Review: Emmy The Great, S

Emmy The Great
Image Courtesy of Emmy The Great

So I guess our little folk singer has really grown up.

Well to be honest Emmy The Great has been shedding her folk-singer skin ever since the release of her 2011 album Virtue, but with her new EP S she’s well and truly left folk behind in favour of pop music. And not just any pop music – 80s synth-pop to be exact.

Which may lead you to question why we’re reviewing S in the first place. Well the main reason is deep in the heart of the EP’s four tracks I can still hear the same singer-songwriter strumming away on her guitar that I fell in love with five years ago. So let’s break this down track by track shall we?

“Swimming Pool”: The first single from the EP and probably the closest track to anything from Virtue, “Swimming Pool” showcases Emmy The Great’s delicate vocals over muted, retro production. It’s very easy to hear the influence of artists like Lana Del Rey and Lorde on the track with the minimalist rhythm section, glissando harps and generous reverb. I love the chorus in this track where the male voice (courtesy of Wild Beasts’ Tom Fleming) adds a complimentary bass to Emmy The Great’s melodies. One of my favourite tracks from her in a long time.

“Social Halo”: The looping and sampling at the start of this track actually gives way to the kind of simple fingerpicking typical of early Emmy The Great tracks – only this time on an electric guitar. The finger-picking continues the rest of the track but is overshadowed by the production – sweeping eighties rock guitar, ambient loops and restrained synth base. Emmy The Great’s lyrics are still front and centre on this track and it makes me wonder if the track is written about anyone in particular – who’s social halo is Emmy referring to? And does she even want to be there in the first place?

“Solar Panels”: And so the transformation into 80s synth-pop princess is complete. “Solar Panels” ignores any pretense of lyrical complexity and dives straight into thumping base, repetitive verses and choruses and choppy synth. There’s no folk singer here – this is pure dancefloor baiting pop. All I can picture is fluro when I hear this song

“Somerset (I Can’t Get Over)”: The synth-pop trend continues on “Somerset (I Can’t Get Over)”, albeit in a more subdued fashion. The track is an ode to an ex-lover who Emmy The Great pleads with “please don’t get over me”. There’s something almost broadway about the lyrics and melody of this track – you could imagine it being slotted into a musical complete with jazzy big band score and dance solo over the “da da da” break. But obviously it’s not a broadway number – it’s a pop song and it’s a wonderful way to wrap up the EP.

With all the synth-pop in S maybe it’s time for Timber and Steel to well and truly break up with Emmy The Great, accept the fact that she’s not the acoustic folk singer she once was. But I’m still going to buy this EP and I’m still going to be the first to geek out every time she releases something new. Because I can’t just get over Emmy The Great.

S from Emmy The Great is available online now via Rough Trade. You can also stream the EP on Rookie Mag here.

Review: Various, Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis

I think when the producers of Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis decided to put the concert, and subsequent documentary and record, together they were expecting to capture lightning in a bottle, the same way the O Brother Where Art Thou? concert Down from the Mountain had done over ten years previously. And they had every right to as all the elements were there: a Coen Brothers film jam-packed with T Bone Burnett produced folk music, performances from some of contemporary folk and acoustic music’s biggest names and a reference point to a music, time and place that is beloved by millions.

But somehow they didn’t quite hit the mark.

Not to say this isn’t a great album – it certainly is. There are a lot of highlights throughout. But it’s not the kind of album I can enjoy from start to finish, not the way I can with Down from the Mountain or even the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack (the intentionally terrible “Please Mr. Kennedy” aside). And I think it’s for a number of reasons.

Firstly there’s too much Americana and Bluegrass music. I never thought I’d hear myself say that but it’s true. So much of the Greenwich Village folk revival was centred around traditional music from England, Scotland and Ireland and while bluegrass and country music was a part of the scene (and no doubt influenced many of the singers and songwriters of the time) it wasn’t the focus – if anything blues was more of an influence at the time. The movie soundtrack itself only really has nods to this kind of music and instead focuses on traditional music plus traditionally inspired songs from the time like Ewan MacColl’s “The Shoals of Herring” or Brendan Behan’s “The Auld Triangle”, and I think the live album should have gone the same way.

Secondly it takes 10 songs before we even hear a track from the movie and even then it’s the aforementioned intentionally terrible “Please Mr. Kennedy”. Similarly there seems to be too many originals on the album – albeit from amazing artists like Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch, Jack White and more – to claim to be “Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis”.

And finally there are some glaring misses in the programming of the concert. I love Conor Oberst to death but his inclusion here is misplaced – his waspish voice just doesn’t seem to fit with the tone of the concert. Similarly I’m not sure we needed three tracks from a ho-hum Avett Brothers when the brilliant Keb’ Mo’ only gets one.

But all of this aside there is a lot to like about Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis. Having the Punch Brothers acting essentially as the house band on many of the tracks elevates so many of the songs. The second half of the album which showcases a lot more of the songs from the actual movie – “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”. “Green, Green Rocky Road”, “The Auld Triangle”, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”, etc – shows just how well these songs (and their singers) stack up live. Oscar Isaac, the actor who played Llewyn Davis in the film is surprisingly solid as is Marcus Mumford who is relegated to backing vocals and drums on a lot of the tracks but comes to fore in the final four songs to prove just how good a singer he is.

Once again Rhiannon Giddens is an absolute standout. Her version of the Gaelic “S iomadh rud tha dhith orm/Ciamar a ni mi ‘n dannsa direach” is the only track I just had to go back and listen to twice on my first time through the album, it was so good. And then of course there’s Joan Baez, proving exactly why she’s a legend, outclassing Elvis Costello on a duet of “Which Side Are You On?” and absolutely killing it on “House of the Rising Sun” and “Give Me Cornbread When I’m Hungry”.

I think my advice with this album is not to go in with any pre-conceptions – either from the O Brother Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis or from Down from the Mountain. Instead listen to Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis in isolation, pick and choose the individual tracks you want to buy (you’ll want more than you’ll leave behind) and enjoy the music as is sounds like the live audience did.

Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis is available now on iTunes

Review: Tolka, One House

Tolka
Image Courtesy of Tolka

When Melbourne trad group Tolka announced that they would be spending six months in Belfast to record their new album One House with with Dónal O’Connor and Brian Finnegan here’s what I expected: The quartet would get so immersed in the Northern Irish trad scene that they’d emerge with a plethora of newly collected traditional tune sets and the occasional song about being away from home.

What I didn’t expect was an album of ten original tunes and songs steeped in, but not constrained by the tradition. Tolka have spent their time abroad getting inside themselves and writing some amazing music in the process.

One House is a stunning blend of instrumentals and contemporary folk songs that shows the band growing from their debut release Tunes From The External Hardrive. It’s obvious the band are enjoying playing with the production with loops, drones, steel drums, vocal samples (in “The Giant”), and even drums on a number of tracks. Tolka’s trademark ear for arrangement, with the banjo, guitar, fiddle and flute all intertwining to create captivating music, is out in full force on One House – I recommend checking out “The Old Sweetshop” and see if you don’t crack a smile when the tune step changes about halfway through.

While the album is largely instrumental the two songs – “Mulberry Sky” and “This Old Lie” – are standouts and demonstrate just how strong Tolka are as lyricists, not just tune writers. Despite being originals the songs sound as timeless as the tunes – I can see “Mulberry Sky” in particular becoming a firm favourite.

Overall One House is an outstanding release from one of the true rising stars of the Australian folk scene. A completely contemporary folk album that is rooted heavily in the tradition, One House is Tolka at the peak of their powers.

One House is due for release on the 1st March, 2015

12 Hours at the 2015 Illawarra Folk Festival

Illawarra Folk Festival
Image Courtesy of Illawarra Folk Festival

Every year as my train pulls away from Bulli station after another successful tilt at the Illawarra Folk Festival I promise myself “next year will be the year I come for the whole weekend, not just a day”.

Then when January finally rolls around again and my pockets are empty following the excess of the Christmas period I always find myself whittling down my expectations and deciding “just one day at Illawarra will do”.

But one day is never enough.

The Illawarra Folk Festival is no longer the little festival I first started going to when I moved to New South Wales 10 years ago. And 10 years ago it had already outgrown its life as a “little festival” having moved to Bulli from Jamberoo to accommodate a much larger audience. This year saw more than 11,000 people make their way through the gates of Bulli Showground proving once and for all that the Illawarra Folk Festival is one of the big guys.

There’s plenty of reasons why I’ve always loved Illawarra. The fact it’s an easy train ride from Sydney for one. It’s mid-January timing meaning it manages to attract the best talent from the New Year’s festivals for another. And that despite the fact that there were 11,000 people through the door I can spend my day walking around the site bumping into old friends, making new ones and feeling right at home.

This year I chose Sunday as my one day at Illawarra for no other reason than it fitted my schedule best and the timing of the final concert – around 6pm – meant I wouldn’t be ridiculously late home. I caught the first train down, rocking into the festival before 9am and before, it turns out, most of the music had started. I parked myself where I could see a blackboard session featuring Mandy Connell in the Tantric Turtle, studied the program intently and let the upcoming day wash over me.

And then I was off! Having just a day at the festival meant I needed to see as much as possible in a small amount of time. Anyone tracking my progress around the showground would have seen me almost running between venues, ducking in halfway into sets, saying g’day to the artists as they clambered off stage only to then piss-bolt to the next gig.

This sort of program onslaught meant I missed more than a few of the artists I wanted to see because of clashes including The Mae Trio, Cloudstreet, Fred Smith, Sparrow-Folk and Big Erle. It also meant I managed to catch snippets of artists that I originally didn’t have down on my list like the Tim Edey Trio as I cut through the Slacky Flat Bar on my way to another gig. Plus it meant that by the time I realised I should really eat something most of the stalls had shut up shop for the weekend and I was left with the option of chip-on-a-stick or a sandwich when I got home. I chose the latter.

But I did see some amazing music. And the variety! This is what is special about the Illawarra Folk Festival – in one moment you can watch a contemporary singer-songwriter like Joe Mungovan (who slipped a James Taylor number into his set because he felt is was the only folk song he knew), run between competing folk-punk shows from The Go Set, The Bottlers and Handsome Young Strangers (who were strangely playing at exactly the same time in different venues) or soak up the jazzed up trad of Stray Hens. Artistic director David De Santi is obviously a lover of folk music in all it’s various guises and this flows through to possibly the most eclectic lineup of any festival in Australia.

Of the international guests I was most impressed with Canadian trad trio The East Pointers and the Euro-Scottish folk of Black Market Tune. The former were just a powerhouse live – one of the tightest bands I’ve seen in a very long time and so charismatic! I can imagine they won the hearts of many young ladies in the audience and may even have inspired more than one person to pick up the tenor banjo (well, I was inspired, so that counts). The latter ingratiated themselves with the crowd with the simple charm and ability to switch their Austrian accents to Scottish brogue as their music demanded. I can’t recommend either of these bands enough.

The Stray Hens were my pick of the local acts. I’m sure I’ve seen these guys at The National before but this was the gig that truly made me fall in love with them. Mandy, Sally and Rowena (along with Richard and Ryan in their rhythm section) are interpreting and elevating traditional songs in a way I’m not seeing many Australian artists do and it’s mesmerising. Festival bookers take note – get the Stray Hens on your lineup or forever be sorry.

And then there’s Eric Bogle. I tried not to fill my Illawarra Folk Festival seeing artists I’d seen 100 times before but somehow I still managed to find myself in the Black Diamond Marquee listening to the songwriting legend. And he was everything you’d expect – funny, passionate, engaging and beautiful. When he played “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” introduced with an explanation that he’d been asked to sing the song at the Anzac Day 100 year anniversary sans the final verse (“bugger that”) it was just magic.

As the Finale Parade made it’s way through the Showground I ducked out of the festival and dragged myself up the road to catch the train back to Sydney, exhausted but ultimately satisfied. Once again the Illawarra Folk Festival had exceeded my expectations and left me wanting more – exactly what I want from a folk festival.

My train wound its way through the mountains back to the big smoke and I made a promise to myself – next year “next year will be the year I come for the whole weekend, not just one day”.

The Woodford Files 2014-15: Goodbye, Farewell and Amen (for 347 days…)

Woodford

Woven Cloud. Image courtesy of Woodford Folk Festival.

“I always judge a festival by its program. If a festival can’t attract big name acts, it’s not much good and I’m not much interested.”

I listened to my host as they opined their assessment criteria of a festival deserving of their attention.

Without much in the way of my comment. Certainly no critique or counterpoint from my way came.

I’m like that if I’m living temporarily under someone else’s roof. I listen and nod a lot. Even if I have strong opinions to the contrary, it usually takes a team of wild horses to extract them.

Here’s a case in point: The 2014-15 Woodford Folk Festival.

The Lettering House at Woodford Folk Festival

The Lettering House at Woodford Folk Festival

I only decided to go less than a month before it started. A Christmas to mid-January commitment in inner West Sydney had been cancelled on me at very late notice, so I immediately started planning for a passage to Woodfordia.

I applied for a media pass, about a week too late, as it happened. But it’s always good to know people who know other people, and when we’re all doing musical and arty things in similar spaces, good things can happen.

A media and adult season camping pass materialised before my e-eyes (one day as I was shooting pool against a formidable opponent in a Liverpool pub), and it was soon wagons north then north-west.

Who’s on first?

But here’s the thing: I just don’t have a program focus.

As in a focus on programmed artists.

I skimmed a few headliners and others about three days before kick-off, and only really seriously started looking at the performer list on Christmas night, as I was kicking my heels back in Bankstown, waiting for a share ride to materialise from Melbourne via the Eurobodalla Nature Coast, and thence to Kariong, Mermaid Beach and Woodfordia.

Oh, look. The Violent Femmes are coming! And Cat Empire. And Big Erle!!!!

Less is more

And here’s the thing. The presence of Big Erle from Illawarra, champions of the Bulli Heritage Hotel, the much smaller Illawarra Folk Festival, and the Corrimal Blues Stomp — that made me deliriously more happy than half the big name acts appearing.

When I found out on 2nd January that Big Erle were playing the Volunteer Party, I was in raptures.

Over the six full days of the festival proper (I had the wrong colour wrist-band for Boxing Day and was stopped at the frontier), I might have seen three brackets/sets/gigs from go to whoa.

The rest of the time was devoted to media: interviews, pictures, video and LOTS of post-production.

I mention this only to warn you: if you’ve come looking for an in-depth analysis of the performers at Woodford, you’ve like, totally so got the wrong guy, y’know!

Alex and Dani from Canada, Fine Earth Foods

Alex and Dani from Canada, Fine Earth Foods

It’s not Woodford per se; it’s you

Festivals for me are all about people.

The festival aficionados that you might only ever get to see once a year at thatfestival, or a number of specific festivals.

It’s the like-minded strangers who you make a connection with because you overhear them talking about Billy Bragg, or see them wearing the same eight-festivals-ago t-shirt that you had on yesterday, or there’s some other linking thing, tangible or ephemeral.

It’s the stallholders that you bond with over a beautifully-prepared Argentinian sausage combo, or stunning gemstone, or unusual item of dress.

Mostly, ze sausage, für better or wurst.

And for me, it’s definitely the random people you meet by pure accident and instantly click with.

I met one couple in the wonderful ornament to Woodford eateries that is Fine Earth Foods. And we engaged on the basis of he having heard me swear in Dutch as I put my gear down and slopped some tea. And that led to an in-depth chat about swearing around the world, language and accents, countries and culture.

Half an hour later as I walked off stage at The Poets’ Breakfast in The Duck, adrenaline coursing through my veins after a rather emotional reading, he was there at the next table to raise a hand and wordlessly high-five me into the middle of next week.

That’s a real festival vibe for me.

Woodford is…

A fit young woman in workout gear and masses of dreadlocks, running laps around the volunteer and overnight camping at six am.

Woodford is generally not…

Emergency services sirens, so it was a surprise to hear some on the first day zooming along the road to Beerwah. It was a one-off.

Into every festival…

Let’s name, identify, then push this elephant out of the room: yeah, it rained.

Quite a lot, actually.

I took a short video from the volunteers’ camp on the morning after the Fire Event in which I talk specifically about this and how some media outlets chose to make that the main (or main-ish) game in their reportage, initially. Ultimately,  I deleted it by mistake. Meh.

I won’t use the phrase I have for these media organs (lol), but let’s just say it rhymes with ‘truck bits’.

You see, after the volunteers, and organisers, and performers, and contractors, and stallholders, and visiting dignitaries — they gots to sell some tickets to some paying punters, and focussing on inclement weather is enough to put off some of the less resilient in the muggle community. And the choir we usually preach to as well who were maybe only coming for a day.

/off soapbox.

Though it did occur to me that Woofordians may have as many words for rain as Eskimos have for snow.

Home away from home

Home away from home

Have you got a dollar?

For me, the tone was set for my whole Woodford on the first full day of the program when I was stood at the counter of Fine Earth Foods, ruminating on what a pot of tea might cost.

Not seeing any signs and wondering if I needed to go back to my table to get extra, I turned to ask the woman stood next to me. She wasn’t sure, despite counting her own change having just bought a cup herself.

As I stood looking at my $3.15 and surmising I might need extra, there was suddenly a loud clink as an extra dollar dropped into my open palm of change.

Thank you, Anna of Bodypeace Bamboo Clothing. That simple exchange put me in a ridiculously good mood and set the tone for the next days, which I invariably started with a pot of tea at Phil and Michelle’s wonderful venue.

I sat there most days powerless, having run down my phones overnight. On the second last day, I saw the charging bay.

On the last day, I found out they ran 24hrs.

Overheard in the café

“Did you go to bed at all last night?”

“Over six days, typically not!”

Forging meaningful relationships

Woodford is a locality with a lot of love in the room. And most are in a laid back mood.

On the first day I ran into one of my Bankstown to Woodfordia travel companions in the company of a gorgeous young blonde.

Me: “Hi, I’m Bill.”

Her: “Hi Bill. I’m Dionysiaque.”

Him: “Thanks for that. Now I know her name!”

[He cops a whack for his comment.]

Him [winking]: “On no, it’s Diane!”

Which it was, I may never know.

What time is it?

Having differentiated myself from 96.36% of musos for 9.36 years as a watch-wearer, it’s a lifelong habit that’s left the building.

Time is a take it or leave it concept at Woodford. Important if you need to be at a venue (to perform or punt). Important if you’re a worker or volunteer and have shifts to get too.

Pretty arbitrary for others.

“Is that the time?”
“No, time is an abstract concept. That’s a wrist-watch.”
(Douglas Adams.)

Or as I was asked on one of those powerless morning tea times (of the soul):

“Do you have the time?”
“No, it’s one thing I don’t have.”

Garbage

One morning, I had a lovely chat with Stuart and Sue, volunteer garbologists from Hervey Bay.

They’d been meaning to come for years, wanted to volunteer, and ‘wanted to do something useful but didn’t want to have to boss younger people around’.

Their son suggested a great idea: street cleaners. Two hours of dedicated cleaning in the morning with a roving commission to clear any rubbish they saw at other times.

And how clean are the crowds?

“Woodford people are generally pretty good. Plus when they see us keeping the place clean, they tend to follow suit.”

Stuart was easily distinguishable by his attractive neck tie of a display of what items go into which bin.

Tokyo Bar

Tokyo Bar

Serious about Woodford

Overheard in the bar.

“I’m taking it serious this year. I even brought glasses and a highlighter this year.”

Overheard in a Morrocan tent on Day One

“Gee, there are a lot of people here!”

Strap yourself in for New Year’s Eve, then.

Not all baristas are town criers

The new chai tent is Melbourne-based Holy Cow. Some pined for the old chai tent, now the Pineapple Lounge.

I quite like the new one.

But the barista didn’t quite have the pipes to cut through the crowd noise for coffee pick-ups.

“Amanda. Amanda. Amanda.”

“Mate, you need a bass-baritone,” observed one scruffy wag waiting for his coffee. Probably me.

“Yeah, I guess we do.”

Right.

“AMANDA!!!!!!!!”

Pigeons flew off the guy ropes, tent poles rattled, and coffee cups danced on their racks.

“Wow, thanks mate. You’re hired!”

Still no Amanda.

An elder woman passed, touched my elbow and winked as she said, “You realise she’s probably too embarrassed and has left now!”

Family Outings

Family Outings

Giving the wandering minstrels some love

I forget which band it was, but a travelling group playing in Bill’s Bar told of how they realised on the plane they’d not brought linen, a requirement of their accommodation.

They mentioned this to the cabin attendant who became very excited to hear of musos headed to Woodford.

They were told to go to the Hungarian Bakery where a family member would see them right, were provided with some airline linen, and two bottles of Shiraz for good measure.

Nice.

Ad nauseum

This article does go on, and so do I.

With pages in my notebook to go, and with the Sunshine Coast mozzies and other insects taking chunks from my flesh, Ill rule a thick line under Woodford Folk Festival 2014-15, unquestionably my favourite festival of any genre of of all time, and leave you with some greatest hits.

Favourite gig: Trouble in the Kitchen, Concert, New Year’s Day.

Favourite perfomer: See above.

Memorable moment: Seeing David Francey sing “The Lock-Keeper” live.

Song for Woodford 2014-15: “Little Bag” by Lucy Wise Trio.

Place I’d choose to be other than Woodford: yeah, right. No.

See you on: 27 December 2015.

Watch the New Quintessential Doll Video, “Take Your Medication”

Quintessaential Doll
Image Courtesy of Quintessential Doll

Quintessential Doll’s “Take Your Medication” is a musical commentary of today’s overly-medicated, anxiety-ridden society. This animated music video uses surreal carnival imagery to highlight the whimsical nature of the song whilst drawing on the sinister connotations of the story by using silhouettes of ominous characters. “Take Your Medication” is from the Let Not the Monsters Destroy Me EP.

Review: BIGSOUND 2014, A Folkie’s Perspective

All Our Exes

It’s been a few days since I wearily boarded a flight at Brisbane to wend my way home after BIGSOUND and only now am I finally returning to reality. 2014 was my first BIGSOUND and I didn’t really know what to expect – only that my friends in the music industry told me I had to go. As a folkie I kind of expected to be out on the fringes of the festival while all the cool kids compared synth lines and the like, but truth be told I came away feeling a big part of this thing we call the Australian music industry and excited about what the future holds music in this country.

BIGSOUND is whatever you make of it” a friend had told me. “Decide what you want to get out of it before you go and then concentrate on that”. It was good advice as the avalanche of things to do, people to see and parties to get into was overwhelming for a first time BIGSOUND-er like me. So I mapped out my days based on artists I wanted to interview, industry folks I wanted to meet and gigs (both unofficial and official) I wanted to attend. And here’s what I got out of the event:

Music Music Music

Ruby Boots

With over 140 bands officially showcasing at BIGSOUND Live this year and a bunch of auxiliary, unofficial gigs happening around the place we definitely weren’t hard up for music. Most of the acoustic artists were centred around the stage at The Press Club but there was plenty of folk, blues, roots and country happening at most of the other showcase venues as well.

On the first night I managed to catch All Our Exes Live in Texas, Steve Smyth, The Tiger and Me, Spookyland, Rob Moir, Ruby Boots and Brad Butcher. Steve Smyth would have to have been the highlight for me – his wall-of-sound blues and roots style was just transfixing and he definitely lived up to the hype. Spookyland were a little more indie-rock and a little less folk than I expected them to be but definitely worth checking out. Ruby Boots (above) was probably one of my favourite acts of the entire week with Bex Chilcott’s voice in fine form.

Night two was meant to be the night I just parked myself at the Press Club and let the bands come to me, but I ended up running around just as much as the first night catching the likes of Fraser A. Gorman, Jordan Klassen, Sweet Jean, The Pierce Brothers, Harmony James and Marlon Williams. It was Marlon Williams that had been getting the most hype (contributed to by myself) throughout the week so it was great to see him pack in the crowd even as the last act of the night. The Pierce Brothers absolutely killed their set at The Zoo and Fraser A. Gorman was a highlight at The Black Bear Lodge.

The two artists I “stumbled” across without any intention of seeing at BIGSOUND were Canadians Rob Moir and Jordan Klassen. The former, a post-punk acoustic singer-songwriter in the vein of Frank Turner, wowed the relatively small crowd at Ric’s Bar with his brash stage presence and in-your-face lyrical style. Klassen on the other hand made some really sweet indie-folk sounds with the help of backing vocals from Jocelyn Price and plenty of ukulele and acoustic guitars. Both very interesting artists and I’m extremely glad I made the time to check them out.

After the Party There’s the After Party

Shane Nicholson

Along with the official showcases there were a bunch of after-parties dotted all over the city that people were scrambling to get tickets to. For me there was only one party to get into – The Lost Highway Country and Inner Western show at Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall.

Featuring sets from The Morrisons, Eddie Boyd and the Phatapillars, All Our Exes Live in Texas, Marlon Williams, Shane Nicholson (above), Ruby Boots and Laura Zarb, the night was a blur of jamming, whiskey, bluegrass and country music. Lost Highway Records is the new(ish) Americana and alt-country label from Universal Music and they definitely chose some of Australia’s finest for their BIGSOUND party. The following days, as the stories emerged it was clear this was one of the after-parties to be at. I won’t recount them here – you’ll have to ask me in person.

I also have to send a big shout out to Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall which is one of the best venues I have been to in Australia. There needs to be a Lefty’s in every state!

Interviews

Having the music industry converge on Brisbane gave me a good chance to interview a bunch of artists I’d been meaning to for ages, as well as some new artists I’m really excited about. In the coming weeks prepare to catch chats with Tom West, Brad Butcher, Bree De Rome, Sweet Jean, The Pierce Brothers, All Our Exes Live in Texas, Ruby Boots and Marlon Williams right here on Timber and Steel.

The Battle for Country Music

While I wasn’t really in town for the conference itself (I only had a ticket to the BIGSOUND Live, not for any of the panels) but I managed to sneak into what turned out to be one of the most interesting, and least reported on sessions of the week – The Battle for Country Music. Facilitated by Scott Fitzsimons from theMusic.com.au the panel featured country artist manager Dan Biddle (The McClymonts, Adam Eckersley Band), artists Bex Chilcott (Ruby Boots), Shane Nicholson and Luke O’Shea (who is also Councillor for Country Music on the Music Council of Australia) and Universal Music Managing Director Michael Taylor.

The panel managed to cover off the divide between the mainstream, “Tamworth” country scene and the alt-country/Americana scene, whether “country” is a dirty word in Australia (most agreed it isn’t or at least shouldn’t be), what the options are for artists that aren’t considered upper tier country acts, how to get country music played on mainstream radio and the Golden Guitars’ narrow-minded view of country music.

Some golden nuggets from the panel included Dan Biddle proclaiming that “there’s a golden age of country music about to happen in Australia” and that Tamworth should move to Sydney for a year (which he later clarified as meaning we need a Tamworth size event in Sydney to get the mainstream industry interested in country music) and Shane Nicholson telling it how it is by saying “It’s ludicrous that there’s even a debate about what is and isn’t country”.

I wish the panel had gone on for hours more as there’s so much to talk about on the topic (and I definitely talked with the panelists after the panel long into the night). I also wish there’d been someone from the mainstream radio community – either the triple j set or the commercial operators – as at times the panel was a little too insular with everyone being from the country music “scene”.

It’s nice to see this kind of discussion taking place at BIGSOUND, that music outside of what’s played on triple j, is being talked about. Surely this means next year we’ll have a bluegrass panel!

Meet and Greet

A big part of BIGSOUND was actually managing to meet a bunch of people in the industry and putting names to faces. I’m not a big self promotor (I’m more comfortable being the guy standing at the back of the room listening to music than introducing myself to the band) but when you’re surrounded by hundreds of music lovers it’s hard not to strike up a conversation. I got to meet a few of my heroes, a few people in the industry I have so much respect for and more than a few Timber and Steel fans. When one unnamed festival promoter told me to “email me your band’s music” I realised how draining all of the meet and greets were on some people, but I actually really loved it.

Coming away from BIGSOUND I am a convert. This was a music conference and festival not just for the cool kids – there was space for this folkie as well. I made the event my own and came away feeling like I’m part of a larger music industry, not just the guy who writes about banjos in his bedroom. Would I recommend BIGSOUND to other aspiring folk writers, musicians and promotors? Absolutely.

See you next year BIGSOUND!

Review: Sam Brittain, “Live Simply”

Image courtesy of Sam Brittain

I initially took the title of Sam Brittain‘s sophomore album Live Simply to be a declaration of lessons learned – a  collection of stories that brought on this revelation. A few more listens and “Live Simply” came to represent an ode to a personal resolution – a goal or philosophical compass for the future. I think there’s a beauty in the subjectivity of an art form once it’s unleashed in the world and becomes personally appropriated and re-appropriated by a listener. Reviewing the album notes you’ll find Sam Brittain has dedicated Live Simply to Nick Balcombe, his dear friend and fellow young performer who unexpectedly and suddenly passed away earlier this year. Sam has spent the last 2 or 3 months of 2014 touring and busking the UK and a number of European cities, a tour he had originally planned and booked together with Nick before he passed away. For Sam this trip, which was meant to be a shared adventure, instead became a time for healing and reflection – touring an album which for which the writing and recording process started and finished either side of this tragic loss.

In addition, Live Simply sees Sam Brittain a few years older and with countless more hours of touring, busking and writing under his belt since releasing his 2012 Our Shining Skin debut. Certainly, it can be seen as a continuation of his debut stylistically, stamping his name and further solidifying his brand of folk music – his simple, thoughtful acoustic singer-songwriter musings carefully and sparingly arranged for a full band of trad instruments and deft female harmonies. Significantly more honed within this style, Live Simply explores concepts of home and origins on a number of tracks through stories shared by people and celebrates the potential for emotional immensity of small things in a large world. Brittain thankfully also perseveres with his penchant for good old fashioned story telling, which has delivered some of his finest work in the past.

Interestingly, the songs I most enjoyed on the album are those that break it from the steadiness of its groove. Live Simply delves less deeply into blues than his debut, but its single foray delivers the goods in the form of “Rats” – the dirtiest song on the record. For me this track also represents the peak of Brittain‘s fantastic vocal abilities.  Other distinct highlights include the quick-paced and dancing “High On A Hill” and the rollicking “Games” which has a peculiar ageless quality.

Splendid Splendour

Splendid crop - SITG by A CattPhoto by A. Catt

Having never been to a Splendour but having been to a great number of other festivals up and down the eastern seaboard, I can say I went in with a particular set of expectations and was delighted to have many of those absolutely smashed by my Splendour in the Grass experience.

The venue itself is huge and surprisingly well laid out and the flow of the nearly 30,000 punters was so smooth that I could have been forgiven thinking the numbers were less. Except for when we saw any of the amazing acts, then it became abundantly clear that the festival was at capacity with thousands of very happy festival goers rocking out at any given stage.

This year’s line up offered a great variety, so much so that there really were three distinct precincts within the site that allowed people to hang around stages that floated their genre boats.

The Timber and Steel friendly acts were evenly spread across the three main days and over two of the main three stages, so lets take a look at the folkier side of Splendour in the Grass.

Friday.

Photo by Justin Ma.
sitg14_HeadAndTheHeart_justinma-28The first act we caught was The Head and The Heart who delivered a really tight set and hearty performance for what was a modest crowd. “Ghosts” showed off their great harmonies in the live setting and the audience was treated to loads of favourites throughout their set list.  They were a solid start to the festival and I feel like loads of people missed out by not catching them. They don’t often get to come to Australia so they profusely thanked the crowd for coming to watch to much cheering and applause from said crowd. They tried out a new song with a bouncy tempo and happy vibe which was all very well received. “Sound Like Hallelujah” created a chilled vibe but with an immensely satisfying full sound. “Lost In My Mind” drew a rousing cheer from audience as it begun and took over the space with great drum build up before the crowd took over with a sing-along. The last song was an emphatic rendition of “Rivers and Roads” complete with epic drums thumping before stripping back to a delicate a Capella ending. And tumultuous applause.

We checked out Asgier, who has cropped up on the scene while I was away, but who commanded a huge and somewhat vocal crowd, all comfortably held in the palm of his hand. They sang along in crystal clarity. They swayed, sang, cheered and danced through a beautifully balanced set of both chilled tracks and up tempo songs. His popularity is clear as a really responsive crowd eagerly anticipated every song, with cheers of recognition in each of the opening bars and a seemingly constant surge forward of people to join the throng. “Going Home” delivered a beautiful mix of earthy drums, clear cut piano and haunting vocals undercut by subtle harmonies. The entire tent would clap along at poignant points of a slow song before the whole vibe would morph through the build up to a huge all encompassing piano and drums sound sphere. And to top it off, he pulled out a stunning cover of “Heart Shaped Box”, wow, just wow! His manipulation of piano and chillingly delicate treatment of vocals had everyone hanging on every lyric and every note. Definitely worth seeing any time you can.

We’ve all been hotly anticipating the return of Angus and Julia Stone and they did not disappoint. Starting with some of their new stuff, their set came wrapped in schmick presentation with a tight and polished sound with an obvious comfort on stage, oozing cool. Their new music is a few more steps away from the folky sound they originally brought to the scene and accomplishes a more indie vibe. While the crowd lapped up the new materials, it’s the old favourites so many know and love that really stirred the crowd with mega sing-along to “For You” melding beautifully with the song’s acoustic style. Julia seems really strong and playful in her style rather than the breathy, demure self we’ve known, which was a lovely counterpoint to previous performances. As an alternate opening and sound for “Big Jet Plane” dawned on the crowd, it was clear that their Hottest 100 winning track will always be a staple, crowd favourite that they are so comfortable playing and can completely turn on its head for both our and their pleasure. Their playfulness with their back catalogue was evident and jovial, with “Private Lawns” amping up the reggae vibe and syncopation. Julia pulled out a brilliant performance of “You’re The One That I Want” capturing the audience’s imagination with it’s fragility, building in to a full band resonance that proves they really own it as their own track now, it is no longer a cover. And if that wasn’t enough, they proved without a doubt that “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”! A rousing set and a great way to welcome Angus and Julia Stone back in to the festival rounds.

Saturday.

One of the great things about Splendour in the Grass is the sheer space available to absorb the almost 30,000 punters that flock to Byron Bay in search of great music and a good time. Aside from the 3 main stages, there’s a multitude of smaller spaces where all manner of performances take place, from the exciting extravagance of the colourful Dr Sketchy’s Burlesque Life Drawing, to the ukulele classes, to the buskers stage and its revolving selection of grunge, blues, roots, rock and alt bands, even dancing to the wee hours of the morning at the Tipi Forest full of dance DJs and electronica.

Amish Crop - SITG by ACatt_Saturday107Photo by A. Catt

Probably my favourite small (and surprising) space was the Amish Barn. In 2013, artist Bennet Miller ran a live installation called Barnraiser, where volunteers dressed as Amish people to raise a Barn. I kid you not. And this year, since the barn is complete, they opened it to the Splendour patrons for Rumspringer. Walk in to the barn at any point in the day and not only were you surrounded by Amish folk relaxing and enjoying the weather, but you could buy a drink from the bar and catch snippets of their pop-up bands playing folk in a ‘session’ style, or playing heavy rock like they were in their Barn’s garage band.

The sheer diversity of Splendour makes it an amazing experience. I hope to see the Amish again soon.

I haven’t seen anything of Darren Middleton’s new solo offerings, but as a Powderfinger fan, I was keen to see what he was serving up. As a duo with a stripped back setting on an enormous stage, their acoustic opening of guitar accompanied by violin and stomp pedal surrounded the small crowd with beautiful two part harmonies. Middleton is a humble performer, thanking the audience for coming to see him as he has played Splendour approximately 10 times in different acts, which must be some kind of record, and this time he plays it with his musical off-sider, Kelly. Picking through a back catalogue of numerous bands meant that the set was diverse and varied but sewn together with clever harmonies and a pristine acoustic style. His tracks from recent solo album, “Transition”, demonstrated the intimacy of close harmonies, plucky violin, upbeat acoustic guitar and stomp pedal in a big stage setting.  While touring, they have taken to playing a cover, a track Middleton never thought he would play again, “Falling Slowly” from the movie musical Once which drew a hush over the crowd and the occasional quiet lyrics sung along by individuals in the crowd. Middleton is currently touring with Busby Marou, and with such a solid set from Middleton, the tour will be a strong 1-2 combination definitely worth catching.

Camp Walkway - SITG by LachlanJohnstonPhoto by Lachlan Johnstone

Little May was new to me and they struck me as a sort of a combination of Lisa Mitchell, Gosling and Julia Stone all wrapped up in an indie pop 5 piece. They delivered great sound and a solid stage presence with a range of tracks including a rockier number with fabulous femme vocal harmonies.

Dustin Tebbutt drew a huge crowd in anticipation of his set. Opening with an ethereal quality and acoustic guitar built over top, he looked comfortable surrounded by his band creating a sensational blanket of music and melding sound. They make a cohesive group working together to scale the emotive heights of his body of work through the sweet ballads to the poignant numbers and his flawless falsetto. Tebbutt has the makings of a true balladeer. 12 months ago he was in Armidale planning to come to Splendour, and just starting to put out music. Sadly he wasn’t able to make it to Splendour that year but a friend reassured him not to worry, as next year he’d be playing Splendour. And there he was. The crowd loved it.

Tune Yards were a wild card on our list and if folkies wanted to go clubbing, this is what they’d see. Layered sounds and folky instruments looped to create danceable tracks and quirky grooves creating a somewhat “tribal tea party” soundtrack. They slip through genres, even the rnb and hip hop styles, with confidence and flair. In a nutshell, they are weird and quirky folktronica!

VanceJoy_SITG_26JUL2014_StephenBooth-56Vance Joy. Photo by Stephen Booth

Vance Joy has the potential to be a one hit wonder or a rising star and attracted a huge crowd to prove it. The audience were animated and engaged throughout, a sure sign of good things to come. With a full band behind him, new tracks like “Georgia” soared as a ballad with beautiful accompaniment, a troubled love song. His set was full of sing-a-long’s with the audience including “Snaggletooth” and “From Afar” proving popular. Special guests from Sasquatch created a hullabaloo on stage with a full, robust sound, tangy horn section, altogether a bit like a hoe down vibe a la Mumford and Sons. New songs and old songs, everything was eagerly devoured by the devoted audience. Huge cheers and clapping along carried him on high throughout his set, and then, out came the ukelele to a huge roar from the crowd who sang along, word for word. He wrapped up the set with a cover of “Stand by me” to an enthusiastic crowd. Definitely a star rising performance.

Sunday.

BallParkMusic_SITG2014_StephenBooth-2Photo by Stephen Booth

This year was the first year the site featured the enormous amphitheater, and while punters complained about the huge hill to scale, the reward of that stage was worth all the huffing and puffing to get there. We realised that the amphitheater was large enough to contain the entire main stages area of The Falls Festival, Lorne and the absolute scale of the space really hit home. While the Timber and Steel friendly acts were predominantly on the GW McLennan stage, the entire festival benefits from the innovations and expansion of the site.

Nick Mulvey, SITG_2014-1Nick Mulvey. Photo by Splendour Official

Nick Mulvey is someone I was told to keep an eye out for. An expectant audience gathered early with eager fans right up at the barrier claiming their spot. A small but dedicated crowd cheered him as he walked on stage. He opened with amazing classical guitar work, reminiscent of flamenco, and a really sweet voice with a low level resonance. As a soloist, his guitar style and confident voice really filled the space. The audience had tripled in size halfway through the first song, with a steady stream of people still coming in. Transitioning to a more bluesy, plucking style effortlessly for his next song showed off his diverse range and skill. He creates a really amazing presence through one instrument with really cool syncopation for emphasis and effect. With the crowd swaying along fluidly and the playful lyrics beckoning, I think every girl there wanted to do as his lyrics asked, and maybe some of the guys too… As his first trip as a solo artist to Australia and he could see a few people singing along and it’s obvious he is genuinely flattered by the audience appreciation which is evident throughout the set. Mulvey will be a force to be reckoned with on the scene. Watch this space!

Mikhail Paskalev is a Norwegian/ Bulgarian pop troubador by all accounts, and has a real mix of styles and variety of songs in his back catalogue which had the crowd pumping. He gave a very chilled out and mellow set with a woven sound of thrumming bass and vocal harmonies. Certainly a multifaceted act to look further in to.

I had heard of First Aid Kit, but hadn’t caught up with any of their music until Splendour. Their clear, crisp vocals attracted a decent sized crowd, complete with sparklers and incense. They have a beautiful on stage energy and presence and a light, airy delightful sound with an indie pop beat keeping it all trundling along. With a cover of Paul Simon and the occasional Carpenters-esque sound, their set was rounded out with a tinkly, delightful, angelic melding of voices and harmonies, even for their upbeat tracks.

Ben Howard, SITG_2014-3Ben Howard. Photo by Splendour Official

Rarely have I ever seen a folky act that the crowd chants their name to get them to come on stage, but it worked and Ben Howard presented himself, centre stage with steel string guitar and a cheeky “G’day Splendour!” He instantly had the crowd beside themselves. His set was peppered with a bit of everything, something a little poppy, something a little indie, something bordering on a Placebo track, and a great blend of indie pop layers and strings. A plucky rendition of “Black Flies” had the crowd going mid way through the set. I felt like sometimes his music and performance was moody introversion on public display but then a quick switch would see the entire set move in direction. The upbeat, twangy riffs of “The Wolves” had the crowd cheering and clapping, singing along, rallying the entire tent and surrounds to an almost frenzied state of hoe down style dance. Truly a highlight of Splendour.

All in all, if I could have cloned myself, I could have had 3 or 4 entirely different Splendour experiences – from the Splendour in the Craft tent and it’s Craft singles speed dating event, to the comedy and forum stage, to the crazy fashions punters strut in, the art installations and amazing range of bars with their own DJs and themes, or spending a fortune at the amazing array of stalls selling handmade and bespoke coolness in all it’s forms – each experience would have been just as amazing (plus I could have seen far more of the amazing musical line up). But in a nutshell, I think the 2014 Splendour in the Grass is quite possibly the best festival I have been too. Do anything you can to get to the next one, it’s truly Splendid!

Splendour crop - SITG by LachlanJohnstonPhoto by Lachlan Johnstone

Review: Catch Release, Asleep Is a Friend of Mine

Asleep is a Friend of Mine
Image Courtesy of Catch Release

Review by Sheridan Morley

If there’s one major parallel I can draw between nu-folk and doom metal, it’s this: it’s so tempting, and unfortunately common, for bands in both styles to jam five superfluous players onto a stage. Personally, I’ve never quite understood the reasoning behind it – each of these extra players usually only serves to diminish the already-threadbare live pay packet of the core group by a significant percentage, restrict the other players’ movement on those tiny stages even further (both genres, unfortunately, usually deal with performance spaces smaller than your average pub corner), and usually, usually, add no particular value to the overall sound or vision. The hierarchy of excessive live members across both disparate styles usually descends thus: keyboardist, violinist/cellist, third guitarist, miscellaneous horn player, flautist.

Before you lick the virtual envelope on that hate email, I will tell you that I have personally been classified as two of five of those modern-day instrumental expendables many a time, and I, along with anyone else who has ever picked up one of the above instruments, will attest to the despair caused by gig after gig of playing dull, needless, carelessly-thrown together peripheral lines to sate the ego of a songwriter with little knowledge of instrumental range, capability, or, well, composition. It’s enough to make you completely rule out ever listening to either genre ever again.
Catch Release have completely changed my mind.

Catch Release, a five-piece collective multitude of instrumental ability, describe their style as a “Soul-Folk Soundscape”, which couldn’t be more apt. Every single sound, every different timbre, contained within their unique soundscape is wholly essential, and no note played by any instrument featured on debut EP Asleep is a Friend of Mine is ever anything less than masterfully executed. Guitar, bass, French horn, violin, percussion, and the occasional virtuosic display of beat-boxing (by frontman Tom Lee-Richards) are gently tipped into a melting pot and whisked through expert production values to emerge as a unique, delicious six-track creation which you will have no trouble devouring in full.

The stand-outs are neighbours at tracks three and four – “Freedom Is a Squeeze” and “Chasing Ideas”. Both are very different tracks, both in feel and in instrumentation, but together provide an exquisite overview of what this band is capable of. The former is the first real upbeat occurrence of the EP, and could quite easily have been broken up to create four different songs, were the sections not so cleverly tied together through vocal motifs and a brilliant dynamic structure. It’s truly amazing how one single horn note between verses is able to create the same impact as many of us would have heard whole orchestral arrangements achieve on higher-budget records. Cheeky little deviations in tempo between sections really shift the momentum and keep us guessing, as we would in a musical theatre number or an iconic rock opera – top that off with a catchy, catchy chorus and Catch Release are on to a winner. “Chasing Ideas”, the musical vehicle driving EP title line Asleep is a Friend of Mine, opens with a harmonious melding of an expert beatbox rhythm (seriously, how is he doing that?!) with a sparkling ride cymbal, leading into an urgent yet sensual interplay between guitar and horn. A winding, deliberately confused pilgrimage through a range of sounds and volumes will bring you out at a vocal-only bridge that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Tom’s vocals are emotional and full of intent, but with just enough laid-back to keep it a cool few steps back from territory. Navin Gulavita’s violin provides the punchy hook to this track, and acts as the perfect response to its resounding vocal calls.

Opening track “Motion Sickness” perfectly nails the imperfect – that rare recording quality that manages to communicate a band’s sound as though they were playing live. It starts small and grows gradually, through a skilful use of dynamic on muted guitar, percussion and brass, causing you to just about fall of your chair in delight when the whole band comes in at the chorus, as the tiniest bit of rock influence on the vocals starts to shine. Verses are percussion-free, but the rhythmic interplay of guitar and syncopated horn really nails a 4-over-6 groove like a puzzle that fits together perfectly once the drums enter at the chorus. The band’s rhythmic fetish deepens in “Out of Sight”, where simplistic guitar intertwines with congas, which compete against the bass, which dances with the violin; and we find the downbeat cemented in between. Sliding fingers echo impeccably on Tom’s guitar, and we get a real sense of being immersed in a live performance at an intimate venue – a canny production technique that well and truly suits the style.

Asleep is a Friend of Mine is truly a stellar debut effort, showcasing equal measures of the breathtaking and the contemplative. Catch Release are a well of talent and crossover value, and for those reasons alone they are sure to enjoy great success if they choose to continue along the same stylistic vein for a full-length release – I certainly hope they do.

Catch Release will be supporting Scott Matthew’s upcoming Timber and Steel presented tour. The full list of dates are below:

Sunday 11th May – Brew, Brisbane, QLD
Monday 12th May – Mandala Organic Arts Cafe, Gold Coast, QLD
Tuesday 13th May – Pure Pop Records, Melbourne, VIC
Wednesday 14th May – The Toff In Town, Melbourne, VIC
Sunday 18th May – The Vanguard, Sydney, NSW

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