Sunrise To Sunset – Yirrmal Leads A New Generation Of Indigenous Music

[Published in the summer issue of No Depression (US) – EXCERPT]

His voice is pure. High and strong, it thrums like taut wire, resonating with a power that belies his young age. At 22, Yirrmal Marika shows signs of a talent set to bloom — a talent that could one day see him placed alongside his mentor Archie Roach, or other seminal artists like Ruby Hunter, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, and Yothu Yindi, whose work has come to define an important part of Australian contemporary music and shine a light on often dark parts of Australia’s past.

“He’s an amazing young musician,” muses Roach. “When I hear Yirrmal sing live … it cuts right through you, it’s just so powerful.”

Last November, Yirrmal released his debut cut, an EP titled Youngblood. In commercial music terms, it’s essentially a folk album: largely acoustic, it features storytelling set to a simple sound, with an emphasis on the lyrical content as opposed to the instrumentation. It showcases the young man’s emerging songwriting talent, his skill on the guitar, his passion for what he’s doing. It’s not a release that’ll shake the music world to its core, but Youngblood offers a glimpse of what the Australian roots music scene can expect in the years to come. It is a foundation from which Yirrmal will no doubt build as he comes to terms with his talent, solidifies his vision, and immerses himself further into his ancient heritage and its culture and philosophies.

Yirrmal is a Yolngu man, an indigenous Australian. Hailing from Yirrkala, in northeast Arnhem Land on the northern edge of the country — locals call it the Top End — his people have one of the oldest cultures on the planet. It’s from this ancient tradition that Yirrmal draws inspiration. It informs his music; it’s the fertile earth in which his very being is rooted.

Yet, despite the fact he sings mainly in the Yolngu language — putting to song the stories of time and creation passed down from one generation to the next by his people — he sets his stories to Western folk music. This is where his sound intersects with that of his mentor. Roach, a man of both Gunditjmara and Bundjalung heritage — and one of the most respected musicians in Australia, indigenous or otherwise — is also largely a folk player, and has been since his debut release, Charcoal Lane, back in 1990.

While Yirrmal and Roach are touchstone artists, they’re also just two of many indigenous Australians who have combined their storytelling traditions with a Western musical form, whether it be folk, country, blues, soul, gospel, rock and roll, or hip-hop. Indeed, indigenous musicians utilising Western music has become such a part of the Australian music world since it became mainstream here in the early 1990s that it’s no longer regarded as odd, surprising, or a genre of its own merely because its purveyors are of a different race. Indigenous culture, after all, is built on the tradition of passing down stories and legends, so this tradition translates well to Western songwriting styles.

“It’s just progression,” reasons Roach. “Yirrmal especially. His music surrounds a lot of his stories and culture. For years, we’ve been doing it — it’s just an aspect of storytelling or communicating. [Adding] Western instruments, like guitars, keyboards … is just a continuation of that old culture [of] communicating and educating.”

Tel Aviv… A Brief Portrait


Tel Aviv shimmers rippled gold from the midnight desert. A sprawling jewel against black from the tiny airplane window, disappears as we bank left, reappears on the far side. Closer now. The thud as we touch down and reverse thrust and finally, still.

From verdant English countryside to layers of burnt orange and gold, a layer of dust covers it all in a dull warmth, the heat from the dying day a slow and languid wash that envelops you as you navigate the airport, Hebrew lettering and blue and white flags and shawls draped and flaccid in the marble quiet.

In the old town, Jaffa and its ancient port, lights are lit and music tumbles from old, arched doorways despite the time of day and we sit on the top deck and drink Israeli beer after we’ve put her to bed and we catch up, smoking in the still air, wafting upward. The new city burns bright in the middle distance, white light, while below us basks in yellow, the flickering painting the cobbled streets in ever-changing layers of light and shade. Stray cats prowl and the purple bougainvillea spews over an old grey wall like spent beer from a bottle left in the freezer overnight.

The next day we wander the maze of the port, ancient and labrynthian, tiny galleries and churches hewn into rock on the side of the hill rolling up from the water. We stand on the hilltop and look across the half-moon bay. Sunlight, ever-present, dances on the water, on the stone, off the pale walls of houses shuttered against the building heat. The cats sit in the shade in high places and watch from under lidded eyes.

Across Yefet Street, into the flea market and its own twisted alleys and underpasses, antique dealers’ wares spill onto the roadways. We sit outside a café under an orange umbrella and drink weak black coffee with small glasses of water as people wander past – young and old, some with children hanging off them, in prams and strapped to chests, men on scooters with cigarettes hanging from lips and mobile phones pressed against their ears, the sound of car horns always on the breeze which comes in from the Mediterranean and becomes a part of the city noise like the talking and the yelling, the call to prayer and the music from weddings and churches, Arabic music and Jewish music, the occasional burst of a western sound, cars and trucks and bikes through the round-about at the clock tower, horns and shouting, street hawkers and people gawking and yelling.

The sound of a city shifting restlessly in the midday heat.

In the mornings, I strap her to me and we walk for an hour or so while she sleeps. I pick up one of the newspapers thrown on the front step and tuck it into my back pocket should I come across somewhere to drink coffee while we’re out but I never do, nothing is open this early. We have the old streets to ourselves and we make for the water, along the foreshore, into the maze of the port and upward, upward, steps and slopes, warn smooth from centuries of feet, so many feet, up to the crown of the hill overlooking it all and down the other side. Across the wishing bridge. Past the church facing west. Into the shade and bustle of Yefet and into the market where nothing is open and we’re hidden from the sun under shade of narrow paths and old, faded sun-shades stretched across alleys entwined with electrical wires and ornate strands of fairy lights and wreaths of coloured cloth.

We get home before she wakes and I make coffee in the kitchen and sit out the back under the passionfruit vine and read the paper until she wakes up and we have breakfast together as the rest of the house stirs and comes to join us

Everything is burnt orange and gold and there’s a layer of dust that covers it all in a dull warmth and yet it shimmers with a vibrant colour and sheen, polishing the edges and washing the roadways of rubbish and refuse, detritus from centuries of use and overuse and underuse, and the green-blue Mediterranean gently pushes up against its edge and the palm trees bow in the breeze and Tel Aviv exists, shimmering rippled gold in the midnight desert.

Feature In No Depression Magazine (US) – Yirrmal & Indigenous Australian Music

Appearing in the summer issue of legendary American roots music magazine No Depression, SJF has a long feature on up-and-coming artist Yirrmal, and the scope, influence and identity of indigenous Australian contemporary music.

Issue out in mid-May.

And consider subscribing to No Depression – for only $6 a month, you can support ad-free, in-depth arts journalism. Head to the website HERE.

LIVE – Byron Bay Bluesfest, 2017

[Published in Rolling Stone (Aust.), April 2017]

Bluesfest 2017 – A Celebration Of Eclecticism, by Samuel J. Fell

Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, Byron Bay – April 13-17

(for all pics by Carl Neuman, head to the Rolling Stone website here for slideshow…)

While the others get their bags from the back of the truck, pull on boots and check pockets, I lean against the bullbar and roll a cigarette. There’s no breeze to speak of and so the smoke drifts straight upward into the clear evening air. It’s warm enough for shirtsleeves, but cool enough for jeans, boots, the rains of the past month, the tail-end of the destructive Cyclone Debbie, all but gone, nothing here to remind of the devastation, the damage, the life-changing consequences of which are still evident elsewhere, but not here.

The carpark was under water a week and a half ago but today, this evening, it’s dry and lush grass, no mud, cars parked in orderly rows, stretching off as far as you can see. The sun is setting and the sound of a frantic kick drum thuds across the vast spaces, people flocking towards it, walking past us, around us, heading towards the North Gate and entry into the Byron Bay Bluesfest, this year gearing up for its 28th go ‘round.

We stroll in the same direction, and as we mix with the throng, I’m already looking for The Face. As Hunter S. Thompson tried to do in his iconic Kentucky Derby piece from 1970, I’m looking for The Face which best epitomises this gargantuan festival, that truly represents all that this happening is about. In truth, I’m not so much looking for The Face, as I am The Person – the person, their dress, their demeanour, their very being, that sums up how this all plays out. For the past 28 years, as this festival has grown into the multi-faceted event it is today, so to have its followers and so I’m looking for the one which best brings it all together, which tells the tale as it should be told.

I discreetly gauge people from the corner of my eye as we pass them, looking them up and down, trying to ascertain if they’re the one I’m searching for or not.

A grizzly old fucker, glimpsed mid-laugh, gaping mouth with only a handful of teeth (fair bet some bloody-knuckled lout in some sweat and smoke-stained barroom somewhere, has the other handful), a grotesque image that seems to freeze as it happens, and it sticks in my mind for hours afterwards.

Once inside, I meander up to the Media tent and am offered an interview with Rhiannon Giddens, which I take and am escorted into the artist area, where I sit with Giddens and guitarist/producer Dirk Powell for twenty minutes, talking about her latest cut, Freedom Highway, and her impression on a festival she’s appearing at this year for the second time.

“There are a couple of different criteria, for an artist,” Giddens says, on how she rates Bluesfest. “First of all, there’s vibe of the festival, and there’s the nuts and bolts, how they take care of you as an artist. And this one hits all of it… they help us set up the sideshows, and they take care of us from day one. I’ve always said, you feed a musician good, they’ll follow you around forever, you know what I mean?”

She and Powell both laugh. We finish up and I head back out, down the long road between the Mojo and Crossroads stages and out into the festival itself, hungry for music having spoken to Giddens, lured by the bright lights of food and clothing stalls, the flashing strobes on stages, navigating the sparsely populated site with ease (Thursday is unofficially referred to as Locals Thursday, the big crowds not in attendance until Friday, room to move and stretch, see bands in a more intimate setting, a good soft warm-up for the days to come).

I see Snarky Puppy who lay down steaming swathes of dissonant prog, a thundering set that thrashes about seemingly at random but which then comes back to where it should, continuing on without missing a beat. It’s not an easy listen, but essentially follows the rules and so after one is used to it, it’s easy to tap your feet to, to at least guess where they’re going next.

Which can’t really be said for the Miles Electric Band, who follow up on the Crossroads Stage. Not that they’re not exemplary musicians (a good portion of the band appeared on Miles Davis’ seminal Bitches Brew, and his nephew is behind the kit), but this is jazz, real jazz, Davis Jazz – it bucks and humps, ducks and weaves about, this is truly dissonant. It pulses with a real power though, because you know, through the squeaks and squawks, the thunder and the pitter patter that this is what it’s supposed to be. Players go off on instrumental solos from which there seems no return; there are rhythmic sojourns and horn-laden freak-outs – the crowd is small but they dig it, and the set is good and strong, something different, something you feel is real, long after it all mysteriously winds up.

An old woman, surely closing in on 90, sitting on an upturned milk crate at the back of the Delta stage, draped in rainbow cassock with sandals on her feet, her long and stringy grey hair down to the small of her arched back. She’s delicately eating some sort of frozen ice-block, a dangerous purple colour, careful not to let it melt on her hand as she taps her feet to the roadie sound-checking the bass drum up on stage, a seeming world away from where she’s sat.

Glimpses: Mavis Staples (The Queen) plays out with soulful aplomb once more on the Jambalaya Stage; Nikki Hill and band (what a band), shred the Delta Stage into millions of tiny pieces; Jeff Lang, with Greg Sheehan on percussion, creates small tempests that gust hard before slowing tenderly and then upping again, one of the most inventive players on the planet; Eric Gales, who festival director Peter Noble calls “the best guitarist in the world”, wields his instrument like a weapon, bass and drums behind him, backing vocals, they breathe new life into the electric blues; Booker T. Jones leading the STAX Revue, a critical time in musical history brought to life, somewhat, in Byron Bay, a little flat but very hard to deny the strength of the music itself; Mud Morganfield, son of Muddy Waters, a crack backing band who specialise in steaming Chicago blues – Morganfield has a strong voice (luckily, otherwise this’d just be a wan tribute act), and he takes control and this is good, solid, robust and muscular blues.

I walk up to the Mojo Stage late on the Thursday night to see Patti Smith and band perform her seminal 1975 release, Horses. It’s a visceral set, a lithe and lanky thing which confuses then consumes and keeps consuming, Smith’s band consummate in the background, Smith out the front a Beacon as she begins to build and build the set, brick by brick, line by line, as she starts to find within herself the rhythm which the rest of the hour or so then forms.

“THIS FUCKING CORRUPT WORLD,” she almost vomits this line, her face creased with disgust and it’s a line which sticks hard in my head and I’m not even sure what it’s in reference to, so lost am I in the cadence of her voice, the rhythm with which she’s railing, her voice and the bile and passion rising and falling to the rhythm of her own making, her band, her tight band, almost superfluous by this point – she spits fire and venom, she’s lost no heat with the passing of time, with the onset of age, her long braided grey hair whips her face, her long and pointed aquiline nose juts from her face like a single, defiant mountain, pointing wherever she projects her piercing eyes… this isn’t so much music as it is poetry and brimstone and disgust and hate and power and passion. So much passion. There are tears in the audience. There’s a heat, a tingling around the heart like everyone, to a man, has been stirred and wants, nay needs, to do something.

It’s a set which has, according to Noble, been a good few years in the making, but it’s worth the wait and there’s little one can do afterwards but head home to the comfort of bourbon and beer chasers, kicking off boots and settling into bed and quiet.

A young girl, maybe 20, sitting cross-legged on the grass in the sun behind the Crossroads Stage, immaculately dressed, carefully and fastidiously applying thick, red lipstick to narrow pale lips, oblivious to the myriad people stepping around her, gazing into her small mirror painting deep red with an almost translucent, careful hand.

Friday through Sunday bring full houses, not so much a crowd as a crush, a roaring, seething, shouting mass of skin and bone, sweaty muscle in multi-coloured muslin and floppy hats, bumping from one stage to the next, the bars and food queues, ATM lines and clumps of people grouped on the grass, tripping over deck chairs in the dark, strollers lit with fairy lights, small children on shoulders with pink ear-muffs and mouthfuls of organic donut.

Courtney Barnett is great on Thursday, grinding melodic grunge, a true urban poet telling takes most ordinary, so ordinary they’re relatable to all and this is what makes it work. Nas, with the brassy N’Awlins Soul Rebels backing, searingly combines these two musical forms and it kicks, it’s thundering second-line hip hop, the horns feeding the beat, Nas himself feeding back off it all, rap on brass, the sousaphone providing the bass.

An old bloke, the epitome of the acid-washed-out generation, adorned in glitter shirt and pink sunglasses, rainbow sombrero atop his balding pate, strung with wreathes of yellow rubber duckies – a photographer spies him and asks him to pose, which he does, but with shirt open revealing a spilling, white, slightly speckled gut, it queers an already dubious deal.

By comparison, another ‘90s hip hop superstar, Mary J. Blige, is comparatively beige. Blige is an exemplary performer, her band are tight, but as I noted at the time in my daily Rolling Stone wrap-up, her rather slow R&B seems dated, she herself a little less energetic. Perhaps the power and passion exhibited by Nas, the previous night, paints Blige’s set in a paler light, the latter just not able to come out of that tall shadow. Blige is good, but this one doesn’t kick.

For mine, the same could be said (and it pains me to say this about one of my favourite acts on the planet) for Buddy Guy’s set, at least his Sunday run. The last of the old school bluesmen, Guy is finally showing his age, he’s a little slower and seems a little more scattered than on previous visits, his usual flowing medleys stop-starting, Guy adding commentary before playing the next snippet, killing any sense of momentum. That said, when Guy sets his fingers right, he still wails with the best, in fact he is one of the best, still firing. Perhaps the last time we’ll see him in Australia though.

I wander down to the Juke Joint stage in the early Friday afternoon heat to see up-and-comer Yirrmal perform as part of the Boomerang Festival but a lineup change sees party-starters OKA in his place, so I catch a bit of them and while they’re solid, I find the beat a bit too heavy for this time of day, and so head off lamenting not being able to hear Yirrmal’s voice in the live setting, where word is it truly shines. No matter, for there’s no doubt he’ll be back here again, on the main bill – and while we’re on this, I look forward to the day Boomerang attracts enough investors to launch properly on its own as a champion of indigenous music and culture, but kudos to Noble and Bluesfest for continuing to support it in the meantime, even if all the acts involved would fit just fine in Bluesfest proper.

And while we’re on ‘festivals within festivals’, Carlos Santana and band create their own unique event on the Sunday night, a rhythmic juggernaut from which there seems little respite, not that anyone wants any – this booms and throbs, Santana’s guitar instantly recognisable, particularly via Abraxas mainstays Black Magic Woman and Oye Coma Va, classic tracks set against a starry sky that are truly beautiful to behold. The crowd heaves and it’s a street party in tent but it bursts at the seams and overflows into the rest of the festival and people dance regardless of age, gender, face, inhibition.

A young kid, maybe ten years old, marching with committed resolve towards the South Gate from the hot and listless carparks, lagging behind his parents clutching two cucumbers, one half eaten, clutching them like someone will take them away, intent on eating both flavourless vegetables before someone tells him he can’t bring them inside and he’s left with nothing.

Bonnie Raitt stuns on Friday night, her band in tow, a true leading lady of the roots music world; Jimmy Buffett confuses, veering from country (which is deep and solid) to calypso, which is light-hearted and, to my mind, lacks substance, but the Parrotheads (his diehard, and slightly loony, followers) disagree and in their purple shirts, parrot hats and coloured beads and what not, they cheer and dance and revel in what this most odd and famous of men is laying down, he dances on stage and looks like a red-cheeked gnome, playing guitars and generally being happy, which one gets the impression, is his main state of being. They do a calypso, steel drum-led version of Crowded House’s Weather With You, which as you would imagine, garners much love, dozens of parrots nodding in unison, which is indeed, an odd sight, and one to behold for sure.

“We wanted to reclaim a language, it’s not a dead language,” says Joe Henry, referencing the railroad-inspired folk songs he and Billy Bragg followed, researched, lived in making their recent record, Shine A Light. They play them together on the Jambalaya stage on Monday afternoon, their voices rising as one, two acoustic guitars, Americana and blues and folk slipping off the stage wrapping up all in attendance, the belief this pair have in the music the true power behind it – a festival highlight.

At the same time, across the way, Australian blues and roots icon Lloyd Spiegel, in his first Bluesfest appearance, holds his own full house in the palm of his hand, just him and his trusty Cole Clark, a full swag of songs, a full tote of stories told with humour and aplomb, the man able to make his guitar do anything at all as he tells tales both tall and true, his own superbly written material marrying with blues standards in a way few others are able to manage. The man is a mountain, and he’ll surely be back.

Glimpses: Melody Angel is possessed of a rare power, her voice an anvil from which are forged songs of immense strength, Chicago blues and rock ‘n’ roll, she graces stages all weekend and slays it every time; the Zac Brown Band, big American slick country, full ensemble, all of whom are experts on their chosen instruments – I don’t like their records, but live they’re another deal altogether and it’s hard not to get drawn into their world, whether quiet and reflective or raunchy and country, it’s all full force music shined to a Nashville sheen, their version of Charlie Daniels’ Devil Went Down To Georgia a highlight, thanks in large part to the fiddle playing of Jimmy de Martini.

Spell Design-clad blondes with reflective Ray Bans and floppy felt hats; older, well-heeled couples in button-down shirts and crisp shorts, camping chairs slung over shoulders with water bottles and sensible hats; bearded blokes with Jack Daniels t-shirts and leather Harley Davidson vests; beer-brand singleted bros, stumbling about in packs, three cans apiece, six sheets to the wind; faux hippies and harpies, mods and rockers, clean and feral, stoned and clear.

I don’t find The Face. And no, as it is in Thompson’s story, the face isn’t mine, as cracked, chipped and vaguely distorted as the old mirror into which I gaze come Tuesday morning. For there really is no one face that, truthfully, defines what this festival is all about. Whether your aim is to spend five days sitting on the same stool in the VIP bar, talking with whoever comes near, or whether it’s to find yourself as much music as you possibly can, tripping through the throngs as you traverse the festival site again and again, there is no one face.

As, with the festival, there is no one sound, style, genre or artist. Bluesfest, despite its name, is an eclectic beast, one which strives to find and showcase the best in roots music, and this is a wide umbrella – as such, it heaves and thrashes, a multi-limbed beast, eclectic, one that doesn’t just tick a single box, but dozens. The people who patronise it are the same, all different, all odd and strange in their own way, and this all combines to make the Byron Bay Bluesfest what it’s become over the years. And this is a good thing to be sure.

As we wander out the South Gate, late on the Monday night, having traversed the grassy site dozens of times, having gulped at the sonic stew with countless others, bumped and been bumped, laughed and pointed, eyed off, sucked down, imbibed and over-eaten, it’s with a stinging sense of completion, not a sense of wanting, and despite the fact I didn’t find The Face, I found the sound, the sounds, from all around, and so there’s little to do but retire home to the comfort of bourbon and beer chasers, kicking off boots and settling into bed and quiet and beginning to count down, once again, the days until next year.

Samuel J. Fell

Eric Gales

[Published in issue #533 of The Big Issue]


ERIC GALES is a bluesman for the current generation, fusing myriad styles to create something new, as he tells SAMUEL J. FELL

Eric Gales grew up in a household where roots music was king, these old musical forms providing a sonic backdrop from which he’s never strayed. Memphis in the 1970s was still a blues, soul, rock and gospel mecca, and it was here that the young Gales soaked it all up.

“My parents would be playing gospel, and my brother, Eugene, he’d be playing blues,” Gales recalls on his early exposure to the music he now has flowing through his veins. “Then, [over the years] I was introduced to a whole range of other styles… and I just tried to figure out a way to fuse them.”

Hailed early on as a child prodigy on the guitar, Gales released his first album as a teenager, a heady melding of a range of rootsy designs with a strong rock presence, a fusion as he says. And this has been his signature ever since – based in the blues yes, the blues will always be number one to Gales, but he fosters a want to explore the myriad possibilities thrown up via hybrids of multiple styles.

“You’ve got your classic 1,3,5 blues, shuffles and this and that, and that can be restricting,” he says on his need to explore. “I like to make it new and fresh… so giving [the blues] a new twist, is something I think will draw in new audiences, new ears and eyes, and if I can be the [champion] for that, then I gladly accept the challenge.”

Touring regularly from an early age, spending time behind bars in 2009 on drugs and weapons charges, writing and recording with a slew of collaborators (including Carlos Santana, with whom he may well guest at the upcoming Byron Bay Bluesfest, where both artists are performing), Eric Gales has lived the life of a bluesman; sometimes chaotic and dark, other times triumphant and free, but always following the musical path, imbued within him from an early age, the ethos and philosophies that have been drilled into him ever since.

“For me, it’s a combination of both; capturing the vibe of the old days, with the passion of now,” he says on what’s it like being a bluesman in 2017, a far cry from the days when the likes of Son House, Blind Willie McTell and Big Bill Broonzy were plying their trade. As Gales says however, it’s not the time that defines this genre, but the passion that’s put into it by whomever is playing it.

“I think I’m managing to do that, combine these two [with passion], in an uncompromising way. Still respecting the old style, but using it as a foundation for the new, 2017 order, a [new] spin.”

It always comes back to the “new spin”, the fusion – Gales’ latest release, Middle Of The Road, his fifteenth studio album, has been described as, not a blues, rock or soul album, but an Eric Gales album, such has this “new spin” become his trademark. And he’s pretty happy with that, comfortable within the style he’s fashioned for himself.

Middle Of The Road stands as a sort of reinvention for this modern bluesman too, inspired by all he’s gone through thus far (ailed H“Just life man, surviving,” he laughs, explaining the inspiration in a nutshell). As he says in the record’s accompanying press material, “It’s about being fully focused and centered in the middle of the road. If you’re on the wrong side and in the gravel you’re not too good, and if you’re on the median strip that’s not too good either, so being in the middle of the road is the best place to be.”

Tracks like ‘Change In Me (The Rebirth)’ stand as testament to this, the man and the musician taking stock and deciding on a purer path, not one destined to lead him astray. Middle Of The Road is a freewheeling affair, bouncing from soul to rock to blues and back again, and yet in Gales’ hands, it all comes together in a way which doesn’t seem disjointed or patched together – such is his understanding of how these myriad styles may conflict, but also compliment.

It hasn’t hurt he’s brought in a few ringers to help him out too. “Oh man, they made it that much better,” he beams, referring to his brother Eugene (with whom he’s played in bands for years), Gary Clark Jr, Lauryn Hill and funk legend Raphael Saadiq, to name but a few. “If I have the opportunity to do this again, I’ll do exactly the same thing [with the same people].”

Blues/rock behemoth Joe Bonamassa has said of Gales, “[He] is one of the best, if not the best, guitar player in the world.” Dave Navarro of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers has also opined, “How [he] isn’t the hugest name in rock guitar is a total mystery.” Roots music works in mysterious ways, sometimes its best purveyors remaining anonymous to the greater unwashed, and yet it doesn’t stop them – Gales is testament to this. A modern bluesman, continually doing his thing, teaching an old genre new tricks, continually reinventing as he goes.

Eric Gales and band make their Australian debut at the Byron Bay Bluesfest, April 13-17.

The Waifs

[Published in the March / April issue of Rhythms magazine]


The Waifs celebrate twenty-five years with eighth record Ironbark, which is dedicated to their many fans, and sees them return to their informal roots, writes Samuel J. Fell

 Think back twenty-five years. Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing? There aren’t many of us who can, firstly, remember, but secondly, claim to have been doing something we’re still doing now, having grown it exponentially over the course of a quarter century.

The Waifs can remember what they were doing – forming the band which this year celebrates this silver anniversary. It seems almost too hard to believe, that this trio – sisters Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson, and Josh Cunningham (bulked out by drummer David Ross McDonald and pedal steel player/bassist Ben Franz) – are still going strong after such a long time. But it’s not, upon further reflection, that surprising at all. They’re one of Australia’s most loved bands, a group whose rootsy bonhomie, whose uniquely Antipodean tales of wanderlust and homeward bound, wind-swept and salt-encrusted, love and casual and barefoot and free, have endeared them to many.

It’s actually little wonder they’re still going strong.

Thorn, these days based in Utah with her family, cites there being “a lot of love between us and what we do”, as the secret to this success and longevity. “We’re family,” she says, “we love playing music, we love performing music, and we love connecting with people through music.”

There’s another part to it however, that “I don’t really talk about,” she confesses – this part goes deeper. “The band’s always been a democratic process as to what’s recorded, what goes onto albums, how [the albums are] recorded, basically it’s sort of fight for your song a little bit, get out-voted.”

“So there’s always been an element of compromise, as artists,” she says. “And I think that’s as big a part of the longevity – the fact we’ve, as individuals, always been willing to compromise, slightly, what we ultimately wanted in order for the band to go ahead and for the albums to come out. Every album we put out, there’s always a bit of an argument as to what songs should or shouldn’t go on there, and how they should be recorded, but in the end we’re looking at a bigger picture, and we realise that The Waifs is made up of three individuals, and what I love is not necessarily what everyone else is going to love… within all that compromise, something works.”

It does. From their eponymous debut in 1996, all the way through to 2015’s Beautiful You, the band have thrived. Sure, not everything is perfect all the time, but as a band The Waifs have endured and along the way produced seven records, each of which have brought them closer to their legions of fans the world over, fans who have literally grown up with the band, one big family, moving together.

“We’re having more fun, and we enjoy this more than we ever have, now,” Thorn says with an obvious smile. “Over a twenty-five period, obviously you have high points and you have low points, and there’s been a lot of both of those, but right now it’s sort of flat-lining into this very enjoyable part of our career. We have our lives and families, and then we get to go on tour when we want to tour, how we want to tour, where we want to play, total artistic control, and we do it because we want to be there.

“We love playing music, and music now for us all is so intuitive and natural. So it’s a great place to be, I’m stoked.”

This great place, twenty-five years into a career, has yielded more results – the band’s eighth studio record, Ironbark. And it’s the aforementioned fans of the band to whom this one is dedicated. “Waifs fans are legendary in the industry for their loyalty and enthusiasm,” Thorn is quoted as saying in the album’s accompanying press material. “It feels like we all grew up together. We are now the band you can bring your parents and your kids to hear! Your involvement in our career means everything to us. You are the very reason we are still playing music together, twenty-five years on.”

“This would be a release that was not so much about what we wanted, but what would our fans want,” she says today, on one aspect of what they wanted with Ironbark. “It’s not about us doing one thing or another, lets just approach this like, lets put out a really simple release that’s something we think fans would like to hear.”

It was this line of thinking that led the three of them to Cunningham’s unfinished home on the NSW south coast, where around the kitchen table, in a circle together, they began making this new album; true Waifs style, loose and casual, which as Thorn says, is what they felt fans would like.

“So we made the plan to meet up in Josh’s unfinished house, and that was the extent of it,” she explains. At that point, other than wanting to make an album to thank their fans, they had little idea of what they wanted to come out with. There’d been no pre-production, no back-and-forth, just a germ of an idea that was to make a record.

“People asked me, what we were going to record, but I really had no idea,” she remembers. “We talked about doing a bunch of covers, find some classic covers we love, maybe re-work some old songs. And then we got there, and it was so informal and so relaxed that these songs just started coming… and it just went from there.”

That it did – Ironbark sits at twenty-five tracks (quite apropos), a veritable king-tide of inspiration hitting the three as they sat in Cunningham’s home over a two week period, working out how it would all come together. The three of them don’t write together, songwriting itself is a very solitary thing for all of them, but once songs started coming, it seems they were all able to bind together to bring them to life. Quite quickly in many instances.

“It was very formal and unplanned, and I think that’s the beauty of it,” Thorn says. “And the fact we recorded all live and some of the takes that are on the album, are literally the third or fourth time we’d ever played the song.

“And as a result of that, I can hear in some of those songs the tension – musically, there’s a tension in the songs because we’re all listening [to it], like, ‘Where does this go again?’ And we’re all really holding back a little bit, and it creates a really nice tension to some of those tracks, that I can hear. It was the best recording experience we’ve had.”

The results speak for themselves – an album to celebrate a quarter century together, an album recorded in such an informal fashion, an album created to thank the myriad fans the band has garnered over the course of these two and a half decades. It sees The Waifs in a special place too, one which as Thorn said, is one of the best places they’ve been.

“Twenty-five years is a long time in the life of a band, but not in the life of an Ironbark tree,” Cunningham has been quoted as saying. “Resilient and enduring it stands strong through the changing seasons, surviving hardship and adversity, all the while contributing something beautiful and positive to the world. A perfect metaphor of the journey of so many people that are dear to me, and the most perfect metaphor for The Waifs. Earthy, organic, enduring and Australian to the core.”

Indeed, the perfect metaphor to describe the band, and the perfect way to sum up Ironbark, an album sure to strike at the hearts of people the world over, who have grown with this uniquely Australian group.

Ironbark is available from March 3, via Jarrah Records.

James Cotton

James Henry Cotton died on Thursday March 16, in Austin, Texas. He was 81, and while perhaps unknown to people not familiar with the blues, the man was a behemoth – a working musician by the time he was nine, he cut his teeth under Sonny Boy Williamson II, before branching out and recording with the great Howlin’ Wolf for Sun Records. Then, as a 20-year-old, he joined Muddy Waters’ band, where he stayed for a decade or so, before moving out solo – a legend of blues harmonica, Cotton recorded a slew of albums under his own name over the years, and was still touring three years ago when he made his first trip to Australia.

I was fortunate enough to interview him in 2013 for a story about him and his work for a Sun Records special issue of Rhythms magazine. The brief Q&A style yarn is reproduced below…

Cotton Mouth Man

Harmonica legend James Cotton, whose career is still as strong as ever, looks back at his years with Sun Records.

By Samuel J. Fell

Harmonica legend James Cotton, perhaps the last surviving blues player who recorded with Sun Records, was born in Mississippi in 1934. He grew up on a cotton plantation, working the fields, but soon became all consumed by the blues he heard on the radio. He took his harp and was soon making money as a busker, before leaving home and joining Sonny Boy Williamson’s band, taking over as leader when Williamson left.

This was short-lived, and soon Cotton was driving a dump truck. It wasn’t long before he got back into music though, moving to West Memphis and hooking up with the likes of Little Junior Parker, BB King and Howlin’ Wolf, with whom he recorded his first Sun session. From there, his career began in earnest, he played in Muddy Waters’ band for a decade or so, and is still making records today. Cotton himself takes over the story, filling in the gaps:

Your mother gave you a harmonica for your sixth birthday, which you began to play, but it wasn’t until you heard King Biscuit Time on the radio that you realised the instrument could be played a completely different way – the way of the blues. Do you remember how you felt when you first heard that music? How did it make you feel? What was the connection like?

It put something inside of me, something I can’t name, and it made me feel really, really good. I’d never heard anything like that. I’ve never forgotten that moment. I realise now it connected me to the outside world, got me off the plantation and connected me to people all over the world. I never even dreamed that could be possible. My whole world then was the Bonnie Blue plantation, and the field work we all had to do. My mother took me to the field and showed me how to pick cotton when I was about four years old.

Your first recorded session was with Howlin’ Wolf in 1952, not long after you’d moved to West Memphis – how did you hook up with The Wolf? What was he like to play with? What are your memories of that session?

Howlin’ Wolf heard me play with Sonny Boy Williamson’s (Rice Miller) band. Since we both played harp, Sonny Boy and I never played at the same time with his band. In the middle of his set he’d call me up to play. I’d play a few songs, leave the stage, and he’d come back and finish his set. Wolf was a very nice guy to play with. He was a warm, decent man but I didn’t want to mess up his music or he’d let me know I did!

I remember he’d say, “Man, I want my music right. If you don’t play my music right, I’m gonna have t’let ya go.” He never had to. My memory of my first session at Sun Records with The Wolf, is I had never really ever heard my music played back. I always heard it out of an amp when I was playing it [but] I never heard it recorded before. It scared me! I was 13 years old and very, very country. I heard everything I was playing. Heard all the mistakes – and all the good parts I played, I heard that, too. I played harp for The Wolf on ‘Moanin’ At Midnight’. He played harp on ‘How Many More Years’. Those songs were released back to back on one single record. Both songs became hits.

It was that session that brought you to the attention of a young Sam Phillips, who then contacted you about making some records – tell me about your first meeting with Sam.

When I walked into Sun Records, Sam Phillips shook my hand and asked me if I had any of my own songs. At this time I had ‘Cotton Crop Blues’, ‘Hold Me In Your Arms’, ‘My Baby’, and ‘Straighten Up Baby’. He said he wanted to hear them. He recorded them straight away. Here’s how it came down – my drummer, John Bowers, didn’t show up, so I ended up playing drums. I looked around the studio. There was one bass drum and a 10-inch cymbal. I needed a snare, so I grabbed a 51 Goldcrest beer box made out of cardboard, turned it upside down and went to work. That’s why there’s no harp on any of the four sides. Pat Hare was on guitar. That was the original recording. Later, Sam Phillips added piano, bass, and horns. He might have added a drummer, too.

After your first session for Sun, recording with Willie Nix, you began cutting your own records with Sam Phillips – what was he like to work with? He’s got quite a reputation for letting the artist play what they want to play, for keeping it real, for keeping the blues pure – was that the case?

Working with Sam Phillips was all right because he let me play like I wanted to. I remember him asking me to do just two things differently. One time he asked me to make a song longer, which I did. I wasn’t a drummer and here I was playing a session for the first time and I dropped time. Sam heard that and asked me to do that again. Other than that, he didn’t say much. We were both so new at what we were doing, it was still strange to us, we were both feeling our way – we’re talking about recording these songs 63 years ago. We both had different dreams about this music, the blues, and, looking back on it, both our dreams came true.

Back in the ‘50s, when segregation was is full swing, Phillips didn’t seem fazed by that – it seems that to him, colour didn’t matter, it was all about the music and the people who played it, whether they were black or white. What was it like, as an African American artist, to have a place to record where race played no part, and you were free to do what you were made to do?

It was a really good feeling. Sam Phillips’ Sun Records was my very first studio. It was good to be free, respected, and accepted, both me and my music, by a white man. But I knew the second I walked out the studio door, I knew it would be the same racist world that I lived in, that was just the way it was, what I was born into. I’m thankful the world has changed, I’ve seen so much change for the better. Better for the music and better for me, too, and that’s the truth. Now it makes me feel that all the bumps and bruises was worth it.

Of course, after you cut those tracks with Sun, you hooked up with Muddy Waters and played in his band for over a decade, which is a whole other story! Focusing on Sun though, looking back, how important was what Sam Phillips was doing? How important for the blues was his work, was Sun Records?

It was very important, not only to me, but what Sam did for music history. The four songs I recorded got me out of the cotton fields and made me known to the people as a real musician, even though I just a kid. Real musicians make records. I recorded at Sun Records before Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. We all know the Sam Phillips story and what he did with that little record company and his big dream. Sam started with the blues. Willie Dixon nailed it, “The blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.” That’s what Sam did.

You’re one of the (if not the) last remaining blues artists who recorded on Sun – you must be immensely proud of not only what the label was able to achieve, but what you were able to achieve during those years (not to mention the years until now).

Of course, I feel good to still be around. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of my career. I started out a little boy wearing overalls, walking barefoot down a dirt road, blowing my harp. I’ve traveled the world with my harp over and over and I’m so thankful for that. Life has been good to me. My fans are part of my family, I mean that. I have played many countries, but one I have not played is Australia. I know this is an Australian magazine, I’d like to play for the people of Australia.

Just lastly, you’re about to release a new album on Alligator Records, which is fantastic – as Bruce Iglauer (Alligator) says, how many Sun artists from 1954 are still recording? Tell me briefly about this new release – how does an artist like yourself, who’s been making blues records for over fifty years, go about doing so in 2013? And for the sake of comparison, what’s it like making a record today, compared to back in 1954 at Sun?

Well, the first thing is there wasn’t a 51 Goldcrest beer box turned upside down for a snare drum on my new CD, Cotton Mouth Man! Nowadays, recording is technically much easier, but that doesn’t change my feeling for the music. That’s what it is all about, feeling. If I don’t feel it, I can’t play it. I’m serious about that.

Cotton Mouth Man is very different from any other record I’ve ever made, it’s got lots of new songs we wrote about my life. I even wrote one about Bonnie Blue, the plantation I grew up on in Mississippi. All the songs are originals except for one. I think people will learn a lot about my life when they listen to the words. I wrote liner notes for it too, telling people how we came about making it and thanking everyone who helped me put it together.

My producer is Tom Hambridge, who also played drums. Some of my favorite musicians and singers are the guests: Gregg Allman, Joe Bonamassa, Ruthie Foster, Warren Haynes, Delbert McClinton and Keb’ Mo’. We’ve got Chuck Leavell on keyboards and Colin Linden on Resonator. We also had Rob McNelley on guitar, Glenn Worf on upright bass, and Tommy McDonald on bass. My band members, who’ve been with me for many years now – singer Darrell Nulisch, Tom Holland on guitar, Noel Neal on bass, and Jerry Porter on drums – are on the record too. I was fortunate to have all these good people who are great musicians, come together to make this record with me. I hope everyone who listens to it feels it. I know I sure did!

Cotton Mouth Man is available through Alligator Records.

Hat Fitz & Cara

[Published in the January/February issue of Rhythms magazine]


With their fourth album together, HAT FITZ & CARA have produced their best work yet, a near perfect melding of gospel, soul and blues, writes SAMUEL J. FELL

Sunday morning at Mullum Fest. It’s been a stellar couple of days so far, music abounding, booming from pubs and halls up and down the usually languid streets of this small, Byron hinterland country berg. The place is full to bursting, the ninth time this little gem of a festival has run, the colour and vibrancy that always defines Mullumbimby (albeit quietly), accentuated as people flock to one of the best little events this area has to offer.

I’m sitting in the Rock ‘n’ Roll café, just down an alleyway off the main drag. It’s full, people breakfasting late, fuelling up for the final day of music and culture so prevalent here, regardless of whether it’s festival weekend or not. The place hums and bustles, wait-staff toing and froing with coffee and bacon, eggs and avocado, the usual morning fare. The sun is out and it washes through the high windows, bathes the scene in early summer light and warmth.

Opposite me sit Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson. They have breakfast on the table in front of them, half empty green smoothie looking things, and as you’d expect, they’re exactly the same offstage as they are on it. Hat leans back, ubiquitous work shirt and stubbies, thongs, an old cap atop his head, long beard framing his face. Cara is dressed nice, stylish, glasses and hair just so. They seem, at a glance, an odd couple, but they’re a perfect couple. One listen to their music and you know that for a fact.

I’d caught the tail-end of their set the previous evening, over at the High School. They’d easily filled the gargantuan space with their simple-yet-powerful music, building off a blues base and soaring ever higher, incorporating elements of gospel and soul these days; true happy music with a crunch and grind behind it, enough to add the requisite grit and grime one needs when one is playing music like this and it needs to be real. Raw.

This defines their latest release too, After The Rain, their fourth album together and perhaps their best. Both players, Fitz in particular, are known as blues players, but this record is so much more. Yes, of course the blues is where it’s based, but it’s used as a foundation as opposed to a definition. After The Rain is a solid, considered affair, a musical adventure, one set to paint these two as far more than mere blues players.

“We just fuck around, and shit happens,” offers Fitz with trademark candour when asked where the genre-bending that defines this album, comes from. “I don’t play nothing I don’t like. Cara plays a lot of old soul records, which has got in the back of my head over the years, and so it’s starting to come out a bit.”

“It’s hard to get that sound with the two of us, normally [it’s played by] an eight or 12-piece band,” he goes on, referencing the soul feel the record carries in spades. “So we’re just getting our own little version of it. Absolutely not looking to find a sound, it’s just, ‘Listen to this, how cool’s that?’”

After The Rain came together then, with little planning. It’s organic in that the pair spent a good deal of time jamming, obviously influenced by sounds they’ve been listening to, obviously incorporating sounds they’ve known all their lives, and so songs began to drip out, bit by bit.

“We’d take the boat out on the lakes, then come back and just play for, like, five hours,” Robinson says on how it all slowly unfolded. “We’d record what we played, and you know… there’s stuff that sticks. And the gospel influences, we’ll pick up these albums along the road like Dorothy Love-Coates, Mahalia Jackson, and a lot of stuff that’s raw, where they’re just in a church clapping and singing, just a guitar, which is amazing.

“I guess we are going for that energy, that real simple… I don’t think anyone is doing that, other than being in a church. And that’s not why we’re doing it, we’re doing it because it makes us feel good, you know?”

Hat, at this point, leans forward and interjects with, “It’s interesting, a white guy from Australia, a white woman from Ireland, playing black American music.” Cara laughs in agreement: “We’ve never been in a church in our lives!”

Listening to the album’s opening track, ‘Going Home’, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Not that the song has religious connotation, but the way in which it’s delivered is definitely very spiritual. It builds from a languid, fuzzy guitar line, courtesy of Fitz, which marries subtly with Robinson’s simple drum beat. Over the top then is Robinson’s voice, which rides the groove bareback, lilting up and down, before, towards the end of the song, breaking out in joyous harmony with Fitz’s gruffer vocal into a true gospel refrain, the blues coming to the fore briefly before the song finishes up.

It’s very powerful, even more so given there are only two of them, and it’s a fine pointer as to what the rest of After The Rain holds.

“I wanted to get back to the basics, stripped down and raw,” says Fitz when I ask what the pair’s MO was with the record. “I like singing backup vocals to Cara, try and get that Aussie, growly backup thing, which is quite unique. I just wanted to get back to basics, that’s all I wanted.”

They’ve achieved this for sure – it’s just the two of them for a start, along with a subtle smattering of trombone and trumpet, courtesy of David Stephenson, on the title track, and so the songs are indeed stripped and bare. This doesn’t detract from the power though – while the songs are, as Fitz says, back to basics, they resonate with a quiet power, which comes from both the music itself, as well as the lyrical content contained within.

“With this album, we still wanted to keep the energy up, but we wanted to tell the story – this is what’s going on,” Robinson says. “We’re looking for things that move you. As a writer, you’re constantly collecting lots of information… and you hear other artists, like Suzannah Espie (who is also playing at the festival), when she sings that song about her sister, ‘I Wish I Had A Sister’, what’s the line? ‘I wish you knew that you were my favourite work of art’. It’s like, fucking hell, it just jumps out at you, and you go, ‘Keeping that, that’s good’, and you’re inspired by that.”

Both also put the quiet power down to fine producing, citing Govinda Doyle in this instance, who worked on the album with them. The bulk though, comes from the two of them and their playing. The blues comes through on tracks like ‘Doing It Again’, ‘Tank Man’ and ‘Won’t Bow Down’, while it’s all soul and gospel on ‘Going Home’, ‘Try’ and closer, ‘Keep’n On’. And, of course, it all melds together effortlessly. This isn’t a blues album, a gospel album, or a soul album – no, it’s a Hat Fitz & Cara album.

“It takes you a while to find yourself, we’re from two completely different backgrounds, it’s taken a while to mould it together, you know?” says Fitz.

“It’s a wonder it works,” laughs Robinson. “Sometimes we’re like, ‘How does this work?’ After seven years though, maybe we’re getting a system.”

Whatever the system is, whatever the method, however it all comes together, it’s working. After The Rain is a fine example of the depth and quality of roots music coming out of this country, executed by two of our finest players – long may that continue.

After The Rain is available now through MGM Distribution.

ALBUM – The Rolling Stones

[Published in Rhythms magazine, January/February 2017]

The Rolling Stones
Blues & Lonesome

A few years ago I read with great interest Keith Richards’ biography. The most fascinating parts, to me anyway, were his descriptions of the origins of The Rolling Stones, and the blues music that so fuelled their desire to play – it’s this music then (and as much the ethos behind it, as the music itself), that informs their latest studio record, which is of course, a record of blues covers.

If you want any band in the world covering the blues, The Stones have got to be one of them, and with Blue & Lonesome, you’re not wont to be disappointed. There’s nothing new or ground-breaking here, just a bunch of guys having the time of their lives as they belt out a set of scorching blues tunes with the passion and purity one would expect. But that’s what’s so good about it – the reverence they all display is palpable, and this in itself makes this a quality set. Jagger’s voice and harmonica are on point, urgent and powerful, with some fine-as-hell guitar in there too, courtesy of Richards and Ronnie Wood. This is a good listen, and to my mind, the best thing The Stones have done in an age.

Samuel J. Fell

Stars & Hype Reviewed In Rhythms Magazine

A review of Stars & Hype: First Time Notes On The American Deep South has been published in the January / February issue of Australian roots music bible, Rhythms magazine.

Written by legendary Australian journo Michael Smith, the review goes in-depth, and make comment on not just the work in question, but also the “paradoxes that combine to make America what it is.” See below for the full review.