Review: The Starry Field, Back on the Milks

null     Image courtesy of The Starry Field

I was quite glad to see that Mark Myers’ The Starry Field not only still existed, but had released an official recording. Whilst many may consider The Starry Field a splinter from the formerly active The Middle East (I say this, as no band ever really breaks up), I have in my own collection a DIY recording of The Starry Field from 2007, obtained from a festival that featured the close-knit family of Townsville bands that consisted of The Starry Field, Sleeping in Trains, and The Middle East (all of which Myers was a member).
 
Elements of each collective can be heard throughout Back on the Milks, and with Myers wearing his front man cap, the album covers six years worth of candid, emotional, and honest song writing. On each listen, to me, this album has grown and matured, with the distinct components of The Starry Field sound evolving into something very comfortable and familiar. Myers’ voice at first seemed quite foreign to a city dweller like myself, but as each song took me on a journey from Cape Town, Tennant Creek, and Townsville, to Bellingen, Sydney, Holbrook, and across the Tasman, it was obvious that his voice and slang-tinged conversational lyric style is perfectly suited to such stories.

“From north & south, from city & country…”
- The Starry Field @ MySpace

An accurate description of the feel of this album. Part dirt and dust, part smog and steel, and unmistakingly Australian. The modesty and earthiness of Paul Kelly, the innocence of Darren Hanlon, the warmth of Angus and Julia Stone, and the ‘local voice’ of The Waifs and Missy Higgins. Mark Myers plants his feet firmly in the soil of his North Queensland home, but his alt-country roots spread further into moments of sparse electronic beats and sound scapes nestled within his acoustically driven story telling.

This album makes me want to travel, to see the country and the world, being wary of the challenges of the human relationship, and learning from the warnings of those who’ve come before. A real, raw collection of songs that reveal Mark Myers the man, and reflect a little something within ourselves.

Back on the Milks is available on iTunes now

Bumper Bluesfest Review: Part II

Bluesfest Trees
Photos by KT Bell

THIS IS IT!! Finally… part two of the Bumper Bluesfest Review.

Of course, it was totally planned this way. Just in time (ahem) for the news that Bluesfest are extending the deadline for Pre-Earlybird tickets for the 2012 festival! As they say, there’s no better time than now!

Anyway, more about the 2012 festival at the end.

A quick re-cap… so far, since Part I, we are half way through the marathon 6 day festival, having had the pleasure of watching Ben Harper, CW Stoneking, Eric Bibb, Ernest Ranglin, Fistful of Mercy, Funky Meters, Imogen Heap, Leah Flanagan… (DEEP BREATH)… Mavis Staples, Michael Franti, Mick McHugh, Ray Beadle, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Ruthie Foster, aaaaand Trombone Shorty!

Let us continue…

Secret Sisters

Having heard about the Secret Sisters several times leading up to the festival, I was keen to see what all the talk was about. One song into the set, the young duo from Alabama, who are indeed sisters, had turned me into an instant fan. With their beautiful southern harmonies, and country/gospel charm, they would not be out of place on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. That distinct accent, and being just so gosh darn nice, had the audience smiling, swaying and hanging on to every swell word. Stories of home, family, food, and tradition interlaced their set of authentically old styled originals and covers, including a beautiful rendition of Hank WilliamsYour Cheatin’ Heart. The sisters captured the hearts of Bluesfest, and it seems Australia had a good impression on them too, so this will certainly not be the last we see of them. (Check out KT Bell’s great interview with the girls during the festival)

From soft and sweet, to evocative and tribal, Canadian-Indian songwriter and performer Buffy Sainte-Marie was about to take the fans and new comers on a journey through her Cree heritage, her career as a songwriter, and her passion for social justice. Not knowing far beyond the classics Up Where We Belong, and Universal Soldier, my expectations were wide open, and what I experienced was an education! Musically, culturally, politically. There are two sounds that Buffy excels at… the softly spoken folk singer, and the passionate warrior singing from the voices of her ancestors. Her unconventional vocal style for those ‘heavier’ songs may shock, but you soon realise that this is the sound of a people, as well as one woman, and her experiences. The warrior came out in full force for her epic closing song, Star Walker, that features the folk singer meeting head on with a barrage of Cree chanting, and rock guitars. I’d have to agree with other responses to her set that there was a certain something that came over the crowd. An immense respect for a legend, and understanding of the social and cultural messages she was offering.

The time was drawing near. With one set to go, the artist who had inspired, transformed, and near turn upside down Bluesfest 2011 was not far away. Droves of fans had been gathered, saving their places, sitting tight in anticipation for Bob Dylan to hit the stage. Blessed with an almost capacity Mojo stage crowd, Warren Haynes took the stage, playing as what could be described as the ‘warm up’ for Bob Dylan. But any notion of Haynes as a support act soon drifted, as he launched into his set of guitar driven, rock heavy blues without hesitation. It became apparent that a significant number of people in this crowd weren’t just here for Dylan, and did indeed know of Haynes and his projects (Gov’t Mule, The Allman Brothers, and The Dead (featuring members of The Grateful Dead), and were keen to catch his return to Bluesfest for 2011.
Regardless of notoriety, everyone had the opportunity to see Haynes in full swing, in no way slowing down or sitting comfortably in his fortunately positioned set, proving to this evening’s mixed crowd why he is one of the quintessential Bluesfest artists, who in turn showed due respect.

Now the time had come. With much patience, aching leg, and sore behind, the hunger of hundreds of expectant fans  was about to be quenched. Bob Dylan was in the house.
Now, most readers of Timber & Steel should be familiar with the reaction of fans and first time viewers of Dylan’s current live show. The figurehead of classic politically charged folk music does indeed keep to himself off stage, and through the entirety of his performances. It’s not that it appears he’s not enjoying himself. In fact, I caught him tapping, and rocking in time to the music, and releasing the occasional grin from behind the keyboard at various stages. And despite Dylan’s questionable degree of physical contribution to the content of the performance, there was no denying that there was a performance taking place. And whether or not that performance had much of a resemblance to the Dylan records that many of those present had been listening to for years, nay, decades, there were songs being played that had a rhythm and melody, and were unmistakably, by definition, songs. So, what’s all of the fuss about? I try to be optimistic about anything I see live, and being the second time I had seen ‘21st century Bob’, there were no surprises. This was Bob as he is today.
Regarding a television interview I recently watched of him interviewed for American 60 Minutes, recalling Dylan’s set, it seemed evident that Bob certainly has surrendered to the thought that his golden era of song writing from the 60s was ‘magic’, and that he had lost said magic, just cruising along on his fictional Never Ending Tour. While this era of Bob Dylan may be the vehicle on which he departs this world, it may turn out to be one of the highlights of his career. Where in the 80s there was a lull, this modern Bob could possibly, in his twilight years, be forging a new path for songwriters to come. Though lacking the ‘magic’, this craft may go on to evolve into a fresh guise of the ‘new folk’ scene. Bob has reinvented himself. Some would say he’s devolved, but what we are witnessing may prove to be the sound and model that lays the way for folk to come. It cannot be denied that Dylan is a hard working man, and in this age rock stars and idols, the role of ‘legend’ is being down played, and in fact, one of the most influential, prominent artists still alive, recording, and performing today has not changed that much at all. Still bucking the trend, retreating from what is expected, and not giving his followers too much of what they demand.

Jethro Tull

After seeing Dylan, Jethro Tull’s set was a vast contrast. A sea of Tull fans of all ages were out in force and eager to catch one of the more animated acts on this year’s festival lineup. Choosing to stand at the rear of the tent, I took in the entire magnificent spectacle unfolding before me. To my left, middle aged devotees who had most likely seen ‘the Tull’ countless times since the sixties and seventies. To my right, a gang of twenty-something ‘kids’ who had possibly been exposed over the years via their parent’s record collections. As for the band, they were strikingly tight, and Ian Anderson’s on-stage reputation was in full swing! With trademark theatrical presence, and over the top facial expressions, he leaped across the stage, flute in hand, as if barely a year had gone by. It appears the band and fans alike have tapped into some kind of musical fountain of youth.
The set included several of their epic hits such as Thick as a Brick and Aqualung, and venturing into classical territory with their rendition of Bach’s Bouree. Fans got what they came for, and when left chanting for more, the Tull delivered, returning for an encore that left droves of middle aged Tull fans satisfied, shaking their heads in awe. As for me, it was an opportunity to see one of the greats, and I now understand what, indeed, makes a Tull fan.

Elvis Costello

Whilst some ‘blues’ and ‘roots’ puritans are still questioning the validity of some artists being on the bill, the rest of us are getting on with loving the huge array of music on offer at Bluesfest, and Elvis Costello is one of those artists that few other festivals in the country would even attempt to book. On his last visit to Australia in 2006, the man graced the halls of the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Five years later, the harbour and porcelain sails have been replaced by trees, canvas, and the wild weather of the Northern Rivers, with a much different show in tow. This is Costello in festival mode, with his full live band The Imposters, and a swag of hits and special surprises ready ready for fans, and the new alike. Including Pump It Up, Watching The Detectives,  Either Side Of The Same Town, Shipbuilding, Good Year For The Roses, and (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love & Understanding, just to name a few, there was never going to be enough time to do the man’s eclectic catalogue justice. The ‘secret’ ingredient was a song with special guests the Secret Sisters, who are no strangers to an Elvis Costello stage, having been guests on several other shows and tours throughout the States. He even suggested that he’d like to bring one of them out here at some stage. Here’s hoping!

Exiting the festival on the penultimate evening, I managed to catch the closing songs of Mad Bastards. Taking their name from the film for which tonight’s music was written, the collaboration of Alex Lloyd and the Pigram Brothers surprisingly makes quite the fitting trio. Lloyd‘s often melancholy tones, coupled with the indigenous folk of the Pigram Brothers suits the damp, cooling midnight air, filled with smoke from a nearby food stall. The music seems quite reflective of the Kimberly area where Lloyd, Alan and Stephen Pigram wrote these songs, and the remote rural indigenous community where the film is set. Though Alex Lloyd’s commercial success has been varied in recent times, he is an artist who has continued to produce music, despite what the media or critics say. A soundtrack collaboration is a welcome change for the otherwise ‘pop’ artist, and on this night, taking more of a bIues approach, I witnessed the end of a beautiful set from three artists creating a unique new sound in the Australian musical landscape.

Entering a well soaked Tea Tree Farm for the last time this festival, I was just starting to get used to gumboots, gravel, and a staple diet of Mayan coffee and Byron Bay Donuts. Via a few repeat performances, I made my way to see another regular to Bluesfest, Paul Kelly, who so naturally fit in to the final day’s proceedings. Whilst the bill was full of long lost legends, international guests, and festival new comers, there was no need for fanfare or hype. Whether nestled within the big top, or gathered beyond the cover of the canvas to the Mojo’s outdoor screen, the crowd was ready to spend some quality time with one of Australia’s greatest singer/songwriters, in what was feeling like the biggest back yard gig ever! Kelly was joined on stage by the equally legendary Vika and Linda Bull, who not only provided backing vocals, but also presented their own takes on a selection of Kelly’s songs. Driving through his hits, including Dumb Things, Before Too Long, and Deeper Water, this was a more focused Kelly that I’d previously seen, working hard (and succeeding!) to fit as much as possible into the time given. Towards the end of the set I went for an urgent pit stop, and on the way, down one of those ‘authorised personnel only’ roads, I witnessed one of those perfect little festival moments. Several festival workers, volunteers, officials, and security folks on a break, huddled together, utilising a few up turned road cases, and various parts of a ute, to gain a vantage point over the barrier fence, fixated on Kelly and co. as he closed with How To Make Gravy. One of those special, simple moments that was so fitting for an artist like Paul Kelly.  I’m glad I went for that walk.

Gurrumul

I last saw Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupyngu, now performing under the name Gurrumul, at the Peats Ridge festival in 2008. Two years later, and a new album released, Gurrumul‘s profile has grown, as has his repertoire. But there has been no change to his soft, yet powerful sound. Though, this Bluesfest we are seeing two sides of Gurrumul, both solo, and as a member of the Saltwater Band, a vast contrast to his usual ethereal indigenous vocal performance. Watching the Saltwater Band helped me appreciate the sound of Gurrumul more, having seen a more expressive and musically playful side to this notoriously shy, softly spoken (if speaking at all) artist. When he shifts into solo mode, the beats and dancing are traded for respectful, and awe filled silence, but tonight we still see some of the playful side of Gurrumul, giggling at one point over some private, on stage comment. His audience, whilst sympathetic to his blindness, seem entranced by his musical talent, and respond with cheers and much deserved applause. Whilst we often crave some form of acknowledgement of, or engagement with the audience from the artist, here there is simply a man sharing his songs, showing his strengths, with what he lacks almost forgotten.

Next stop, Michelle Shocked… an artist that I had previously heard a lot about, but had missed at every opportunity. Then, as the final night of Bluesfest was wrapping up, I had the fortune of witnessing a great performance from a truly talented, charismatic artist. Complying to song requests shouted from her obviously dedicated fan base, the enthusiasm of her followers was addictive. An all smiling, positive singer, songwriter, and storyteller, with a tale or two for every song. It is clear that she has seen and experienced a lot in her 20-plus years in the business, but her outlook is optimistic, her stage show energetic, and I will not let another festival featuring Michelle Shocked go by without seeing her again. I may even attempt to delve into her extensive, almost 15 album strong back catalogue!

George Clinton

Not being able to pull ourselves away from Michelle Shocked, we arrived almost one hour into the set at the Jambalaya tent for the man who has been credited with inspiring 4 decades of psychedelic, funk driven urban music world wide, George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars! At first glance, it appeared that George Clinton had yet to grace the stage with his presence, then from right of stage, a camouflage-clad Clinton (sans rainbow hair) limped onto the stage, walking stick in hand. I had previously thought that Clinton was showing a little more than his mid-60s age when I saw him perform back in 2005, so the walking stick was no surprise. He then proceeded to discard the walking stick, and take charge of the stage, and the ten-plus strong P-Funk Allstars. This man demanded a crowd, but on this night, it seemed Bob Dylan and Grace Jones had robbed him of numbers. Six days of festival is a long time for many, and given the chance, Clinton and crew would party into the wee hours of the morning, but the vibe was just aching for more. Perhaps I was hoping a little too much for a 70s funk revival, with few remaining members still touring with Clinton. Maybe it was the lack of keyboardist Bernie Worrell on this tour? Or maybe a large chunk of funk was lost with the sad recent death of original P-Funk member Gary ‘Diaperman’ Shider? The band seemed young, and occasionally hesitant to meet the level of ‘freak’ and ‘funk’ that Clinton or his fans would demand. Fortunately, the mood switched as the band eventually moved into their hits One Nation Under a Groove, Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker), Flash Light, Maggot Brain, P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up), Atomic Dog, Up for the Down Stroke, and Aqua Boogie. A sample of a legendary band, that left a fanatical horde against the barrier as the lights went up, chanting the native call “Ain’t no party like a P-Funk party, Cause the P-Funk party don’t stop!” Sadly, for now, it has.

Bluesfest Violin

And that was it for another Bluesfest, which overall was, by no exaggeration, the best I had experienced. With five under my belt, the question comes: How about a sixth?

The dates are set: Thurs 5th – Mon 9th April, 2011. And if, like me, you’re contemplating returning to Bluesfest in 2012, now is THE time to make up your mind, with Pre-Earlybird tickets available at crazy prices. I know I want to. So should you. Seriously, I’m not kidding.

See you in 2012!

Bumper Bluesfest Review: Part I

Bluesfest Saturday Photos by KT Bell

Having teased you with a few interviews and snapshots on select Bluesfest artists, it’s time for the big one! (SO big, we’ve had to split in two).

Six days, one festival. I’ve had holidays shorter than this! But my fears of festive fatigue were put aside as, in my opinion, one of the best Bluesfests unfolded almost seamlessly. Only a day and a half of rain towards the end bought a much welcomed, mostly poncho-free experience. Being my first visit to the new Tyagarah site, I discovered an impressive layout, with easy access to all stages, minimal queuing, plenty of food stalls and bars, abundant shelter, more ATMs, and plenty of toilets. Brilliant!

The weather and layout alone would make this Bluesfest a complete success, even before a band is mentioned, but it just went upward from there.

This year’s lineup bought with it a mix of the old, and the new. First time Bluesfest guests, and festival veterans. Folk and country, blues and rock. Some who twist the definitions of each genre, and those who escape definition all together. Some playing the legendary hits and crowd favorites, other’s showcasing new material to the diehard and uninitiated alike. And then there’s those moments when you’d just much rather remember the good old days. But I digress. Time to enter the gates!

Quickly swinging by Michael Franti and Spearhead for his familiar rootsy pop hits, I was fortunate to catch a happy couple interrupting proceedings with a marriage proposal on stage, followed by Kim Churchill joining Franti on stage for “The Sound of Sunshine”.

Moving on to Ernest Ranglin, the Jamaican reggae guitar veteran, who some call the ‘Godfather of Reggae’. Having been one of my Bluesfest highlights back in 2007, I was itching to see him again, and I was not disappointed. This was the perfect way to start the festival. Hit smooth rolling guitar, floating over the super tight stab and bounce of the rhythm section. Dabbling in sweet latin jazz, and the trademark reggae, ska, and rocksteady rhythms filling the cool night air, there was not a drop of rain in sight. The band even ventured into dub territory, and it was great seeing Ranglin work along side a sound which he was instrumental in forming.

Bluesfest Friday

Next up, the driving Orleans funk and blues of Funky Meters (the current form of The Meters), part of the original New Orleans funk scene, featuring original members Art Neville and George Porter Jr., joined by Russell Batiste on drums, and Brian Stoltz (of the Neville Bros. band) on guitar. Playing a mix of their classic instrumental tracks such as Look-ka Py Py, and their more lyrical tracks such as Fire on the Bayou, People Say, and a drum heavy version of Chicken Strut. Unlike a number of their contemporaries, the band were having a ball playing live, with stage presence, interaction with each other, engaging the audience, and even the occasional false start. You don’t want a performance to be too perfect, but finally seeing the (Funky) Meters was just right!

From the history of funk, I stumbled upon the Juke Joint stage and Ray Beadle, undoubtedly the future of Australian blues, funk, and roots driven guitar music! Only four hours into the festival, and I knew this set was going to be one of the highlights. A versatile musician, Sydney based Beadle dabbles in blues, rockabilly, funk, and hard hitting, rough and tumble rock and roll, with calculated finesse and skill. Moving into moments of Zappa-esque experimentation, his guitar oozed smoke and sex. It was almost indecent! A little over the top? No way! I love when an artist induces from you involuntary shouts and hollers.

From this musical high, next up was the newfound raw energy of Ben Harper & Relentless 7, until when turning the corner, I swear I just walked through a time warp back to 2006. On stage was not Relentless 7, as advertised, but Harper’s Innocent Criminals lineup. What followed was the inevitable string of crowd-pleasing hits and sing-a-long’s, and Harper in classic mode. But was he enjoying himself? I’m not sure. He seemed to be going through the motions. As for me, excited, and then let down at the prospect of another Relentless 7 set, I opted to postpone the remainder of Harper until his Fistful of Mercy set (which was worth the wait!).

Day two kicked off by way of folk/soul/funk/gospel singer Ruthie Foster, with a huge voice, and smile to match. An artist that makes you believe that they’re enjoying every moment on stage. Backed by an equally dreaded all girl band, Foster comfortably, and with all Texan power, charges through songs and stories that reflect the personal nature of her performances. She takes the crowd through a journey of her life, her music, faith, and politics, offering her songs in hope, and not just as an emotional outlet. A modest and admirable artist who deserves far above the recognition she already receives.

A quick detour to the Mojo stage found C.W. Stoneking, in all of his understated muttering splendor, spouting stories of railroad tracks, African fertility dances, and lazy day conversations on the porch.

Eric BibbA ragtime interlude before moving on to Eric Bibb, now a regular of the Bluesfest trail. The quintessential blues and folk artist, Bibb holds his own on stage, engaging the crowd with that certain something that you can’t quite put your finger on.  Acoustic guitar in hand, Bibb recalls a true American style, in a genre that is constantly calling to other continents for inspiration. With dedications to, and inspiration from BB King’s cousin Booker (Bukka) White, Bibb resurrects the delta blues on stage, and in his new album Booker’s Guitar; his performance revealing that ‘certain something’… soul. To have soul is to reveal something deep, and here Bibb reveals not just himself, but the deep soul of American blues and folk singers decades past. And as if his company on stage was not enough, he was later joined by good friend Ruthie Foster, complementing Bibb through two more songs to the end of the set. Though in the largest tent of the festival, there was an intimacy about his set, and look forward to hopefully seeing him in more naturally intimate surroundings in the near future.

After a quick pit stop, next up was Trombone Shorty… the missing link between Kanye West, and Fishbone’s Angelo Moore. A brass fueled funk party that demands your attention, taking the tradition of the New Orleans street band, Trombone Shorty (aka Troy Andrews) is the among the new breed of Orleans talent rising from the disarray of the city’s recent turbulent history. TS and band prove that Orleans funk aint dead, being reborn with a bout of rock and urban jazz, morphing into it’s own unique sound. And he refuses to let the crowd get too used to one sound, trading his trombone for a trumpet, singing one song, and slipping into a hip hop track the next. The traditional sound of New Orleans is the sound of the people, as it was. With a new era comes a new sound, but in a place like New Orleans, you can never forget your past. Both the history and the future of Orleans can be heard in Trombone Shorty’s music, but there’s one thing that will never change, and that is that New Orleans, and Trombone Shorty, know how to party!

Fistful of Mercy at Bluesfest on FridayNow, finally, it was time for Fistful of Mercy. For me the most anticipated set of the festival so far, FoM are a unique addition to the festival lineup, in that they have barely been together for a year, have just one recording, and have been given an hour to feature barely 40 minutes of recorded material. Enter Dhani Harrison (son of George), Ben Harper, and Joseph Arthur, joined on stage by violinist Jessy Greene. Of course, together, their time has been short, but separately they are each well accomplished. Finding their feet through the first couple of songs from the album, this ‘super group’ gradually transformed into their own legitimate entity, with Harper taking a back seat to the overall sound of the trio.
Missing only one song from the album (30 Stones), FoM cruised through their own material, with the addition of Bob Dylan’s Buckets of Rain, Harper’s own Please Me Like You Want To, and Joseph Arthur’s In The Sun. The unity of the group strengthened as the initial three-part jam session progressed into the joining of three musical spirits. Three separate voices became harmonies, and a good set became a great one! For one last song, the trio (along with Jessy Green) stood around one mic, unplugged at first, singing With Whom You Belong, a fitting warm end that really did leave me hopeful for more to come from this unconventional super group.

Day two was coming to a close, but I couldn’t miss a repeat performance (after 5 years) of Mexico’sRodrigo & Gabriella. Catching them at the sadly defunct Great Escape festival in 2006, Sydney’s then leg of the Bluesfest tour, I was instantly captivated, and looking forward to this day. The duo revealed that they had not toured for the past six months, so it was indeed a treat to have Rodrigo Sanchez ‘y’ Gabriela Quintero back in Australia for Bluesfest. Deciding to do without a set list, the duo proceeded to deliver a collection of pieces from across their catalogue, along with the odd song yet to be released. Despite performing sans set list, there was not hesitation in delivering their trademark mind-blowing display of lightning speed strumming, plucking, and effortless synchronization. A noticeable change in their on stage performance is that they’re much more physical on stage. Dancing, moving, smiling; this is a welcome addition!  Opting to avoid a number of their well known covers, Rodrigo y Gabriela show much of their South American heritage in their purely instrumental routine, but never sacrifice that ‘acoustic metal’ atmosphere that thrills the audience.

Leah Flanagan playing at Bluesfest on SaturdayDay three, and the sheer length of this year’s festival is starting to dawn on us. Almost half way there, but still a whole day of music to get through. So, taking a deep breath, we venture to the Mojo stage for Darwin based singer/songwriter Leah Flanagan. Having been discovered by festival organizer Peter Noble in a Darwin club, Flanagan brings with her the tropical flavor of the coastal north, as opposed to that of the dusty central Australian landscape that so many before have done. Sharing stories of people and places, old Darwin and new Darwin. Her songs reflect her surroundings and experiences, often trading her guitar for a ukulele, which seems to evoke the salty air and warmth of the top end. It’s not surprising that Jimmy Buffet personally asked Flanagan to be the opening act for his most recent Australian tour. Her strong connection with not only her indigenous heritage, but also her Irish and Italian descent makes for a striking combination of Australian indigenous folk, country, and rock, with the occasional upbeat Caribbean-tinged ragtime song on the ukulele. When Leah Flanagan plays, she brings home with her, giving every listener a taste of the north, and presenting an invitation to visit as soon as possible.

One of the great recent additions to the festival is the busking tent, providing a stage for a wide array of local acts who may otherwise not get a chance to be heard beyond the streets of Byron Bay. One artist I stopped by to check out was Mick McHugh, an Irish folk artist who has called Byron his home for the past 5 years. The accent and occasional mandolin accompaniment helping to draw a fine crowd for a local folk artist, McHugh sung and told stories of people, life, and the comparisons of his current, and true home in Ireland. An authentic Irish sound rarely heard amongst the mostly continental, long established high profiled artists featured on the 2011 bill.

Mavis Staples at Bluesfest on SaturdayNext stop was the Crossroads tent for, frankly, one of the world’s greatest gospel and soul singers, from the most successful gospel group of their time. The sun was shining, the air was cool, and Mavis Staples (of The Staples Singers) was about to well and truly take the Bluesfest congregation to church! Supported by her highly skilled band of backing singers and musicians, each one of whom shone in their own way, the energy and joy displayed by Staples and co. soon infected the crowd. No matter what your beliefs, the spirit of Gospel was in the air, and the crowd had little alternative but to discard their troubles, and throw their hands in the air! Performing a set full of memories, classic gospel, and new songs, this was a much more celebratory Staples than when I last saw her at the 2008 festival. But, you can’t have a Staples set without the straight talking singer herself speaking about life, politics, faith, and tellin’ it like it is. Highlights of the set included a version of Freedom Highway, written by her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples, originally performed by the Staples Singers, and the final song, the Staple Singers’ hit single from 1972 I’ll Take You There, joined by none other than Trombone Shorty to complete the 7 piece party, wrapping up what would be one of my favorite performances of the entire festival.

After a recharge on Byron Bay Donuts, I made my way to the Mojo stage, not quite sure what to expect from the next performer. I had heard her early work, heard a bit more of her reputation since, but knew that I should by any means miss this set. On arrival, I was met by an on-stage set up that would cause anyone to expect at least a 5, maybe 6 piece band . . . two stands covered in a wide array of key and percussion instruments, a Perspex grand piano filled with fairy lights, a drum kit positioned next to a collection of other percussion instruments, and finally a cello, positioned next to a small keyboard.

Imogen Heap at Bluesfest on SaturdayEnter English singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Imogen Heap, accompanied by two band mates who positioned themselves by the cello and drum kit respectively… where’s everyone else!??!  This question only lingered for a moment as the surprisingly tall Heap proceeded to move gracefully from instrument to instrument, appearing less made scientist, and more Flashdance. With wireless ‘Madonna mic’ and two stereo mics strapped to her wrists for those smaller ‘unplugged’ percussion instruments, she proceeded to sing, play, pluck, and loop sounds with ease and precision. During each song, Heap would find a moment or two to dance and sing directly to the crowd, and between songs her amusing and captivating banter would lead her to apologise for talking so much. Playing mostly songs from her two most recent albums, she also threw in the Frou Frou song Let Go, some new material, and to the pleasure of the fans in the audience, the vocoder driven Hide and Seek, which brought her name out of obscurity in 2005 thanks to the popular TV program The OC. For the closing song, Heap played Tidal, complete with rocking keytar solo, and wrap-around shades. An engaging stage presence, and performance unlike anything seen at Bluesfest surely since Sigur Ros in 2006, she mixes performance art with ethereal pop, rock, folktronica. I don’t know why it’s taken this long for her to come to Australia, but much thanks goes to those responsible, and I’m confident she’ll be back soon.

(Soon to follow – Bumper Bluesfest Review: Part II)

Review: The Wild Frontier, “Until The Day Breathes”

The Wild Frontier
Image courtesy of The Wild Frontier

When reviewing an album, one can attempt to do so via a couple of methods: have a few listens, and write a reflection of first impressions; or, sit on it for a while. Have a listen now and then, let the songs mature, and fit in with what’s going on around you, until suddenly a hook takes hold, and there’s no going back.

The latter is where we’ve found ourselves regarding The Wild Frontier’s Until The Day Breaths. To catch yourself singing a song, sans music, whilst going about your day… you have no choice but to go back and revisit an album. The culprit is “The Thing I’ve Been”, a cruising song reminiscent of Dave Graney’s cool swoon, the opaque tone of The National, and the wine red velvet depth of a Nick Cave ballad. Throughout the album, The Wild Frontier’s sound and song writing has been likened to that of Lambchop, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Beach House, Arcade Fire, and the afore mentioned Nick Cave.

In fact, it would be easy to rest solely upon the Nick Cave contrasts of Christopher Mayes’ vocals throughout this album, if it weren’t for the diversity of his, and the voices featured on Until The Day Breathes. From the opening track, “For You”, we are greeted by the gorgeous voice of pianist Philippa Vaughan… fitting comparisons, without any exaggeration, include Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star), Jennifer Charles (Elysian Fields), and Martha Wainwright. It’s the sort of voice that makes you put a song on repeat just to hear again.

From the ethereal, to the apocalyptic imagery of “The Heavens Are on Fire”, and the banjo driven, Johnny Cash/June Carter inspired “My Friend Called Tom”; Christopher and Philippa share vocals on the album, with the occasional addition of guitarist and co-founder David Mackie adding a subtle and understated element to the vocal trio. Teamed with Stephen Mansfield on bass, and Leon Spencer on drums, this Sydney based five piece have produced a rich, complete collection of earthy, dramatic, and passionate songs about darkness and light.

Having released their album in October 2010, the momentum of this album has been steadily growing both locally and overseas.

Catch The Wild Frontier live:

Friday 15th April, 9pm @ Melt (12 Kellet St, Kings Cross), opening for James The Grey, along with PJ Wolf & band.

Review: Thad Cockrell, “To Be Loved”

4272433626_091880e58d_o.jpgImage courtesy of ryan.smith.blog

A mate handed me this album recently, which via several degrees, was passed on by Thad, curious to know how it is received in Australia. To my knowledge, this is the first Australian review of Thad Cockrell’s To Be Loved.

This is an album that I’ve listed to on repeat for countless hours. A beautiful, warm, mellow, melancholy sound, reflecting emotion, hurt, and longing, accompanied with jubilant southern gospel tinged country… and I wanted to avoid using the word ‘twang’, but really, it’s the twang of this album that is the charm. Having previously co-written songs with Donovan Frankenreiter, and worked with one time Whiskeytown members Caitlin Cary and Skillet Gilmore, vocals have been likened to Ryan Adams, as well as Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Paul Simon, and Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), thrown in with a musical mix of organ, banjo, and pedal steel laden old spirituals, love songs, and campfire sing-alongs.

There are reflections of sadness, and hope in these songs, which almost demands a likewise contemplation of life… in Thad’s case, a hard life, but with an unexplainable beauty that keeps him moving forward.

What you’ll hear on To Be Loved is a man who wears his heart and faith on his sleeve, but hasn’t been engulfed by the religious bubble. These are the songs of Thad’s heart, take ‘em or leave ‘em.

Hear tracks from To Be Loved on MySpaceiLike, or buy the album on iTunes

L’Arpeggiata – 17th Century Folk

Ready to have your folk swag stretched?
Want to check out something a little… fancy, that has nothing to do with a certain fast food chain?

Touring Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne in September… Parissian-based L’Arpeggiata will be teaming up with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra to present Baroque Tarantella.

The Orchestra themselves describe the event as “…an irresistible mix of baroque beats and traditional songs of sixteenth and seventeenth century Italy, performed on period instruments,” and a “…joyous celebration of folk melodies, love stories and infectious dance rhythms.”

An honestly exciting event that will bridge the scary realm of classical and folk, and stretch your musical tastes.

Tour dates:

Brisbane
As part of the Brisbane Festival
Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Tues 7, Wed 8 Sep at 8pm

Sydney
City Recital Hall, Angel Place
Fri 10, Sat 11, Wed 15, Fri 17, Sat 18 Sep, all at 7pm
Matinee Sat 18 Sep at 2pm

Melbourne
Melbourne Recital Centre
Sun 12 Sep at 5pm
Mon 13 Sep at 7.30pm

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