Shaking Off The Rust

Benjiandsss copy

Ben Fowler, recently returned from the Solomon Islands (photo supplied by artist)

Elizabeth Walton chats to Benji and the Saltwater Sound System

After a song is written you sometimes need to shelve it, forget it for a while, let the dust settle on the shine of a new idea. A good holding period offers time for ideas to go through some mystical metamorphosis which an artist can’t plan or contrive. That’s when that extra dynamic clicks in, that missing factor which takes a project from being just another element of a body of work to being something really interesting. When the artist returns to the shelf to dust off their work, then it can truly come to life.

For Benny Fowler, shelving his work in the sea has meant an accumulation of rust rather than dust, and it’s not just his material but his entire presence that’s been immersed in the salt. An extended break in the Solomons has allowed his material to mature, and infused his unique mix of chilled reggae/ska/funk with even more islander influences than before.

The time has now come to shake off the rust, to scrub and polish his songs, and reveal the metal beneath the surface. The job is well timed with appearances at both The National and Cobargo festivals coming up, as well as a return to the studio with the present lineup and a crowd sourced album due for recording later this month.

To get the show going, Benji and the Salt Water Sound System have announced a small halls tour of the South Coast of New South Wales. The tour kicked off in December with a gig at Murrah Hall on the Tathra-Bermagui highway down the far south coast, and a weekend of seaside events is planned for late February.

IMG_8017
Murrah Hall is a classic old time Aussie bush hall. It’s a hand-hewn timber structure set in a tall dense forest, well away from houses or cranky neighbours with their noise complaints. It’s a place that feels quiet and chilled even when the band gets going. The only road in to the venue meanders from beach to beach, delving inland through lush farms and forests, darting back towards the coast now and then, drifting over a series of wooden bridges that span sandy streams and low tide islands.


The small halls revival returns music to the people at their grass roots – taking live events out of the hands of commercial promoters and placing it at the feet of the community. Along with good tunes, local homemade food is shared for a small price, and people bring their own drinks – and often chairs – to share around the campfire. Dogs, kids, locals and groupies are all part of the blend. The result is an atmosphere that can’t be bought, with a house concert feel extended to reach a wider range of fans.


As always Benji and the Salt Water Sound System have their flock of devotees who seem to follow every event across the land, people who have stayed for the journey as the band evolved out of Ben’s earlier project Southerly Change into the current lineup. The band still has the same feel and a lot of the same personnel, though the tracking of life is leaving the trace of its touch on the face of the band.

“We seem to have a really broad span of ages in our lineup,” Ben says, reflecting on the current sound. Steve “Nello” Russenello still wraps his blues harp around every solo, and missing on this particular evening brass section favourite Mick Elderfield on sax, who is at home facing the challenges of holding a bedside vigil for an ageing relative. “He’s where he needs to be, it’s a good thing,” Nello says, perhaps reflecting on the mindset of musicians younger than Elderfield, now in his 30s, who may feel the music is the more important gig. Sitting in on kit is Alex Dumbrell from Caravana Sun, and Ben’s right hand guitar man, Jonathan Dallimore, whose lead riffs arrive at a relaxed perfection at the height of each tune.


As the life of a long standing band evolves and morphs into a new project, it’s naturally going to mark out the progression of your own time. The dates for the small halls tour are carefully scheduled around the imminent birth of Ben’s first child, with his faithful partner still showing up at every gig despite being rather beautifully overdue. Everyone at this gig is welcomed as a member of the extended saltwater family.

The small halls tour was created to allow the band to dust off the cobwebs, or as they say themselves, to shake off the rust, get back into the groove and give the new tunes a good airing before the band starts recording. If the Murrah Hall event is anything to go by, Benji and the Salt Water Sound System will be lifting the roof off in Canberra at The National.

The full list of upcoming shows are below. Tickets for the small halls shows are available from southcoasttickets.au@gmail.com or https://www.southcoasttickets.com.au

Friday 23rd February – Joyce Wheatley Community Centre, Kiama, NSW
Saturday 24th February – Bega Funhouse, Bega, NSW
Sunday 25th February – Tomerong Hall, Tomerong, NSW
Friday 2nd to Sunday 4th March – Cobargo Folk Festival, Cobargo, NSW
Thursday 29th March to Monday 2nd April – National Folk Festival, Canberra, ACT

Shaking Off the Rust Poster Logo Web

When The Blues Slide Back To Town

backsliders kit
Words and Pictures by Elizabeth Walton. Interview at Narooma Golf Club, Narooma, NSW

When God made good musicians he sent them to church on Sundays. When he made really great ones, he sent them to the mouth of the Mississippi, to drink from the unholy waters of the delta blues. For even God could tell the devil was onto something there. Something driven and raw, something eternal that surpassed all sense of time, something that could get the people onto their feet, now, then, and always. And so it was that The Backsliders began, and no matter how much they drank, their cup remained full, as they continued flooding the dance floors of the nation for over 30 years.

That’s the way the story goes with legendary outfits, those who capture the sound of an era, but capture it in a way that isn’t gimmicky or contrived, isn’t hemmed into a stylistic paddock that is quickly overgrown, all weeds and useless stems that can’t be whittled or chewed. The Backsliders’ unique form of blues isn’t a style that the crowd comes to like then quickly forgets, like moths chasing the light around the next contemporary sound. This is a style that has easily stood the test of time.

When the best music has been on the scene in a continuously evolving format for an entire generation it becomes a backdrop for our times. A great song can track a moment in time as freshly as a scent, a taste, a remembrance of an old friend or even your favourite dog. But when a project has continued to be there in the landscape of the culture for as long as The Backsliders, it becomes something even more significant than just one song that throws you back to year dot.

You hear the sound at the festivals down south, up north, in the city, all around the country, and the songs become the aural licks for the great Australian drama of our times. You hear it in the Tim Winton screen adaptations of the dirty Australian ballads of the outback, that sound. That vision is there when you hear this very Australian form of blues. And it’s there in every other epic Australian drama of our times as well, from the softer cliched stories of Sea Change, to the harsher scenes of Underbelly, those tales that trace the seedier side of the national narrative and our love of the outsider, the lost larrikin, the dangerously compelling stories of the evil who walk among us. For The Backsliders aren’t just hot performers, their themes are there on the screen too.

These are the songs that fit so snugly into the storyline it’s as though the music was an extension of the scenery, a backdrop, and the song itself has become the dialogue, the lyric.

hirst and turnerSo goes the story of The Backsliders, a band put together a generation ago by Australia’s favourite bluesman Dom Turner, with his iconic high voice reminiscent perhaps of the growling plantation gospel singer Pops Staples. The outfit was joined in its adolescence by searing hot rock drummer Rob Hirst who may now be pushing into his mid 60’s, but he looks like he’s been bathing all these years  in the fountain of youth. Turner and Hirst both do.

The Backsliders are an outfit with not just national but international respect. And despite 30 years in action, the music is as fresh and relevant today as it ever was. There is not a quiver of energy held back from Rob Hirst’s intensely delivered searing hot rhythm, yet he plays this particular set straight off the tarmac from a world tour with Midnight Oil.

fast sticksDespite his own hot blooded performance, Dom Turner maintains a cool hand, barely breaking a bead of sweat. “It’s easy to maintain our momentum,” Turner says, “because we have always had the understanding that working on our other projects gets you coming back with something fresh”. Working with a rotating line of three harp players – this set featuring Joe Glover – also brings an individuality to every performance, something Turner is keen to capture, which is the basis for the decision to stick with the simple three part lineup – one string man, one harp man, and one percussion man, front and centre.

“Playing as a trio gives us the freedom to pursue that grittiness as an art form – we can seek out the imperfections and impurities of early acoustic blues, and our material can have its own unique structure, so we’re not limited to a 12 bar blues format. It’s highly improvised, based on that very African style emanating from the North of the Mississippi.”

“If we used a bass player we would all have to move at the same time, but this way we can follow those African and also at times South East Asian beats more fluidly,” he says.

 

Turner creates his sound calling on the subtle timbre of a glass slide, searching for that gliding sustain and the sweetness of the glasswork over the frets. When he moves to a metal slide he leans towards a heavier chrome style that produces less friction and a leaner sound. For this tour he uses three guitars and a mandola, selecting each for its sonic differences, rather than just the economy of time in altering the tunings, which for the most part remain tuned to various open chords.

With improvisation at its core. communication for the band is essential, so the men prefer their stage lineup positioned for optimum line of sight, an important departure from the standard setup of kit in back, strings out front. It certainly allows for a highly visual experience of Hirsts’ high energy infectious playing. The drum kit is a somewhat sentimental assemblage of an old marching band drum, an ice bell, piccolo, two snares and hand made cymbals that serve as clanky hi hats, finished with a high tech Dyson fan to help the rhythm man bring down the heat.

When the band kicked off back in the 80’s the iconoclastic sound was nudged along by a washboard and a reinforced hatbox fitted with a mic inside. The collaboration with Hirst has seen a move to a more tribal sound, which is created in part by writing songs separately, then working on them together in the studio, for the continuing roll of recordings the band produces. The next installation is due for sketches, directions and ideas in the coming months, but the album won’t reach its zenith until the band gets together within the sanctum of the studio.

 

The Backsliders put an unmistakably Aussie spin on the deep traditions of the delta blues, an art form arising from the darkest sorrows of the downtrodden, the forgotten, the ripped off oppressed and poverty stricken. It’s a style that originated from the starving disenfranchised blacks of the American south, whose fight against oppression overreached the Civil War’s success in remaining impossibly inhumane long after the war was won. These conditions still impose the questionable will of powerful men during times of the greatest hardship and suffering, often when a helping hand is needed the most. It’s a suffering that still goes on today, long after the storms of Hurricane Katrina have passed on into legend, not just for the way she lashed at the heart of New Orleans, but for the way the powers that be gave very little warning, with next to no planning, and the way the then President barely turned his head while America’s greatest roots tradition drowned alongside the most mighty songsmen of the South, like so many disregarded notes and souls.

So the world has come to treat its roots musicians, a forgotten underclass, amongst whom those most talented are those most likely to be found in a burger joint, flipping refried beans or taking out the trash. And this is the sound The Backsliders have summoned from the murky swamp to translate into an endless realm of Australian anthems, distilling the essence of the troubles of the South, in all its desolation and heathen ways. Their delivery is a sound that defers to the Australian wide open landscape for its meaning, rendering an antipodean condition to their interpretation of Cajun influenced blues, with their ditties of moving on, getting away from it all, getting your bags packed and getting lost, losing all sense of that purpose which once flashed before you, before your dreams got flushed away.

viewThe Backsliders have a long history touring the far south coast of New South Wales, playing the blues festival at Narooma that finished when its saviour hung up his saddle a few seasons back. No one has taken up the mantle, and the old festival office remains For Lease, fronting the road as the Pacific Highway heads up the hill and meanders around the town. Yet the band still returns to the scene, creating their own scene now, where old mates put on the big party at the biggest venue in town, and easily fill the Narooma Golf Club on a lazy Sunday evening. The festival scene may have been the birthplace of the romance with the coast, but the story has outlived the event. After all, nothing speaks summer in a more sultry seawater way than the Mississippi blues, especially in its local incarnation, hollered out so loud by The Backsliders.

Upcoming live dates for The Backsliders are below:

Sunday 28th January – Waterfront Cafe Church Point, Sydney, NSW
Saturday 3rd February – Lizottes, Newcastle, NSW
Saturday 3rd March – Girrakool Blues and BBQ Festival, Central Coast, NSW
Friday 16th to Sunday 18th March – Blue Mountains Music Festival, Katoomba, NSW
Saturday 19th to Sunday 20th May – Blues on Broadbeach, Broadbeach, QLD

Liz Stringer and the Candelo flair

Liz Stringer
Image Courtesy of Liz Stringer. Photo by Taiette O’Halloran

Standing under a tree, strumming on a tram, standing solid, landing her ground.  Liz Stringer is the song maiden of Australian soils whose ballads of heartbreak and sorrow thump rejection as readily as they pump the lifeblood of the free and the most fiercely independent of spirits. Her music, like her lyrics tell it, lilt to soaring highs while she lifts herself up and puts herself back together again, and again and again. Music, for Liz Stringer, like us too, always was reserved for the brave and for the free….

And no, love might not be any healer, but Liz Stringer’s musical offerings certainly harbour a salve deep within each measure.

It’s always been hard to tell – is she a songwriter, is she a perfect lyricist? Is she a singer, is she one Australia’s best musicians?

The real answer? Stringer just is.

She’s an artist, in the truest of senses. Though she would tell you she didn’t care what you thought anyway.

Her husky vocal overtones are matched with songs about cheap casks of wine.  Her voice emerges during a downward glance set on a serious face – darkly framed by a close clipped concave bob, a flapper-inspired style that points towards a place that leaves convention behind – the original devil may care expression of independence and un-ownable style. This is a chick for whom the night sky truly could conceivably be the original jewelry store window, with a heart that imagines life and conceives the way things might go, she who can weave that shoestring of a song on two triads that rip a chord around your heart so snug that it will never let go. Jimmy hurt her, don’t you remember, and you should close the drapes less that devil drops by after the night calls curtains on the day. But you know once you’ve heard her lucid drawl you’re never going to forget it.

“God she sounds like Joni Mitchell,” the audience says.

Chrissie Hynde,” say the reviews.

Nope, it’s Stringer.

“Is that Bonnie Raitt?” , no, and that’s all for now, so tune your guitar down low and croon along if you want any hope of keeping up with Stringer’s evolving style.

From Germany to Canada, Nashville and most recently to Candelo where we caught up, the Stringer model for musical success is born of hard work, commitment, focus and pure musical drive. On the day we meet she has travelled over 600 kilometres from the Hunter Valley, with another 6 hour drive ahead to Melbourne after the show.

Where other artists have remained strident individualists, Stringer hasn’t held back from whatever it is this musical journey has in mind – leaving her own story behind plenty of times to join up with other bands.

Collaborating with other legends of the stage – and the road – has definitely broadened her style, her range and her appeal.

The experience brings her back to the road with her latest album All The Bridges after a round of soul searching that found the songstress feeling perhaps she had given the journey all she had to give. Somehow she found her way to foreign shores, recording at Type Foundry Studio in Portland, Oregon, USA, in the same space where Fleet Foxes recorded, producing a very different sound with a very different crew.

“The new album is definitely the most rock and roll sounding album of all my work,” Stringer says, after playing to a full house at the 2017 Candelo Village Festival. “The lead sound I’m getting now is definitely much more developed than when I was playing acoustic”.

Where once the entire entourage was just Liz and her besty, Adam May, these days, the full crew consists of a four piece band.

“These musicians are amazing and I’m lucky to have them on board, considering how busy they are with their own stuff,” Stringer says.

Her current roomy from Prestons in Victoria, Alice Williams, features on rhythm, taking a break from her solo shows. Renowned drummer David Williams of Augie March is on the kit, and phenomenal bass player Timothy Nelson of Western Australia’s Kill Devil Hills is onboard for the journey too.

“He’s a killer songwriter,” Stringer says.  “He’s opening the shows for us in Victoria this weekend.”

It’s a solid lineup capable of delivering a smashingly tight, clear-sounding irresistible package, that even dips into the Australian classics.

“What was that song was that – was that Australian Crawl?” asks someone in the crowd.

“Nah mate wasn’t that – The Flowers. Ice House. Great Southern Land.”

“Great Southern Land”.  A song that reinvented video trends with helicopter footage and grand cinematography, unusual for its day, a song that broke budgets when it crashed onto the scene and into the minds of the 80’s generation. The kind of iconic Australian ballad Stringer is drawn to reproduce live on stage.

“I chose Great Southern Land because I’ve always loved the song. I love it’s “Australian-ness” and its poetic political and social statements about Australia. Alice and I often jam on that song late at night. So we wanted to try it with the full band,” she says.

Onstage Stringer’s gaze is still cast downwards, or sometimes askance when she clicks eyes with Alice as these patrons of groove birth a grueling 90 minute set of pure rock. Stringer peels off one perfectly crafted lead after another, mopping up with her Fender Mustang fluently as though it was an extension of her psyche. It’s an extension of our psyche now, the kind of music that really sinks in.

Travelling with their own sound crew also helps perfect the sound. “It’s a different experience to travelling solo,” Liz says. “I definitely don’t get to call in on friends as much as I used to when I was touring, but the comraderieof the band is definitely very energising.”

Though Stringer has largely packed away her loop machines and harmonica, instead wielding her Fender mustang like she was born wearing it, the full band sound isn’t more than it was before – with a strong four part harmony synching every verse, her acoustic sound isn’t lost – you can hear one within the other. Her musical concepts are so completely laid down that one – the full band or the paired back solo – implies the other.

You could always hear the harmonies even before they were there. The lyrical parts – the bass lines, the backing vocals, perhaps a djangly piano absent from recordings past, are oddly present now in these arrangements, like her ear was always tuned to both the vibed up and the vibed back versions of her tunes.  But the gaze is always introspective. And it’s not that she is looking down at the neck of her guitar, prepping to step the next pedal – it’s because she’s playing to an inner narrative, and that’s where her gaze has gone –  there’s a fire in his belly and a baby in mine, the narrative of the solo mind tracking the thoughts of the balladeer.

Meanwhile the flock of blue birds fly off her guitar strap and over her shoulder to make a nest at her next gig.

And so the road takes her, one day this town, the next day that, travelling, always travelling, for more than a decade, the life of the modern day troubadour. “It is hard,” Liz says, “but it’s what I want more than anything else. I might get three months of the year at home in Melbourne – but not all in one hit”.

A devotion, a calling, a road that doesn’t end. A journey into a town less known, in a place over the hill, somewhere far down the coast, the sapphire coast of New South Wales, where all the oceans are crystal blue.

And over the hill we travel to a mythical landscape, where the heavens cascade down over the high peaks at the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, to a land quenched each equinox by the crisp clear waters of the snow melt in Spring. Green meadows and rivers meander through the view, with a lane punctuated by roadside stalls selling pumpkins.

The Candelo Arts Association ran an event that at one stage was more of a sprawling marquee affair. This year, with less volunteers available to pitch tents in the park, the experience was paired back, to everyone’s satisfaction. With some slick advertising and contemporary talk, half of the tickets were sold online, the other half, take your chances on the day – with a rambling drive over meadows and pastures to the little town of Candelo.

Hey, if there were no tickets left, it would be fun anyway.

The revived festival now has a simple structure – anything in the town hall is ticketed, the rest is open for all to enjoy for free.

The festival presents a well developed program which offers something for all tastes, featuring the pivotal jazz impro sounds of Kapture –Australia’s leading improvisers Sandy Evans, Bobby Singh, Brett Hirst and Greg Sheehan sitting in on the kit. Vince Jones appeared on Saturday night, and local talent Melanie Horsnell opened the show on the Friday. Rounded out with arts, literature, and even a ragtime parlour, the town put together a great event, with a street humming with happy punters for a whole weekend.

The festival organisers run events at the hall throughout the year, which has a little burger popup bar, where you can get the best pulled pork in town for just seven bucks.

This is a town where the word “inclusive” is redundant. Thinning grey dreds seem part of the civic uniform, and the grand fathers of town are in town with their adult kids and their own babies and they’re all hanging out in the street. The chicks in the café open the door for a guy circling round in his wheelchair, motioning with his chin which way the prams and dogs should go. It’s all ok here, safe for all kinds, even the guy wheezing away on a torn squeeze box on the blackboard stage who can’t quite remember his lyrics – it’s ok Steve, give it another go, we all know how the song goes anyway. It’s a loyal and attentive crowd, and they love Steve no matter what. As long as he sings another tune about Ned Kelly, preferably written by Paul Kelly, without ever mentioning a Kelly at all.  Local writers’ books are for sale at coffee tables, including a tome of poetry by  Phil Mac. The dogs are fed and watered, the entire stratosphere is on offer here. And you ALL are welcome. There’s even a piano parlour in the street. 

The local store was transformed two years ago, into a café and a swishy general store, well patronised by locals who come here to stock up on bread, milk, peanut butter, hand made baskets and all the local produce the town can supply.

Sometimes you wonder why each town needs its own festival – when surely a lineup of music, food and local eccentrics is on offer at every one.  Yet the answer to that question is redundant too – each town offers something completely new in the sense of regional style and flavor. And Candelo has ticked that box in every sense. It is a lovely relaxed affair with strangers mingling and chatting in the street.

Phil “This is how I think” Mac and his grandson Spencer Frank Burton Taylor swirl around, dancing to one of Steve’s blackboard strung tunes.  Phil himself is a poet whose work is collected in a recent edition. He is prepping for his 2UP calls at Merimbula RSL on Anzac Day. “Who are you writing for?”, Phil quizzes me. “Timber and Steel,” I say. “Ah Timber and Steel – I see, wood and metal,” before he meanders off down the main street. Young Spencer is the latest addition to a long line of farmers from the region, whose family are now producing chinook hops cones on old dairy country for micro breweries at Ryefield Hops, Bemboka, near the seaside town of Merimbula.

It’s a festival of honesty, integrity, and feel good low-fi values.Values that would appear to resonate with Liz Stringer and her crew.  After a long drive, quick sound check and a very long set, she’s out front and friendly selling all her own merch as soon as she’s off stage, looking quite at home at the side of the boho style bar.

Stringer’s broad Australian accent is never shied away from or apologised for –it’s part of what gives you the sense that she’s with us for many decades yet – holding back, with sincerity, is something she does best. She’s someone who has your measure and shrugs off success – all the awards, accolades and CD sales in the world don’t seem as though they appeal to her anyway.

In a final ballad about friendship – she calls to anyone. Doing it solo for years on the road has earned her the stripes, as she glides now on the wings of her full band. With the front of stage floor occupied with eager musicians listening as attentively as Stringer is delivering – from MelanieHorsnell and her kids to former Lime Spiders drummer Richard Lawson (and some girl from a band named Honey) – she’s definitely a musician’s musician – but one who has wide appeal as shown by the sell-out tours and packed out stadiums of the global music circuit. Paying solid attention to the slick rock sound, she’s still a serious insect – who pays homage to inspiration drawn from the Great Southern Land and the Great Ocean Road alike, with an apparently red wine inspired flourish of nail polish on just the one guitar stubbled pinky.

“She sounds like Christine McVie”, the audience muses.

“Hmmmm, or maybe…?”

Her dark 1920s bob is bleached out now and neatly twisted at the sides with a couple of bobby pins. Stringer’s appearance never seemed as important to the soul of her work as the coil of tightly wound emotion she creates– highlighted now as a rousing sway of crashes is played out on Williams’ Zildjians– emblazoned by a snatch of cymbal bait on his sticks, sounding as though there’s not just a full choir of backup singers up there, but that they’re tambourine tapping too – but no, it’s just the four of them, seasoned pros, and that’s just as well because the stage is already crowded.

“It’s a wonder there was room for you at all she muses”, perhaps thinking of growing up with her music teacher dad, her absent mum, and now, her now dad’s partner, down on the Great Ocean Road, that great crashing bastion of the Australian landscape  – indelibly cast as the fierce anchor at the foot of the Australian mood – where the wild seas stir up whispers and storms from the frozen wastelands of the Antarctic.

“We can live on love” she sings.  “We CAN live on love” – like an anthem, a mantra, singing it to us with a “hey, yeah!” smile while she repeats it to herself.

We can be big observers of the fates of hearts, the heart doesn’t have to surrender when love comes to town.

We can, draw breath – we can inhale that chilling breeze blowing straight up the guts of the Southern Ocean, we can survive it, everything – the whole lot life has to throw at us. It doesn’t have to crush us, we can merge love with happiness – we can have it all.

We can drink that hopeful tune, and still launch one of the greatest melancholic balladeers this country has ever produced – heart in tact, off the sleeve of the album, and off into the world. Farewell Liz, go well on this tour, until next time you come back home, with ever more musical maturity spunk and style.

But never, please, never be a stranger to this land.

2017 Blue Mountains Music Festival – The Wrap

Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen doing Funeral Songs

Words and Pictures by Elizabeth Walton

“Can’t wait for this to start – Paul Kelly is Australia’s answer to Bob Dylan.”  So the murmur of the audience flows while revelers wait in the light filled entrance to the Lurline Pavilion at the 2017 Blue Mountains Music Festival.

“Nah mate, Bob Dylan is America’s answer to Paul Kelly,” comes the well whittled retort, a fitting reflection on the loyalty of the Australian pilgrimage to the Blue Mountains Music Festival, where Australia’s tower of song – Paul Kelly – has appeared many times.

The punters flood the moment with favourite festival stories, washed down with a good pint of Guinness. Mustering the strength to move past the thousands to the front of stage where you can really get lost in the experience – that’s what they are pausing at the entrance to do, for this is the festival’s main event – and that’s all part of the show.

Katoomba may be the original decaf soy latte kinda town, but the Blue Mountains Music Festival is still a double ristretto kind of event. Headliners including Kelly and The Waifs may have returned countless times, but you’d wonder why you would want to change something that clearly ain’t broke.

As the rain pours down, the mud slides up. The cafes flow with conversations filled with passionate responses to Gregg Borschmann’s Heartland Conversations, the virtues of six dollar gumboots, and the best fashion statement you can make with a plastic yellow poncho without face planting in the mud.

Paul Kelly hit the stage with his latest project, Death’s Dateless Night, an album of funeral songs recorded with collaborator Charlie Owen on dobro and keys, tenderly harmonized by Kelly’s own clan of daughters, the beautiful Memphis ad Maddie. The audience loved it, but loved it even more when the band eventually visited the song man’s own material. Though Kelly invited the audience to lay him down a pallet on the floor, and to just let it be, the cheers definitely grew louder when “To her Door” finally opened on centre stage.

The festival opened with acts including Caiti Baker, whose vocal style leaves you feeling that she wants to blow the walls of the theatre down, get out into the open where she can feel the  wind moving in her hair. The space seems a little small for her raging sound, verging from lyrical blues to a good decent growl. She tells us on Saturday she’ll be down on the Lurline Pavilion, the main outdoor stage at the show, though she pronounces it less like the colloquial Lur-lign, and more like Lur-Leene, rhyming the venue with Dolly Parton’s Joe-line, and soon has the audience singing along with her to an impromptu bash at Dolly’s favourite tune.

On Saturday night the Big Tent looks like it might fill with water, instead it’s a flood of grey hair and beanies, people moshing around in the mud in their comfy hand-made  knits and sensible weather wear. But if that gives a distinctively silver streaked view of the pilgrims, that’s only because the young ones are moshing at the front of the Main Stage, grooving out to Urthboy with his dub overlays and ultra chill. If you’re lucky this weekend you’ll only have gone through three pairs of water-ready shoes a day, your children won’t have sunk chin-deep in the mud, and you will be very happy with the new era of sounds washed in by Urthboy – where it’s standing room only up near the doof as the crowd gets all up close and personal like, pressed in so close that they leave the rest of the pavilion entirely empty. Up close and personal is the real thing when techo fans assemble to watch a row of straight standing personnel in front of a giant DJ desk, laying down the riffs over a deep sonic tonic.  Meanwhile,  a raft of festival volunteers politely excuse themselves from duty so they can catch the last 15 minutes of boyfilled Urth. This has always been a festival that knew its demographic well, and takes no umbrance with serving up something for everyone. From Blue Grass to Trad Folk, the genres represented expand the very notion of what seems like a 360 degree perpetually evolving spectrum of musical styles.

In a world where festivals are born, reach their peak and quickly fade, this event is now hosting third generation folk who wouldn’t have this gig played out any other way. The audience is right at home with the cabaret style humour of The Loveys, who’ve flown all the way from Mullum, bringing along their jokes about yoga and farmers’ market twee. They clink their way through a set in German,  which slips past their too-red lips and over-stated eyewear, their gentrified hats, and putt great-grandma’s Royal Doulton to a new, unintended use as the china tinkers out a syncopated funk. Midway through the gig one of the ladies asks for LSD – but it turns out she isn’t craving the hallucinatory type, she’s just after a Latte Soy Dandelion. Nailing the piss-take on all things modern circa 2017, from transgender marital departures to personality disorders – even the pursuit of happiness isn’t spared from their material. But they’re not popular just for their good humour, they’re a festival highlight because they’re absolutely gorgeous and very bloody good – especially the well grounded Bass Uke of Madeleine Liddy, who churns out a phat sound reminiscent of McCartney’s Hoffman – a sound others in the same venue struggled to achieve.

Perhaps that’s just down to luck, or it could be technique, but Liddy doesn’t think so. “It’s because it’s preloved,” she says. “And it’s well-worn in,” she adds with a cheeky wink, much like the general spirit of these grand duchies. “Oh, and it hasn’t got any varnish”.  Well that’s definitely it, wouldn’t you think? Some might think it’s just a great attitude shared amongst these ladies, including Janet Swain, who appears clad in a spectacular green velvet robe, reclaimed from some Victorian widow’s wardrobe.  She wears her threads comfortably as she honks and hauls her bassoon like a baritone sax.

A honkin and a yankin in some unintended direction is all par for the course, from the street buskers grooving overdubbed percussive raps on part-filled glass bottles, to Mic Conway’s Junk Band, giving himself an onstage vasectomy with a saw played so nostalgically that the audience asks “who is that woman singing with that distinctive voice”. It’s not a woman singing, it’s Conway’s vitals begging for mercy as he slashes out his aptly nervous and wobbly tune. His side kick is the amazing sousaphone player dubbed “Marjorie Snodgrass” for this line up, who sometimes cameos in the Cope Street Parade.  She spends an hour after the event lavishing praise upon Lewis the Sound Guy for “getting” that she is the bass – whether she’s pumping her sousa, or an impeccably rendered mouth-impro bass jug. They don’t call it a junk band for nothing. The mutual admiration continues until Lewis and most of the band discover they’re all neighbours in Sydney’s eclectic inner west.

Lewis covers the event every year, bringing his own mics to work his room, The Clarendon Theatre, whose plush trim is renowned for delivering a distinctively flat sound that Lewis successfully overcomes without the aid of the high end, crystal clear gear and production values of the main stages. It’s a challenge, but like all Blue Mountains Festival devotees, one which he could perhaps best be described as pathologically drawn to. The rigors of the job are largely performed by the unknown and the unthanked, but the dooers of these unseen tasks are usually destined to return.  Once the festival gets into the blood, it’s a well fixed hooked.

True to form the mountains throws its unaustralian weather – unaustralian because even folk from the Arctic Circle cry that it’s freezing cold. In the Arctic at least when it rains it falls as snow – a dry white dust that easily brushes off. The Blue Mountains offer a unique kind of soak that seeps right into your soul. Then come the complaints from the uninitiated, rain weary after three days trudging around in it. “I’d rather live in Canada than live in this!” Yes, you probably would, but that’s part of the attraction of the mountains, and it’s why all those silver streaks are standing there happily in their sensible outdoor gear. There’s a saying in the mountains – there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. Get the good gear and you’re right to go.

Yet for the musos actually from the Arctic Circle such as The Jerry Cans, they’ve found their ‘other world’, a far departure from the Australian places they’ve previously played, melting  in the heat, discovering only then that the reason they developed a style of playing so fast was to stop themselves from freezing to death. From Adelaide to Darwin they preserved their organs from overheating on frenetic energy at a gazillion degrees. The weather doesn’t seem to have impeded their throat singing, electrified fiddle and squeeze box filled riot of a style. Here they discover they can finally crank it up and get back to their original pace. And the crowd rises to meet them, foot stomping in the newly created dance pit at the front of the Guinness tent – a welcome inclusion in an event that has always been considered a  ”concert” festival – one where you can expect to be able to sit comfortably in your bucket seats without your view being jiggled into obscurity – now there is room for both kinds of audience – the dancers and the dedicated listeners, and a wonderful world it is that can comfortably accommodate the two.

David Ross Macdonald presents a twangy six strings of metal  guitar that looks as if it could do with a bit of new brass, but it comes across sweet like a classical guitar, using a capo fretted style so soft and light that the end result is not unlike a uke. He invites the audience to join him as he croons upon how badly he craves to be held, and though his guitar looks like it might have seen better days, it’s perfect for such a setting on a night like this, offering a sound that’s subtle yet delivers a surprising level of depth.

The Mission Songs Project brings new life to the voices of the stolen generation and indigenous Australians who were splintered from their cultures when they were made to sing in a foreign language. Today, traditional languages are so far removed from their vernacular that singing in English has become the mainstay, the local languages have become the foreign tongue. Yet everything has its resurgence if you can claim it before it achieves vanishing point. The stories are heartfelt and beautifully sung – perhaps not with the campfire instruments of their natural settings, but the end result is one that adapts well to the contemporary stage and travels to a diverse and broad audience – for The Mission Songs Project, this is mission accomplished, and accomplished incredibly well.

In a festival world where every  outfit seems to have developed the mandatory uke moment, comes the strident yards of  a bush ranging balladeer – uke man William Crighton – nine parts murderer and one part hipster, tantalising the drama enthralled-audience, half of whom are  scared out of their minds that he might wield his tiny stringed box like an axe and murder them on the spot as he thumps between the rows– the other half of whom are hoping to hell that he will! Yet William makes his way back to the stage and continues his conquest to drown you in his jaded and heartbroke view of the world without ever shedding even a drop of blood.

Meanwhile the ground becomes a cup more filled with water-making-mud than one half empty, and the deserted stalls and food courts in the school grounds stand forgotten as no-one can reach them without a plank.

The 2016 Youth Award Winners The Bean Project  pulled off a surprisingly sorrowful set of sadness for ones who’ve yet to spend their youth. The brass section of this mighty duo invokes the gentlest French horn, muted the old fashioned way, with a palm holding back the full force of the sound. It is reserved, civilized, and remains gentlemanly, until Bryce Turcato takes away his hand and builds to a punchy solo, fluid with delicately placed 9ths and unresolved 7ths, while his mate Ben Langdon stares at him earnestly through his horn rimmed glasses, and flicks back his long blonde bob as he deftly states to his departed love, “I’ve never been alone more than I am here in your bed”.  The rays of light reached down and kissed him when she left, he says, before telling us that they cut their teeth in noisy pubs where not even the walls were listening. It’s an unsettling surprise now, here, in this theatre, he tells us, to finally have our attention. After Bryce finishes ripping through his brass staccato, he falls back into a noble style, summoning images of a call to hunt, all regal caps and whips and beagles.

“This next song will be sung in Islamic,” says the singer from My Bubba. This is a duo of damsels, one of whom looks like she’s emerged from legal secretarial school, with her closed-toe cloth pumps and knee length linen black shift, a look finished with a single strand of plastic aqua coloured pearls. They sing with the restraint of those who might be found in the dusty chambers of the law academy, yet the result of all that restraint produces something akin to an angelic ascendance, with soft harmonies beautifully entwined around a heavenly, harp like instrumental style. They look as though they might butterfly kiss each other at any moment with a naked eyelash.  These are the kind of virginal maidens that can maintain their composure and remain incongruously well groomed amidst a sea of people with wet hair and faces flung with splats of rain. If you can imagine the restraint that may invoke in their vocalising, then you’ve grasped the concept.

By Sunday, Stage 6 is dubbed Big Top Lake, and the Tantric Turtle along with all the other venues on the green are pulled.  A quick rethink and the audience and most of the acts are all reshuffled. No-one who has already played misses out. A new program is issued, the details are publicised on social media, and everyone is right to go. According to the seasoned stage crew who have built this mini city countless times and painstakingly pack it all down at festival end, this decision was more to do with the indoor lake and wanting to make sure everyone had a great time than anything else. Though folklore may want it remembered differently, it was less to do with the depth of the mud, which as far as outdoor events go, wasn’t as bad as it might have been. You might say it was deep enough, but not as deep as the festival from somewhere up north, where once upon a time some chick went so far down in the mud that she completely disappeared and has never been seen since, or so the story goes. Perhaps she showed up sometime later in the Manning Bar at Sydney Uni. But this is the Blue Mountains, where you’d have to think she selected her moment of re-emergence to coincide with first beers at the ever popular Boho Bar, run by all the dedicated mums and dads and rank and file members of Katoomba’s P & Cs. The festival is the major fund raiser, and the flush of funds surging through the veins of the schools for the past 21 years has made for a formidable contribution to a cash strapped cultural enclave of a town that couldn’t have achieved this in any other way. It’s an undeniable contribution to the advancement of wellbeing for the local munchkins, but you’ve got to wonder how they get on when the playground is as trashed as this – yet Katoomba is a town with a can-do kind of pride, a place where people are going to make do with whatever they’re handed to make do with. At least there’s no cars bogged in at 3am with volunteers desperately trying to pull them out, in a push-me-pull-you kind of experience never to be forgotten. And never to be repeated, now that parking is banned from the grounds.

The full gamut of natural disasters may have threatened to unleash the doors of doom upon the festival many of times– yet they never have. From deep mud to the high winds that huffed and puffed til they blew Lurline Pav down before opening a few years back, to this year’s  demise of the main indoor venue – Katoomba RSL – which burnt to the ground just a couple of weeks ago, this festival, like Katoomba itself,  is a foot soldier of survival. You can blow her big top down, you can burn her to the ground, but the show will go on, and the founding Festival Co-Directors Bob Charter and Al Ward are well seasoned masters of the quick switch.

Though this year sees the departure of co-founder Al Ward after 21 successful years in production, Bob still managed to pull off the switch and brought the shy wallflower that is the Palais Royale into play while the cinders at the RSL were still hot. Even the most established K-Town aficionados were not yet acquainted with this grand old dame of art deco Katoomba, who willingly submitted her services to the impromptu role of third venue for the festival.  The plush comfort and stately grandeur of the Palais Royale was well admired by all – a venue whose grandiose chandeliers set  the mood for dulcet tones that could woo even the most jaded festival goer.

Reaching out to this venue is a master stroke for the festival, and you can be sure bands and revelers alike will definitely want her back. It’s too good a venue to refuse for a festival that stands proud amongst a battlefield of fallen events. And as the much loved Blue Mountains Music Festival heads towards her quarter century of service, long may she reign.  All hail The Festival, and all she represents.

– Elizabeth Walton is a freelance writer, photographer and musician

%d bloggers like this: