Bluesfest Review: 5 things we learned at Bluesfest 2017

Vintage TroubleVintage Trouble at Bluesfest, by Stuart Bucknell Photography

Before we give you our full wrap up, here’s 5 things we learned at Bluesfest this year:

1 – Byron Bay Organic Doughnuts are still THE most popular food item at the festival
It seems trivial, but food at festivals is a huge part of the experience, and ever since we’ve been going to Bluesfest, the Byron Bay Organic Doughnut stand has always had enormous queues. Our advice? Definitely get at least one, but get in the line any time you see that it’s short – no matter if it’s early in the day. #treatyourself!
NB: It turns out they’ve experienced heavy losses due to the floods, to we’re sending all the sugary vibes their way to be able to bounce back soon!

2 – Powerhouse Performances Guaranteed
I said it last year and I’ll say it again. Peter Noble knows how to program. Some of the most notable powerhouse performances to hit the Bluesfest stages this year were the electrifying Nikki Hill who blew the socks off everyone and had them clamoring for more, more, more; Kasey Chambers whose stellar set ranged through her back catalogue and her recent works, with everyone watching on proving they were in fine voice – when you’ve got a bearded man singing along word for word to “Am I Not Pretty Enough”, you know you’re on to a winner; Beth Hart stole hearts and minds both in her sass filled set and with her cameo with Soul legends, Vintage Trouble. Hart’s prowess and her effortlessly smooth transitions from full band, to solemn brevity on a solo piano piece, to funky piano riffs and soul soaked blues had her a firm favourite in the hearts of Bluesfest.

3 – Legends Never Die
Ok, so some actually do, and it’s sad when we lose a musical talent that has helped shape what we know and love, but the great thing about Bluesfest is the ability to bring out absolute legends who may be advanced in years but still have enough swagger to floor multiple thousands of people at once, just like 80 year old Buddy Guy did on the Sunday at the Crossroads stage, resplendent in polka dots and serving up a voice that shackled the high notes yet melted all the way down through every blues note to the bottom, playing guitar with his elbow, or his belt buckle, or it seems with his just his sheer personality. Mud Morganfield had the crowd entranced with the whim of his jive and old school blues sensibilities. And Mavis Staples blew the roof off the Jambalaya stage when her elegance and grace meshed with the most divine harmonies between herself and her backing singers. Staples spoke of her love for Bluesfest – the warmth and hospitality they receive from the people behind the scenes, acknowledging them as family. She declared that she came “to bring you some joy, some happiness, some inspiration” and that she did. Given it was Easter, it seemed only appropriate that a voice as deep and smooth as chocolate can smother you in blues, as Tony Joe White’s did, rumbling along like a percolated coffee – earthy, enticing, and altogether satisfying.

4 – Diversity in Styles and Causes
Bluesfest may boast the best line up of Blues, however, it’s steadfast reputation for quality means the door is open for Noble to select an eclectic mix of styles and genres that may be close to, derived from, or inspired by blues music. Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue carved up the stage with their cataclysmic, high energy, RnB fuelled, jazz infused funk; Sir Roosevelt’s moody intro and high production values set the scene for the melding of acoustic and dance music –  slide and acoustic guitars accompanied a full club scene vibe complete with choreographed dancers! Madness whipped the crowd, both young and old, in to a frenzy with hit after hit. The Boomerang Festival with it’s astounding array of Indigenous performances, country style hoedowns with an electrifying edge, synths vs electric guitars, Hip Hop and RnB, ukeleles and two covers of Bohemian Rhapsody… This year’s Bluesfest had everything. The festival is also a solid community supporter, with multiple fundraising groups on site, drumming up support for their cause. It was heartening to see the Northern Rivers Flood Appeal, a devestating disaster only weeks before the festival, included at short notice int he fundraising efforst at the festival, alongside the famous Cyctic Fibrosis Raffle and the steadfast Playing For Change band.

5 – The Gender Gap Exists
In no way was Bluesfest deficient in amazing female performers, in fact, it feels that year after year, the festival selects some of the best and most inspiring women from around the world to grace the stage. However, these women are almost exclusively front women, women who are the main attraction with a band behind them. Time and time again, we saw bands of all males, whether a backing band or a feature act – if it was a group, it was a high likelihood that the members would all be male. While there were a few exceptions, like Mavis Staples’ fantastic backing singers and the inimitable Little Georgia, the prevalence of all male bands and groups was quite noticeable, especially after the ongoing social commentary about the issue across the music industry of late and with festival and gig line-ups being scruitinised and questioned regularly by the public. While it’s no fault of the Bluesfest team, it is proof of the endemic issue across the music industry which hopefully the inclusive nature of festivals like this can start to shift through leadership and discourse, and innovations like the Buskers stage and the nurturing nature of this festival itself. We want to see more gender diversity across all aspects of music – not just front women, but musicians in bands of all gender identities. I know it will be festivals like Bluesfest that lead the way as a much needed change begins.

All in all, Bluesfest left it’s mark on the 100,000+ strong crowds and we’re still dreaming about the amazing musicians we saw. Our full wrap up coming soon, in the meantime, check out the photos by Stuart Bucknell Photography on our Timber and Steel Facebook Page, and if you’re keen to experience Bluesfest yourself, get in line for an early bird ticket to next year’s festival!

 

 

 

Liz Stringer and the Candelo flair

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

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

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

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

The real answer? Stringer just is.

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

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

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

Chrissie Hynde,” say the reviews.

Nope, it’s Stringer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmmmm, or maybe…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Track By Track: Good Days, These Days – Quinton Trembath

Quinton
Image Courtesy of Quinton Trembath

Avid journaler, constant traveller and part time accordionist, Quinton Trembath, has returned to punk influenced acoustic guitar to chronicle his stories of friends and places. Just six months after releasing his first EP, Tuns of Fun, Trembath is back with new EP Good days, These Days, recorded in Hobart with the help of Cal Young and Hannah Morrell.

For some added context to the new songs, he has provided us with a photo and anecdote for each song.

1. “Glenorchy” – Glenorchy is a suburb fifteen minutes north of Hobart where I was blessed to spend a week sharing a lounge-room floor with these ten smelly punks. The friendship was cemented one stormy night when Elliott rescued me from the rushing storm-water I had fallen into while we drunkenly explored Hobart’s underground rivulets.

Glenorchy

2. “Footscray” – Footscray is a suburb fifteen minutes west of Melbourne where I have spent the past three months making friends, writing songs and sleeping on couches. The few uninspiring months I spent working in Coffs Harbour at the end of last year filled me with a craving for a life more inspiring and I am stoked to be now living in a place where I can see my all my favourite bands both on stage as well as in the local Savers store.

Footscray

3. “Hazelbrook” – Hazelbrook is a suburb twenty minutes east of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains where my friend Maizy keeps herself busy with a myriad of jobs, bands, studies and other things. We often try to catch up, but due to her unaccommadating schedule of endless commitments and my penchant for constant travel, we’ve found writing letters to be by and far the sweetest way to keep in touch.

Hazelbrook

4. “Bonville” – Bonville is a suburb 15 minutes south of Coffs Harbour, where on a particularly depressing afternoon in December, my long time friend Rae and I were lucky to find that sometimes all it takes to lift a horrendous mood and derail a suicide pact is an old friend, a case of cheap tins and a rickety swinging garden chair dumped on a curbside.

Bonville

5. “Glebe” – Glebe is a suburb ten minutes out of Sydney’s CBD where my bicycle frequently spent the night locked up to the front railing of my friend Ellen’s charming terrace home last year. I wrote this song in Vietnam after spending a number of days with her in Indonesia where she nursed me back to health from a bad case of food poisoning.

Glebe

Good Days, These Days can be downloaded for “name your price” at Quinton Trembath’s Bandcamp.

Quinton Trembath has a number of New South Wales gigs coming up this week – check out the full list below:

Thursday 27th April – Get Folk Punked @ Lazybones, Sydney, NSW
Saturday 29th April – Station Bar, Katoomba, NSW
Sunday 30th April – The Hamilton Station Hotel, Newcastle, NSW

2017 Blue Mountains Music Festival – The Wrap

Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen doing Funeral Songs

Words and Pictures by Elizabeth Walton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Elizabeth Walton is a freelance writer, photographer and musician

Track By Track: The Morrisons – The Morrisons

The Morrisons
Image Courtesy of The Morrisons

The long awaited debut album from The Morrisons launched this week full of songs we’ve come to love from their live show over the last few years. James Morrisons, Jimmy Daley and Anna McInerney took some time out to run through the tracks on The Morrisons and give us an insight into the stories behind the songs.

“Cumberland Plain” – [Jimmy Daley] An old friend of mine from the mountains once told me a story about how when he was young they used to sing “Cumberland Gap” (one of my favourite old time folk songs) and change the lyrics to “leaving Balmain for the Cumberland Plain”. At that time (50’s/60’s), he told me that Sydney was changing, becoming more expensive and people who couldn’t afford it were getting forced out, much like what is going on now. Using his story as its genesis, the song deals with class divide between east and west in Sydney.

“Ruby” – [Jimmy Daley] I wrote this song a long time ago for my old band Bellyache Ben & The Steamgrass Boys. At the time I was listening a lot to the Osborne Brothers and The Country Gentleman. Those bands were so good at merging the sounds and traditions of bluegrass with pop sensibility, songs like ‘Rocky Top’, ‘Matterhorn’, ‘Fox on the Run’. It’s my favorite period of bluegrass music.

“Sugar Cane” – [Jimmy Daley] Another old one from the Steamgrass Boys days. I wrote this song when I was traveling around North Queensland. I was listening to Uncle Dave Macon – in particular his classic tune “Way Down The Old Plank Road” – and wanted to write something like that. In old-time music the hook that just goes ’round and ’round ’til your feet drop off. It’s so infectious. I love it. The claw-hammer banjo intro is a nod to Uncle Dave.

“Two Years In The Mines” – [Jimmy Daley] This song is about Gyzele Osmani, a refugee who came to Australia in 1999 during the Kosovo crisis. I have vivid memories of watching the crisis on the news as a young boy but having no idea of the gravity of what I was seeing. Gyzele’s story was the subject of an award winning essay and radio show. It’s a truly remarkable story of courage and determination in the face of terrible adversity (well worth a read). Unfortunately our own government created a significant amount of that adversity. She was held in detention in Port Headland for 7 months, with her 5 children. One of them had a broken leg and was denied adequate medical treatment. Gyzele was brought to Australia as part of our humanitarian response to the crisis and this is how we treated her, it’s absolutely disgraceful. The thing that made me really angry when I read about her story, was that our government talks about detention centres acting as deterrents to people who come here illegally, but here’s a woman who was brought here by the government under the banner of humanitarianism and she was kept in detention with all her children. It’s absolute bullshit! Thankfully though this story has a happy ending and she now lives and works in Canberra.

“Melina (Not For Long)” – [James Morrison] While in a low point in an in-between, on-again off-again, post separation/pre reparation stage relationship, I fell for a girl. She would remind me intermittently that she knew it wouldn’t be a forever relationship (although I don’t think I was aware of that at the time) because of my mess. She was right, and she was amazing.

“Whisky on the Brain” – [James Morrison] For three hours every Tuesday night for a year (2013-14), our band would wedge ourselves into the corner of Corridor in Newtown. We had to stack our instrument cases on the awning above King St to make space, and even then the room would be full with 50% band members. We would sweat, sing too loud and drink a lot, and this song is the memory.

“Route March” – [Jimmy Daley] As soon as I read Lawson’s poem “The Route March” the rhythm and melody started to form in my head, it just reads like song lyrics. A lot of his poems are like that, I’ve actually been working on a side project of writing an album of a capella music for a bunch of his poems, but knowing how long it takes me to finish stuff I’ll probably have that out in 2030.

“Good Christian Man” – [Jimmy Daley] This is a deeply personal song about doubt, self-reflection and religious contradiction, and about how in the absence of belief we try and find ways to be moral and decent to each other.

“Emmeline (Deeds Not Words)” – [Jimmy Daley] In her mid 30’s my grandmother decided she wanted to become a school teacher. She hadn’t had the opportunity to get much of an education as a child so she had to go back and do her HSC. So as a 30-year-old mother of two she donned the school uniform and did it! She then went to uni and became a primary school teacher. By this time she was married to my grandfather and thus had taken his last name, Pankhurst. The local paper did a story on her saying something like “The ghost of Emmeline Pankhurst rides again”. The surname is no coincidence either; my grandfather is a distant relation of Richard Pankhurst, Emmeline’s husband. The Pankhurst women, Emmeline, and in particular her daughter Sylvia, are some of the most important and inspirational historical figures I have ever encountered. In my mind they should occupy the same space in our cultural psyche as people like Martin Luther King and Ghandi. One thing we are really proud of is that we will be releasing the song as a single in conjunction with the UN Women Australia Group on 8th March, International Women’s Day. It will be a pay what you want thing with all the proceeds going towards UN initiatives to help disenfranchised women around the world. The theme for the day this year is “empower a woman, empower a nation”, very appropriate when speaking of Emmeline Pankhurst.

“Rabbit Skin Cheques” – [Jimmy Daley] My Grandfather grew up on a farm in Tamworth. They didn’t have much money and they also had a problem with rabbits. So he would kill the rabbits, skin them and then sell the skins to a shop in town to make some extra pocket money. What a great topic for a country song!

“Turn the Light On” – [James Morrison] This was one of our first songs, but was long forgotten and buried. After a cathartic moment walking home between recording sessions, it seemed relevant again, not as the lighthearted song about being in the doghouse, but now as a plead to not be shut out of a relationship.

“Wild Eleanor” – [Jimmy Daley] Another old one from The Steamgrass Boys, we released this as a single last year and won an award at the Australian Song Writers Association for folk/acoustic song of the year. We also played it on The Bachelor, ha. It’s been such a staple song for The Morrisons that we decided to record it again and chuck it on there. It’s very live, warts and all. That is a reflection of how we recorded the whole album really. We tried to do it as live as possible, without overdubs etc. That means you have to accept a few mistakes here and there but the spirit and intensity of your performance stays intact, which is much more important than your ego staying intact. Multi tracked, slick folk/bluegrass recordings for me miss the point of what is so powerful about this kind of music.

“Long Time Traveling” – [Jimmy Daley] I love harmony singing! It’s my favourite thing to do in music. If I could, I would sit at my computer all day every day writing, arranging and recording vocal harmonies. I wrote this song whilst traveling around China. I’m not sure where the tune came from but I’d just been humming it to myself the entire trip. The melody has a very pentatonic “asian” quality to it, perhaps it just seeped into my subconscious. We then went up to Inner Mongolia and the lyrics just poured out. It’s an incredible landscape but at the same time it’s marred by destruction and rapid urban development. Like the rest of China it’s a place of insane contrast. I remember sitting waiting for a bus and looking around me at this desolate construction site wasteland and seeing that just over the horizon cows and horses were roaming across the stunning Mongolian steppe the same way they had for centuries. The same grasslands on which Genghis Khan rode his horse. It was bizarre.

“Southern Flavour” – [Anna McInerney] A classic instrumental tune by the father of bluegrass Bill Monroe, “Southern Flavour” is a favourite of The Morrisons and has been in our set list for a long time. It wasn’t originally scheduled for the studio but the idea came up, we did a few takes and we had our album closer.

The Morrisons is available now from all the usual outlets. Download on Bandcamp here. For details of their upcoming tour check out the dates here as well as our review of the album here.

Review: The Morrisons, Smoke on a Foggy Highway: The Bluegrass Albums of Paul Kelly

The Morrisons

The Morrisons
The Basement, Sydney, NSW
Friday 17th June, 2016

A year ago I was lucky enough to sit in on Sydney bluegrass band The Morrisons as they practiced for an upcoming show. But this wasn’t any ordinary practice – The Morrisons were putting the finishing touches on Smoke on a Foggy Highway, their tribute to the bluegrass albums of Paul Kelly. And it was just magic.

Just over a week ago I found myself at The Basement in Sydney watching The Morrisons make their way through Smoke and Foggy Highway with a deftness and grace that was a testament to just how good these guys are. Despite a building a reputation off their Paul Kelly and O Brother Where Art Thou? shows, The Morrisons are no mere tribute band. They are some of the finest musicians in Australia bringing their favourite music to the stage.

For a cold winter’s night in Sydney The Basement was surprisingly packed and I found myself jostling for a position near the bar to catch a glimpse of the band. I suspect Sydney’s Vivid Festival had drawn a few people out of their houses for the show but it’s safe to assume that the majority of people were there on the reputation of the show alone – since its debut last year Smoke on a Foggy Highway has garnered something of a cult status in the folk community as a must see show.

And The Morrisons didn’t disappoint. Kicking off the show by running through Paul Kelly & Uncle Bill’s classic album Smoke and then returning for a second half exploration of Paul Kelly & The Stormwater Boys’ Foggy Highway The Morrisons made these songs come alive. Their skills as musicians meant the material was elevated above impersonation or parody – the band treated it as respectfully as they would any other part of the bluegrass canon.

James “Morri” Morrison is an affable front man whose easygoing stage presence kept the audience enthralled throughout. I love the way he personalised Paul Kelly’s songs with his introductions, espousing his personal connections to the material. Morri was joined by a band of fine musicians – Anna McInerey on fiddle, Jimmy Daley on mandolin, Dr Zane Banks on banjo (and even a little bit of guitar!), Iain Tallis on bass and Miles Fraser on lead guitar – who in turn reproduced the musical accompaniment of Paul Kelly’s bluegrass albums and also made the songs their own. For a brief moment I wondered how close the players were getting to the solos and melodies of the original albums and then I realised it didn’t matter – each song was pitch perfect.

By far my favourite parts of the night were the songs that were driven by a capella and harmony singing. From “Until Death Do Them Part” to “Shy Before You Lord” to the amazing “Meet Me in The Middle of the Air”, The Morrisons proved themselves as some of the finest harmony singers around, not just fantastic instrumentalists.

The other highlight for me this time around was Morri’s solo acoustic version of “They Thought I Was Asleep”. We don’t often get to see Morri picking out a tune on a guitar by himself as it’s easy for him to get over shadowed by the other amazing players in the band, but watching him deliver this classic Paul Kelly track all on his lonesome was truly special.

When the band finished up the night performing their own track “Wild Eleanor” I found myself grinning from ear to ear. There’s a reason that Paul Kelly is considered Australia’s finest songwriter and there’s no better band than The Morrisons to bring his music to life. These songs have grown beyond their maker and it is amazing to see bands like The Morrisons treating this material with the seriousness and reverence it deserves. Next time you see The Morrisons advertise their Smoke on a Foggy Highway show – hell, any time you see The Morrisons advertise any show – make sure you snap up tickets. You can be assured it’s going to be magic.

Review: 5 things we learned at Bluesfest

Kale plays at Bluesfest 2016Kaleo playing Bluesfest
Photos by Stuart Bucknell

Year after year, Bluesfest manages to bring the big names and the impressive acts to Byron Bay for the annual Easter pilgrimage. Heading to Bluesfest this year, we really didn’t know many of the acts listed on the bill and wondered just what was in store for us, Timber and Steel wise. So here’s 5 things we learned at this year’s wildly successful, ultimate music sampler opportunity that is, Bluesfest.

#1 – Peter Noble knows how to program…

One thing is for sure, Peter Noble knows how to curate an inclusive, diverse and engaging festival. The big names drew enormous crowds to all their sets. City and Colour had the crowd from the first note and Dallas Green was on form all night.  The Decemberists gave their usual charming set delving in to a fabulous back catalogue of favourites. Not to go without a bit of political comment, they also played a song they thought to offer Donald Trump as his new campaign tune, ‘The Calamity Song’. The Cat Empire delivered a solid hour and a half set jam packed with both new tracks and past hits and favourites to wow the crowd. The biggest coup was probably The Original Blues Brothers Band closing out the weekend with a stellar set of their signature blues.

The festival was dappled with big names throughout the program. Archie Roach was in fine form, weaving his musical spell over the crowd and telling the tales of the land with strength and beauty, and a focus on songs from Charcoal Lane, the title track being a particular stand out moment of the set. Jason Isbell had his one an only set up against The Original Blues Brothers Band, so splitting our time between the two was challenging but rewarding as Isbell’s enigmatic style caught watchers in it’s thrall delivering a contemporary counterpoint to the old school blues on the other stage.

Kim Churchill plays BluesfestBut one of the most notable names for me, still playing midday sets, was Kim Churchill. Getting his big break on the Bluesfest Buskers stage all those years ago, Churchill has been a staple name on the line up ever since. His absence in 2015 was noted and the crowds that gathered for this sets this year spoke strongly of his popularity for the Bluesfest crowd. Watching him command the stage, with the occasional accompaniment of a fiddle player or percussionists, was a joy to witness and testament to the following he has. It felt like he had come home, and in the process had evolved from a keen boy with a guitar to a passionate man with a solid musical career stretching before him.

#2 – It’s never just about the Blues. Folk, Country, and Americana all strongly represented in 2016

Strolling from stage to stage, the peeling licks and plucky chords of the more folky persuasion were both notable and popular with punters, letting us stumble across all kinds of gems.  LA based Lord Huron made quite the entrance with a tension building soundscape and crescendo, an upbeat strummy and infectious style, inventive percussion beneath the acoustic lead and an ability to morph between styles, from the old school feel reminiscent of the 50s and 60s summer soundtracks, through alt country and indie folk rock vibes. A particular highlight from the four-piece was ‘Hurricane’, billed as a song about “getting in trouble”, turns out it was aptly named.

Described as an Icelandic Indie pop/rock/folk band, Kaleo was a light and lyrical delight. Building from their delicate opening style to gutsy, rhythm driven choruses, through alt-country sensibilities to deep southern style blues, and a soulful cover of Bang Bang, Kaleo didn’t hesitate to transcend styles and genres to sign off with a blues rock riff and howling vocals when warranted.

The Bros Landreth, hailing from Canada, brought their alt-country and folk laden cover of Wings’ ‘Let ‘Em In’ to break the ice and then let the Americana tinged goodness flow forth. A family affair, big brother David couldn’t attend so father Wally came in his place and whipped the crowd in to a cheering craze.

The Mastersons were touring with Steve Earle & The Dukes, and made appearances both on Earle’s sets and one of their own solo shows for Bluesfest. Their lyrical country styling, featuring voices working together in diverse melodic harmony gave their day opening set a contemplative mood, transporting the crowd to simpler days. Earle’s set was one great big treat of blues soaked tunes with toe-tapping jivey bluegrass edge, all with the sweet country counterpoint of The Mastersons.

Hound mouth playing Bluesfest 2016

It seemed to be a fatherly affair this Bluesfest, with Hussy Hicks welcoming Julz’s dad Greg to their set to deliver some blistering harmonica to their upbeat tempo and at times Joplin-esque wails and passion. Indiana’s Houndmouth however had no dad’s on their line up but did have plenty of twangy blues and American drawl to open their show and unravel your soul where you stood.

#3 – Word of Mouth is King

You know when you look at a line up and you’re not really sure what acts to check out? Well Bluesfest was that way inclined for many but within the first 8 hours, gossip was abuzz with recommendations and wild tales of phenomenal shows and must see acts to catch. So here’s what we checked out based purely on word of mouth.

Steve Smyth plays at Bluesfest 2016

OK, so Steve Smyth isn’t exactly news to us, but the stir on site had his name on the tips of peoples tongues and boy did he live up to the hype. Sheer genius stood on that stage in the form of master lyricist and vibrant stage presence. Smyth’s beautiful voice and stunning vibrato was just powerful solo as with the support backing instrumentalists. His performance of ‘Southland’ blew socks off across the festival.

Shooglenifty, also known as ‘that band I can’t pronounce’, was not what you expect when you read “Celtic” on the program, but a glorious blend of traditional highland derived tunes that were heavy on the fiddle and a mandolin at the ready, intricately twined with modern rhythms, a few electric guitars and a toe tapping beat, drew punters in before they could saunter too far past the heaving tent.

Blind Boy Paxton plays at Bluesfest 2016

The was no way to walk through the site without hearing the name, Blind Boy Paxton. Listening to his set was like a walk through time, from a fiddle calling a country dance and bransles, to a lightning speed banjo frenzy, a soothing guitar tune and even a lone harmonica telling you it’s tale. All this from one man on stage – simply astonishing.

#4 – The Ladies are out in force! And you should catch all of them live

There was a lot of talk about various acts, and word of mouth certainly got us to see some great performers, but thanks to emphatic and multiple recommendations from all kinds of punters, we discovered some of the most phenomenal women who stamped their mark and left as some of the powerhouses of Bluesfest.

We caught Sahara Beck for her last set and were immediately struck by her stage presence, the smooth set up with band and back up singers added the pizazz to her swag and gave her sultry vibe a ‘pop’ on stage.

Elle King had tongues wagging as word spread that after her first, expletive laden set, her set list had to be ‘revised’. However her husky, growling vocal licks were well and truly flowing when we caught her set in a heaving tent overflowing in to the customary Bluesfest rain. Sass and attitude would be the plainest way of describing King, her vibrancy comes from her musical versatility and ability to weave country vibes and bluegrassy panache throughout her ballsy bluesy set. A chameleon of style, King bowled over crowds with big notes, fiery wit and feisty repartee.

Elle King plays at Bluesfest 2016

Hailing from Ireland, via Canada, Irish Mythen is a modern troubadour equipped with a powerhouse voice and emphatic lyrics. Mythen might have been the grittiest, most real musician seen at Bluesfest this year, armed only with her guitar and her stories, she held hundreds of people spellbound, hanging on her every word any time she took to the stage. We caught her multiple times, and laughed, cried, cheered and sung along to songs we had only heard the first time days before. She regularly had the crowd in stitches with her sense of humour and story telling capers, and woe betide any punter brave enough to heckle her! Four stand out moments stayed with me, even though I saw them all more than once. Her performance of ‘Tullamore Blues’ almost defies description, except that the crowd was with her, in that space, singing every word and feeling every sentiment. Jesus is an experience to behold, hilarious in it’s explanation and empowering in it’s performance, I sincerely hope every person gets to experience it live. Her a Capella rendition of ‘The Auld Triangle’ gives me chills and is simply astounding.  And finally ’55 Years’ had me (and most in the crowd) in tears for the beauty it captures in it’s tale. A truly moving experience. Irish Mythen is awe inspiring and we’re excited she’ll be visiting Australia again soon.

Rhiannon Giddens plays at Bluesfest 2016

And finally, probably the all-singing, all-dancing highlight of the ladies was Rhiannon Giddens. Establishing herself originally as a part of Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens’ solo work is a sight to behold and a treat to hear. Her stunning vocals are soulful yet soar high in beautiful arcs and trills of an almost Celtic style. The skill of her band melds electric with acoustic in wonderful instrumental breaks, bouncing off one another jamming to a crescendo and returning the spotlight to her lead when the time was right. Her banjo crept through tunes to pounce on you unawares, yet could alternate and become the hero of the song. Old Bob Dylan lyrics never previously turned in to songs until Giddens got her hands on them offered a treasure trove to discover. Doing a Dolly Parton cover can be tough, but Giddens’ rendition of ‘Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind’ saw her own the song completely, from every element of style through to her emotive connection with both lyrics and sentiment. From start to finish and for each and every set, she wowed the crowd with fiddle, banjo, modern takes on traditional style, soul stirring lyrics and even a step back in time to the 1920s. Her fancy footwork went down a treat and her ability to connect with the audience and tether them to her tale as the most exquisite experience to behold. She could chat to the crowd but make you feel like she spoke to you and you alone, and yet at all times Rhiannon Giddens continued to exist as her own ineffable self.

#5 – Soul is in, along with BIG bands

Now strictly speaking, Timber and Steel doesn’t really cover Soul, but the prevalence of the big band style soul injections at Bluesfest is worthy of admiration and appreciation, so it gets a gong here.

Emma Donovan & The Putbacks were a sight to behold as Donovan put her own stamp on soul, with earthy tones and a voice that rolled over the crowd, calling to them, beckoning them to hear her story. The combination of her stories and passionate, soulful delivery made for a tight set and profound performance.

I wrote down 4 words when seeing The Word, and two of them were expletives… “holy f***ing sh*t wow.” The couple of songs we caught were incredible, full of funky groves and some sweet slide guitar, all topped off with an electric organ. Very smooth and cool indeed.

Ash Grunwald plays at Bluesfest 2016Ash Grunwald hasn’t moved in to soul, but his Bluesfet setup did resemble the big backing bands of the soul acts and boy did it compliment his wailing blues. Never conforming to just one genre, Grunwald drew on bluegrass vibes, some indie rock to his blues and of course his signature commentary on Australian life. Playing River from his new album, Grunwald spoke about the anti-CSG message prevalent throughout his most recent recordings and confirmed he was among friends int he Bluesfest crowd. His set was punctuated with old favourites as highlights, crowds rollicking in his passionate performance and joining in to sing along on choruses, and the utter delight when Kasey Chambers joined him on stage for a brand new song was palpable.

Another of the tongue wagging recommendations was for Vintage Trouble, and my first impression was that lead singer Ty Taylor was sex on legs, with enough swagger stuffed in to a cravat and suit to fell an army. And when the full band kicked in, it blew the show off the Richter scale. A set full of southern blues, call and response, screaming and wailing blues breaks and enough on stage antics to warrant a lie down after watching. This was my kind of place, 1950s style jazzy blues, complete with energy and onstage charisma!

Vintage Trouble plays Bluesfest 2016

Now, if you haven’t yet heard of the phenomenal popularity and praise for Bluesfest debutants St. Paul and The Broken Bones, then you haven’t been doing the internet properly. Of all the word of mouth recommendations, St Paul and The Broken Bones was THE most talked about act at Bluesfest, and not without good reason. A big band blues-laden soul outfit, oozing funk, with a big personality for a front man in Paul Janeway. Opening with an almighty wail and sliding in to a crooning style track, the crowd knew exactly where they stood and were rooted to the spot to witness the explosive show by one of the most engaging acts we’ve seen in years. Janeway, on behalf of the entire band, exclaimed that Bluesfest was the best experience they had ever had and they would definitely be coming back to Australia, to which the crowd erupted with delight. A set filled with rumbling soul, emotive ballads and big, ballsy blues, St Paul and The Broken Bones is sure to be a high rotation favourite on many punters playlists for some time to come.

St Paul and The Broken Bones plays Bluesfest 2016

Without a doubt, Bluesfest’s skillfully curated 2016 lineup was a smash hit success, sure to be spoken of for years to come. Can’t wait to see what Peter Noble comes up with for 2017!

Review: Boy & Bear at Hordern Pavilion

Boy&Bear Hordern Pavilion

Boy & Bear with Art of Sleeping and Montaigne
Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, NSW
Friday 12th February, 2016

We hurried on a Friday night to the Hordern Pavilion to catch the Sydney leg of Boy & Bear’s Limit of Love tour. Unfortunately, we missed support act Montaigne but the praise heaped upon her from The Art of Sleeping and the guarantee of her amazing voice is testament to both a strong camaraderie on tour, and the real talent that we had missed. We’ll be tracking down Montaigne for sure.

We did manage to catch the majority of Brisbane 5-piece Art of Sleeping who filled the stage with confidence, man-bun styling and a considerable bit of alternative musical goodness. Man-bun aside, their set covered both new and old tracks and was punctuated by solid rhythmic openings, glorious sliding melodies and musical tones that seems to recreate the very sound of shining light. The audience had been growing throughout the set and the majority were seriously engaged with the show on stage. To round out their set, the boys played Crazy complete with bold opening solo, subsequent big sound all the time underpinned by a chilled piano melody paired with statement drums.

David Hosking - Boy & BearThe main event arrived without too much fanfare, just the signature opening beats of Limit of Love infused with an upbeat vibe and the Boy & Bear guys owning the stage. Their title track performance set the tone for the rest of the show and had the audience ready to roll. The first noticeable feature of the show was the very high production standards, lighting, sound and transitions between songs was flawless and smooth. It’s those little elements that make a concert so much more enjoyable and are a sign of an excellent touring collective effort. The entire show was slick and inclusive of all the band members, each having their own moments, their own feature parts and at times, and even their own lighting states at times.

Stand outs included Bridges, Three Headed Woman, and Man Alone with the silence of the stage broken only by Hosking’s finger clicks. Seeing him commit his entire self to Old Town Blues showed just how the changes to the line up and the increased prevalence of his performing without an instrumented on the freedom to delve deep in to the song. All of the band members were playful and relaxed on stage, the obvious sign it’s been a good tour and everyone can play on stage in a fun way.

The night was full of moments. That moment when a whole crowd moves the same to a song. That moment when every pair of lips sang along to every word. That moment when everyone in the crowd gave genuine applause for the support acts when asked. That moment when the clap from the crowd grows to a point that unites stage and audience in to one musical creation.

Jon Hart - Boy & BearThere was a slick, cool, moody intro filled with hollow drum beats and a building echoey bass that was so atmospheric. The sheer clarity and quality of sound was evidence of an excellent sound tech I assume was travelling with them to achieve such great effects live on stage.

This is a band that has reached its stride and now has a career pace that they could maintain for the veritable marathon ahead. While their new stuff is developing a new sound and direction, their old stuff is just as open to new interpretation and appreciation. Their rendition of Rabbit Song was beautiful, with a slowed bridge the seems to hang in its own air only to  roll and tumble down from the stage, out across the audience. The quality of this performance brought a whole new grace and beauty to a well known favourite.

Their now famed ‘Like a Version’ cover is a source of on stage jokes as they tease the audiences in each city that they won’t play it. Back to Black brought the phenomenal harmonies from their radio performance to the live stage and impresses, reminding us of their particularly tight brand of close harmonies.

Tim Hart - Boy & BearAll the big favourites stirred the crowd, but the rumbling bass of Feeding Line had the intensity in the pavilion escalate. An epic western-alt country style opening to Golden Jubilee had everyone wondering what was coming and was testiment that the band were really having fun with it, changing it up, breathing a new life in to the song we thought we knew.

By the time their back catalog had been thoroughly brought to the stage, punctuated by their new tracks from Limit of Love, it was nearing the end of a massive hour and a half set. Hosting pointed out that, from the very beginning, they are a band who never do encores. They usually make that announcement and then play two final songs, but tonight we were in for a treat with three.

Big twangy chords heralded the opening of Part Time Believer that went on to treat the crowd. The synth-pop vibe of Harlequin Dream countered the encore feel with their surprise sax player turning up on stage to play that interlude live! The announcement of last song rightfully drew huge applause as they broke in to a final song from their new album, Walk the Wire.

This wasn’t just a good concert, this was a great show, an entertainment form start to finish. A high quality production that will stay with audiences for a long time to come.

Photos from the set can be viewed on our Facebook page.

Review: Josh Pyke, Twilight at Taronga, Sydney

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Josh Pyke with Winterbourne
Twilight at Taronga, Sydney, NSW
Friday 29th January, 2016

I can’t believe that Twilight at Taronga has been running for more years than I have lived in Sydney for, yet it took until 2016 for me to make it to one of the famed summer series concerts. With the city reeling from an afternoon thunderstorm that threatened to close the show before it even started, we settled in under grey skies to see one of our favourite artists of all time, Josh Pyke.

Having arrived later than intended, the available grass space was limited, but surprisingly there seems to not be a bad seat in the house for this annual pop-up venue. We grabbed our spot, picked up our fancy hamper, collected our Aperol Spritzs and made ourselves comfortable in time for support act Winterbourne to start. I admit, I hadn’t heard much by Winterbourne before last night, but knowing that Josh Pyke gigs are like a personal curation of Pyke’s favourite emerging and established acts in town, we knew we were in good hands. And, Winterbourne didn’t disappoint. With a smattering of recorded and released tracks to warm up the crowd (many of whom did know Winterbourne‘s work, much to their surprise and delight), the boys brought out some new songs from their forthcoming release that had the crowd hooked.

As a bonus, a brand new song, not yet recorded and probably only a few weeks old, was played with the caveat that the crowd’s reaction would seal the fate of the new track – and that we should not scream and shout at the end if we don’t like it. Suffice to say, they now have a crowd approved song on their hands. I found Winterbourne had a delightful spectrum of sounds and styles to their repertoire – some upbeat tunes that would get you up to dance, some ballady-folky tunes, some shades of indie-pop and some definite Pyke-esque sounds woven throughout their playbook. Winterbourne ultimately delivered an excellent, enigmatic set that warmed the crowd perfectly for the main attraction.

When I go to gigs, I usually make note of everything that is played and pay attention to which songs are highlights both personally, and for the crowd as a whole. With a consummate performer like Josh Pyke, the list is inevitably an entire list of highlights, sing alongs, huge responses and upswells from the audience and I could just resort too recounting the play list and waxing lyrical about each an every song. This concert was no exception, however the joy for me – apart from yet another brilliant Josh Pyke concert – is the reminder that his personality and banter on stage is the truly magical and endearing aspect of his live shows.

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Photo courtesy of Josh Pyke

We’ve seen him in a number of settings, from large festival stages, to solo shows, from super groups, to full band concerts and even a magical collaboration with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. But it’s the witty repartee that fills the gaps between songs and reveals his inner dork that is exactly the thing that fans love about him. We all identify with getting things in the wrong order (and jokingly giving retrospective thanks for the upcoming misplaced track), having the Sydney humidity screw with your hair do, forgetting where your hands are supposed to go on the guitar for the chords you needs mid song but pretending it’s a quiet, sing-along moment for the audience, then outing yourself after the song… Ok, we might not identify with that exactly, but it’s his good humour, cheeky comments and ultimately flawed human approach to his fans that makes us all feel like we are personal friends gathering for a get together where our mate Josh pulls out his guitar.

He dedicated Leeward Side to his sons, Archer and Augie (who were in the audience with wife Sarah), which elicited the appropriate ‘aaaawww’ response and cheers from the crowd. Speaking of kids, he gave an hilarious language warning before the Lighthouse Song, which probably should have come with a language warning of it’s own. During another interlude, he asked whether anyone in the crowd did not follow him on Facebook, and for all those people to please go and immediately like his page and see if we could “crash the interweb”. Pyke announced towards the end of the set that they had a noise curfew at the venue and that he wouldn’t be doing any of that encore sh*t and to just pretend that the next song was the last if we wanted an encore. Middle of the Hill subsequently tore the house (or lawn) down and had us all cheering for more and ‘demanding’ an encore.

If the admission of no encore wasn’t funny enough, his ‘faux’ encore “oh we don’t have anything prepared” hammered home his penchant for Dad jokes and familiar rapport with the crowd. From the fans dancing madly at front of stage, to us and our fellow repose wine sippers up the back, the entire sold our audience was in raptures with Pyke‘s performance. Every person in attendance would have had as enjoyable a night as us.

You know it’s been a great show when on the Ferry back to the city, the couples around you are all singing their own two part harmonies of their favourite tracks, or humming their favourite melodies, or posting photos of the show to social media.

Twilight at Taronga was the first show in his new tour promoting But For All These Shrinking Hearts and continues around the country over the next month taking in Canberra, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Lismore, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Tickets are available on his website.

Twilight at Taronga is an exquisite concert series with a stunning backdrop, and excellent set up and is big enough to have a great vibe without having fellow music lovers in your back pocket. A string of sold out concerts limit your options for this year if you haven’t yet been, but there are definitely still some gems of the folk persuasion with tickets available, so treat yourself to some summer sounds by the harbour.

 

Review: Illawarra Folk Festival, Bulli, NSW

Illawarra
Image Courtesy of Illawarra Folk Festival

As the summer roles around each year I take a look at the packed folk festival calendar and try to work out which events I’ll be attending over the season. There are always a few festivals that fall into the “one day” category because of the effort required to get to them (making it down to Cygnet and Georgetown in Tasmania for instance is a two week commitment I’m yet to make). And then there’s those events that have to be a trade off – if I head to WOMADelaide it means I’m missing out on Nannup or Port Fairy.

Then there are those events that are a must – and the Illawarra Folk Festival is at the top of that list. Just an hour and a half from Sydney by train, the Illawarra Folk Festival is a no brainer, even if just for a day or two over the long weekend. The festival sits somewhere between the smaller boutique folk festivals hosted by country towns and the “big three” folk festivals of Woodford, Port Fairy and The National – it manages to attract the best and brightest of the international and Australian folk scene while maintaining a unique community vibe.

For the first time in ages I committed to heading to the Illawarra Folk Festival for the three main days this year, even if it meant commuting to and from my base in Sydney every day. I was determined to see as much music as possible without dealing with the inevitable clashes that comes from trying to see everything in one day. This year I was going to lose my weekend to the Illawarra Folk Festival.

Friday

I walked into the festival on Friday morning nursing a slight hangover courtesy of The East Pointers, The Button Collective and a few too many Guinnesses at The Gaelic Club the night before. I had decided against patronising the opening night of the Illawarra Folk Festival in favour of The East Pointers’ headline show in Sydney – I knew I was going to catch them over the weekend but the opportunity to see them in my own backyard was just too appealing.

It’s been a long while since I’ve spent a Friday at the Illawarra Folk Festival and I have to say it was the perfect way to kick the event off. The smaller Friday crowd made for a lazy day wandering around the Bulli showground taking in music at all of the venues and getting a feel for the place.

I kicked off my day getting on top of my hangover hiding out for a couple of acts in the Grandstand restaurant. I managed to catch the amazing bouzouki player Beth Patterson who is touring the country at the moment spreading her take on traditional and contemporary folk. I’d never considered the bouzouki as a solo instrument before but Patterson brought a maturity to the instrument that was just spellbinding. I hung around for Adelaide based singer-songwriter Banjo Jackson on the recommendation of Kaurna Cronin and was not disappointed – Jackson can stand tall with the new breed of folk singers coming out of Adelaide at the moment with the type of music that is instantly relatable and the perfect pairing of solo, finger-picked guitar and effects laden fiddle.

I’d drunkenly promised Rebecca Bastoli the night before that I would be at her debut programmed festival show at 2:15pm so I staked out my spot in the Nags Lounge early. Despite a couple of unavoidable technical problems (she was mortified when she broke a string halfway through the performance) Bastoli delivered a stunning set, backed by a full band of fiddle, flute, box and bass. It boggles my mind how talented Rebecca Bastoli is – in such a short time she has mastered both the guitar and mandolin and written some of the most poignant songs I’ve heard in ages.

A revelation of the festival was Irish singer O’Leary. If I’m honest I only caught his set by accident but I was mesmerised throughout. The way he brought a humility and reverence to traditional songs was amazing and the backing percussion, electric guitar and flute just enhanced his music.

It wouldn’t be an Illawarra Folk Festival without Australiana-punks Handsome Young Strangers so I made a point of catching their set at The Miners Camp before wrapping my day up and jumping on the train back to Sydney. Handsome Young Strangers are a folk music institution and they tore through their catalogue with the usual devil-may-care attitude. It’s amazing seeing Australian bush and folk music updated for a modern audience while still maintaining respect for the work.

Saturday

Saturday at the Illawarra Folk Festival is always hectic and this year was no different. Watching the crowd stream through the front doors and fill up the venues. Watching a packed festival like this fills me with joy – it proves once again that folk music is thriving and that the people behind the Illawarra Folk Festival should be so proud of the community that they’re created.

I was determined to see local singer-songwriter Kay Proudlove after I missed her set last year, and I was not disappointed. Proudlove is the consummate performer, delighting crowds between songs and delivering lyric driven music that is instantly relatable. I am now determined to see Kay Proudlove every time she ventures north to Sydney (or at least to program future Illawarra Folk Festivals around her sets).

Having heard nothing but amazing things about Irish Mythen I just had to see what all the fuss was about – and I have to say I was not disappointed. Watching one woman with a guitar command the largest stage at the Illawarra Folk Festival was astounding – her stage presence and the way she worked the audience was truly a masterclass in performance. Her version of “The Auld Triangle” is a crowd favourite for a reason and absolutely brought the house down.

The next few hours were a blur of amazing music. Shane Howard once again proved why he is Australia’s best songwriters for those people who braved the mud to venture into the Black Diamond Marquee. Out Of Abingdon added touch of jazz to the festival with their vibey folk tunes. The Redfern Shanty Club turned their performance at The Miners Camp into an all-in singalong session. The Button Collective’s impromptu blackboard session at the Tantric Turtle was the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon coffee. And The Dead Maggies rounded out a bunch of amazing music by tearing up the stage with a mostly cobbled together new lineup.

I rounded out the day by catching trad band Fresh Off The Boat at their intimate Café de Rude. Made up of some of Sydney’s best trad players (most of which you can catch at the Friday night Gaelic Club sessions) Fresh Off The Boat breathed fresh life into traditional Irish music and delighted the local crowd. The sound at the gig was not amazing, mainly owing to the fact that the entire band couldn’t fit on Café de Rude’s stage, but just watching the skill of the players was enough to overcome any issues. The perfect way to round out a hectic Saturday of music.

Sunday

On the third day the Illawarra Folk Festival became about two things – catching all the artists I hadn’t seen yet and revisiting those that had made an impression over the weekend.

I kicked off my day with Queensland based singer-songwriter Mia Wray. Alternating between guitar and piano Wray brought a maturity to her music that seemed to defy her young age. Her original songs were just stunning and she had the audience eating out of her hand with her easygoing stage presence.

I’d seen Japanese Irish trad band John John Festival a couple of years ago at the Illawarra Folk Festival a couple of years ago so I jumped at the chance to catch bodhran player Toshi Bodhran and fiddle player Mana Okubo again as part of Tim Scalan’s band – and I was not disappointed. While I loved Scalan’s masterful singing and harmonica playing it was Toshi Bodhran who stole the show – the man can turn the bodhran into a melody instrument like no one I’ve ever seen before. Special mention has to go to Mana Okubo who performed the entire set with her baby strapped to her back.

The Wish List proved that the fiddle is all you need to accompany a voice and that three fiddles with three voices is even better. This was one of the most innovative bands at the Illawarra Folk Festival – I can’t wait to see these girls live again.

In the afternoon I dragged myself up the hill to the Small Halls Concert in order to catch Liz Stringer and then The East Pointers. For too long people have been telling me that Liz Stringer is the best songwriter in Australia and watching her set at the Illawarra Folk Festival those same people may be proved right. Stringer has an intensity to her songwriting that is tempered with a warmth in her performance not matched by many. I implore you to see Liz Stringer wherever and whenever you get the chance.

Despite having seen The East Pointers in Sydney a couple of days earlier there was no way was going to miss their final set at the Illawarra Folk Festival. These guys are probably the most exciting trad band I have seen in the last 12 months and their live set is incredibly tight. Their use of foot percussion and bass effects on the guitar elevate this three piece from session band to festival headliners and the ease at which they interact with their audience makes you feel included in the experience.

The rest of Sunday evening was spent drifting from tent to tent catching whatever music was playing before idling my way to the Grandstand Restaurant for a final set from The Button Collective and then jumping on the train home.

The organisers of this year’s Illawarra Folk Festival have a lot to be proud of, building an event that caters to almost every facet of the “folk” genre all the while maintaining a community spirit. There’s a reason why performers and punters come back to the Illawarra Folk Festival every year and why it remains a must attend on my festival calendar. Bring on 2017!

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