What Came Out Of BigSound

[An alternate version of this story ran on Crikey, Friday September 13, 2013 – click here]


Fortitude Valley, Brisbane

September 10-13, 2013

Sitting on the bus into Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley for the final night of BigSound – Australia’s reasonably modest answer to the behemoth that is Austin, Texas, music industry shindig South By South West – I find myself savouring the calm.

It’s early evening on a Thursday, traditionally a day to let loose, to get a jump on the upcoming weekend, but it’s been a long few days and so I’m enjoying the relative quiet; the hum of the engine, the gentle forward motion, the space, the solitude.

It’s short-lived though. “Last stop before the city,” yells the driver, a pork barrel of a man in navy blue shorts, neck like a ham, and so I’m ejected onto the sidewalk at the corner of Ann and Brunswick and the calm is all but a distant memory.

For this is the Valley, where the city’s drunken elite meld all too easily with the barrel bottom, a place that used to house the bohemian element, before rapid, and rampant, development had them fleeing across the river to the relative safety of hippie haven, West End.

The music still resides in back alleys though, upstairs in odd warehouse spaces, boutique venues still thriving and so it’s the ideal place for BigSound, this year running for the 12th time, a three day conference that brings all involved in music in this country, and beyond, together to nut out problems faced by an ever-shrinking industry, to collaborate in order to overcome barriers to growth, to find the ‘next big thing’, to talk.

Idle talk, big talk, small talk, chit chat, back chat, talk back. It’s all about the talk – to paraphrase from ‘79 sci-fi flick Alien, at BigSound, no one can hear you scream. Because they’re all too busy talking. It’s a tsunami and it washes over you leaving you battered, bruised ear drums, craving silence. I long for the bus.

“It’s about connecting people,” says Executive Programmer Graham Ashton, this year being his last BigSound at the helm. Given it’s late on the Thursday, he’s sufficiently relaxed. “People come from all over the world… [BigSound] is about making connections.”

Networking, they call it. It’s happening all around us, standing as we are in the dingy smokers area out the back of what was once Mustang Bar, people with sky-blue lanyards talking shop. Or perhaps, given the hour, shit.

During the day, over the past three days, BigSound is a mild-mannered conference, comprising panel discussions like The Future Of Australian MusicIndie Labels 2013 StyleTouring Tips & The Live Music Environment, along with a plethora of In Conversations.

By night however, it’s like this; there are over 120 bands playing over two nights this year, and so music flows, as does the hooch, and an environment like this is fostered, where people spill outside in between songs to network. To connect.

“There are no rules to this,” Ashton says after a bit of thought. “That’s why music is so exciting. Every band is different, every idea is different, there are no rules. One thing though, [BigSound] isn’t education, it’s inspiration.”

The inspiration for most comes in the form of the music itself – scungy rock ‘n’ roll bands, thundering country, lilting folk and pogo pop, for this is why we’re all here. Whether it’s Billy Bragg or Robert Forster playing Bakery Lane to a full house, or some young quintet out of Melbourne playing an early slot to an almost empty room, the entire place throbs with not only literal sound, but with an inspired energy. People are excited, they want to share, and so connections are made, as they should be.

It’s not all beer and skittles however. One of the reasons events like this exist is to talk about what’s not going right, about how to change same, how to better the industry and to help all those who work within.

In typical fashion, during the The Future Of Australian Music discussion, outspoken promoter and label head Michael Chugg lashes out at commercial radio’s local music quotas, saying, “The quota’s far too low and they take advantage of late night… running tracks from midnight to dawn. They’ll deny it, but it’s true… It’s bullshit, and it’s holding the industry back.”

At the Byron Bay Bluesfest showcase at lunchtime on Wednesday, festival director Peter Noble attacks on a different front, saying in front of a large crowd, “I don’t want to criticise [politicians], but they’ve got to emulate,” referencing the lack of support the Australian government offers its musicians compared to their Canadian counterparts.

Perhaps he should have had a word in Wayne Swan’s ear, although the ex-Treasurer seemed far more preoccupied with UK punk poet Billy Bragg, seen at both his show and his keynote speech, tweeting later about the latter, “A really engaging discussion by Billy Bragg… about the power of music and the purpose of politics…”

It’s a shame Bragg wasn’t around a few months ago to give the same talk to the crumbling Labor party, but I digress.

So it remains to be seen what comes out of BigSound this year, at least in terms of solid, lasting, effective change. If you were to just buy a ticket to the music side of things, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that music in Australia is alive and well, and it is, without a doubt.

A new government though, not one renowned for generous arts funding, will have an impact, but as the dust still settles, people nursing final night hangovers, it seems inspirations and connection, the initial aims of BigSound, have been achieved. There is, however, still a lot to talk about.

Samuel J. Fell

American Deep South Vol. 4 – Nashville, Tennessee

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

Having spent a good deal of my younger adult years living in the hip and cool bustle of Melbourne’s inner north, coupled with the fact that it doesn’t take much to convince me to throw on my old cowboy boots and tap my leather-shod feet to some tonkin’ country/blues, for me Nashville was like coming home.

We based ourselves in East Nashville (thank you AirBnB), an area of town that over the past five or six years has blossomed from a working class neighbourhood into a tight-knit community of young families and single twenty-somethings, renovated little cottages on tree-lined streets and, of course, a thriving venue, restaurant, food truck and music scene.

It should be noted that East Nashville is hip as hell. I felt on many occasions over the five days we were there, trolling the bars and eateries, that my moustache wasn’t twirly enough (or at all), my skinny jeans weren’t skinny enough, and at 35 with no kids, I was far too old. We dove right in, none the less.

Before we got down to exploring however, there were a couple of bucket-list items which needed ticking off, two things which stem from the same place, but which couldn’t be further apart.

Our first night in town we head twenty minutes out from downtown to the Bluebird Café, that songwriter’s mecca, a tiny little place that for thirty-three years has acted as both a sounding and spring board for countless singer-songwriters, something Nashville has in abundance.

A non-descript little place, located in a strip mall between two hair salons, the Bluebird is an institution. It only seats a hundred people, and seven nights a week presents an early and a late set. Tickets for the week’s shows go on sale on the Monday morning, and most are sold out within the hour. People line up outside a couple of hours or so before showtime, hoping to grab one of the last few seats not sold online, or snap up any that have been reserved but that no one has turned up to claim.

Songwriters In The Row

We catch the early show, a Songwriters In The Row session, featuring four local singer-songwriters – Jesse Terry, Michaela Anne, Alex Wong and Lizanne Knot – each playing a song, passing the baton down the line. It’s a fascinating way to assess music, each player exhibiting a different style, each player bringing their own strengths and weaknesses to the table. It’s a listening room, so people are quiet, respectful. This is where people get their start, and it’s exciting to be in a room that holds so much history.

Speaking of history, and in direct contrast to the Bluebird, our second night in town we deck ourselves out in our most outlandish country-wear (including the dark cherry red boots I bought from a second hand joint in Austin), and head to the country music hub of the universe, The Grand Ole Opry. Both the Bluebird and the Opry are, fundamentally, about country music. But they could not possibly be more different.

Where the Bluebird is a quiet listening room, the Opry is big, bold, loud, brash, AMERICA. It’s such a blatant change, we can’t help but sit through the show with big grins plastered over our faces at the pure and un-ironic fanfare of it all. It truly is an experience, one I can’t recommend highly enough, no matter what strain of country music you’re into.

The Grand Ole Opry, of course, began as a radio show in the mid-‘20s, which makes it the longest running radio program in history. It gained popularity quickly back then, becoming a four-hour program featuring any number of traditional performers, moving in 1943 to the Ryman Auditorium, before settling at its current home, The Grand Ole Opry House, in 1974. The House was seriously flooded five years ago, but it’s been restored to its glittering best.

We’re treated to a number of musical acts over the two hours, from the glitz and glam of modern, contemporary country – The Willis Clan (a troupe of eleven brothers and sisters who I believe were on America’s Got Talent last year); John Rich; and Brad Paisley – to some serious old school country talent from the likes of Jesse McReynolds and the Charlie Daniels Band.

The former group are fine at what they do, but are hardly my cup of tea. McReynolds though, with his group behind him, huddled around the one mic playing the sweetest bluegrass you’ll find anywhere replete with perfect vocal harmonies, was astounding. As was Charlie Daniels and his band – man, their version of ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’ was incendiary, Daniels himself on fiddle, he almost set it alight, went through at least two bows during the course of the song – magical stuff.

The biggest crowd response went to Paisley, this is the modern day Opry after all, but as a whole, this was some serious entertainment, something you just don’t see over here. We were taken backstage afterwards for a tour too, which is recommended if you’re after the history of the place. We headed back to HQ and sat out the back with a couple of beers to debrief – epic stuff indeed.

A good deal of the rest of our stay in Music City was spent exploring both East Nashville and The Gulch, an area just out of downtown that used to be an industrial hub, but which has now been gentrified and is home to craft breweries, artisan distilleries, quirky shops and a myriad music venues.

We stayed well clear of Broadway, Nashville’s equivalent of Bourbon and Beale, preferring instead the more downhome style East Nashville offers in spades. There ain’t no problem finding good eats in Nashville – The Pharmacy on the edge of EN laid down some serious gourmet burgers; Pomodoro some fine tapas (fancy mac ‘n’ cheese, good stuff); and Mas Tacos, man, you want good and quick Mexican in the mid-south, this is where you go. Most of these places have a daily happy hour too, good for cheap cocktails pre-dinner, along with any number of arty beers for a couple of bucks. I’m not much of a craft beer man myself, preferring a working man’s brew like Bud, Lone Star or Pabst (all basically as close to VB as I could get – I’m a classy guy), but when in Rome…

And of course, Nashville’s claim to culinary fame, hot chicken. And by hot, I mean spicy. As we head out on the last day, we stop in at Pepperfire, which is perhaps the most aptly named place we patronise all month. We decide it can’t be that hot and so get a serving of chicken tenders extra-hot, potato salad and beans on the side.

Big mistake – this was so hot, we couldn’t finish it. I tried hard, it tasted so good. But I feared permanent damage to my taste buds, and so had to leave some behind. Highly recommended, but note they don’t muck around with their spice levels – I’m still sweating.

Music venues, there’s a million of them. Just down from where we stay is the Five Points area, a five-way intersection stemming off Woodland Street which offers music in abundance. We have a beer at the Treehouse one night, no music, but we strike gold our final night in town.

The Basement East, a little further out from Five Points, looks like a bunker from the outside, but once through the doors, while it is a bit cavern-like, has the best sound I’ve heard all trip. We catch the last couple of songwriters showcasing their weekly spots (The Danberrys and another whose name I couldn’t catch), before the Sunday Post begins and it’s rock band time. We catch about five bands all up, for five dollars, few cold brews, not a band place.

From there, we stroll back Five-Pointsward and sidestep into The Five Spot. Now this place, with its sticky carpet, its dark back-alley ambience, its cheap beer and smoky beer garden, is my idea of heaven. The band playing the late slot are Heath Haynes and a rag-tag bunch of musos and they specialise in tonkin’ country/blues with a healthy appreciation for a rockabilly tangent – I’ve found my people.

We while away our last hours in Music City toe-tappin’ and Bud-drinkin’, reminiscing on all we’ve seen over the course of the past month. It wasn’t just cities, we road-tripped from New Orleans through Cajun country, followed the river up into Mississippi, stayed in Natchez, Jackson, Indianola, Clarksdale, and from Nashville headed to the Smokys for a few days prior to heading home. I can’t nominate a favourite place or part of the trip, but suffice to say, this was a pilgrimage, a savage journey to the heart of the American music. It was wild, it was free, it was untamed and loose and AMERICA. I’d recommend it to anyone.

American Deep South Vol. 3 – Memphis, Tennessee

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

I’ll preface this piece by saying that because of a tight schedule, we only spent two days in Memphis, which I can tell you isn’t nearly enough time to delve into the incredible history this Tennessean city is custodian to.

The birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll and soul music, and the conduit through which most southern blues passed on its way north to places like Chicago, Memphis is ground zero, truly a musical mecca, and a city which wears that tag with pride upon its collective sleeve.

Beale Street

Basing ourselves out of the upmarket Madison Hotel in downtown (a rock ‘n’ roll haven in itself, having hosted a plethora of touring acts from Radiohead to the Chili Peppers and all in between), we used what little time we had to hit three Memphis-specific areas – BBQ, museums and Beale Street. As one should.

Beale Street is similar to New Orleans’ Bourbon in that it’s a party strip, lined with a myriad bars and restaurants, all boasting live music and cheap beer – no matter we were there mid-week, Beale Street caters for all comers, seven nights, 365.

Proceedings begin in the beer garden section of Kings Palace Café where a family band – three brothers and a sister on vocals – are encouraging all to write their requests on “the back of a twenty dollar bill” and drop it in the bucket. Then they play it, their repertoire is extensive, and although they lack punch on the quieter numbers, they cook on the faster tunes.

From there we head east, plastic go-cup in tow, and take a seat in the Blues Hall, which is the juke joint section of the Rum Boogie Café. Billed as the last juke on the street, the Hall is a long, narrow room that essentially is as it sounds. We catch the McDaniel Band (all dressed in white pants and red shirts), who lay down a blistering set of Chicago-influenced blues, much to the delight of those wanting to dance – good stuff.

We wind it down by stepping into the Rum Boogie proper and sit in the pavement section and watch it all go by as The Lucky Losers pedal their suave brand of soul/blues inside. Memphis’ NBA team, the Grizzlies, have a game just around the corner at the FedEx Forum, and so foot traffic swells at around ten in the evening before tapering off leaving just the mid-week revelers. Good for people watching.

Earlier that evening, it’d been all about BBQ. Memphis is renowned for it, and acting on a hot tip, we headed down to Central BBQ for dinner, an easy stroll down Sth Main Street. This place is an institution, has won a slew of awards, and it’s easy to see why. We dig on the pork plate, potato salad and slaw, green beans and big cans of Pabst. It’s divine and I wish I had more stomachs so I could go back again and again.

Still on food, and food other than BBQ, our first night in town we were hosted at Eighty3, the restaurant attached to the Madison. I feel I must apologise to executive chef Max Hussey, who I’d met in the lobby earlier in the day, because by this stage of our trip, all I wanted was something simple and familiar and so I ordered steak frites. Most unadventurous.

The food was great though – the restaurant’s signature skillet cornbread, probably the best scallops I’ve ever eaten, a 12 ounce prime ribeye and, on the advice of the chef, deep-fried Oreo cookies and cream to finish it up. The lady behind the bar accidentally poured someone else a Maker’s Mark which they didn’t want, so she slung it over my way. They know how to look after a weary journo at the Madison and Eighty3, no doubt.

Wednesday day, prior to our Beale Street sojourn, was all about museums, and two in particular – the Civil Rights Museum, which is housed in and around the infamous Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968, and the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum off Beale.
The Civil Rights Museum, which essentially traces the history of the civil rights movement from the 17th century through to today, is hands down the most comprehensive and emotionally-charged museum I’ve ever been to. We were in there for three and a half hours and only covered a little over half, such is the depth it goes to, the history it covers.

It hits hard too, we left emotionally drained, the utter horror, fear and complete disregard for humanity reverberating in our minds – from slavery to segregation, Jim Crow, the Freedom Riders, marches to Selma and Montgomery, it’s incredible and more than a little sad. And yet there’s triumph in there too – the Civil Rights Museum covers it all, I will certainly be back to finish it off.

We head from there to Rock ‘n’ Soul, which by comparison seems lacklustre. It’s not, but perhaps don’t go and walk through straight after the Civil Rights. It does cover a lot of ground though, from the blues players heading north in the early part of the 20th century, the bustle of Beale Street at the time where players came to ‘make it’ (including Mr BB King), to the birth of soul and rock ‘n’ roll over at Sun Studios. It’s only a small museum, but it does a good job of keeping things precise, giving you a nice overview from which you can then explore in more depth by heading to Sun or Stax or one of the many other musical museums in town.

Speaking of the former, on our way out of town on the Thursday morning, we make the detour and stop in at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios, a little way out of downtown, along Union Avenue. Writing this a couple of weeks later, at the end of a five week trip through the deep south, I can say that Sun was my favourite place of all.

It looks like nothing, from the inside and out. A small, non-descript building with a little diner / gift shop in the front, a tiny museum upstairs and a recording studio out the back, it could just be some dive somewhere. It looks old, tired, bland, particularly the studio.

But it’s not. It throbs with an intensity. It positively shakes with history. It leaks it all over you.

I stand on the same black gaffa ‘x’ on the floor where Elvis stood when, in a desperate last-ditch effort to get Phillips’ attention, he started strumming Arthur Crudup’s ‘That’s Alright Mama’, in that fashion that essentially started rock ‘n’ roll. I see the cigar burn on the lower E key on the piano, from Jerry Lee Lewis’ cigar. There’s a giant photo on the wall of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Lewis and Johnny Cash, all in the studio at the same time, just hanging out. It happened just over there, on those nondescript plastic floor tiles, the same ones that Phillips laid himself.

The place is magic, pure magic.

And so our short stay in Memphis comes to an end. There’s so much more to see in a city that’s full to the brim with musical history, and I’ll definitely be back. If you’re in any way partial to basically any music whatsoever, then I suggest you do the same.


Samuel J. Fell stayed at the Madison Hotel courtesy of the Memphis Convention & Visitor’s Bureau and the Madison Hotel. He was hosted at Eighty3 by the Memphis C&VB and Eighty3. Passes to all museums were courtesy of the Memphis C&VB and the respective museums. Thanks to all organisations for their help and hospitality.

American Deep South Vol. 2 – New Orleans, Louisiana

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

New Orleans is a city of stark juxtaposition. Home to the bawdy and loose French Quarter, where good-time bad behaviour is merely a part of the make up, step outside the European styled buildings aligning narrow streets, and you find neighbourhoods the complete antithesis.

Wide, flat roads and tired looking houses, run down cars and shops with boarded windows. It’s confronting in many respects, and seems like a different city from a different time, compared to the more gentrified areas scattered about the Big Easy, one of America’s most famous towns.

New Orleans has a pride in itself though, and not the big and loud pride you’ll find in Texas, but an understated pride. It’s a feeling in the air, unmistakable – the city has suffered its fair share of injustices, and yet its people soldier on, determined to keep living in a city known for living like no other.

We’re there for four nights, the first two spent in a room in a small house in the Faubourg Marigny district, slightly east of the Quarter, just over the Mississippi River from Algiers Point. It’s an ‘up and coming area’, home to a growing population of bohemians and artists and amongst the auto shops and fast food joints, we find organic supermarkets, yoga studios and the booming St. Roch Market, a small building boasting a myriad artisan food stalls and bars. We’re there for lunch one day, I have the BBQ’d pork belly Po’ Boy, an upscale version of a Louisiana classic.

We’re only a five minute walk from the top of Frenchmen Street, and this is where New Orleans comes into its own. Just outside the Quarter, Frenchmen’s, in comparison to Bourbon Street, is a strip lined with bar upon bar where the focus is squarely on the music, as opposed to the drink. Sure, in any bar on Frenchmen you can tip your beer into a plastic go-cup and wander down to the next joint as you can on Bourbon, but the crowd here is a music crowd and so while loud and loose, it’s fun and friendly, conducive to good times, good music, good people.

We stop in at The Spotted Cat and watch Andy Forest blow some harp in between sips from a large cup of Maker’s Mark. We stroll south and sit outside Bamboulaswhere Chance Bushman’s Rhythm Stompers have everyone in thrall as they knock back five dollar margaritas. The band play a heady mix of rag-time blues and trad jazz, a fine way to ease into a Friday evening.

We wander further down Frenchmen onto Decatur Street, which leads into the Quarter proper, and find ourselves in the divey Aunt Tiki’s, a black hole of a bar open 24 hours a day, a clutch of regulars sitting down the front, dank and dark, a truly beautiful place where I feel completely at home, joking with the two bartenders (one of whom has had more to drink than I), sipping on Jack Daniels with Budweiser chasers, just soaking up a New Orleans Friday night.

We head back to Frenchmen’s at some point and end up at Café Negriland dig on the funk and soul of Higher Heights before calling it a night and heading home, marveling at a scene as alien as any we’d ever seen. It’s a street where you can spend a lot of time, and so we’re here the night after too, taking in as much music as possible, hopping from joint to joint, not a bad one among the lot – Frenchmen Street has a lot going for it, truly one of the best parts of New Orleans.

The French Quarter itself is indeed something to see. One of the most highly trafficked tourist spots in the world, it’s a place that never seems to stop. We wander through at around lunchtime and the place is heaving, people everywhere, most carrying a drink of some variety (whether merely a beer in a plastic cup, or a literal fishbowl of some questionable looking fluro liquid), the party atmosphere almost a physical being.

Bourbon in particular is happening, the smell of vomit and urine from the night before still very much on the nose, hawkers from the myriad bars on the pavement out the front, bands playing loud inside. We hurry through, not really our scene, and find refuge in Jackson Square in Louis Armstrong Park, just north of the action, where we can sit on the grass, read the plaques on the dozens of statues around the place, take it easy in a city where you get the feeling things don’t slow down, ever.

The second two nights in town, we stay at the Maison Dupuy on the northern edge of the Quarter. Built on the site of America’s first cotton press, it’s now a grand old dame of a hotel, a collection of five buildings grouped around a pool and courtyard, an old time opulence about it that makes it more endearing than high-end. We base ourselves there as we explore the rest of the Quarter, including the historic Voodoo MuseumCafé du Monde and the Hotel Monteleonewhich has a revolving carousel bar and serves up audacious cocktails and turns out to be a good spot to watch the more upscale Quarter clientele and watch the LSU game on the televisions about the wood-paneled room.

We spend our final day in town walking from the Quarter to the Garden district, over Canal Street and through the CBD, through the arty Warehouse district which opens up into one of the most genteel places in town, an area of big, old houses sitting on verdant grounds, ancient oak trees lining the pavement, their big old roots jutting through the concrete creating steps you have to navigate with care.

Many of the houses carry historic value, and it seems like we’re in another world, one that boasts an easy wealth, a long history and a casual attitude, tucked away from the grotesque action of the French Quarter, a quiet solitude. We wander through Lafayette Cemetery Number 1 too, soaking up the history and enjoying the serenity.

Our final night sees us at the rather impressive Royal Sonesta hotel on Bourbon, sitting in on The Tuxedo Jazz Band’s set at the Irvine Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse. These cats know their way around everything jazz, and despite the fact it’s a Monday night, they put their all into it, infusing it with a carefree and fun vibe that has the growing crowd getting into it, call and response, high-octane and velvet smooth. This is some real N’Awlins jazz, buy some real N’Awlins players, truly a solid set and a fantastic end to proceedings in The Big Easy, The Crescent City, N’Awlins, where the faint of heart fear to tread, and the rest of us stagger out, sated and full.

Speaking of full, it’d be remiss of me not to mention Gene’s Po’ Boys, where we stop on the way out of town. These are the real deal, giant sandwiches on French bread full to overflowing with roast beef, cheese and gravy. It’s a giant, sloppy mess and as I write this, around a month later, it’s still one of the best things I ate, hands down.


Samuel J. Fell stayed at the Maison Dupuy courtesy of the New Orleans Convention & Visitor’s Bureau and the Maison Dupuy. He was hosted at Irvine Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse by the New Orleans C&VB and the Royal Sonesta. Thanks to all organisations for their help and hospitality.

American Deep South Vol. 1 – Austin, Texas

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

By way of explanation – until now, I’d never been to the States. I’ve grown up listening to the music that was born here, I’ve grown up listening to music inspired by same. But I’ve never actually been able to get over here to sample it for myself.

Of course, thanks to the strong festival scene at home, I’ve seen a myriad acts from the US who themselves grew up listening to, and playing, the music of America – blues, jazz, bluegrass and country – but getting to the source has been uppermost on my mind ever since I started working at Rhythms, back in the early 2000s, doing things behind the scenes for Brian Wise.

He’d come back from New Orleans’ Jazz Fest, Austin’s ACL festival, a host of others, with stories I could only dream of. I almost got it together enough to head over in 2006, but Hurricane Katrina happened, and so that opportunity passed on. Until now, when my wife Claire and I made it a priority, and so headed over for five weeks to get amongst it, so to speak.

As such, what follows in four installments, are my thoughts and experiences on the four major music cities in the American south, beginning with the Live Music Capital of the World, Austin, Texas.


Austin is a hell of a town. Hot and flat, it sprawls over a vast area towards the eastern border of the state, an hours flight west of Houston. For a long time, it’s been known as a place where you can find live music any night of the week, a place overflowing with country talent, dark and dingy honky tonks, Tex Mex food by the truckload, dusty cowboy boots Texas Two-Stepping around polished concrete dance floors.

Salt Lick BBQ

It’s also known for its BBQ, and of course, we’re not talking the kind of BBQ we know here at home – throw a steak and a few snags on the barbie – but the slow smoked kind of BBQ… ribs, brisket, pulled pork and chicken; add in some ‘slaw, potato salad and beans, and you’ve got yourself a hell of a meal.

Staying with family, who have been living in Austin for a year or so and who know where to look, we head to the Salt Lick BBQ, about half an hour out of town. It’s on a big property which also has a tired looking vineyard on it, has a huge outdoor area where one can sit and indulge while listening to some music, set up over in the corner. You get out of the car in the dusty parking lot and you get hit by the smell straight up.

We get a mixed platter – brisket done three ways, pork ribs, sausage. The potato salad and ‘slaw are expected and just added onto the side, along with huge chunks of soft, white bread. You sit down and they plonk big styrofoam cups of ice water down on the table, which you need, and big tubs of house BBQ sauce. It’s an experience.

The lean brisket I don’t really care for – you need the fat on there to really get the flavour. The ribs are great though, the beer is cold, and despite the fact the guy in the corner with the guitar is playing pop covers, it’s a place I’d definitely recommend.

A few days later, we head a bit further south to stay with some friends in Lockhart. To be honest, Lockhart isn’t a place I’d recommend visiting, there’s not a lot going on, but it’s a town that has two things going for it – Black’s BBQ, and Mario’s Tacos. Blacks is a non-descript building in the downtown area that smokes the best brisket you’ll ever have. I get around the brisket sandwich, and as I write this, four weeks later, it is indeed the best BBQ I’ve had all trip. Cheap too.

Stubbs Gospel Brunch

As for Mario’s, Mario is a tiny Mexican guy with silver teeth who operates out of a clapped out old truck parked in the lot next to the local servo. He doesn’t speak any English, doesn’t follow any hygiene rules, but what he does do is make the best breakfast taco you’ve ever had in your life, for a dollar twenty-five. They’re pretty small and I could have eaten three, but I had one and I can still remember the taste. The green spicy sauce as an accompaniment is a must – great stuff.

A couple of nights before this, we’d hit La Caribe, a genuine Tex Mex joint on the northern edge of Austin. It looks like a bunker from the outside, and the ambience inside leaves a bit to be desired (fluro lighting, neon beer signs adorning every available inch of wall space), but their food is top notch. They also have margaritas which have a reputation for being the strongest in Austin – their slogan is that you can’t send them back. The waitress even warns you of this as you order. We order anyway, a good time is had by all.

In Austin on a Sunday? Get yourself down to the StubbsGospel Breakfast. Stubbs is an institution in Austin, a legendary music venue, and on Sunday mornings (you need to book), they host a massive buffet breakfast, while a top shelf gospel band hits top gear on the stage downstairs. I fill my plate with bacon, catfish, brisket and beans and tap my feet to the tunes channeling up the stairs. Unlimited coffee refills wash it all down – this is a must do.

As far as the music itself goes, we sample the gamut. I head down to Zilker Park for the second weekend of the Austin City Limits Festival (which you can read about here), three days I barely survive, mainly because of the heat – autumn hasn’t yet arrived in Texas. The absolute highlight for me however, came on our second night in town, courtesy of the world famous Broken Spoke.

The Spoke is a genuine tonk. It used to stand on its own on the outer edge of town, but as Austin has grown, at the whim of developers, it’s now sandwiched between two giant apartment blocks on South Lamar Boulevard, which is a shame, but which hasn’t done a damn thing to dilute its ethos, its appeal, its downright authenticity. It looks like it’ll fall down at any second, it smells odd and it’s grotty as hell, but it is one of the best music venues I’ve ever been to in my life.

We head in early to take advantage of the Texas Two-Step lesson, which runs for an hour and is hosted by a rough-as-guts Texan woman who ain’t taking no shit, but who guides us novices through our paces, and after an hour, we’re steppin’ around like we’ve been doing it for years (slight exaggeration). That done, Austin legend James Hand gets up with his band and the dancefloor is swamped. They play real country music, yee-haw, and the packed house loves it. This is just a downhome, red-dirt kinda place, an institution, the ‘last true dance hall in Texas’, a must for anyone with even a passing love of anything remotely linked to the Lone Star State.

Also recommended is the Continental Club on South Congress (a great little strip with a stack of restaurants, cafes, vintage stores and clubs), which plays anything from country to rock ‘n’ roll and everything in between. We catch a young band as we wander through one night, their name escapes me, but I’m reliably told by the guy on the door, that the old guy sitting in with them is a Grammy-winning pedal steel guitarist, who’s name I don’t catch. He’s good. The young guys, not so much.

Over at ABGBs (Austin Beer Garden Brewery), we sip on a myriad of their homemade brews and catch a set from a local band called Girl Pilot, who infuse a good dose of well-written pop music into the country mold, a trio who I imagine would slay it on Triple J. Good stuff, something a little different.

A mate of mine, CR Humphrey of Old Gray Mule fame, who lives down in Lockhart, takes us out one night (including to La Caribe), and we end up at King Bees on the rough east side of town (best not to walk around there by yourself after dark…), where we catch about half of The Little Jimmy Reed Band, who take a few songs to warm up but then settle in to a blistering set of Chicago-influenced blues. It’s good and loud, the Lone Star beer is two dollars and all is well. Austin is a fine town, you certainly need more than a week or so to fully explore…

Crowded Solitude No Place For New Year’s Resolve

[Published in the NEWS REVIEW section of The Sydney Morning Herald, January 09/2016]

Around a year ago, I took up running. Most mornings, around seven o’clock, I’d rise and don the appropriate footwear, shorts and a t-shirt, and I’d head out, do a few stretches then jog my way down the road, do a few laps of the local oval, jog back. Nothing too intense, just some early morning cardio to justify the smoking and drinking that accompanies my profession like the smell of damp undergrowth does a tropical summer storm.

The timing for this burst of exercise was purely coincidental. The fact it was early January had little to do with it, far less so than my rapidly expanding mid-section, far too used to the relatively small amount of exercise I’d been doing previously; as was gently pointed out to me by my better half, I needed to step it up somewhat, and so I started running. I hate it and am not a natural runner, but I began none the less.

I kept at it too, which is something of which I’m reasonably proud, and so this protuberance I’d been carrying around gradually shrank. Or at least, for the most part, didn’t get any bigger.

So here I am now, a year or so later, and I rise early and head out for the first run of the year, looking to get the heart-rate up and begin to shed some of the excess that has accumulated over the festive season. It’s a cool morning, rain on the horizon, but light and brisk, birdsong etc. It’s a lovely time of day, solitary and still, which is what I need in order to keep this momentum going – it won’t work if there are multiple spectators.

But here’s something I’d forgotten from when I first began last January. It’s January. People are fresh off boozy New Year celebrations, weeks (perhaps months) of eating and drinking and making merry. They’re bloated and fat, over-ripe and ready to pop. And so they think to themselves, ‘I need to get some exercise happening, my New Year resolution, I will get slim, I will exercise daily’.

And so, as I set out on my first run of the year, a hoary old veteran of such sweat-stained dealings, I have an audience. Multiple walkers and runners, around every bend, every turn in the path, as I emerge from the bush track into the wide open spaces afforded by the cricket oval, there are people everywhere, undertaking some form of January-induced exercise, sweating and wheezing in my previously quiet and solitary morn.

‘What fresh hell is this?’, I mutter to myself in a fit of self-righteous pique, albeit a slightly out of breath one. ‘Where have these people come from and how dare they encroach upon my carefully choreographed morning custom’. I carry on however, side-stepping middle-aged men with fat and droopy dogs in tow, finish my course and head, dripping with outraged sweat, for the shower.

Of course, I have no right to be grumpy; these roads and paths are as much anyone else’s as they are mine. As well, the early hour, before the world properly wakes up, belongs as much to a well-intentioned first-time dog walker as it does to anyone who’s risen early these 12 months past. Or longer, for that matter.

I have no ill will toward anyone wanting to better themselves, and I certainly don’t hold myself in higher esteem merely because I stuck with something (to be honest, the main reason I didn’t stop running, is because of how much I do like to drink and smoke…). I do like my solitude and space however, particularly when engaging in an exercise I utterly abhor and so don’t want anyone to witness.

Oh my quiet paths, my empty oval, the birdsong sung just for me. How I yearn for you, even after only a day. Go to the gym you lot, leave me to my hobbled jogging, my fractured running, my uneven-gaited perambulations. I admire your intentions, I doff my cap to your will power and I salute your resolve. Just do it somewhere else and leave me to stagger around in peace, trying to keep my gut in check, lifting the heart-rate and shedding the excess in my own, solitary way.

Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – Jordie Lane

[Published in Rolling Stone, October 2016]

Jordie Lane & The Sleepers


Blood Thinner Records / MGM

It’s been a while between drinks for Jordie Lane, but as his new studio effort attests, he’s not lost anything in the interim. GLASSELLLAND is Lane in vintage form, his strong and warm voice framing a set of songs astounding in their intricate telling of everyday tales in such a way as to make them relatable to most anyone.

Teaming up with now long-time collaborator Clare Reynolds, the pair play all instruments on this one, Lane’s trademark Americana/folk still very much the focus but now with a pop nous (think Beatles, circa Rubber Soul) that adds a new dimension to a sound already brimming with diversity and sonic flavour. This album is strong and assured, yet another stellar release.


Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – Matt Malone

[Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, July 08/2016]

Matt Malone


Heart Of The Rat Records 

A “unique fusion of the traditional and avant-garde” is how Matt Malone’s debut album is described, and for once it’s not merely publicity hot air. Stripped and bare in the outlaw country tradition but with the menace and slow stabbing guitar of a Rowland S Howard special, S.I.X is all doom and gloom, sometimes whispered sometimes bursting from Malone’s throat all spittle and bile. He’s not afraid of space, of shimmer, of spotlighting his wavering, slightly grotesque wail.

The Beast, an eleven minute epic, chugs along slowly courtesy of the acoustic guitar riff while electric shimmers paint the background black as Malone intones over the top, his voice the instrument bringing the song to its couple of climaxes. Haunting backing vocals. The song seems to stop a couple of times in the middle but then rebirths and carries on. Maldoror begins with the crackling of a low fire, builds slowly, Malone’s vocal ragged as old cloth, building to an electric fuzz. Revelation Law is perhaps the most country song on the record, but it’s fractured and broken, somehow rebuilt into something which makes an eerie sense. Which is an apt way to describe the entire record – dissonant, cracked, haunted. Fantastic.


Samuel J. Fell

Shooting Stars

[Published in The Saturday PaperNovember 19/2016]

Amateur astrophotographers are more than just hobbyists, writes Samuel J. Fell. Their backyard observations and images are welcomed by the likes of NASA as important contributions to astronomy.


It’s a balmy, late spring Saturday evening in Byron Bay. Dusk is steadily descending and across the way, in town proper, people are gearing up for another big night in one of the country’s most noted party spots. Here in Belongil though, a satellite suburb off to the side of the Arts & Industrial Estate, just out of the CBD, things are quieter. It’s a peaceful part of Byron, where the locals live, where young families have set up. There are kids riding bikes on the street, people are lounging on verandahs in surrounding backyards, talking and laughing in the soft, gathering gloom.

In Dylan O’Donnell’s backyard though, there’s no laughing or lounging, and there’s certainly no party. There’s not enough room, for a start. A good portion of the small area behind his little townhouse is taken up by a large, homemade observatory. Large relative to the space, anyway.

Its plastic domed roof is half open, and from the cavity within protrudes a large black and white telescope, pointed skyward. O’Donnell himself is in there too, contorted somewhat due to the space restrictions, attaching plugs and adapters, running cables to a large computer monitor set up to the side, which projects an image of the waxing half moon, via the telescope, easily visible to the naked eye in the darkening sky.

O’Donnell, 37, is an IT professional by day, but over the past couple of years, come nightfall, he leaves that behind him and dons his hobby hat – that of an Astro photographer, and a noted one at that. His images of various parts of the night sky have twice been featured on US space agency NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day site (which, incidentally, is one of the oldest websites on the internet); as the European Space Agency’s Image of the Week; on the websites of Time and National Geographic magazines; and a couple of days prior to our chat, he’d found out another image of his was to be used on the ESA’s annual Christmas card. For an amateur Astro photographer, O’Donnell is no minnow.

“When you look up at the stars, really, it’s darkness, you’ll just see points of light in the sky,” he says on what the appeal of this hobby is to him. “And when you get a telescope, you don’t see much more; you look through the eye-piece, you might see a smudge of a nebula. But when you stick a camera on it, and do an exposure for five minutes, and then do thirty of those and stack them all together and [then] tweak the dials in the software, suddenly what was just a black patch of space, becomes this magnificent cloud of dust and gas and glowing emissions that you couldn’t see before.”

“I get the photos back and I can’t believe this is just hovering above my house,” he adds with a laugh. “And I can’t see it with my own eyes, but I can reveal it with these cameras and this technology.”

O’Donnell is one of many ‘backyarders’ dotted all over the globe. Amateur astronomy, along with amateur Astro photography, while a relative niche, is a growing area of astronomy as a whole, particularly in America. As he explains, in Australia at a star party (a gathering of like-minded hobbyists), you might mingle with a hundred or so people, but one in Florida for example, would draw thousands. “It’s like being at a rock concert,” he laughs. “There are ovals of people, and there are telescopes everywhere.”

O’Donnell came into this hobby initially as a way to quit smoking. A number of years ago, when his rent was raised and he didn’t want to pay the extra, he lived instead for six months in the back of his 4WD, working as a Unix Systems Administrator by day, and camping by night. “My strategy for [quitting smoking] was, I’ll buy myself an expensive digital camera… and every time I feel like a cigarette, I’m just gonna take photos,” he explains.

“So I had this thing in my hands to distract me from the reflex of smoking. And in that six months, I was waking up with waterfalls, I was outside under the stars, I was in these amazing locations with rocks and forests and wildlife, I was doing a lot of wildlife photography. I really cut my teeth there.”

The marriage between photography and astronomy came a few years ago, when O’Donnell bought his first telescope, inspired by a US trip. “That was a really spur of the moment thing,” he explains. “I’d gotten back from NASA, I’d gone over there for a visit, it was a lifelong dream to go and visit NASA and see the space shuttle. I came back really energised, and it’s such a wonderful part of modern human history, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna buy a telescope.’

“So I paid a thousand dollars and got myself what I thought, back then, [was] the bee’s knees, this is gonna take me ages to figure out… but a month later, I was telling [my wife], I need to buy a new telescope. I need this other one, and this other mount… I think I’m about 30k in the hole now, all up, with the observatory, structure, telescopes, cameras, the computers. So it’s not a cheap hobby.”

While not a cheap hobby, it’s becoming an incredibly important one. Backyarders like O’Donnell, citizen scientists, are these days playing a large part in astronomy as a whole. Indeed, astronomy is the only remaining science where an individual, and an amateur one at that, can meaningfully contribute in a way that enhances the overall body of knowledge in a specific field. So much so, that serious backyarders are now relied upon by the world’s largest space agencies like the ESA and NASA.

“The exploration of the solar system and beyond is a wondrous journey that’s meant to be shared by all, and NASA values and encourages the contributions of students, citizen scientists and stargazers,” concurs Dr. Jim Green, the Director of Planetary Science at NASA, via email. “Whether it’s searching for asteroids, processing photos from our Juno mission to Jupiter, or capturing the beauty of the night sky, all contribute to our understanding of the universe and help inspire future generations.”

Pic by Dylan O’Donnell (T: @erfmufn)

“Astronomy in general is buoyed by the amateurs because no one can look everywhere in the sky all at once, particularly at high magnification,” O’Donnell expands. “At any given time there are people like me with their telescopes trained on certain parts of the sky… there might be groups of people doing supernova surveys, where they swing over and shoot fifty galaxies every night, then they compare those photos to a control set of photos of those galaxies.

“They’ll literally blink them on and off and do a subtraction, subtract one from the other, and see if anything has changed. Sometimes they’ll notice stars have exploded, so suddenly there’s a big, bright patch in this galaxy, and then they report that back to scientific groups, and those scientific groups confirm it with their own telescopes, and then if it’s big enough, NASA will say, ‘We need to point Hubble there, it’s time-critical, stop whatever you’re doing, swing over, take a photo, confirm the discovery’. And that happens on a very regular basis.”

Night has properly descended on Byron and so the two of us are huddled in O’Donnell’s small observatory as he tries to zero his telescope onto a particular spot, high above us. It’s not going well however – there’s some high cloud about, and the wind has picked up, playing havoc with the sensitive equipment. He’d hoped to take shots of the Triangulum Galaxy, but it looks like tonight won’t be the night.

He shows me instead a number of images he’s taken recently. It near boggles the mind to think that what he’s produced, thanks to his arsenal of modern technology, is a picture of what is directly above us, and yet can’t be seen with the naked eye. The colours are astounding, the detail incredible. He’s helped immeasurably by the fact there is very little light pollution in this part of the world, but you can easily see how well he’s married art and technology to create images of great beauty.

There is, of course, a lot going on above our heads. And it’s thanks to citizen scientists like O’Donnell, that large parts of this are available for us to see, no matter how dark it is.

Samuel J. Fell

The Broken Spoke

[Published in The Saturday Paper, February 20/2016]

Two-Step Program

Everything is bigger in Texas, from the hats and trucks, to the stories and steaks. But nothing is bigger than the legend of The Broken Spoke, the last of the true Texas dance halls, writes Samuel J. Fell.

She’s only about five foot tall, but Terri White isn’t one to be trifled with. She stands in the middle of the polished concrete dancefloor, in the large back room of legendary Austin honky tonk The Broken Spoke, hands on her hips and through narrowed eyes, looks at us all.

The men, around twenty of us, are lined up down one side, female partners opposite on the other. White is barking orders, tells the women to step right. My wife, Claire, accidentally steps left, the only one to do so, like in a Three Stooges film. White’s eyes narrow further. “You’re going to be my troublemaker, aren’t you,” she says to Claire, who turns bright red and tries not to laugh.

White has been teaching novices like us the Texas Two-Step for years. It’s a southern tradition, and people travel from miles around to learn from the little master, who four nights a week bullies and cajoles, snaps at and occasionally encourages any and all willing to slide their two left feet across the floor.

The lesson runs for an hour or so, the house band providing the music, the dancers themselves the entertainment – for a seasoned Two-Stepper, it can’t be a pretty sight.

After an hour or so however, White has us more or less Two-Stepping under our own steam; her job is done, and so the billed band – Austin mainstay James Hand – step up and start their set, and from the low-lit areas surrounding the floor, the regular crowd materialise, the locals who know the Step, who specifically come out to the Spoke on a Friday night to dance. A lot of them are good, really good.

Texas has a reputation around the world as being a rough, gruff, outdoorsy kind of place, where men are men and don’t mess with us. Which makes it all the more fascinating watching these rough, gruff types gliding expertly around the dancefloor – it quickly becomes apparent that this is a normal Friday night out for them, time spent in a true dance hall where the gents ask the ladies to dance, a few beers are put away and a damn fine time is had by all. It’s enchanting in a way, a glimpse of that fabled southern hospitality, where being a gentleman is key, and dancing isn’t a dirty word.

This year, the Spoke celebrates its fifty-first anniversary. Opened in 1964 by James White, Terri’s father, it’s now an institution, the “last of the true Texas dance halls”. From the outside it looks to be on its last legs, leaning slightly to the left, a relic from a bygone era. Inside, holes in the low ceiling have been patched with bits of wood or tin, nailed on, a quick patch job. It smells a little odd too, a mixture of stale beer, fried meat and Texas sweat.

But it’s the real thing, a genuine tonk toward the outer edge of Austin on Sth Lamar Boulevard, the big through road that runs straight and true down to the river and across to downtown. Virtually nothing has changed since the early days when Willie Nelson would perform, prior to becoming famous, when Bob Wills would drop in for chicken-fried steak, when Dolly Parton, Roy Acuff and George Strait would turn up to either play or just listen – such is the lure of the Spoke.

It used to be outside the city limits, but as Austin’s population has swelled, the developers have swooped in and so it’s now sandwiched between two high-rise apartment blocks, its low-set build and dusty parking lot in stark contrast to its surrounds. Which is part of its appeal – no matter how steady the march of progress, the Spoke has remained as it began, a getaway from the pressures and realities of life, a little shack where you can dance, drink and have a good ol’ time.

Having spent an hour sliding around the polished concrete, I’m in need of some respite and so head out the front where I find a quiet spot in the carpark amongst the dusty pick-up trucks to roll a smoke and generally soak in the old country ambience. It’s around this time that Tom the Texan walks up to me, tells me he’s lost his smokes and can he bot one of mine. Fine with me, I tell him. He rolls a skinny one quickly, no filter, sticks it between his lips and pulls a box of matches from his pocket.

Tom the Texan is at least six and a half feet tall, bull neck, big hat and a hanging gut. He leans back against the hood of the closest truck and gets to talking. Tells me he works for the Texas something-or-other, I don’t quite catch it, but he emphasises his narrative by pulling out from under his shirt a large gold badge on black leather, hanging from his neck like some sort of ominous good luck charm.

Turns out Tom the Texan is a bodyguard of some sort, in town in this instance looking after one of the bigger acts playing the Austin City Limits music festival, down by the river at Zilker Park. He tells me it’s his night off, hence the visit to the Spoke, somewhere he comes whenever he’s in town, but he won’t tell me which artist he’s charged with. Later on I look at the festival program and figure it’s either Deadmau5 or Drake, The Weekend or Florence & The Machine.

He tells me he worked for eight years for an Iranian businessman who owned a couple of clubs up in Dallas, and that he looked after one of the cast of Jersey Shore when he came to Texas. “I thought, don’t bring that Yankee down here,” Tom says, “but he was all right. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

He finishes his smoke and shakes my hand, tells me to call him Tom and that his close friends call him TFT. “Trick Fuckin’ Tom,” he elaborates with a big laugh. I’m not sure if that’s because he’s a tricky fella, or because he’s partial to ladies of the evening, but he’s off into the bar before I can ask, leaving me by myself to wonder in silence.

Back inside, owner James White has jumped up on stage and is singing with the band. He’s decked out in cowboy bling – ten-gallon hat, shining belt buckle, outrageous red western shirt, what look like snake-skin boots. White used to be in the army, but is now living the honky tonk dream. Word is he writes a mean country song to boot, loves to get up with the band to sing.

I shake his hand as we leave, a little later on, tell him we came a long way to be here. His hands are surprisingly soft for one who looks like they’ve done it all. He has a twinkle in his eye, you can tell he likes hearing how far people have come to see his place.

We walk out the front into the carpark and order an Uber, which seems far more in step with the towering, gleaming apartment blocks on either side of us than where we’ve just come from. Testament to its history and derelict elegance though, that the Spoke is still standing. Albeit with a slight lean.