Review: St Jeromes Laneway Festival Sydney, A Folkie’s Perspective

Laneway Festival
Image Courtesy of St Jeromes Laneway Festival

Ever since the St Jeromes Laneway Festival booked Mumford and Sons for their 2010 event right before they became the world dominating band they are today I’ve been a fan. My friends had been telling me to go for a few years prior but it was the 2010 lineup – that also included Sarah Blasko, The Middle East and Florence and the Machine – plus its move to the Sydney College of the Arts venue that clinched it for me. While Laneway is an indie festival at heart it always brings me back for the smattering of folky, acoustic goodness that features on the lineup each and every year

As I wandered into the newly extended Callan Park venue is Rozelle the sweet sounds of Little May filtered over the treetops from the Garden Stage. I’m really proud of these guys – a firm Timber and Steel favourite – for the trajectory their musical career is taking at the moment. Their appearance at Laneway came as a result of taking out the triple j Unearthed and while their early opening spot meant the crowds were no where near as big as they would be later in the day, there was a definite buzz around the park for Little May. A couple of years ago Tigertown had the same slot and it just seems like the perfect way to ease you into Laneway – there’s nothing like the mid morning sun, finding your festival bearings and listening to indie-folk.

Next on my “to see” was Cass McCombs, an artist I have a passing knowledge of but whom many of my peers rave about. Standing in the exposed Courtyard Stage (the limited shade of the peppercorn tree was already well populated) I listened to the American singer-songwriter make his way through a set of country inspired rock tunes. I thought the same thing when I saw Jake Bugg at Splendour in the Grass last year – what Cass McCombs presented was good, I just don’t think it was any better or any more deserving of a place on the Laneway stage than any of the hundreds of country-inspired singer-songwriters I see playing to half empty clubs around the country every week. His talent is obvious, his performance was solid and there were a few people really excited about his set (the guy next to me turned to me unsolicited and said “Who is this? It’s great! So country!”) but for the most part I failed to see what the buzz was about.

From the Cass McCombs set we made our way to hill overlooking the side-by-side Garden and Park stages to catch an afternoon of folky goodness from Vance Joy, Frightened Rabbit and Daughter. I really like the way that Laneway Festival has expanded outside of the walls of the Sydney College of the Arts and into Callan Park for the “main” stages rather than cramming everyone into what is now the Courtyard Stage. Having the elevation of the hill rolling down into the stages was superb, allowing us “older” patrons to have a bit of a sit down on the grass with a clear view of the stage while the young’uns danced up a storm at the front. I hope this is extension of the festival grounds is here to stay – and that the council is listening!

Vance Joy was the man of the hour when he walked on stage in front of a massive crowd for his 2:30pm set. I’d seen him last year at Splendour in the Grass at the height of his “Riptide” stardom and it looks as though he has his festival performance – with his full band behind him – down to a perfect science. Kicking off with God Loves You When You’re Dancing opener “Emmylou” and then deftly moving through the rest of his EP throughout his set Vance Joy had the crowd jumping and singing in the afternoon sun. When the ukulele appeared for “Play With Fire” the crowd went wild, a state of excitement they managed to maintain as Vance Joy wrapped up proceedings with “Riptide”. I think the crowd might have been bigger later in the day when Lorde performed her highly anticipated set, but the energy during Vance Joy’s appearance would not be replicated for the rest of the festival.

Next up were Frightened Rabbit who have managed to shake their comparison Mumford and Sons (which seems solely based on front man Scott Hutchison’s rythmic acoustic guitar sound) and instead earning their reputation as an amazing live band. For a group that boasts more guitarists than is usually recommended Frightened Rabbit still manage to make their sound melodic, complex and layered. This isn’t just a wall of sound, it’s a considered presentation of songs with every instrument playing its part. Hutchison’s reputation as a mouthy Scotsman was fully realised with plenty of in between song banter, berating of the audience and swearing in that charming way that only a Scotsman can. A fantastic performance and the perfect follow on from the sweet folk of Vance Joy.

I’ve been following a writing about Daughter since they first popped up as part of the Communion scene in 2011. Their simple instrumentation – vocals, guitars and percussion – lends itself very well to the indie-folk scene but in truth these guys have firmly moved on from any folk roots they may have once had and have more in common with bands like The XX and Alt-J. I still thoroughly enjoyed their Laneway set as the sun dipped behind the college and the intense heat of the day started to abate. Drawing heavily from their 2013 album If You Leave – which in turn draws heavily from their earlier EPs – Daughter definitely won over the crowd with select cuts like “Youth” and “Amsterdam”.

Daughter were the last of the folkier bands on the line – despite the recent announcement of an acoustic tour Cloud Control have long since shed any folk leanings – so we settled in at the Garden and Park stages and watched the crowds ebb and flow while the likes of Lorde, Haim, Chvrches and The Jezabels played on. I love this festival for so many reasons – its location in Sydney’s inner-west away from the bigger parks and stadiums, its ability to book acts like Lorde and Vance Joy before they’re massive, the relaxed vibe of the bigger stages, the fact I could sit on the grass and enjoy the music – and I’m so glad that indie-folk is still an important part of it. As long as Laneway is able to maintain this quality, both in lineup and presentation, they’ll have me as a lifetime fan.

Review: The Falls Festival, Marion Bay, Tasmania

Ponchos are the latest fashionPhotos by Stu B.

So now to the fun bit, the music!

Day 2, Monday 30th December, rolled around and as we planned our day, we were a bit excited about some unknowns and some stalwart festival acts, it was going to be a great day.

First up, on the Field Stage, at a very reasonable lunch hour was local Foster a Band competition winner Lulu an The Paige Turners. Knowing little but what I gleaned from the Falls Festival App description, I was hopeful for something interesting, lo and behold, the Paige-Turners turned out to be a bigger than expected group of young men, resplendent in white dress shirts, black suspenders and bowties complete with drums, cello, banjo, acoustic guitar, keyboard and who knows what else! Lulu herself stepped on to stage looking like she stepped out of an old timey movie in a frilled lavender dress that would either float beautifully or become her own personal parachute in the windy conditions. Obviously a lot of friends were in the crowd, or at least local and loyal fans, as many shouts of encouragement met them before they even played a note.

Lulu and The Paige Turners Opening with ‘Begin-agains’ from their EP Bookends and Begin-again delivered a strong, strummy guitar intro, quivering vocals, subtle backing harmonies and touches of a soul pitch to her vocals. It’s a very indie pop style but very easy to lose yourself in. To follow up their opening, the slower track, ‘The Mean Reds’ also from the EP mellowed out the audience, becoming solemn at times. With a strong banjo melody and sweet, hushed tones of the harmonies, it was more like the lullaby style we’ve seen from a number of singer/songwriters but with a surprise build with drum and electric bass almost reminiscent of a Mumford and Sons hoedown.

The rest of her set was equally diverse with bluesy bass lines, cool vibes, raspy, rolling, gravely gutsy verses, sentiments stripped down to a Capella accompanied by clicks and whistling, and of course, many a banjo solo from probably the happiest Banjo player I’ve seen of late.

It’s a wonderful mix on stage, of piano intros, rhythm on a snare drum played by Lulu, tales of a broken heart, dischordant harmonies to really set the tone, not to be out done by angsty, angry, passionate vocals. Lulu is a multi-instrumentalist playing percussion, guitar and violin, but also delivering vocals reminiscent of Kate Miller Heidke or Tori Amos. All of this she achieves while also performing with a cold that would likely render her voiceless after her set.

Well in with the audience, they brought out a brand new song, ‘Bright Eyes’, a song she was not sure what it was actually about but “sometimes the universe gives you a song for a reason”. Beautiful lightly treated, stripped back sound with just the simplest of accompaniment graced the enraptured field. Their musicianship was all about the lyric weaving it’s way across the melody, and the 3 piece harmonies by the Paige-Turners with room for an instrumental break and some epic violin by Lulu, like she and it had a private dance to complete. ‘A Little Secret’ changed the mood, with a very country feel to the full instrumental sound and beat yet cleverly walked the fine line mixing between full sound and stripped back line “little secret”. Amusingly, keyboard and the banjo had almost a russian dance off mid song.

Their final song was full of thanks and appreciation for the crowds support, and delivered their first single release, a definite favourite, ‘The Music Box’. A stuccato piano intro, great harmony based vocals  and full band sound behind string and catchy melody had us all nodding to the beat. There was even an instrumental break showcasing the cello and of course a huge violin presence Lulu in breaks. I found it really catchy and could easily hum it all day with it’s killer vocals, Lulu’s passionate stage presence, it all makes for a warning: keep an eye out, Lulu and the Paige-Turners should take stages by storm.

Big Scary at Falls Festival Marion BayWe popped over to the Valley stage to check out Big Scary with their big piano and drum sound and 2 part harmonies. They’re certainly genre-defying and on the Falls stage, combining their slow piano stylings with heavy base and drums, created an ethereal quality to their set and sound. A really pleasant poppy, chill out band for the setting and time.

Paper Kites at the Falls Festival Marion BayWe headed back to the Field stage to catch The Paper Kites and watching their band tune a banjo, it struck me that I wanted to renaming this stage the Banjo Stage! It’s always promising when a banjo is sound checked, almost guaranteed a good hoedown. The five piece, opened with a strong drum beat/line and mellow guitar over the top and calm vocals wafting on the breeze. The crowd grew quickly, attracted to their ethereal indie quality. Their set saw great cohesion of vocal and instruments, working as one, blending when needed, separating when wanted.

They played “Young”, a more synth based track with finger plucking strings over the top. There was a steady crowd dancing up the front, from within, someone releases glitter across the top of the crowd and it floated over them much like the lyrics and vocals. A very mellow set with a solid under current of instrumental indie cool.

At times their set is airy, with floaty piano intros and breathy yet strong vocals. Other times, like when playing “Bloom”, an older song that the crowd can sing along too, a more plucky vibe sets the the crowd screaming and intensifies the atmosphere while still delivering beautiful harmonies that even a crowd can carry. Then they effortlessly add drums and banjo to truly catchy effect. I love the whistling break, crowd tried to whistle along and ended up sounding like drunk birds.

Their new song, “Cold Kind Hand”, is a more indie rock vibe with the femanine vocals playing beautifully off the big earthy drums beats. Staying true to their sound, their new stuff is as equally welcome as their old stuff. Take that Regurgitator.

James Vincent McMorrow at Falls Festival Marion BayI’m a complete novice when it comes to  James Vincent McMorrow, so when we headed to the Valley stage to catch his set, I was delighted to see a crowd had already formed, eagerly anticipating his set. Walking on stage to a rousing welcome from the audience, McMorrow opened with his breathtaking falsetto, reminiscent of early Matt Corby ethereal vocals, over simple piano chords, building to a faster speed with clapping, percussion and backing vocals. I saw in an instant the appeal and why so many are clamouring for his music. The crowd continued to stream in to the field as overall sound, now filled with bass to round out the effect, rolled up the ampitheatre. His voice delivers tones of Bon Iver but devled deeper within himself, ultimately creating an earthy, grounded effect.

His set celivered variety, with synth beat under harmonised vocals, the simplicity and stripped back nature of which was mezmerising. He is skilled at gently bringing new instruments in to the tracks, I didn’t even notice the piano build in to one song, and yet it ended solely on a tight vocal/piano harmony. He claimed nervousness as it had been a year and a half since his last big performance. He merely hoped his nerves were endearing, but to everyone present, not a nervous moment had been witnessed. Launching back in to his moody and soft, almost tentative vocals and delicious piano, echoing drum beats herald crowd favourites and everyone is lost in the performance.

London Grammar at Falls Festival Marion BayI’m one of those people who has heard of London Grammar, and has probably even heard their hits, but having been a bit of a musical hermit of late, I was keen to catch them in full swing on the Valley stage. The haunting intro and her voice flowing off the stage accompanied by keyboard and little else told me I was in for a wonderful show. “Hey Now” had a hypnotic effect on every member of the audience, ending in the kind of silence where you can hear a pin drop. And then there was the rapturous applause.

I can see why Hannah has been compared to Florence Welsh and Kate Bush, her voice dominates over the bass, electric guitar and djembe. But, not just a beautiful voice, she can take on the keys, build a melody that emerges alone only to wend through her soulful, lilting lyrics. She is a statuesque leading lady, yet manages stillness, poise, focus and delivers pitch perfect, stunning vocals that had the audience entranced. Whether they need to engage the audience with more in the way of stage presence is debatable, what they don’t have in presence, they make up for with atmosphere and sheer soundscape.

Hannah was experiencing the worst hayfever she has ever had because there is a unique type of grass in Tasmania and nowhere else in the world. With that revelation, it was amazing her vocals weren’t affected. Their wildly popular cover of Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” was to be expected, a popular choice with the crowd with it’s keys opening making way for the whining, stripped back electric guitar, reminiscent of The xx’s sparse production style.

With the crowd thoroughly in the mood, a staffer comes on stage with a giant birthday cake to celebrate Hannah’s birthday, for which the crowd sang happy birthday and she was incredibly excited as the cake was gluten free meaning she could actually enjoy eating it after their set. Fittingly, they celebrated the moment with a song the crowd could all sing along to, “Caught in the Middle”. To wrap up, they delighted the audience with “Metal and Dust” with it’s midway upbeat synth beats and keys which created a wall of sound crawling up the hill from the valley stage.

Violent Femmes at Falls Festival Marion BayI am of the age to have just been alive when their first, and arguably most famous, album was released, but I sure as hell knew about them and have danced in to many a late night with Blister In The Sun blaring. So needless to say, I was at the Valley stage for the Violent Femmes set. Just walking on stage they received a huge welcome from the crowd. And with out any ado at all, they cracked straight in to it with “Blister in the Sun”. They played like their album release was last year, like they do it all the time, and most of the crowd was up and dancing without a second thought. Naturally, with their time in the industry and their experience, they could play each track with a kind of laid back delivery, but full of cheer and that cool swagger attitude. Effortless in fact. They dubbed themselves the Grandfathers of folk-punk and to be blunt, they’re dead right on that call. And of course, they are one of those acts that can play their album from start to finish and hold every person in the palm of their hands for every single track, in spite of us all knowing what would come next. “Kiss Off” went off, the big slappy bass tones of “Please Do Not Go” had the crowd going crazy,  “Add It Up” had everyone singing every word at the top of their voice, and I was having a bit of a Reality Bites flashback. It was a glorious set, they sounded almost exactly like they did the day it was released and they were such a joy to watch, clearly having a great time on stage.

The Cat Empire at Falls Festival Marion BayOur final folky act of the night was our name sake and one of our favourite acts, The Cat Empire. I wanted to make notes and recall all they played, highlight the nuances of their set, but in true Cat Empire style, they just nailed it. They have this ability to cheer a crowd as soon as they walk on stage, talk to us all like we’re personal friends just jamming at their place, and have us all singing, dancing, grooving and jumping along to every track. They played a great selection of their back catalogue interspersed with tracks from Steal The Light and they generally got the party really pumping. We, as a crowd moved and grooved as one, loving every second. They, as always, nailed it. I read a Faster Louder review of the Marion Bay Falls  that put the Cat Empire down to a “pale imitation of The Roots” due to their scheduling, but clearly the reviewer was at an alternate universe version of the same gig, because we saw nothing of that. In fact, The Roots were a disappointment to us, nothing like we expected, so much so, that we left half way through their set and headed to bed. We must have missed the good bit.

Finally the penultimate day rolled around. Day 3, Tuesday 31st December - New Years Eve and the reason we were all there.

Gossling at Falls Festival Marion BayAfter a lazy lie-in, we headed to the Field stage to see one of our favourites, Gossling who we enjoyed seeing back in 2011. What a difference 2 years makes, from opening spot on the main stage at Lorne to a modest crowd, to a mid afternoon Marion Bay Field Stage spot absolutely packed with punters. Having not yet caught the latest offering from Gossling, I wasn’t quite that sure what to expect but bouyed by her unassuming start and complete skipping of any kind of chattering intro, Helen and band kicked straight in to the set with glee and abandon. Her set was heartfelt yet forthright, pulling tracks predominantly from the new album Harvest of Gold. The intimate setting allowed Helen to tell the stories behind the songs; the  love song about a couple who had been together a long time, whose spark was there in the beginning but is no longer there and the resulting mutual break up; her early experiences with social media as an artist and that anyone can say anything they want online and she just has to stop being a little pussy; and the day to day observations and experiences of life. Particular highlights included “Songs of Summer” (co-written with Steve Parkin) and that lamentable opening line “On a  Friday night, a thousand weeks ago” replete with male vocals (by Alexander Burnett of Sparkadia on the record) as well as the sheer frustration meets pop sensibilities of “Challenge” and it’s social media mayhem. All in all, another delightful afternoon spent with Gossling.

The John Steel Singers at Falls Festival Marion BayHustling from one stage to the next meant we could get a glimpse of The John Steel Singers on the Valley stage and their dedicated fans clamouring to tyhe front of the stage. Their set was upbeat and at times delivered a psychedelic vibe to the over all indie sound. I’ve heard a bit about the group, especially because TnS contributor Haz is a bit of a fan boy, but I was truly delighted by their tight harmonies and elegant guitar work. An oldie but a goodie, “Strawberry Wine” was a particular favourite with the crowd and as we made our way to our next stop, the set was in full swing, crowd singing and dancing along and glimpses of harmonised spleandour taunted us.

Later in the day we found ourselves back at the Field stage to catch complete unknowns, Bombino. Within an instant, our reaction was “They’re so cool!” Rocking traditional garb albeit of shiny material, and sporting electric guitars, this was an outfit set to impress. Opening rocky riffs drew an instant crowd to dance along. Singing in their native language, inspite of having no clue what was being said, their music translated with a sense of storytelling that spoke directly to the soul each member of the audience.

Bombino at Falls Festival Marion BayThe easiest way to describe their sound is a kind of a meeting of world music and indie stylings. Band members hail from West Africa, Niger, so it’s desert music that they play with touches of a Reggae feel to their beat. Bombino delivered a consistent energy and tempo throughout their set, holding the crowd in their groove through to the end, with a huge cheer from the audience to thank them for the performance. This is the kind of group I think Ash Grunwald would love to jam with!

Emma Louise at Falls Festival Marion BayRecovering from Bombino, we were set put to catch Emma Louise at the Field stage. Having missed a lot locally for the last 18months, I was curious to see just how far from folk Emma Louise had moved. With a heady mix of synth keyboard, acoustic guitar and stripped back drum kit, it was hard to predict just what would arrive. She walked out on stage looking super slick, breathy backing vocals began and she strapped on her acoustic guitar, much to the appreciation of the volminous audience. Stunning, breathy harmonised vocals wafted over the crowd creating a haunting and still opening. She has really matured and grasped the ethereal indie sound that Matt Corby toyed with a few years ago but delivers it with strength, confidence and delicate handling of the style.

“Toys”  gave a clever meld of synth, guitar and those evocative vocals, smooth as butter and just as addictive. Her stage presence has come leaps and bounds since I last saw her at Falls in Lorne, a true professional graces the stage now and captures the audience, holding them with every lick of a lyric.

The crowd, as one, responded to each synth-laden ethereal moment creating a sense of anticipation. “Tessalate” erupted from a mournful synth opening, trilling guitar and tantalising snare that broke in to a solid bass drum rhythm. Emma Louise’s Florence-esque vocals wound their way through the soundscape, met with harmonised backing, building to a beautiful crescendo before a delicate ending.

The set was peppered with new and old tracks including the strong keyboard, drum rhythms and intertwined angelic vocals of “Atlasize” and the rolling intimacy of “Keep Me Warm” allowed her great vocal range to tip in to and out of melancholic, interlocking harmonies to create an incredible, dreamlike atmosphere. And naturally, she ended with that favourite and original hit, “Jungle” which had the already large crowd heaving with enthusiasm and joy.

Crystal Fighters at Falls Festival Marion BayWhen we headed to the Valley stage for the Crystal Fighters, we had no real idea what to expect except that their bio included the word folktronica, so of course, I was there. The crowd were very excited for them and as they entered the stage they made an amazing visual impact as they were all dressed for the occassion. It seems this is what happens when a strange mix of percussion, glittery costumes and acoustic meets electric cohesion. No matter their cross-genre mix, the crowd were instantly dancing.

It all got a bit folkalicious when their txalaparta came into it’s fore (for those playing along, it’s like a giant xylophone played by two people at once), it was almost tribal in nature, matched with a thumping drum rhythm in an altogether stripped backing style to the vocals before the synth and full ensemble sound built in to a massive presence with crowd jumping and dancing feverishly. Did I mention they manage to include a ukelele in their dance music ensemble?

Love is all I’ve got for this act. Infectiously fun and impossible not to enjoy! I mean, you’ve got to love a bit of electric, hyper ukelele. They managed the crowd beautifully, taking us musically down to the beach (the real beach we could see from our vantage point), down through a
mellow, strummy intro in to the calyspo feel backing and harmonised vocals of “Plage”, where the synth builds before a big electric guitar line joins the party. I also adored the epic cow bell that features in “I Love London”. I think this is one of my favourite, highlight acts from the whole festival, a must see and a must to track down some of their back catalogue!

Grizzly Bear at Falls Festival Marion BayComing down from such a high energy set, we stayed at the Valley stage to catch Grizzly Bear
It was their second New Year’s Eve in Tassie and they seemed quite happy with their lot. Their opening number, “Speak in Rounds” brought with it the haunting quality of their vocals and the woozy atmospherics their sets are renowned for. They moved from one set to the next with such grace and ease that at times you’d forgotten that one song ended and another begun. The inextricably mellow and chilled resonance segued effortlessly in to echoey lament only to give way occasionally to a bluesy rock beat or to a revel in synthesizer gait.

Their performance is one of those truly enrapturing experiences, where their dreamy set can transport you to another reality, parrallel to the often frenetic energy of Marion Bay on a special occasion.

Neil Finn at Falls Festival Marion BayThe final folkishly influenced act on the Valley stage that night was the irrepressible, Neil Finn. We saw Finn take the stage back in Lorne and while that was a fun set, there was something more this time around. Whether the vibe of the Marion Bay festival or the hubbub of New Year’s Eve, either way, in that inimitable personality and presence, the audience was putty in Finn’s hands.

He crafted together a set filled with nostalgia, of hits and favourites as well as braw new works from recent album Dizzy Heights. Of the old songs, there was once voice as the crowd sang in unison, word for word, proving just how timeless Crowded House and Split Enz are. Of the new works, my favourite was the transidental temporary insantiy of “Pony Ride”, or that could just have been Finn’s explanation for the song and somehow we were all suddenly riding rainbows on unicorns with him, likely in hysterics. Title track “Dizzy Heights” and “Flying in the Face of Love” also were received well, but it was moments like Kirin J Callinan jumping in for a guitar solo on the Crowded House track “Locked Out” that made the set memorable. The spine tingling closer, one man on his knees and one guitar with no amped sound while crew changed over behind him for the next set, the thousands strong crowd with just the utterance of it’s opening  had us off singing “Better Be Home Soon” and claimed the defining moment of the night.

I don’t recall much of the actual New Year, with MGMT running over time, a quick countdown before kissing and hugging your nearest and dearest, or the random crowd members beside you, and then finally The Wombats hitting us with an onslaught of hits and subsequent dancing frenzy, it all just blurs together to be an energy filled night of frivolity with a matching hangover the next morning.

But, if you’re going to wake up with a hangover anywhere in the world, Falls Festival Marion Bay just moved up my list of acceptable places to do so.

Review: Traveller & Fortune, FBi Social, Sydney

Traveller and Fortune
Image Courtesy of Traveller & Fortune

Traveller & Fortune with Emma Davis, Huckleberry Hastings
FBi Social, Sydney, NSW
Thursday 30th January, 2014

Once again I found myself at the end of a Traveller & Fortune at FBi Social in Kings Cross, as the band packed up and faithful congratulated them on their show, almost apologising for the tiny crowd that had shown up that night. The Sydney live scene is a fickle thing and it boggles my mind that a band as good as Traveller & Fortune, with strong supports from Huckleberry Hastings and Emma Davis, will play to about 30 people on a Thursday night especially when they can easily fill rooms in Melbourne and their native Adelaide. But all I can think is that those that weren’t there missed out on a another amazing show.

Huckleberry Hastings has become a fixture on the live scene in recent months, popping up at so many gigs around the city he’s hard to miss. And there’s a reason Hastings is everywhere – his powerful voice and heart wrenching songs are captivating. I feel like we’re just scraping the surface of Huckleberry Hastings talent and it will be really interesting to watch him grow as an artist. If I had one word of advice for Huck, it’s that he explores the major keys a little more. The final song he played in his set, a newer track that tread the familiar theme of heartbreak, was a welcome respite due to its major chords and “happier” tone. I can’t wait to see what comes next for Huckleberry Hastings.

It’s so good to catch Emma Davis again. I didn’t manage to catch her recent tour with Brian Campeau but her recently released track “Stand Tall” was one of my favourite tracks of last year and gets a regular, almost daily spin on my iPod months after it was released. Her on stage presence is delightful, self-deprecating between songs and raw and honest during. In the hands of most solo singer-songwriters the electric guitar can be an unwieldy tool but in Emma Davis’ hands it becomes beautiful, understated and the perfect accompaniment to her tumbling folk songs. Most of Davis’ set was drawn from her 2010 self titled album, with the inclusion of “Stand Tall” and her cover of Sugar Ray’s “Every Morning”, and I’m really excited to see what she’s got in store for the rest of 2014.

I think there are two things that make Traveller & Fortune a pretty special band. Firstly the fact that it’s made up of a collection of singer-songwriters – Tom West, Todd Sibbin and Kaurna Cronin are just three of the band’s members whose solo projects Timber and Steel has covered – yet it seems to be a group without egos. Their sound just gels with each member adding to the whole, not show boating or over reaching.

Which brings me to the second reason I like Traveller & Fortune – the fact that they’re just such talented musicians. Among the band’s five members I think I counted at least nine different instruments, and that’s before you call out the different vocalists. But rather than being showy – rather than going through instrumental acrobatics in an effort to show off how good they are – Traveller & Fortune choose the right instrumentation for the song. Even if only six notes are played on a xylophone or the harmonica only makes a single appearance across the entire set, their inclusion on the songs is perfectly placed makes dragging them all the way to Sydney worthwhile. The way Traveller & Fortune layer their songs is just masterful.

Traveller & Fortune were launching their new EP I Am Only Snow and I have to say I really enjoyed hearing the tracks from it live. Probably my favourite track from the night is the single “Little Plastic People”, although the entire set was a joy and I just hope they keep coming back to Sydney.

And while this is the second time I’ve seen Traveller & Fortune play to a small Sydney crowd I hope this doesn’t discourage them for giving the city another chance. This band has an amazing sound and I really look forward to seeing how much they’ve grown next time they venture east.

Review: The Falls Festival, The Marion Bay Vibe

IMG_8801 - Version 2Photos by Stu B.

The Falls Festival is a funny beast – you have to choose between 3 states to attend, each with a slightly different line up. We chose Marion Bay, Tasmania for it’s chilled out, family friendly atmosphere, it’s absolutely stunning natural setting and because well, we haven’t been to Tassie for many years.

Having been to Lorne back in 2011/12, we had a few expectations about it’s little sister, Marion Bay, but what we discovered is that each site has it’s own unique style, pace and feel. With Lorne and Byron Bay selling out in the ever expected blink of an eye, we wondered whether the addition of Byron Bay as a third location (popular holiday destination and no stranger to big festivals) would be detrimental to the further afield, Marion Bay. Ticket sales were down but we found there was much more than just ticket sales to measure a festival by.

We made a real trip of it, flying in to Launceston for a night, driving down the East Coast in a hire car for two days (we even got to pat a Tassie Devil!), and spending a couple of nights either side of the festival in Hobart really appreciating the produce of Tasmania all on offer at the conveniently timed Taste of Tasmania which is definitely worth the visit. In short, before we arrived at Marion Bay, we were already in love with the place. Getting to the Marion Bay site is a bit tricky if you’re not a local driving there, however there is a very well organised bus system which we took, and where you kind of feel like you’re on a school trip, complete with that nervous energy buzzing round the passengers.

Marion Bay is the only Falls Festival which allows under 18s to attend, which I think is a really good option for the festival. In the lead up to the entry gates, and before your car is checked top to bottom for contraband alcohol (which if confiscated is given to the volunteers to drink at the after party – so it does go to a good cause), there is an alcohol amnesty, a lock up where you can store your grog instead of trying to sneak it in and simply collect it on your way out of the festival. We did see a number of cars stop and take up that option. In all, the festival has a much more relaxed and chilled out feeling. Some say that because there are children around, there is a natural reaction for the adults to behave a bit more and not go overboard on the alcohol. Other anecdotes told of those who successfully smuggled alcohol in who would head back to camp to drink their contraband and be so intoxicated that they never made it back in to the festival of an evening to see the big name bands… such a waste. But, it did mean we experienced one of the best festival crowds ever, complete with a bunch of little kids clad with epic ear muffs.

Tepee Village by Tepee LifeWe decided that since we were having one hell of a holiday away, that we would splurge on our accommodation for the festival. As with all of the Falls Festival sites, camping is included with your ticket. If you don’t want to haul your own camping gear, you can buy a gimme shelter ticket which will kit you out with a pop up tent and something to sleep on, already set up for your arrival. We went with the mother of all options and booked a Tepee for the full festival. These things are cool and environmentally friendly – made of recycled vinyl banners and bamboo poles, it’s a tent you can stand in, with space to sleep from 2-6 people. If being able to stand up in your tent isn’t the only appealing option for you, the tepee village also boasts a chill out, lounge room style common area with couches, coffee tables, power to charge your gadgets, shade cloths, funky night time lighting and some really cool people running the place. The only down side to being located in the centre of the festival was that it was away from toilets and showers and right next to the Village which is one of the late night venues. But, who needs a full night’s sleep anyway? On the plus side we were right in between the Field and Valley Stages meaning you could constantly drop in to your tent to drop off or pick up anything you needed. Tasmania, even in the middle of summer, can be bitterly cold and whips a wickedly chilly breeze straight through your bones while the sun blazes to hellishly hot temperatures any time the wind dies down. Being able to stop in for a quick layer or clothing change on the way between stages was indeed heaven.

The site itself had far more room than Lorne, with a full stretch of markets in the field between the two stage areas (where the Gimme Shelter and Tepee camping were as well as The Village) which made ducking between acts and stages a bit more energetic. The Field stage was a great little space, intimate even for a small crowd, and absolutely brimming with energy when a big crowd turns up (for Violent Soho or Solange for example). The Valley Stage, while sloping toward the stage isn’t quite the impressive ampitheatre that Lorne has, however it completely trumps Lorne by having the most spectacular view for any festival I’ve been to. I could sit on the rise and watch the sea and it’s hilly backdrop change colours from brilliant blues and emerald greens to a moody shifting between slate grey, cobalt blue and the kind of green you could only expect at the bottom of the ocean. It’s probably one of the most calming backdrops to set the scene for a festival like this.

View of Marion Bay and camping areas at Falls Festival 2013

Set over three nights, the first night saw only The Field Stage running to host the traditional opening night of any Falls Festival, Boogie Nights. Dressing up in theme is thoroughly encouraged, especially this year with the intergalactic theme that saw one couple lucky enough to win the opportunity to dance on stage with MGMT. We saw many, MANY wild and kooky costumes and it was clear Tasmania was going to be nothing to sniff at. Our favourite and most nerdy costume we thought should have won, was a young lass dressed, rather convincingly, as a Dalek. There were aluminium wrapped people, neon coloured fluffy outfits and event an amazing effort as a Sesame Street martian (yip yip yip!). We enjoyed Boogie Nights and it’s exemplary collection of boogie, funk, soul and groovy acts, none of which are in any way folky so don’t really warrant a review, but it’s one hell of a way to start a party. Our highlights were the incredibly silly antics and games of Legs Akimbo, amazing beat boxing by Tom Thum, the crazy outfit and intense energy, whole set dancing of The Correspondents and of course the excellent choices decade upon decade of Hot Dub Time Machine.

The next few days were filled with so many acts, that we decided to try and really pick out the folk influenced ones to review, and all that will all be revealed in part 2 very soon!

Entry to The Village at Falls Festival Marion BayBut to wrap up this piece, looking at the whole vibe and experience of Marion Bay, we couldn’t fault it. Great atmosphere, some fantastic site specific art throughout the site, a fantastic array of food and market stalls, plus the sheer room to move made the place really comfortable to spend a good few days. The vibe was amazing, relaxed, but still with a really positive energy, so much so, that it seems everyone on site was happy, all the time. That is no mean feat! But finally, we really loved the family friendly aspect of Marion Bay. We don’t have kids, but it’s a really pleasant place even without kids. It’s not over run with little ones, but they are an ever present, incredibly well behaved addition to the audience mix. There was plenty of activities for them to participate in, including the Festival Parade that saw a couple of hundred people build and create crazy costumes in the village throughout the festival all in time for the New Years Eve parade to the Valley Stage. Filled with punters young and old, headed by a golf cart, it was a superb representation of Love in all it’s forms.

If Woodford is too far away for you, or a little too folk heavy for your liking, then Falls Festival Marion Bay is a perfect alternative which still gives you a lot of similar experiences yet has a personality and style all of it’s own. Or, if they’ve got a great line up and that’s all you’re keen on, come for the space, the easy access to the beach, the pleasant weather and temperature and the awesome excuse for a getaway.

Review: The Little Stevies, Camelot Lounge, Sydney

The Little Stevies
Image Courtesy of The Little Stevies

The Little Stevies with Achoo! Bless You
Camelot Lounge Sydney, NSW
Thursday 7th November, 2013

A lot has changed since the last time I saw The Little Stevies live. Their bass player Robin Geradts-Gill has left the band. One half of the sister duo, Sibylla Stephen, is a new mother. And they’ve just released their most mature album to date in Diamonds For Your Tea. So I was pretty excited to be able to catch them at Sydney’s Camelot Lounge.

Opening for The Little Stevies were local duo Achoo! Bless You who were performing on the night with indie-folk go to drummer Sophia Felton on the skins. Achoo! Bless You write really sweet indie-pop folk songs and are definitely growing with every performance they do. Ash and Ross’s voices really do suit each other especially in their stand out track “Before We Say Goodbye” – these guys were a great choice as a support act.

The Little Stevies, complete with a full rhythm section, introduced themselves by saying “we’re going to play you our new album” – a promise that they delivered on for their entire set. Older material was scarce with Diamonds For Your Tea really coming to the fore and the result was really special.

Sibylla and Beth are obviously very comfortable in their new duo-with-a-backing-band setup and seemed to really be enjoying bringing their new material to the audience. The girls’ trademark harmonies (and relaxed banter) were in full force and despite some sound issues as a result of a lot of microphone swapping they were sounding absolutely beautiful in Camelot’s intimate space. I was especially impressed with the generous use of keyboards in The Little Stevies’ set – an instrument that hasn’t featured much in the band’s repertoire previously.

Most, if not all, of the new album’s tracks made an appearance with songs like “Thunder” (which is about Sibylla’s baby – I had no idea), “Shattered Dreams” and “Canadia” clear highlights. Older tracks like “Feel It” and “Accidentally” also got an airing and “Sister” also popped up as an unplanned encore. The current single and title track of the new album “Diamonds for Your Tea” closed out the main set and was probably my favourite track of the night – I caught myself singing along almost from the very beginning of the song!

It’s great to see how far The Little Stevies have come in the last year. A lot has changed – the more mature sound to the songs, the full band, the abundance of keyboard – but the key elements that I’ve always loved about The Little Stevies are as strong as ever. I’m so happy I got to see The Little Stevies again – I can’t wait until they’re back in Sydney!

Review: JamGrass Festival 2013, Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne

Image Courtesy of JamGrass

As I was boarding my plane to head down to Melbourne for the 2013 JamGrass Music festival I couldn’t help but wonder why I had chosen this event over countless others to devote my time and hard earned frequent flyer points to. On any given weekend there are countless of events around the country showcasing music from the folk, country, roots and acoustic genres (all the good stuff), many of which are within easy traveling distance of my home town – so why was I flying Melbourne stay in a dodgy hotel in the far flung northern suburbs for this one.

JamGrass is in many ways a unique event. An urban, indoor festival focused on a genre of music that is hardly cool (despite hipsters having a fondness for a banjo), JamGrass is almost the exact opposite of any other bluegrass festival in the country. But it works. And it keeps drawing me back.

I think the reason it works is that JamGrass has grown out of a community of like minded individuals. This is not a commercial venture, the folks behind the festival are not professional events managers and there’s no pressure to cram the latest and greatest indie kids into the lineup. JamGrass is about the music. It’s about the musicians. And it’s about the jams.

That’s not to say that JamGrass isn’t a slickly run festival. Its enviable two stage setup in the Thornbury Theatre means downtime between performances is kept to a minimum. The festival generally runs to time (day two this year started about half an hour late due to one of the bands getting stuck in traffic) and bands are ready to go pretty much as soon as the lights come up on stage despite the reputation bluegrass artists have for constantly tuning. So many other festivals around the country could learn a thing or two from JamGrass about how to program consecutive concerts.

And I haven’t even gotten to the lineup yet! JamGrass has grown up from the Melbourne bluegrass and jam scene so has its pick of the crop when lining up the local talent. Add to that the reputation JamGrass has established over the last couple of years, drawing in talent from around the country along with its proximity to other Australian Bluegrass festivals meaning it has access to touring international acts means the quality of acts is exceptional.

This year I took in the Friday and Saturday nights of the festival, flying out of Melbourne before the festival finished on Sunday evening. In the 48 hours I was in town I experienced some of the best bluegrass this country has to offer. Normally I’d pull out a list of highlights but to be honest every single moment of the festival was exceptional. I think if anyone was following me on twitter throughout the festival weekend would have seen just how excited I was:

If I’m pushed I’d have to say that of the artists I haven’t seen before I was absolutely blown away by singer-songwriter James Kenyon whose unique voice and alt-country songs were just stunning and The Company who seem to be redefining bluegrass for an Australian audience and whose musicianship is just a step above. In a sea of highlights Mustered Courage’s set on the first night stood out with appearances by The Quarry Mountain Dead Rats and Kat Mear (among others) and an impromptu conga line through the middle of the performance.

But I don’t want to take away from any of the other artists who played throughout the weekend. The Green Mohair Suits, The Steamgrass Boys and The Morrisons proved that Sydney bands can pick with the best of them. Jimi Hocking’s mastership of the blues mandolin was a welcome respite from the frantic picking of a lot of the other acts. From the USA, Patt and Possum were just superb with some extra special fiddle and piano based tunes. The Stetson Family managed to prove their multi-skilling by tweeting me from the stage while they entertained the crowd. The list just goes on.

I’ll be going to a lot of festivals between now and the next JamGrass Music Festival – in fact I’ve been to a couple already since JamGrass took place in October – but I’ll be hanging out to next year for JamGrass 2014. There’s just something very special about this festival and I’m so happy I was part of it this year.

Track By Track: Graceful Mistake, Tomas Strode & The Tour Guides

Graceful Mistake
Image Courtesy of Tomas Strode & The Tour Guides

Melbourne six-piece indie-folk band Tomas Strode & The Tour Guides recently released their brand new album Graceful Mistake. Lead singer and songwriter Tomas Strode has taken the time to take us through the album for a very special Track by Track.

“Graceful Mistake” – The title track was one of those songs that pretty much wrote itself. During the pre-production phase of recording process I sat down to write a song that outlined all the themes on the album, and this song was what came out. The song focuses on the constant motion of time, the need to always reflect on the past and the lessons learnt with growing up. I think it introduces a more mature sound for the band.

“Bella” – This song came together while experimenting with open tunings on the guitar. It’s a pretty common story about a girl and the end of a relationship. The production on this song was a lot of fun, the choice to use handclaps and beat-boxing for the percussion really landed this song in a great space!

“A Thousand Voices” – This would definitely be one of my favourite songs on the album. When I listen to it I hear everything I wanted the album to be. The mood of this one, set by Melbourne ladies Aluka, builds slowly to a big sound in the final section. The song itself is quite an old one of mine, a reflection of love lost…

“Don’t Be Offended” – Writing this song was the first step towards the bigger production you can hear on the album. Before the lyrics or melody took shape, I had already come up with horn lines and arrangement ideas for the song. The first demo of this one was a lot heavier, with a strong rock beat and distorted guitars, when we came to record the album we decided a more delicate approach would suit the overall vibe a lot more.

“Loaded Gun” – I wrote this song as a duet for myself and fellow Melbourne singer-songwriter/bandmate Amy Alex. It’s a classic boy/girl duet really, and maybe as close to pop song as I’ll ever get! In production it didn’t seem like it was going to be a highlight, but I think once we had finished the album it had become a stand out.

“The Sword” – This track was the lead single off our album and the first taste of what was a new sound for The Tour Guides. It was written around the idea of blame and how certain events can’t ever be the responsibility of just one person. The horns in this one really add to the upbeat 70’s style production, even though it’s probably one the of darkest themed songs on the album.

“Bible Learned” – As the title might suggest, this songs tackles the idea of religion. I wrote this song quite a while ago, so when we got to the the pre-production stage it was really nice to work this onto the album. We let the arrangement for this song write itself. While in the studio we recorded a number of different takes of everything then pieced it together while mixing it. It was a real pleasure to watch it grow over the six months of recording.

“Broken Road” – This song surprised me, being the favourite of nearly every person I spoke to. I didn’t start off liking this song a whole heap, but it started to grow on me once the band pushed it for the follow up single. It was such a pleasure having the Aluka girls feature on this album, I think they really made this song special … We also have a cool little video clip for this one, you should check it out!

“Saved By The Bellé” – When it came to recording, we decided we would reinvent this song and feature it as part of the album, even though it was on our original EP The Cat & The Fiddle. It was one of the first songs I wrote as a songwriter and because of that it has stuck with me. Simply put, it’s about growing up.

“Too Busy Digging” – This one almost didn’t make it onto the album, it was problematic right from the start, I don’t think any of us had really settled on a solid idea. After piecing it together in the studio, we decided it would be a nice way to finish the album. I’ve always had a bit of a love/ hate relationship with the lyrics of this track, I think maybe because I never saw myself writing politically themed songs. It turns out, in fact, that people really love this song.

Graceful Mistake is available now via Bandcamp or iTunes.

Review: SteelBirds, Oh the Light

Oh The Light
Image Courtesy of Steelbirds

In the time I’ve had to consider it, I’ve been astonished by how little buzz I’ve heard around SteelBirds’ debut. Oh the Light has been, so far, a hidden musical treasure. No, I’m not talking about another aggressively anti-social cult classic. I’m talking about a comfort food you don’t know you’re missing. This is, undeniably, a delicious record, lovingly recorded, carefully arranged and beautifully played.

Don’t take our word for it. The album is streaming on SteelBirds’ Bandcamp. Go listen to it. Right now.You can read the rest of this review if you want. I may have more to say. But meanwhile, let the music answer the important questions. It’s ok. It can’t hurt you. Just Press Play.

If I had to explain why Oh the Light hasn’t got the recognition it deserves, I’d say it was down to its unusual blend of flavours. At times, it’s reminiscent of the country rock and rich harmonies of the Eagles or America. But carefully as he wields it, Luke O’Connor’s blue-eyed soul singing cuts starkly against that. It’s too loud and glitzy to be soft rock, mixed wide and full, like Jeff Lynne’s version of the wall of sound. The songs have strong momentum, and are sometimes catchy like the best pop music. But they’re also quite long, and, perhaps, too self-consciously verbose for that label.

Genre mixing is commonplace in modern alternative music. And listening to SteelBirds is no harder than listening to a dozen other bands with disparate influences. But the sound they make is, as far as I can tell, unique. And uniquely hard to write about. If I have to name a contemporary,, it would be Caitlin Rose, whose new album The Stand In received a lot of acclaim from the country music press earlier this year.

What SteelBirds really need is a song on the radio. “Above the Sky” was well-chosen as the first single, drawing me in easily with its striking dips and swells, strong imagery and excellent electric guitar work from Shannon Trottman. But “This is your Life” would be equally good – short, fast and loud, the closest they get to straight rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe even “Worthy Man”, with mariachi horns, powerful marching drum beat and O’connor taking the chance to show off just a little. “Take the Lead” as a balls out country ballad, complete with fiddle, would prove their authenticity. But closing track “Falling Fire”, with its perfect piano hook, and the twists and turns it takes to get to its huge chorus would be an even more compelling slow-burner. Damn. That’s half the album.

All of this does beg the question of where on the radio all these songs would fit. But that’s not your problem. You’re already in on the secret. My point Is that this music speaks for itself much better than I can speak for it. If you’re good at multi-tasking, you’re already making up your own mind. If you’ve not started listening yet, here’s one more chance.

I’m not saying, by the way, that this album is perfect. The lyrics are sometimes too wordy, and sometimes prone to excessive cliché. Ekamai seems like a joke I don’t get, which I wouldn’t mind if the chorus weren’t a giant logical fallacy. But that sort of thing will only worry you after the fact. Comfort food, after all, is all about excess, all about living in a moment.

Whatever their genre, SteelBirds are a remarkable band, and Oh the Light reflects the quality of their musicianship as much as the variety of their inspiration. I believe they deserve much more critical attention than they’ve received so far. But more importantly, I think they deserve to comfort you, in your car, at a barbecue, on your ipod. They won’t disappoint you. Just press play.

Review: Bushstock 2013, Shepherds Bush, London UK

Bushstock titleReview and photos by KT Bell

When you live in London and you like Folk music, Communion is the Mecca of your music world. The fact that Communion is going strong in Australia and had a huge influence on the very beginnings of Timber and Steel, well, it just makes any Communion experience all that much more special.

The Communion brains trust built Bushstock, a multi-venue local folk extravaganza complete with outdoor beer gardens, sets in Churches and pubs crammed full with music lovers and musicians. In typical London fashion, I’d managed to double book myself and could only hit up the festival for a few hours in the afternoon missing all the big name attractions, which might have been a blessing in disguise as it meant I could focus on checking out the newer, upcoming acts on the UK scene.

The average music festival in Australia is an outdoor affair taking full advantage of our glorious weather and usually a bit of a trek to a venue that can hold the volume of people likely to attend. Bushstock is exactly the opposite, a selection of venues within short walk of each other in London’s increasingly trendy Shepherd’s Bush. Of the four venues for the festival, only two were operating early in the day so I found myself shifting regularly between a church and a pub, opposite ends of the venue spectrum mentally.

Bushstock 1I arrived at the church in time to catch the last song by George Ezra. A young and relaxed performer, his distinct voice of mellow, treacle like tones was more than fitting for a church setting. Humble in his stage presence, George would be an interesting act to catch again and soon.

Then was the first Hike to the Defectors Weld, the pub venue a 5min walk away.

DSC_0651The pub had a tiny stage set between a door and the main seating area and the bar itself. happily, being so early in the day, the room was open enough to find a comfortable spot to watch Sam Fender. He was young and full of soul expressed through an acoustic guitar and the agony of being a teenager with his set littered with songs from puberty. He has raw talent and the passion and intensity of Kim Churchill at times, complete with intelligent lyrics for someone so young. Sam is quite clearly in the it’s of the Communion chaps so keep an eye out for his rise on the scene.

Bushstock 3Then it was time to hot tail it back to the Church to catch Annie Eve. She was not quite what I had expected, but then I didn’t know what to expect from any of the acts. She was much more reserved and introspected than the previous act and in a completely different, serene setting. Her voice reminds me of a cross between Lisa Mitchell and Julia Stone with a very distinct sound and style to her singing, melancholic and lamentably solemn. While it didn’t get my juices flowing, she had great orchestration and flowing musicality to her entire set. It will be interesting to see where her music goes and how it further develops.

Bushstock 4And if course, it was the time to return to the Defectors’ Weld for Young War. A deceptive name, this act was a solo guy layering guitar and voice over each other in loops to create his own backing. He strikes me as the guy who mucks around with music in his room honing the technical only to surprise us on stage with actual talent and strong technical backing. I could only tell he was nervous by his shaking hand programming his guitar tuner. He was more like acoustic soul tending to r&b but not this shit pop r&b hip hop meld bullshit, the real rhythm and blues in acoustic guSivuitar and real ingenuity. He has great potential once he explores more songwriting outlets and finds more of his voice.

Bushstock 5I hustled back to church for Sivu (pronounced see-voo) Which was one of the main acts I was aware of before the festival. Sivu was a complete band with string section and reminiscent of skipping girl vinegar but with less of the happy band vibe and a more indie grunge with orchestration feel. Their only song I was familiar has an awesome film clip filmed in MRI and happily their performance was just as good live as in the video clip. Tending more toward the indie spectrum, they have a good cross section of fans to see them have a steady interest and gigs.

Bushstock 6My last trek before heading off to my double booking, saw me back at the Defectors Weld to catch a guy going by the name The Lake Poets. another act that was a single guy and an acoustic guitar, young and simplistic but in a positive way that was not overly fussy or ostentatious, just plain and to the point. His set was calm and measured framing his pleasant voice and affable charm through a smooth collection of heartfelt tracks.

In all, it was a great festival but certainly one you’d be likely to pick one venue to stay at for an extended time rather than back and forwards like I did. Each venue had food and drinks available, it felt a little sacrilegious to be drinking alcohol in a church but no other Londoners seemed put off, must be a Shepherd’s Bush thing. I would have liked to stay and see the other two venues and their headline acts, but at the same time, it was great to see new emerging acts being attended by what became huge crowds. After the first set at the Defector’s Weld, it became more and more difficult to find a spot to see the acts short of standing right at the front of the small stage crammed in with every other punter. And the Church, well, it probably hasn’t seen such overflowing pews and aisles filled with worshippers before, but it brought it’s own energy and vibe to the event which no doubt fed in to the mood and ambience of each act in such a glorious setting.

In short, if you are ever in London while Bushstock in on, make sure you get there and experience this unique festival. The only thing even close to like it that I’ve been too would the the Snowy Mountains of Music simply because it’s held at the snow and must be inside, but otherwise it has a completely different style and feel in spite of hosting similar style acts. But then anything by Communion is a not to be missed experience, so here’s to many more years of Bushstock!

Review: Mélanie Pain, Bye Bye Manchester

Bye Bye Manchester
Image Courtesy of Mélanie Pain

Review by Sheridan Morley

Mélanie Pain was always fascinated by the city of Manchester. In various interviews in support of her second full-length solo release, she has excitedly described growing up listening to the drones of Morrissey and fantasising about one day travelling to the city from which bands like The Smiths were able to draw such a level of profound inspiration. This is precisely what she did for a period of time in 2012, culminating in the release of Bye Bye Manchester.

The years of touring and collaborating with French new-wave covers act Nouvelle Vague have not only helped to springboard Mélanie into stardom in her own right, but seem to have somewhat influenced the direction of her music. Bye Bye Manchester, while superficially presented as an electro-pop extravaganza, is somehow darker, and somewhat further considered, than many modern releases of comparable genre. Mélanie cites, among her strongest musical influences, PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth, Nick Drake and The Pixies; and has managed to transport the melancholic lyrical content and focus on texture that plucked such acts from obscurity to land on the pages of rock n’ roll history, while maintaining a simplicity of arrangement that really showcases Pain’s beautiful, innocent vocal.

Parts of Bye Bye Manchester could be mistaken to have been penned by the members of Massive Attack, but the hesitation to draw that conclusion would be in the album’s simplicity of arrangement which, it turns out, is courtesy of collaboration with Albin de la Simone (Vanessa Paradis, Iggy Pop). On the majority of tracks, there are fewer layers than a purely ‘electro’ album would warrant – instrumentally, what is there is only what is absolutely necessary, working seamlessly to transport the listener through Mélanie’s vocals to a place of pure bliss.

Certain tracks are pure, modern pop. “Just a Girl”, one of only four English-language tracks on the album, is the obvious choice for a mainstream, English-language single release. Clean, simplistic, programmed drums punctuate a ‘summer anthem’ indie guitar riff that could easily be accompanying a group of young, tanned girlfriends off to the beach in their brand new Japanese small car during the ad breaks of your favourite commercial TV show. Complete with ‘da-da-da-da-da-da-da-dum’ sing-along to fade out, the track cements Pain’s pride of pop direction, in self-confessed contrast to the more electronic ambitions of Nouvelle Vague. The same clean, pop-driven elements can be recognised in catchy second track “Ailleurs (Ah Ah Ah)”.

An album of complete contrasts, Bye Bye Manchester’s next English offering is “Black Widow” – a beautifully-crafted merge of warped 60s surf-rock and Pain’s darker new-wave influences, including an unexpected (and substantial) cameo by Ed Harcourt. “Black Widow” is a perfect superimposition of the ‘cutesy’ personality of Mélanie’s vocals with the deeper vocals of Harcourt, against the song’s eerie subject matter, and forgoes full harmonies in the chorus in place of simple octaves. With lyrics like “Don’t you worry ‘bout your funeral baby, I’ve got a coffin with your name in flowers – being called a black widow all the time don’t matter with a heart as cold as mine”, the track is testament to Mélanie’s true ability to compose lyrics, in a language that is not her first, that can either elate or chill to the bone, depending on her mood at the time.

The rare treasure of an album such as Bye Bye Manchester is its ability to connect with listeners who may have no knowledge of the language spoken by its creator, and to communicate its emotional journey through dynamics, production, clever arrangements and a unique, talented vocalist. This is evident on such tracks as “Ca Grandit” – a pretty, plucked-acoustic guitar track wherein textural sound effects (a match being lighted, a cigarette being ashed) are layered around Mélanie’s softer, breathier vocals; cleverly adapted to the lower dynamic of the piece. “Je Laisse Tomber” is more urgent through its driving drums, full layers and frustrated vocal; while ‘Non’ sees Mélanie’s ethereal vocals intertwined with a clean, single-note electric guitar melody and carefully placed tongue and hand clicks to create a percussive base for a beautifully-crafted modern shuffle.

“Fluo” is a clear standout. A demanding ride cymbal and a melancholic chordal piano part accompany Pain’s professions of wanting to inject more fluorescent colour into her life – into her shoes, into her underwear. Not only are the track’s lyrics quirky and classic upon translation, its chorus – a complete pop-fuelled departure from the melancholy of the verses – features a theramin as its instrument of choice for the main hook. A perfect combination of moodiness and eccentricity, the track flourishes in the development of individual parts to reach an incredible dynamic peak before fading off into oblivion.

Though your average pop fan could probably count the number of French musical superstars in their CD collection on one hand, Mélanie’s gorgeous voice, combined with her unique storytelling ability, is sure to allow her to muscle in. Bye Bye Manchester will appeal to fans of rock, folk, indie, electro, new wave and everything in between.

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