LIVE – Mullum Music Festival 2017

[Published in Rolling Stone (Australia), November 2017]

SLOUCHING TOWARDS MULLUM

Mullum Music Festival, November 17-19, 2017 – Mullumbimby, NSW

The rain starts around midnight. Friday. Fat drops, cold for November. Stiff breeze off the ocean, pushes the wind chimes around a bit and they tinkle melodically in protest.

The palms dance in the dark; I can’t see them, but I know the sound.

Adeline is asleep, and Claire is watching something on Netflix. I’m sitting out the back, feet up on a chair, listening to the rain beat on the tin roof. Smoking cigarettes and drinking cold cans of Victoria Bitter. My favourite stubbie holder – white writing on black, Fuck Y’all, I’m From Texas, a souvenir from the deep south – winks at me from the otherwise dark.

Around seven clicks inland from here lies the township of Mullumbimby. It sits quietly at the base of Mount Chincogan, an almost perfect triangle that rises from the hinterland like a verdant pyramid and towers over this old town like a silent guardian, or a marker, a beacon that tells people from afar that this is where it is, this is where it’s happening.

Not much happens in Mullum, not usually. It’s a country town. It has an old IGA, which continues to exist in solemn defiance to the newer Woolies around the corner. It has a locally owned Mitre 10 which prospers despite the Bunnings in Byron. It has tennis courts you can rent by the hour for tuppence and the farmer’s market has stalls manned by farmers.

The barbershop doesn’t have eftpos.

And yet tonight, as the rain falls and drums on the tin and speckled toads dart through the light on the wet grass to the shadow over the garden beds, Mullum is ringing and thudding, its normally quiet Friday night streets awash with not just the rain but the continuously rhythmic footfalls of dozens and scores and throngs of people.

Music seeps from windows and doorways, suddenly loud as someone pushes open the glass to come out and smoke, veiled and muffled again as the door swings to behind them. Ten years ago, the Mullum Music Festival made its tentative debut in a town rich on culture but oddly suspicious of anything new and so it struggled to get a foothold for a few years before being embraced, now the multi-faceted musical beast that’ll sell out most years, drawing in people from all over the world.

The locals, an odd melange of refugee hippies and farmers, young families and single workers, embrace it all and dance in the rain with anyone who’ll join them.

Before the downpour, before I rounded the crew and drove them home, before I retired to my old wooden chair to sip a few of my own, a job well done, it’d been jostling for elbow room in the Courthouse Hotel, Sal Kimber playing her first show in a time. Country-soul set to a metronomic beat (courtesy of Cat Leahy), that’s equal parts jagged and worn smooth. Kimber writes from the heart and her songs carry a weight that’s hard to find.

Marty and I stay put once Kimber wraps it up, prop up the bar, waiting for Z Star Delta who, for a two-piece, take an inordinately long time to set up, their sound check promising waves of boogie blues but the reality, once it finally begins, is more a layered and layered soundscape of a set, guitar and drums, too many layers for the most part, too little substance amidst the fog. It’s interesting but it doesn’t land, for mine, and so we beat a lethargic retreat and stroll up to the Rizzla.

Lindi Ortega is onstage, sans full band, just her and guitarist ‘Champagne’ James Robertson. The former howls and wails, the latter picks and plucks, it all meets in the middle – country, blues, swing. Ortega, Canadian, has an odd method of lyrical phrasing, you think she’s not going to hit the right key but she does, almost impossibly, every time. It’s engaging, different. Robertson is the master, he is the roots guitarist, he tunes things way down and uses the slack to his advantage and plays blues like he’s somewhere steamy in the Delta and there ain’t nothin’ else to do nohow.

They finish with a completely rebuilt version of Janis’s ‘Mercedes Benz’, which becomes a habit – their Saturday set comes to a close with Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire’, but it’s another beast entirely, the best reinterpretation I’ve heard in some time.

Like any other festival, happening, experience, Mullum Fest begins to run into itself. Saturday night and Sunday night, as wet as Friday, bend and colour into one another. Which is Mullum to a tee – “How weird is Mullum,” I overhear a man say to his partner, not a question but a statement. The town itself began life, back in the mid to late 1800s, as a refuge, and it still carries this feel today – somewhere you can come to hide, to sit, to be obvious or anonymous, a town where muddy Hilux’s are parked next to shitbox Kombis outside the Middle Pub and no one gives a toss in a place where kombucha is as common as black tea and damper.

Over the course of the weekend, the corner of Dalley and Burringbar Streets, the centre of the action, becomes home to an ever-growing clutch of ferals and pseudo-hippies; barefoot and ragged, they set up trinket stalls on old blankets on the pavement and smoke weed and stage their own festival, getting sloppy and bumping into people. They have no true ethos though, and the corner becomes one to avoid, the small throng becoming hard to see through the green smoke and the film of aggression which thickens as the weekend goes on.

Jon Cleary, by contrast, is true and pure, he brings N’Awlins with him, solo on Saturday and Sunday with band, The Monster Gentlemen. He’s a true keysman in the southern Louisiana style and particularly on the Sunday, as the temperature in the High School hall soars and the humidity climbs, he relishes it all and splays all ten fingers across his vast array of ivories and for a while we’re all on Frenchmen Street, just off the Quarter, soaking it up, laissez les bons temps rouler.

Back over at the Civic Hall, caught on the way in a downpour and sheltering under an awning outside the Bowlo, watching the Magic Bus lumbering up towards the middle of town, people hanging from its windows, driven by Timbo who has an amazing collection of Safari Suits, Mama Kin Spender produce a set that epitomises what this festival is – Kin drumming upright with a voice that builds and projects, Spender on guitar, a twenty (or so)-piece choir, they breath soul and vitality into the place.

This is Mullum Fest – it invigorates you as the seasons change, as the promise of the thick and hot summer looms, gives you the energy to finish up the year… Kin and Spender set this to music, myriad voices building together and releasing over a full house like the tide coming in.

It’s joyous and powerful and people smile and grab each other’s shoulders and grin in delight in the darkness, smiles still evident as they spill out into the sodden courtyard.

Wallis Bird has people talking all weekend, as does Sal Wonder and Ron Artis II. Marlon Williams is at his soulful best and his new album will be one to hear, to put on repeat listens. Suzannah Espie brings her own country-soul; Lucie Thorne teams up once more with drummer Hamish Stuart; Jimmy Dowling’s songs of love and life become real and large; Heartworn Highway turn Americana Australian.

I end up back on my wooden chair on Sunday night, seven clicks back towards the coast, listening to the rain beat patterns on the tin above my head. Adeline’s asleep but Claire is sitting with me. We drink beer and wine and talk about the weekend which has, all of a sudden, passed us by.

The streets of Mullum are still slick and wet, the ferals are still on the corner and people are still spilling out of the Civic Hall, waiting for the bus under umbrellas and raincoats.

I see festival director Glenn Wright not long before I leave and he smiles and is relaxed as the event’s ten year anniversary party comes to an end, a success. Which doesn’t take much – planning, yes, but once it’s rolling, Mullum Fest does it’s own thing and for the punter, for the observer, for the people dancing and listening and bumping in the street, it runs seamlessly and perfectly, a glittering gem of a happening.

Back out here, the speckled toads continue their dance, and the fronds and the wind chimes whip and tinkle. And it’s all done for another year. Tomorrow, Mullum will return to its quiet self, a little country town in the shadow of its green pyramid. Resting. Waiting for next year.

Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – Dave Hole

[Published in the Spectrum section of The Sydney Morning Herald, May 26]

BLUES Dave Hole

Goin’ Back Down (Independent / Only Blues Music)

3.5/5

Most people, at 69 years of age, begin to slow down – not so blues maestro Dave Hole. Releasing his tenth record this month, the Perth-based Hole has actually turned it up, producing a record that’s sharp, smooth but tough and dangerous; this is blues with swagger and attitude, powerful and muscular.

Beginning with the driving Stompin’ Ground, Hole immediately draws you in, boogie blues reminiscent of RL Burnside in his later years, a real Fat Possum sound. Elsewhere are shades of Johnny Winter, along with a more modern twist, a nod to players like Joe Bonamassa for example. Hole’s voice is pure and strong, his lyrics simple (as befits the blues), and his playing (utilising his trademark over-the-top method of slide playing) as good as it’s ever been, if not better.

Enlisting a band on only four of the album’s eleven tracks, Hole plays the rest, utilising loops and overdubs to create the majority just on his own. Goin’ Back Down has been three years in the making, and with the exception of a couple of tracks which, frustratingly, drop the tempo, this is a rock solid blues/rock album that rocks – hardly the sign of a man slowing down. Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – Joshua Hedley

[Published in the Spectrum section of The Sydney Morning Herald, April 28]

COUNTRY/AMERICANA Joshua Hedley

Mr. Jukebox (Third Man Records / ADA)

4.5/5

In the grand tradition of old-timey country crooning comes Joshua Hedley’s debut record, an album that aches with sorrow, with longing, with memories of times gone spent crying into beers over lost love and wasted opportunity. The opening notes of Counting All My Tears, pedal steel and acoustic guitar, are enough to convince that this is the real deal, a feeling cemented without doubt once Hedley’s deep and dark voice swells over the top.

And yet, despite the emotional desolation, this collection of ten songs twinkles with a certain delight – the kitsch of the title track; the unabashed embracing of the sonic naivety that those like Marty Robbins exhibited from time to time; Hedley’s gentle self-depreciation.

Where perhaps the album stumbles just a bit, is in songs like Let’s Take A Vacation which are too croony, not country enough, more pastiche than powerful. These very few moments aside however, Mr. Jukebox is a record of inherent beauty, perhaps the finest example of what country music used to be, and what it should still be, today. Joshua Hedley is, without doubt or over-exaggeration, the absolute real deal, this record a fine culmination of his years of hard work. Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – Courtney Marie Andrews

[Published in the Spectrum section of The Sydney Morning Herald, March 31]

AMERICANA/ROOTS Courtney Marie Andrews

MAY YOUR KINDNESS REMAIN (Fat Possum Records / Inertia)

3.5/5

In Rough Around The Edges, a sparse piano-accompanied track from Courtney Marie Andrews’ second full-length record, the 26-year-old Arizona native sings of “The beauty in simple things.” She sings of desert sunsets and movie scenes, butts in ashtrays and birds in the sky, in a voice that pulsates with a power and a tenderness, in equal measure, a voice that acts as the star of May Your Kindness Remain.

Tough and hob-nailed on Border, a blues-esque groove; vulnerable on the exceptional title track, which brings a gospel flavour, Andrews joined by CC White on backing vocals which empowers her voice even more. The instrumentation is used as a support throughout, coming to the fore occasionally (and brilliantly when it does, particularly the electric guitar of Dillon Warnek), creating space for Andrews.

Intermittently, a song may bog down a little, perhaps not as powerful as it could be, but overall, as a songwriter and singer, Andrews shows that she is far from rough around the edges, that there is indeed beauty in simple things, and that country music, much like the blues, can be used as a base from which to explore some very interesting musical avenues. Samuel J. Fell

Gurrumul – The Beat Goes On

[Published in Good Weekend magazine, April 14 2018]

 

 

In July last year, filmmaker Paul Williams, sound engineer Pip Atherstone-Reid and Skinnyfish Music’s creative director Michael Hohnen were ensconced in an editing room at Windmill Studios in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. On multiple screens in front of them were the edits of Williams’s documentary, Gurrumul. Five years in the making, it traced the life of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the Yolngu singer from Elcho Island 500km off the coast of Darwin who had, in the previous decade, taken the music world by storm.

Hohnen was on the phone with Gurrumul, his longtime friend and musical partner, and the biggest star in the Skinnyfish stable, a Darwin-based record label founded and co-owned by Hohnen. From a Darwin beach, Gurrumul chatted with Hohnen and Williams as they played him back one of the final musical pieces to be included in the documentary. Accompanying a scene towards the end of the film that depicts the funeral of his father, the score features Gurrumul singing, the sound bleeding into the strains of a French horn.

“Yep, spot on,” Gurrumul told the three in Melbourne. “Spot on.”

This was the final OK from Gurrumul, who as a co-producer had been active in most aspects of the film, and along with Hohnen and Melbourne-based composer Erkki Veltheim, had created, or reworked, about 50 original pieces of music specifically for the documentary.

What made this situation unusual though, was how it finished up. Instead of his usual “see you later”, Gurrumul ended the phone call by saying goodbye, something he’d not done before. “It happened in a way, that Michael then said to me, ‘Was that a bit strange?’,” Williams remembers. He pauses and sighs. “He’d finished his contribution, that side of things was over, and yeah… that was the last time I spoke to him.”

Three days later, on July 25, 2017, Gurrumul died in Royal Darwin Hospital. Aged only 46, he’d succumbed to organ failure relating to the hepatitis B he’d had since childhood. His condition had worsened in recent years, to the extent that Skinnyfish had retired the singer from touring in late 2015. “It was like he was becoming a shadow of his former self,” Hohnen recalls of the time. “He was extremely ill.”

Williams, who had known the singer for a number of years before beginning work on the documentary, seems a little haunted, like he thinks perhaps Gurrumul knew his time had come. “It was a strange way [for him] to sign off a conversation,” he says. “It was really only in retrospect, when we looked back, that we said, maybe that was goodbye.”

***

At the time of his death, Gurrumul was the highest selling indigenous musician in Australian history, a title he still holds. His eponymous 2008 solo debut was certified three times platinum in Australia, and appeared in top 20 album charts in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland upon its European release the following year. His second album, Rrakala (2011), made some small inroads into the American market, a notoriously tough market to crack, an attempt ultimately thwarted by his premature death.

His third release, The Gospel Album (2015), cemented what those close to him had known for years but others were only just beginning to realise – that this unassuming indigenous Australian, who was born blind and taught himself to play the guitar upside down, wasn’t merely an angelic voiced flash-in-the pan.

Yesterday, April 13Gurrumul posthumously added one final album to his canon. Djarimirri (Child Of The Rainbow) has been more than six years in the making and involves the singer, in Hohnen’s words, delving “deeper into the cultural elements of his music”. Preceding the release of Williams’s documentary by a couple of weeks (the film will be released on April 25), Djarimirri stands as the singer’s final gift to the world, one last reminder that his rise to fame was more than deserved.

***

While his rise may have seemed meteoric, Gurrumul paid his dues, a slow build that began with culture-bridging group Yothu Yindi in the 1990s. He played a number of instruments and contributed backing vocals to four of the band’s six albums, most notably its breakthrough 1991 release, Tribal Voice, and with Manuel Dhurrkay, fronted Saltwater Band, releasing three records with this group in the decade from 1999. By the time Skinnyfish came to release the eponymous Gurrumul in 2008, the man and his music were match fit.

Gurrumul toured the world before he was Gurrumul,” notes hip hop artist Adam Briggs, with whom Gurrumul collaborated in 2014 on the song ‘The Hunt’, from Briggs’s second full-length solo album, Sheplife. To Briggs’s mind, Gurrumul’s popularity was testament to his hard work, his musicality and his talent. “People forget he was in Yothu Yindi and Saltwater… so by the time he was Gurrumul, he was ready.”

Legendary producer Quincy Jones has noted of the singer, “this is one of the most unusual and emotional and musical voices that I’ve ever heard”. It wasn’t just Jones – Sting, will.i.am, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Australians Peter Garrett and Paul Kelly all count among the singer’s admirers. In garnering fans like these, Gurrumul sold out venues the world over, won awards, and confounded critics with his wide-ranging success within the western world.

“He was special in so many ways, in western and Yolngu worlds,” his niece, Miriam Yirrininba Dhurrkay, tells me. “He was writing these songs and … the words just come into his mind and heart, and even though he couldn’t see the nature, he was born to, you know, feel the nature.” To see without seeing. “Yeah. He had a special place to see, which was his heart.”

It was his heart that eventually gave out, having battled on through the liver and kidney failure relating to the existing hepatitis B. Dialysis was deemed the only option in combating his condition, but Gurrumul, who’d been admitted to the ICU department at Royal Darwin Hospital seven times in the year leading up to his death, was refusing treatment.

“Dialysis was not something that he enjoyed,” Hohnen says. “He basically, in the end, I believe, chose to not go on dialysis, not stay on it. And you don’t really have any options – it’s dialysis or nothing.”

***

Djarimirri is, essentially, an album that showcases ancient Yolngu chants, setting them against an orchestral background in order to make them sonically palatable to the western ear. Gurrumul was no stranger to orchestral work, having released in 2013 an entire live album accompanied by the Sydney Symphony. Where Djarimirri is different though, is in its minimalist orchestral traditions; Hohnen cites the likes of Michael Nyman, Steve Reich, Arvo Part and Phillip Glass as influences.

These Yolngu songs, some estimated at more than 4000 years old, were traditionally backed by the didgeridoo, or yidaki, repetitive rhythms that gave the lyrics a foundation from which to build. The trick with Djarimirri, was in replicating these sonic patterns on western instruments, while still leaving them recognisable to Yolngu people.

“Michael had this concept of combining the more traditional songs and chanting and yidaki patterns, with this kind of contemporary minimalist orchestral tradition,” confirms Erkki Veltheim, the Melbourne-based composer and violinist who helmed the album, and had played with Gurrumul on a number of occasions over the previous decade.

“At first I was kind of trying to turn it in my brain, trying to figure out how these different traditions could work together, but then the more I thought about it, the more it actually made sense because of the very nature of these traditional songs and the yidaki patterns, which kind of do have a lot of repetition in them, but also a lot of variation within that repetition, [which combines] really well with the orchestral minimalist tradition.”

Veltheim started listening to the recordings of songs Gurrumul had already made back on Elcho. From there, the task was to find instrumental transcriptions of the yidaki patterns and transcribe them into a western notation, to be played on western instruments.

“[That] was a real challenge, but also a great pleasure to come up with these arrangements,” he recalls. “And the most nerve-wracking thing for me, was whether Gurrumul himself and his family and the other people on Elcho would actually relate to these arrangements…. that was the key. The important thing [was] that every step of the process, we’ve made sure that we haven’t done anything that doesn’t communicate those songs.”

The 12 songs that make up Djarimirri all relate to specific totems and aspects of Yolngu culture – Waak (Crow) in E-Flat Major, Ngarrpiya (Octopus) in A-Flat Major, Gapu (Freshwater) in D Major, Baru (Saltwater Crocodile) in E-Flat Major, Marrayarr (Flag) in F-Sharp Major, to name a few. All songs ended up in major keys, a coincidence, which to Hohnen’s mind gives it a happy vibe.

Initially, Djarimirri isn’t an easy listen. It relies heavily on repetition, and Yolngu songs are traditionally quite short, so Gurrumul’s vocal contributions are fleeting. Repeat listens begin to cast new light on what’s happening though – there’s variation within the repetition, and the drone of the strings, the popping of horns, add their own weight to what is, within each song, a slow building story. The purity of the singer’s voice across this sonic soundscape tops it off.

Djarimirri is essentially an exercise in ethnomusicology – the keeping alive of this ancient music, albeit in a more modern fashion, so that those yet to come are able to access it, no matter their cultural background. “[Gurrumul had] hundreds of songs in his head,” says Hohnen. “He wasn’t writing a lot of new contemporary style songs but he probably [knew] 400 or 500 songs, traditionally.”

***

Completed early in 2017, the album was being prepared for release in the middle of that year. When Gurrumul died, they re-thought it, in part due to the fact that in Yolngu culture, when a member dies, their name, image and any music or art is retired.

“[We] held it for a year,” Hohnen confirms. “It would just not have been right to put it out. Although, spending a lot of time with the family, they sort of said to us, even at his funeral, no one’s stopped listening to his music, [they] all play it.”

In the press pack sent out with the advance stream of Djarimirri, there’s a note on the use of his image and name which reads, in part, “The family have given permission that, following the final funeral ceremony (which occurred at Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island on November 24 last year), his name and image may once again be used publicly, to ensure that his legacy will continue to inspire both his people and Australians more broadly.”

“In most situations when an aboriginal person up here passes away, the name gets changed, and the music and imagery gets stopped,” explains Hohnen, “[but] it’s hard when someone’s as famous as this. I think it’s more they’re really proud… and I think Yolngu don’t want him forgotten, that’s what they said to us. There’s this ownership of him being a public representation as well.”

When we speak, Hohnen is just pulling himself back together after what he describes as a fairly dysfunctional six months. “It’s affected Mark and I very personally,” he says, of his co-founder at Skinnyfish Music, Mark Grose, “because [Gurrumul] was such a unique and happy person, someone who, no matter how recalcitrant, always made you feel that fun and music and life and traditional culture was here to be lived and loved.”

Gurrumul was Skinnyfish Music’s biggest artist, and his success enabled the label to expand and focus on other acts like Caity Baker and The Lonely Boys. Royalties from Djarimirri will flow, in part, into the Gurrumul Yunupingu Foundation, which will us the money to “create greater opportunities for remote Indigenous young people to realise their full potential and contribute to culturally vibrant and sustainable communities”.

It’s not lost on anyone involved with the making of the record how sad it is that its main player won’t be here to see it out into the world. “We wanted to release the album while he was alive so he cold live it out on the airwaves around his community and further afield,” says Hohnen. “But I now feel like we did everything possible to live up to the standards that he and his family expected of us. The recording is as much a representation of all Yolngu.”

This is what Djarimirri is primarily about – legacy. “There’s different ways people can go about activism,” Hohnen continues. “There’s anger, abuse, there’s hurt, there’s quite sinister ways, destructive ways. The journey that we took with him was almost the opposite. And, for me, his legacy was opening people’s hearts to one of the greatest assets of this country.”

Briggs, who became a friend of Gurrumul’s in the years after their 2014 collaboration, agrees. “This last record… is testament to him transcending genre and transcending what’s expected of an indigenous artist . This album is an orchestral piece, so it’s sheet music… it could be read by a conductor or composer in Germany, and they’d understand it. It transcends cultural barriers, because music is an international language. Anyone will be able to read this, and translate it and play it. Even in his death, he’s transcended genres and cultural barriers. Him and Michael, they’ve delivered this gift of music.”

Gurrumul’s niece says his life and music are still inspiring young Yolngu people. “A lot of youngsters in the north-east Arnhem land region, where G comes from, and other youngsters from all around NT, from every aboriginal community… a lot of youngsters are doing music today. Most of the young people I know, they want to continue his legacy, they want to show the world that they can do it… if he can do it, why can’t we do it, you know?”

Canned Heat

Published in the March / April issue of Rhythms magazine (Cover Feature – EXCERPT)

Fifty-three years ago, three blues nuts formed a band. Today, Canned Heat are still at it, still pushing the blues, writes Samuel J. Fell

I’m standing on a hay-bale or something, maybe a milk crate, I don’t really know, it’s too dark to see, but it’s higher than ground level and so I’ve purloined it and am standing on it in a vain attempt to see over the swelling rip-tide of human flesh in front of me, to get a better glimpse of what’s happening up on stage.

It’s a futile exercise though and I abandon my poor vantage point and try to wedge my way through the throng but it’s leather-pants-tight and I can’t penetrate and so I retreat, reluctantly, to the outer edges, where I can at least hear, if not see.

I roll a cigarette, fishing around in my pocket for a lighter, spark, inhale, you know the drill. I lean against a pole and let it all wash over me, forget I’m well outside the tent and nowhere near the stage, just feel the old music bursting from under the gargantuan faded canvas cover, over people’s heads and across the grass to where I’m standing.

Despite when it was written, or what’s informed it, the music is muscular and bawdy and seems made for right now, like maybe it’s being played for the first time and all of us, crammed together in the humidity with dust on our boots, wild-eyed after three days in the field (as it were), are hearing something new that no one else has ever heard before.

It’s blues, but it’s rock ‘n’ roll and it carries with it, as it whips across distance, an effortless cool that despite its immediacy, is at once familiar and comfortable. Not because you’ve heard the songs before but because of what they represent, a particular time where the music meant something else entirely but has since been lovingly reworked and fawned over and loaded up on all sorts of chemicals and wrought through the wringer and so it’s old and new at the same time and it just fits, like an old and faded pair of jeans you just can’t remember ever having lived without.

The crowd throbs with an energy I’ve not come across all weekend, and the players themselves, up on stage – tiny from my vantage point, when I can catch a glimpse – seem to throb too, vibrating with an energy they themselves are creating via this music which all at once seems both timeless and of this one place and time. Frenzied harmonica cuts through buzzing guitar and the rhythm section bumps and grinds underneath it all like an old alligator death rolling in some muddy river somewhere south of the Mason Dixon.

I butt my smoke out and wonder if I can cut across to the bar on the other side of the stage to grab another beer before this song finishes but I can’t move and so stay and keep letting it all wash over me, somewhere in a field, wild-eyed, with dust on my boots and the sweat of a thousand others painting the air wet all around me.

***

That was the first time I ever saw Canned Heat, back in 2012 at the 23rd Byron Bay Bluesfest. I’d known of the band of course, but had never really delved into their extensive catalogue. I was actually introduced to them in a reasonably random way, a compilation album landing on my desk some years prior, Rarities From The Bob Hite Vaults, presented by some cat called Dr. Boogie, a collection of “rare pieces taken from Bob Hite’s fabulous collection of 78rpm records.” This is a record which still gets regular play at our place, and it was from this cut, along with the extensive liner notes contained within, that I was introduced to Bob ‘The Bear’ Hite, and the band he formed with Alan Wilson back in 1965, a band which would go on, in its own unassuming way, to change the face of popular music at a time when change was of the essence and a new way of looking at things – or hearing things – was paramount and carried with it weight and cred and cool.

Changing the face of popular music wasn’t what the band originally set out to do though. For many bands, this sort of ideal was high on the list, but Canned Heat it seems, just wanted to emulate the music of their heroes. Hite and Wilson were, as is well documented, mad blues fans and so the mandate of Canned Heat from the get-go – if indeed the band even had one – was to push the music of these mostly unknown players to a much, much wider audience. And it was this that was of paramount importance for Hite and Co., more so than fame, fortune, the trappings of being in a band in the red-hot middle-‘60s.

“Well, you had three guys, Bob Hite, Alan Wilson and Henry Vestine, who were all major record collectors,” recalls Skip Taylor, over the phone from Tucson, Arizona. “Mainly blues record collectors. They’d travelled to Mississippi in the south, and had talked to these older guys, and their lives were spent in the blues. And that wasn’t the most common thing [back then], it was really about rock for most young, white, American guys.

“So they were kind of a cult unto themselves, and in marrying their blues proficiencies with my rock ‘n’ roll background, together we were able to get something not necessarily commercial, but they always wanted to be as big as Paul Butterfield, having an album crack the Top 100 on Billboard, that was it. My thoughts had always been to go a little higher and deeper than that, but all of us talked about having a music that would appeal to a much wider, white audience, and give the blues and black blues… at least give the populace the chance to hear this more, and be aware of this more. In the same way I think John Mayall has always felt, you know?”

This Christmas, The ‘Where’ Is Just As Important As The ‘Who’…

[Published on Medium, December 31]

They say that, at this time of year, it doesn’t matter where you are. It matters more who you’re with, family and friends, loved ones, people you travel vast distances to spend time around; those you might not see regularly throughout the year, and so when the festive season lands upon us (often with surprising speed), you make haste to convene, wherever that may be.

This year though, it does matter where we are. This year it’s at the old family home, Mum’s place. A squat old farmhouse on a couple of scrubby acres a few hours north of Melbourne. At a glance, from the cracked and crumbling concrete front porch, it’s in the middle of nothing and nowhere, but cast a wider glance and it’s surrounded by vineyard along the back and one side, green and waving maize across the front road, a meandering channel to the east that winds its way down to Greens Lake.

Within a reasonable drive are bigger centres like Rochester, Kyabram, Echuca and Bendigo, and on the way there you’ll find places like Girgarre, Nanneella, Timmering and Corop. In between are vast tracts of land that undulate slowly, changing in the blink of an eye from earthen browns and oranges to shimmering greens and yellows, burnt and swaying under a merciless sun.

We’re here every two years, the in between times spent with my wife’s family in Brisbane. This year, over the Christmas and New Year period in the unwavering heat surrounded by fractured earth and crunchy grass, it’s the two of us with our eleven-month-old daughter, my sister and her partner, and Mum and the dog. Dad died a couple of years ago, and so now the old homestead is Mum’s Place. It’s different to how it used to be, but it’s home still, and when we all descend for Christmas, it rings with a familiar joie de vivre, this year added to by our daughter, spending her first time among the dusty eucalypts that line the driveway up from the red-dirt road.

It’ll likely be her last though, and the same is true for all of us. Mum, after a couple of years here by herself is moving north, closer to her siblings in Brisbane, closer to us. She and Dad moved up here in the late 1990s, just after my sister and I finished school, and so for almost twenty years, as we’ve grown into actual adults and begun to deal with life proper, we’ve had a place to escape to, to hide, to rebuild, to recharge.

It’s the same for our partners, and if only on one occasion, and an occasion she likely won’t remember, it’s the same for our daughter. Which is why this year the ‘where’ mattered as much as the ‘who’.

This past week, as the heat has begun to lift and dusk descends and the blue-breasted wrens dance about the backyard, we’ve sat and swatted mosquitoes and sipped beer from cans and bubbles from flutes; we’ve played Trivial Pursuit and snacked on chips and nuts; we’ve raised glasses to Dad, to each other, to life now and life to come. No one’s really mentioned that we won’t be doing this again, here.

In two years, when it’s again time to spend the festive season together, it’ll be somewhere else, somewhere up north. And that won’t matter really, because Mum and the rest of us will leave here, perhaps tearfully at first, but with many strong memories of the place and the experiences we all shared here, whether at Christmas time, or any other time during the year that was.

And so from then, I suppose it will ring true what people say, that it doesn’t matter where you are, it matters more who you’re with. We’ll be in a newer place, a place that yet won’t have many family memories, a place that Dad never saw. But we’ll all be there (perhaps there’ll be more of us), and so it’ll start to become the family home once again and will act as an escape, a hiding place, a place to rebuild and recharge. Mum’s Place.

And perhaps that’s the crux of it – it doesn’t matter where you are as long as the people you love are there, which makes where you are the most important thing of all.

Samuel J. Fell

Album – Neil Young & Promise Of The Real

[Published in the Spectrum section of The Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 30]

NEIL YOUNG & PROMISE OF THE REAL
The Visitor
Reprise Records / Warner Australia

Neil Young is Canadian, but he loves the USA. It’s of these two facts that we’re reminded straight up, via the first two lines of Young’s new studio album, and they lay bare said album’s statement of intent: Young is only a visitor to America, but he’s come to love it and all it stands for. As the album unfurls though, and as you’d expect, Young realises that not all is well these days – where ‘The Visitor’ differs to past work however, is that it isn’t a protest record, it’s more one of hope, the underlying message being that we, the people, can restore this once proud nation to its former glory. Backed once again by the excellent Promise Of The Real, fronted by Lukas Nelson (son of Willie), ‘The Visitor’ presents some choice cuts, like the Crazy Horse-esque opener, the bluesy ‘Diggin’ A Hole’, and the groovy, stripped back guitar-led ‘Stand Tall’. And there are some odd inclusions, like the almost national anthem-like pomp of ‘Children Of Destiny’. It’s this discordance that is the album’s Achilles heel, but by persevering, by really listening, one can overcome. Which is of course, what Young wants you to do.

3.5/5

Samuel J. Fell

Album – Suicide Swans

[Published in the Spectrum section of The Sydney Morning Herald, Nov 11]

SUICIDE SWANS
Augusta
NearEnoughRecords

With second long-player Augusta, Toowoomba quintet Suicide Swans have endeavoured to expand their sonic repertoire – a common aspiration as a band approaches that difficult second record. More often than not however, a band falls into the trap of broadening too far, sacrificing cohesion and identity in the process. With Augusta, Suicide Swans have managed to not just broaden their musical palette, but present it in a way that’s undeniably theirs. An exemplary understanding of each other’s strengths, along with outstanding use of Wurlitzer, complimentary guitars, fiddle and subtle rhythm section sees a thick vein of commonality running through the record’s ten songs, whether they be of the rock ilk (Horses, with its pulsating guitars); grey-sky lament (Let Me Be); or of the style with which the band made its early mark, that of more traditional Americana (the fiddle-laced Canyons; the acoustic Wall and Come & See). It’s this ability to explore new avenues without the results sounding alien or out of place together, that makes this such a good record. Four-part harmonies abound too, harsh voices made beautiful in the context of one of the best roots albums of the year.

4/5

Samuel J. Fell

 

Invisible Threads

[Published in the Summer issue of Peppermint Magazine. EXCERPT]

Microfibres are emerging as one of the biggest environmental problems of our time, and they originate from the shirt off your back, writes Samuel J. Fell

It’s the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of, and it stems from the most basic of sources – the perpetrators are hanging in your wardrobe, in drawers, folded neatly in your linen closet. Microfibres, plastic fibres invisible to the naked eye that have been shown to shed from synthetic clothing during the washing process, are flushing via domestic wastewater through sewage treatment plants, eventually making it to rivers and the ocean.

A 2011 study by a number of scientists, including UNSW ecologist Dr. Mark Browne, found that microfibres make up 85% of human-made debris on beaches and shorelines around the world.

Microfibres themselves are tiny fragments of plastic debris that are micrometres in diameter, which emanate from myriad different sources – tyre dust; paints; the breaking down of secondary microplastics (plastic bags, take-away containers, plastic cutlery); airborne synthetic fibres; microbeads (which have been banned from facial cleansers and some cosmetics in the US and the UK).

The main culprit however, is synthetic clothing; fleece, rayon, acrylic and polyester garments, all of which emit thousands of microfibres every time they’re washed. Given, in 2014, 60% of all fabric produced by the textile industry was polyester, it’s little wonder microfibre pollution is becoming as rampant as it is.

The problem came to light in 2004, when Dr. Browne and a research team, through extensive testing, found these fibres to be the most prominent form of man-made waste washing up on shorelines worldwide. “A lot of the NGOs, who do their best to try and tell people about environmental issues, had been doing a pretty poor job of explaining the issue of plastic pollution,” explains Dr. Browne, a world-renowned authority on plastic debris pollution.

“They were confusing a whole range of issues… saying, it’s to do with microbeads, it’s to do with bags, it’s to do with packaging,” he goes on. “I [thought], actually, that’s really funny because I’ve gone around the world sampling on different shorelines from the poles to the equator, and most of the material we’re finding, although we expected to find bags and microbeads, are actually these fibres.”