. The set list consisted of old chestnuts (Nobody Knows, Were You There, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Going Home), my favourite being Deep River where Sanderson just managed to reach the lower notes that make the spine shiver. I was also grateful to hear some unfamiliar inspirational songs such as Give Me Jesus and Weepin’ Mary. Ol’ Man River was mandatory of course, but Sanderson, despite altering the key from the original C to E Flat Major, floundered on the high notes at the climax.

However, did the audience get what they expected for the price? The answer is yes, and that’s all one can ask for. In and of itself, the show wasn’t memorable, but if it inspires audience members to research Roberson and/or the songs on YouTube, it will have achieved its purpose. With church attendance in steady decline in Australia, a dose of gospel and spiritual music might be the tonic that reverses the trend.