They’re police, but their mission is music and making people feel good, writes Loretta Hall.
It can be a glamorous life fronting a showband, but this is not one of those days.
The band’s equipment truck, emptied of trunks of brass instruments and sound gear, doubles as a hasty change room for Elise Beattie as she transforms from “worker ant” roadie to lead singer in a shopping mall in Melbourne’s east.
Long loose hair is secured in a no-nonsense plait, and casual clothing discarded for navy trousers, sensible flat black shoes and a crisp light-blue shirt with an epaulette and stripe on each shoulder.
Only the showbiz shades remain from her civilian guise as Beattie prepares to front the Victoria Police Showband with co-senior constable Daina Jowsey under the midday sun for the mostly unsuspecting shoppers and commuters.
Music director (and prominent Melbourne musician) Daryl McKenzie is absent, so Beattie and Jowsey consult over a whiteboard song list and a takeaway coffee while fellow band members set up 500 leads and an array of instruments for the gig.
They choose songs from hundreds of the band’s own arrangements, mixing swing with jazz, classical, musical theatre, rock and pop. Beattie is down for Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, Jowsey is opening with Dancing in the Street.
Some of the tracks they performed for the Showband’s Divas CD, sales of which aid the police force’s Blue Ribbon Foundation community program.
There are a few curious glances from passers-by as Beattie sets up the microphones. But once she re-emerges from the back of the truck an audience begins to gather and several shoppers question the diminutive but authoritative figure at the microphone stand.
“As soon as you are in uniform there’s a certain level of interest; people come up and ask what you are doing,” Beattie says. “We explain to them that what we are doing is a full-time job.”
When the police band originated 120 years ago it was formed by those on the beat who volunteered to play an instrument part-time. It became a full-time occupation in 1980s, when professional musicians were sworn in as police members
The Showband plays across Melbourne and regional Victoria in the community and schools and the public can check the police website for the showband’s calendar for a performance in their neighbourhood.
More glitzy gigs include charity nights, when Beattie frocks up out of uniform to perform at venues that have included Crown’s Palladium room, Hamer Hall and Melbourne’s World Congress Centre.
Beattie, 46, has been on patrol with the showband around Victoria for the past 11 years and previously sang with the Victoria Police’s rock band, Code One, for six years. Her role in the police force was recognised with a national award for “rockin’ it” in January.
She wears the stripe of a senior constable, “and we have full police powers of arrest”, but, as with the rest of the 24 showband members, isn’t operational as a police officer.
Band leader Sergeant Pat Hudson, who has in the past been in the back-row line-up on trombone, watches from beyond the police-taped stage edge as the party gets started.
Music spills into the mall and an audience builds. Most of the smoking section – a half-brick wall outside the supermarket – is full. Hudson says that at the height of the set about 200 people are toe-tapping to the tunes.
The youth that the showband is reaching out to largely respond to the offer of musical friendship, with most unplugging at least one earphone to catch a Lady Gaga or Beyoncé song.
An older fan, Robert Fraser, 59, dances through all three sets, oblivious to the fact he is mostly dancing solo on the pavement. A middle-aged woman kicks off her heels, dumps her handbag under the watchful gaze of the band’s brass section and joins him for a track. Towards the end of the last set a trio of teens lose their inhibitions and let their lanky limbs loose.
Collectively, the three bands perform about 500 gigs annually, and Hudson says these reach about 650,000 Victorians a year. In times of hardship and disaster, the Showband is dispatched to communities where an uplifting tune can bring some cheer or relief in tough times.
“When there were floods in country Victoria a year ago we had a week tour in those regions, and we based ourselves in Horsham. We were bussed out to country towns I had never heard of where all 50 people in the town came to see us. When we do a show for them it’s the only thing that has made them smile in a long time.”
Beattie says the performances are not all about the music, as she spends a lot of time talking to locals.
In addition to Cats, Beattie took lead roles in her school’s Gilbert and Sullivan productions before studying voice at Melba Conservatorium and primary teaching in music at Victoria College. She gained professional experience with Dame Joan Sutherland in Othello for the Australian Opera (now Opera Australia) and with the Wiggles in front of a crowd of 80,000.
“I still have singing lessons because it is important that our music is as high a standard as it can be,” Beattie says. “Being with the band involves a regimented lifestyle, especially for the singers to stay fit and healthy. In a 10-day fortnight we get four days off, and those 10 days can be at any time.
“We spend many hours travelling … being on tour with the band on the bus is like being in a sitcom. There are some incredibly funny personalities.”