Review: Blue Mountains Music Festival

Blue Mountains Music Festival
Image Courtesy of the Blue Mountains Music Festival

To start, an admission: I’m a terrible festival attendee. My handful of must-sees quickly gives way to a fickle drifting, distracted eyes and ears rarely attentive for a whole set. I’m also, as you’ll quickly discover, musically illiterate yet fascinated and enthralled by a language I don’t understand. Lyrically, I feel adept to make comment; instrumentally I flounder and use inappropriate and often incorrect words. You’ve been warned: what follows is a review of the beautiful Blue Mountains Folk, Roots and Blues Music Festival by a musical illiterate with a deep love and appreciation for what she hears.

Thanks to Timber and Steel’s Editor in Chief Evan Hughes plans to marry one of my oldest (very youthful) friends, the lovely Sarah Tuz, and my convenient home in the misty, mystical Blue Mountains, I’m writing my first review for Timber and Steel.

Like many fellow festival attendees, I spent the preceding week checking the weather forecast, anticipating a repeat of last year’s perpetual rain and shin-deep mud bath (not atypical in the Bluies). Yet I also knew, as you can read in Evan’s review of last year’s festival, that the residents of the Blue Mountains and those attending from afar, are resilient and undeterred by a bit of soggy trudging between venues, and well-equipped with assorted gumboots and waterproof parkas.

The seventeenth Blue Mountains Musical Festival was, as the program described, the usual motley affair of folk, roots, blues, latin, world, jazz, bluegrass, Indie, reggae, blessed with artists from the quirky, theatrical The Beez, to the determined and socially conscious Blue King Brown. Young local musicians such as the passionate young Claude Hay played just metres away from the iconic Judy Collins, tackling themes from the intimate to the comical to the political and everything in between.

A “favourite five” glimpse of what we saw:

Fred Smith and Liz Frencham

Fred Smith is a songwriter of 15 years. He’s also an Australian diplomat who has been posted to far corners of the earth – from Bouganville to Uruzgan. Skilfully, he combines these two personas as a master storyteller, conjuring hope, despair and laughter in his audience. I was suitably curious to see him on both Friday and Saturday evening.

Fred began his collaboration with the beautiful, cheeky, passionate Liz Frencham at the National Folk Festival in 2002. Liz on vocals and cello brought balance and intimacy to Smith’s performance on Friday night, enthralling the audience with her vivacious enjoyment of her instrument, balancing Fred’s dry humour with a distinctly feminine presence onstage. The evening mixed the political – such as “Blue Guitar”, reflecting on his time in the Solomon Islands, to the everyday and personal, such as “In My Room”.

Throughout Saturday evenings Dust of Uruzgan (the title of his new album) performance, Smith used a combination of story, song and multi-media to tell of his time posted in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan. What left the audience hopeful, despite his often tragic stories of distrust and fear, was Smith’s wry yet playful sense of humour, and his overt belief that in spite of the everyday horrors he witnessed, peace is still possible.

Liz Frencham and the rest of the band served as instruments by which Smith added life to his stories. Smith gave voice to the men and women of the armed forces in the province, describing the monotony of constant threat, the loss and death and ceaseless dust. It was not all bleak- from within the reality of war; Smith described uplifting friendships, a spot of ‘Schwafelen’ (brush up on your Dutch to translate this one) and plenty of laughter. A memorable and poignant experience.

Abigail Washburn and Kai Welch

Abigail Washburn’s sweet drawl and croaky laugh is just as compatible with Bluegrass as with traditional Chinese folk songs (hand gestures included). Vivacious, Nashville-based Washburn, complimented by co-writer and singing partner Kai Welch, blessed their Blue Mountains audience with some ramblin’ afternoon tunes, from the delicate “Dreams of Nectar” to the traditional Chinese folk song whose title (ironically for the weekend) translates ‘The Sun Has Come Out and we are so Happy’. Some soul-quietening, smile-delivering entertainment to bring in the Saturday evening.

My Friend the Chocolate Cake

Aptly described by our MC as ‘fizzy and effervescent pop’, My Friend the Chocolate Cake played us a range of tunes from their 21 years at the forefront of Australian Music.

Pianist and vocalist David Bridie started us on a melancholy note with “Strange Crumbs From the Suburban Fringe”, quickly swinging between the carnival and the cinematic in a set filled with songs you recognise but can’t quite place – probably from their presence on a plethora of Australian film and TV soundtracks.

Having never seen them before, I’m unsure if this is typical, but apart Bridie steering the show, and quirky Hope Csutoris on Violin, the rest of the band played along unobtrusively as if willing the audience to ignore the band and draw upon and use the music to conjure up their own images and memories. Bridies’ lovely shy young daughter joined the band on vocals for a rollin’ rendition of “25 Stations”, as My Friend the Chocolate Cake used suburban symbols integral to the Australian identity, music like the voice of a familiar and comfortable old friend.

Harry Manx, Judy Collins, Claude Hay

Bringing in Saturday evening, living up to my wandering tendencies our 7pm timeslot was filled with three very different artists I was very curious to see.

Firstly, a storytelling session with the diverse and bewitching Harry Manx accompanied by the extraordinarily talented and energetic virtuoso Hammond Organ musician Clayton Dooley. I sat, mesmerised as Manx minimised talk between songs, telling tale after tale, fusing eastern musical traditions with the Blues. Disappointingly, our time was cut short by the desire not to miss out on the legendary Judy Collins.

We skilfully edged into the jam-packed Big Top tent for a glimpse of Judy Collins, looking radiant, relaxed and all decked out in glitter and grin. At 71, Judy’s career spans more that half a century, and judging by the composition of the audience, attracts fans spanning many generations and backgrounds. The air was thick with nostalgia, and the voices of hundreds of festival attendees reminiscing in unison. The lyrics of Bob Dylans’ “Mr Tamborine Man” could no doubt be heard halfway up Katoomba St, Judy leading the crowd. Unfortunately, due my partner’s sore foot (see below paragraph), we hobbled across to the RSL stage where we discovered a whole generation perhaps untouched by Judy Collins.

Claude Hay had a collection of Blue Mountains youth dancing furiously to his Blue and Roots tunes. Feeling strangely old (especially compared to the rest of our time at the festival), we sat and watched the ‘young people’ shake and groove and chant along to defiant lyrics, while we polished our dentures and moaned about our arthritis.

Eric Bibb

A beautiful conclusion to my second Blue Mountains Music Festival. Eric Bibb, accompanied by Swedish guitarist Staffan Astner, bestowed upon the audience an exceptional set of traditional and contemporary folk-blues tunes. It was Erics’ fourth Blue Mountains Festival, and second time visiting the Mountains in the space of a year- he played at Blackheath Community Centre in April 2011.

Everything about Eric contrasted with the pervasive fog outside the tent, from his bright orange shirt to his infectious and radiant smile. Staffan, dressed in black, hat obscuring his eyes and occasionally bemused smile, was Eric’s quiet yet brilliant shadow. From “Stagger Lee”, “Floodwater”, “Troubadour”, “Tell my Baby” and “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”, Eric played a mixture of covers and originals which created a warm and contented audience, pleased to be sharing the moment and the music with hundreds of others in the Big Top, rather than outside in Katoomba’s best mist and drizzle.

Guide to Summer Festivals Part 2: Look the Part


Photo courtesy of Bon Iver

Ok, ok, secretly, I’ve been dying to do a folky fashion story, and what better time than in preparation to hit up the festivals? It all started because of Timber and Steel’s own Evan Hughes who is rarely seen at any folk influenced festival or gig without a vest on. Wandering the roads of Woodford last year, I noticed some particular elements that identified musically like minded people. So let’s go top to toe on how to look your folky best during the festival season.

Bob Dylan Lanie Lane

I’ve spent the last few days looking at photos of some of our favorite Timber and Steel artists to really pin down the look, and to be honest, most of it is about choosing a base and accessorising. Obviously there is always going to be an element of your own tastes and flair or style that will determine your overall look, but here’s a few simpler pieces you can pull together possibly from your Christmas haul and Boxing Day sales if you want to get in the folky spirit of it.

John Butler and Mama Kin

For they guys, the base is easy, jeans and a t-shirt are staples with the shirt usually being plain, though wearing your favorite band shirt will always be acceptable. For the ladies, unsurprisingly the base has followed the recent retro/ vintage fashion trend and more often than not either a floating vintage style dress or a modern floral dress inspired by the retro look. Whack a pair of opaque stockings on underneath and you’re set. That or a high waisted skirts or shorts with a plain top would provide a perfectly suitable base too.

Kate Miller-Heidke at Bluesfest Skipping Girl Vinegar at Snowy Mountains Of Music Festival April Maze Snowy Mountains Of Music Festival

Then it’s time to accessorise. Let’s start at the top.

Hats are great, they protect you from the sun and the rain, keep your head warm at night and can cap off your look, excuse the pun. Broad brim hats are an easy choice for guys or girls, just take a look at Matt Corby and Florence Welsch of Florence and the Machine or even Jack Thompson in his Akubra for inspiration.
  Jack Thompson at Bluesfest

For guys, there’s a broad range of hat style to try until you find the one that suits you, Panama, Trilby and Fedora styles mainly differ in the brim size and shape. The ever popular Flat Cap has a cousin, the Ascot Cap of a very similar style, but rounder and more stiff. Or in a similar but roomier style, there’s always your classic variations of the Gatsby/ newsboy/ train driver cap which work for both guys and girls.

Eric Bibb at Bluesfest  Jeff Lang

For the girls, while you could pick any of the styles I’ve noted for guys, the more vintage looks are far more fun. For a very feminine look, try a cloche like Lisa Mitchell, a 50s style do-rag like Lanie Lane, or just a simple headband as Julia Stone often wears.

Lisa Mitchell Lanie Lane Julia Stone

Elvis Costello at Bluesfest If guys are after a very vintage addition, there’s always bowler and top hats, but it takes a bit of confidence and dedication to carry it off well. A bit zany, but a great look if you own it. And if you are going to own it, you can even go the whole hog with a three piece suit, but that’s not really convenient for Australian summers nor festivals.

CW StonekingWorking down for top to toe, the next item is mainly for the guys. If you’re going for an old style, the a bow tie is a fantastic edition, especially if you can tie a real one yourself rather than the clip on ones. Though I have it on good authority, they’re not terribly comfortable to start with. Not really practical for camping and festivals, it’s a good one to wear out for a night on the town, or as a feature of your look, much like CW Stoneking’s red and white check bow tie on his signature white ensemble.

If ties are not your style, then your options include the quintessential vest, in almost any material, but I know Evan Hughes likes his leather and suede options. Vest have been turning up across genres for years and are a feature for musos and punters both young and old.

Josh Pyke  Cat Empire at Bluesfest Snowdroppers at Bluesfest

If a vest is too warm or not quite your thing, try out the old school suspenders as Johnny Wishbone, lead singer of The Snowdroppers, is frequently seen wearing. Our modern ladies of folk have a true eye for style throwing cardigans and sweaters in to the mix, or using leather belts to create a classic cinched or high waist look.

Snowdroppers at Bluesfest Florence Welsch Secret Sisters at Bluesfest

Boy and BearWhile vintage is a strong theme, the folk style transcends conventional fashion rules, and borrows often from cousins in country genre. Take a leaf out of Henry Wagons’ book and style up every day with country flair. If you think I’m cheating by using alt-country as a folk example, instead take a good look at Boy & Bear who have had multiple members sport checkered shirts, plus a few other folkies teaming a checked shirt with a vest or other accessory. And it’s not just for guys, take a look at how Lisa Mitchell and Jen Cloher carry off bold checks for a country, folky feel.

Henry Wagons at Rhythms Magazine Q&A at Bluesfest Lisa Mitchell Jen Cloher

So, once you’ve got your base, found the accessories that work for you, all that’s left is to throw on some sunnies (Rayban style is a staple) and for the ladies, grab a leather or leather/ animal print look small handbag to sling across your body, slap on some sunscreen and you’re set for a folkin’ good time.

Bob Dylan Florence Welsch Julia and Angus Stone

Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can start to mix and match pieces, create layers and get a group of friends together and take the scene by storm. Maybe some time down the track you’ll even turn up in a future folky fashion post right here!

Mumford and Sons at Laneway Festival SydneyMumford and Sons at Laneway Festival – I love the Panama hat, t-shirt, vest and overalls as shorts combination!

The Good Ship at WoodfordOh the combinations from The Good Ship! Loving the Fedora, bowtie and vest, plus a small gatsby and one out there shirt!

The Gum Ball 2011These two from the crowd at The Gum Ball look great!

TinPan Orange

TinPan Orange combined managed almost the entire shebang, get that group some hats!

First Official Port Fairy 2012 Artist Announcement

Flap!
Image of Flap! Courtesy of Port Fairy Folk Festival

After a series of “leaks” over the last couple of weeks the Port Fairy Folk Festival have today announced the first round of their 2012 artists. Leaning heavily to the international side of things this year’s lineup includes Timber and Steel favourites Ami Williamson, Ahab (UK – whom we only just profiled completely unaware of their planned Australian visit), Clare Bowditch, The Davidson Brothers, Eric Bibb & Staffa Astner (USA/Sweden), Flap!, George Kamikawa, Hat Fitz & Cara Robinson (Australia/Ireland), Jeff Lang, Lanie Lane, Lucie Thorne, Madison Violet (Canada), Mama Kin, Passenger (UK), The Pigs and the artist we predicted yesterday, Sharon Shannon (Ireland).

The Port Fairy Folk Festival takes place from the 9th to the 12th March 2012 with tickets on sale now via the official web site. The full artist lineup so far is below with more to be added soon:

Abigail Washburn
Ahab
Ami Williamson
April Verch & Band (Canada)
Ben Sollee (USA)
Beoga
Blue Heat
Chris While & Julie Matthews (UK)
Clare Bowditch
Eric Bibb & Staffan Astner (USA/Sweden)
Flap!
George Kamikawa & Noriko Tadano
Harry Manx (Canada)
Jeff Lang
Judy Collins (USA)
Kamerunga
Kristina Olsen (USA)
Lanie Lane
Lucie Thorne
Madison Violet (Canada)
Mama Kin
My Friend the Chocolate Cake
Passenger (UK)
Peter Rowan Band (USA)
Pierre Bensusan (French Algeria)
Pieta Brown (USA)
Sharon Shannon Big Band
The Cartridge Family
The Damian Howard Band
The Davidson Brothers
The Junes
The Pigs
The Woohoo Revue
Tripod
Watussi

Port Fairy Leaks Artists

Madison Violet
Image Courtesy of Madison Violet

While the 2012 Port Fairy Folk Festival lineup is not officially announced until the 25th October, the organisers have been “leaking” some of the artists over the past couple of weeks and it’s already looking pretty exciting. So far we have Canadian alt-country duo Madison Violet (who we saw a number of years ago at the National Folk Festival when they were called Mad Violet and they were amazing), bluegrassers The Davidson Brothers, the legendary Chris While & Julie Matthews, the Grammy Award winning Peter Rowan Band, the beguiling Ami Williamson, Ireland-via-Queensland duo Hat Fitz & Cara Robinson, American multi-instrumentalist Kristina Olsen, blues master Eric Bibb with Staffan Astner and the Trad-on-steroids of Beoga.

The first round of early bird tickets for the Port Fairy Folk Festival are on sale until the 16th October via the official site. Keep your eyes glued to Timber and Steel on the 25th for the full lineup.

Bluesfest Interview: Bobby Long

Bluesfest Monday
Photo and interview by KT Bell

Bobby Long has been making quite an impression here in Australia and overseas. We managed to grab a few minutes with him during his time at Bluesfest.

KT Bell: I’m sitting here with Bobby Long, now you played twice here at Bluesfest, and it’s your first time to Australia – how are you finding Australia?
Bobby Long: I think the people are the nicest people I’ve ever run in to. Really sweet and on a musical level, the crowds have been great. For a first time over here, it’s exceeded my expectations.
KT: A responsive crowd?
BL: Yeah, really great and it’s really exciting. The way that people are grabbing hold of the record, they’re listening to it and it’s just been so positive, I really think that this is going to be a good stronghold for me in the future years, which is really great. And it’s nice that it’s really beautiful too, and the beach, it’s great!
KT: There are a few people who make Bluesfest their regular trip to Australia, like Eric Bibb

BL: Yeah, I met Eric Bibb the other day actually, he’s lovely, and I supported Michael Franti last summer in America and it’s a regular thing for him. I supported Rodrigo y Gabriela and they come back, it’s great. I mean, one year and you feel a bit guilty because you’re working but it feels like a bit of a holiday. I’m sure you’re busier than I am, coz I just play and then do an hour of interviews and what not, and then I get to go and lie on the beach a lot – I haven’t done that yet, but you get to chill out and it’s beautiful weather. Usually at festivals in England it’s raining the whole time, and I heard this is the first time it hasn’t rained in 3 years or something, so it’s just great.

KT: Now, you said yesterday that you managed to leave your harmonica holder on a beach, was that an Aussie beach?
BL: [laughs] That was just a lie! I didn’t know where I left it and didn’t want to confess.
KT: Let’s just say it was Bondi Beach?
BL: [laughs] Yeah! Yeah, I left it on Bondi Beach! I buried it and couldn’t find where I buried it!

KT: So your debut album only recently came out in Australia, how was the writing and recording process for you?
BL: The writing was over the space of, some songs are two years old and some are relatively new. One of the songs I wrote in the studio, a lot of it was done on the road, I’ve been on the road for the last two years or so. But the recording process was incredible. I worked this really amazing piece with Liam Watson at Toe Rag and we all just jumped in a room and recorded it as a complete analogue record, straight to tape, and we just all jumped in a room and did it all live. It was really great, for a first album, I felt in control of what I was doing which is most important. I got to work with some great people and it was just a great experience, really fun.

Bluesfest SundayPlaying at Bluesfest on Easter Sunday

KT: How long are you in Australia and what else are you going to be doing while you’re here?
BL: I did two shows with Rodrigo y Gabriela before in Sydney and Melbourne and I did this show somewhere else and I can’t remember the name of where I did it, at a place called Lizotte’s, which is great, and a really great turn out, like 100 people which is incredible. And then, I’m going to Sydney tomorrow, and I’ve got a show in Sydney and Melbourne, I think I’ve got a show in Brisbane, then I go back to New York for a week, then I’m back out!
KT: Wow, you do a lot of tours!
BL: Yeah, I’m on tour a lot, I have like a blind enthusiasm for it, and I like playing a lot. I just want to work hard and make use of this opportunity I’ve got, so I’m out a lot, not any more than anybody else or anything, but I like being on the road and I like touring so my label makes use of that.

KT: Do you prefer the big festivals or the more intimate venue shows?
BL: You know, when a festival is well organised and has so many good people, I like playing the big festivals because it’s great and you get the mix of the musicians and check out music. But I like a little bit of everything, it’s been refreshing coming here and playing because it’s a bit different, playing bars and clubs, but I love playing at intimate venues and I got to play at the Troubadour in LA and, pretty much sold that out. And I’ve got to play at similar size venues in America and Europe and it’s nice to have a bit of everything. It’s pretty cool.

KT: Is it daunting playing for the first time in a new country?
BL: Yeah, it is a little, I’ve been really taken aback. And you always go in to a new country thinking grass roots level, and it’s going to be grass roots level for me for the next 2 years or so, or the next 10 years it could be, where you’re fighting to keep your place and fighting to gain new fans. It is a little bit, sometimes, but it’s exciting too. It’s really exciting coming to new places. To come to Australia and work is a great feeling you know.

KT: So what else can we expect to see or hear from you in 2011?
BL: I’m doing a poetry book, like a little book of poems or something. I’m kind of working on it and I kind of want to do it, it’s fairly interesting. I’m not doing it from the point of view of “oh, I’ve just done an album, I can do a poetry book or write a novel”, it’s going to be a very down to earth kind of thing and I’m hopefully going to start recording my next album in the next 6 months which is great. I don’t want to wait around too much. More touring, got to do a music video at some stage which is going to be funny. I’m just going to keep busy and keep my head above water.

KT: Are there any new songs you’ve been writing in Australia that we should keep our ears out for?
BL: I have actually been writing a little bit over here actually, but nothing that’s going to get finished [while here]. I had a day off two days ago and I sat down and started writing, it sounded pretty cool, but I don’t think I’ve got the time to finish it. I’m trying to enjoy myself a little here. I’ll probably take those songs and finish them off when I come home, but I probably will have a few thing that have come out of being here, definitely.
KT: The Byron Bay vibe, eh?
BL: Yeah, I mean, I’m not sure I’m going to write like a surf song but it might be slightly happier than my other stuff, hence the sunny atmosphere.

KT: Thank you so much for your time and all the best for the rest of your time in Australia and we look forward to seeing you again soon.
BL: Thank you, cheers!

Bumper Bluesfest Review: Part I

Bluesfest Saturday Photos by KT Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bluesfest Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Bibb’s Huge Australian Tour

Eric Bibb
Image Courtesy of Eric Bibb

Normally when an artist comes over to Australia for a major festival they play a couple of sideshows in the major cities (Sydney and Melbourne, rarely Adelaide) and then fly off back to their homelands lamenting to journalists how they wish they’d had more time. Not so US blues-folk artist Eric Bibb. Bibb is due to hit our shores for the Byron Bay Bluesfest in April but instead of doing the usual fly-in-fly-out he is taking almost 2 months to play shows all around Australia.

Eric Bibb has been described as having the most “soulful voice on the planet” by the media. His brand of delta-blues is sure to delight fans of both blues and traditional American music alike. Accompanying Bibb on this trip will be Swedish guitarist Staffan Astner with support slots from Blackbirds plus special guest Ruthie Foster exclusive to the Sydney and Melbourne shows.

Full tour dates are below:

Friday 1st April – Entertainment Centre, Darwin, NT
Saturday 2nd April – Fly By Night Musicians Club, Fremantle, WA
Tuesday 5th April – The Gov, Adelaide, SA
Thursday 7th April – Wrest Point, Hobart, TAS
Friday 8th April – Meeniyan Town Hall, Meeniyan, VIC
Saturday 9th April – Capital Theatre, Bendigo, VIC
Tuesday 12th April- Tilley’s Devine Café, Canberra, ACT
Wednesday 13th April – Tilley’s Devine Café, Canberra ACT
Friday 15th April – Enmore Theatre, Sydney, NSW
Saturday 16th April – Entertainment Centre, Sutherland, NSW
Monday 18th April – Recital Centre, Melbourne, VIC
Friday 22nd to Saturday 23rd April – Bluesfest, Byron Bay, NSW
Sunday 24th April – Grassroots, Auckland, NZ
Thursday 28th April – Lizotte’s, Dee Why, NSW
Friday 29th April – Community Hall, Blackheath, NSW
Tuesday 3rd May – Lizotte’s, Kincumber, NSW
Wednesday 4th May – Lizottes, Newcastle, NSW
Thursday 5th May – Memorial Hall, Bellingen, NSW
Saturday 7th May – Bluesfest, Cairns, QLD
Tuesday 10th May – Powerhouse, Brisbane, QLD
Wednesday 11th May – The J Theatre, Noosa, QLD
Friday 13th May – SoundLounge, Gold Coast, QLD

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