Review: JamGrass Music Festival, Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne

Review by Gareth Hugh Evans, Photos by MackaJay

I have to admit it, I was jealous. When I saw the lineup for last year’s JamGrass Music Festival in Melbourne and the subsequent videos that were posted online I immediately wished I’d been there to see it for myself. Here was a festival that celebrated and supported the new, progressive bluegrass artists that have been popping up all over the country (and particularly in Melbourne), the vast majority of which had at some point appeared on Timber and Steel.

I made a vow that if JamGrass returned for 2012 I would go, not matter what.

And that’s how I found myself hopping on a plane to Melbourne with Timber and Steel co-contributor MackaJay on Friday afternoon, checking into the smallest hotel room I’ve ever been in (“there’s a toilet in my shower!”) and scarfing down a quick meal to make sure we didn’t miss too many of the festival’s opening acts.

The Stetson Family

By the time we walked into the Thornbury Theatre the festival’s third act of the first night, The Stetson Family, were already in full swing on stage and the crowd was already pumped having already toe-tapped their way through Oh Pep! and The Fletcher. We grabbed a couple of beers, MackaJay unslung his camera and we negotiated ourselves to the front of the stage.

Which is where we promptly stayed for the next two days.

I had all these grand plans of mingling with the musos (many of which I had only met via email), snaffling a few beers from the green room rider and even trying to conduct a few between set interviews. But those plans disintegrated as soon as I was planted in front of the stage – the music had captured me and just wouldn’t let me go. The alternating two-stage setup of JamGrass probably contributed to keeping me front and centre with the only downtime between acts to change the lighting and for JamGrass founders Jason Taylor and Phoebe Preuss to introduce the next band. All I had to do was turn 90 degrees to face the next stage and let the music take over.

The alt-country stylings of The Stetson Family made way for the Big Bug Trio who messed with my mind by having anywhere between four and five members on stage at any given time. They did also introduce me to the music of dobro player Pete Fidler and fiddle player Kat Mears who would gone on to make so many appearances throughout JamGrass that they began to become ubiquitous with the festival iteself.

Mustered Courage, a Melbourne five piece I’ve been digging for quite a while now, were up next and were so tight instrumentally and vocally it was amazing. These guys have got their live act down to a fine art and were an absolute joy to watch. When they added festival special guest (and Golden Fiddle winner) George Jackson to their lineup the combination was some of the best bluegrass we’ve seen in a long time. Mustered Courage lead singer Nick Keeling revealed the band had emerged from the studio to play the gig (they weren’t around on day two because they’d locked themselves back into the studio) and were busy recording the follow up to their magnificent self titled album – quite frankly I can’t wait.

The Jim Green Trio were up next and not only were they an actual trio (take that Big Bug Trio! #doeswhatitsaysonthetin) but they also took the festival in a completely new direction, building each of their songs around jazz inspired improvisation and demonstrating just how amazing each of them are as musicians.

Merri Creek Pickers

The first night of JamGrass was rounded out with two electric-guitar acts – locals The Merri Creek Pickers and Queensland alt-country-rockers Rattlehand. The Merri Creek Pickers had traded in the acoustic sound of last year’s JamGrass set for electric guitars and two (!) drummers. The result was a series of 10 minute long jams (putting the “Jam “ into JamGrass) that culminated into tightly presented rock and country songs. At one stage, if you count the bass and slide, The Merri Creek Pickers had five guitars on stage producing a massive sound that shook the Thornbury Theatre. Rattlehand continued the big sound theme and had the crowd up and jumping to their blend of blues, rock and country. When festival special guest Jimi Hocking dragged his mando on stage and joined the band there was no stopping them – truly the perfect way the end the day.

As MackaJay and I made our way back to our tiny hotel rooms we reflected on the night, agreeing that JamGrass had far exceeded our expectations so far. The venue was the perfect size (it felt full without ever feeling overcrowded), the running of the night had been slick and professional without a moment wasted and the calibre of the music was second to none. We made the decsion that for day two we needed to get to JamGrass right as it opened, plant ourselves in front of the stage and do it all again.

John Flanagan and the Begin Agains

We were late again on day two, having spent much of the afternoon sampling Melbourne’s many fine bars and cafes and misjudging exactly how long it would take to get around by tram. Walking in while The Stillsons thumped out their unique brand of bluesy folk (and kicking ourselves that we’d missed Old Town) history started to repeat itself as we grabbed a couple of beers and planted ourselves in front of the stage.

The Stillsons gave way to the Americana of John Flanagan and the Begin Agains who had some of the most gorgeous harmonies of the entire festival. I feel like I need to know more about these guys as prior to JamGrass I didn’t know their music but I was very impressed with their show.

As I was with The Strzelecki Stringbusters – a twelve or thirteen piece band (I lost count) from the Strzelecki Ranges in Victoria’s Gippsland who played old time music like they were born with is running through their veins. None of the instruments were amplified, the vocal duties were shared throughout the group and at times I’m not sure they were all playing exactly the same song but this rabble of a string-band represented so much of the music I grew up with and had me smiling from ear to ear through their entire set. There may have been guest musicians playing with The Strzelecki Stringbusters on the night – with so many players on stage it was not always easy to tell.

Up next was Uncle Bill, legends of the Australian bluegrass scene and making their second Timber and Steel reviewed festival appearance after I saw them at the National Folk Festival earlier in the year. Gerry Hale is a truly gifted performer and the musicians he’s gathered around him are very fine indeed – I think I developed a fiddle-crush on Kat Mear’s playing (yes, fiddle-crush is a thing) throughout this festival but it was her turn with Uncle Bill that solidified it. Known for their covers as much as their originals I was impressed with the Uncle Bill versions of songs by Paul Kelly and Johnny Cash.

The New Worlds If Kat Mear (and of course George Jackson) had helped me develop a fiddle-crush then Nashville based four-piece The New Worlds gave me fiddle envy. All well versed session musos on the Nashville Americana and Bluegrass scene The New Worlds had made their way to Australia especially to take part in festivals like JamGrass and boy did they deliver. Their musicianship (on five-stringed fiddles, mando, upright bass and occasional banjo) was unequalled and their set was one of the most professional and slick of the whole festival. There’s been a lot of hype surrounding The New Worlds – much of it emanating from George Jackson who joined the band on stage at one point – and quite frankly they lived up to every word of it.

You may have noticed me beginning to blog about Nigel Wearne and the Cast Iron Promises right before JamGrass took place and that’s because I discovered their Americana music coincidently right before I realised they were on the bill. Huddled around a single mic, bluegrass style, Nigel Wearne and his band produced some beautiful harmonies and absolutely lovely old-time music, leaving me to wonder why no one had told me about them earlier.

The Quarry Mountain Dead Rats are frantic. That’s all I can say. For almost forty minutes straight they played the fastest, most hectic bluegrass of the entire festival and the energy level in the room just shot up. The crowd was dancing, the crowd was whooping, the crowd was hollering, and not even a broken guitar string in the first couple of songs could stop these guys from putting on an absolutely blistering set. If you have seen The Quarry Mountain Dead Rats live then you need to change that as soon as you possibly can – in a festival filled with highlights the set from these guys stands out as one of my favourite.

Immigrant Union

Melbourne alt-country supergroup Immigrant Union were on hand to close off what had been another incredible night of music. After the frantic energy of The Quarry Mountain Dead Rats, Immigrant Union were able to chill the crowd out and have them grooving until the lights came up and the crowd poured out onto the street to look for the after-party or try and remember where their tiny hotel rooms were. By this time I was exhausted and had even dragged myself away from the front of the stage, but I couldn’t think of a better way to finish up than watching some of Melbourne’s finest jamming on stage.

Overall JamGrass was a huge success. It managed to showcase the up and coming stars of local bluegrass while still paying tribute to the legends. While interstate and international acts were peppered through the lineup this truly was a festival of Melbourne music and it’s great to see the how much the scene is thriving there. Jason and Phoebe should be commended at putting together such an amazing event – I walked away exhilarated, exhausted and already hanging out for next year. Will we see you there?

For more of MackaJay’s JamGrass photos check out our Facebook gallery here

Win Double Passes to See Nigel Wearne and The Cast Iron Promises

Nigel Wearne
Photo By Mathew Mackereth

If you were at the JamGrass Music Festival last week or the Dorrigo Folk and Bluegrass Festival this weekend just gone you’ll probably have been delighted as we were watching Melbourne based singer-songwriter Nigel Wearne and his band The Cast Iron Promises performing his very special brand of stripped back folk and Americana.

And if you didn’t get to Melbourne or Dorrigo never fear because Nigel Wearne and his band have a handful of shows coming up – and we’ve got double passes to give away in Canberra, Thornbury (Melbourne), Adelaide and Ocean Grove.

All you have to do is be among the first to email your full name and which show you want a double pass to to The full list of dates to choose from are below:

Friday 9th November – The Front Gallery & Cafe, Canberra, ACT
Sunday 11th November – Thornbury Theatre, Thornbury, VIC
Sunday 25th November – The Wheatsheaf Hotel, Thebarton, SA
Friday 30th November – The Piping Hot Chicken Shop, Ocean Grove, VIC

Nigel Wearne Announces New Album, Single and Tour

Nigel Wearne
Image Courtesy of Nigel Wearne

One of the artists we’re most excited about seeing at JamGrass this weekend is Melbourne based folk singer-songwriter Nigel Wearne. Wearne, with his band The Cast Iron Promises (Dan Watkins, Kat Mear and Andy Scott), is about to release his brand new album Black Crow on the 2nd of November with the first single “Stealth” already out and about on the interwebs. Take a listen below:

To celebrate the release of Black Crow Nigel Wearne and The Cast Iron Promises will be appearing at JamGrass (as mentioned), the Dorrigo Folk and Bluegrass festival and then touring around the country. The full list of dates is below:

Saturday 20th October – JamGrass Festival, Thornbury Theatre, VIC
Friday 26th to Sunday 28th October – Dorrigo Folk & Bluegrass Festival, NSW
Friday 9th November – The Front Gallery & Cafe, Canberra, ACT
Sunday 11th November – Thornbury Theatre, Thornbury, VIC
Friday 16th to Sunday 18th November – Harrietville Bluegrass Convention, Harrietville, VIC
Sunday 25th November – The Wheatsheaf Hotel, Thebarton, SA
Friday 30th November – The Piping Hot Chicken Shop, Ocean Grove, VIC

JamGrass Reveals Final Round of Artists

Image Courtesy of JamGrass Music Festival

We’re just two months out from this year’s JamGrass Music Festival in Melbourne and the good folks there have just released the final list of artists for their already amazing lineup. The artists in this round include Immigrant Union, Jim Green Trio, Oh Pep!, Nigel Wearne & The Cast Iron Promises, Old Town and special guests Jimi Hocking and George Jackson.

JamGrass was started last year by JamBands Australia as a way to showcase the immense talents of the artists emerging from the progressive bluegrass scene and bridge the gap between traditional bluegrass and a wider music loving audience. The festival will be held at The Thornbury Theatre’s Velvet Room in Melbourne on the 19th and 20th October with tickets available via the official web site.

The full lineup and the official trailer for the JamGrass Music Festival is below:

Big Bug Trio, George Jackson, Immigrant Union, Jim Green Trio, Jimi Hocking, John Flanagan & the Begin Agains, Merri Creek Pickers, Mustered Courage, Nigel Wearne & The Cast Iron Promises, Oh Pep!, Old Town, Quarry Mountain Dead Rats, Rattlehand, The Fletcher, The New Worlds, The Stetson Family, The Stillsons, The Strzelecki Stringbusters, Uncle Bill

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