LIVE: Knotfest Australia (Brisbane), 2024


RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane, May 24

by Samuel J. Fell 

[First published in Rolling Stone (online), March 2024]

I was somewhere out the back of Machinery Hill when the Jack Daniels began to take hold.

You know, to paraphrase.

But there were bats. 

Lots of bats. 

Swooping low, big wing-span bats; fruit bats, lodging in the Morton Bay Figs that shroud the edges of Brisbane’s RNA Showgrounds, an oval of Queensland-green grass surrounded by grandstands serving a time gone by, surviving (now, just) in the middle of that small wedge of prime real estate along Gregory Terrace and the start of the bare, concrete reach that becomes Lutwyche Road, booming low and slow out past the hospitals and the freeway on-ramps toward the outers; the hot and dreary suburbs, the fibro shacks on overgrown plots and brick veneer two-bedders fronting onto rumbling through-roads; Brisbane…

But the believers are under the bats. Out the back of Machinery Hill. Out the back off the green grass, on the concrete, pissing in the plastic piss-palaces and perusing the places – the food places, the merch places, looking for a place to sit amidst the constant-ness of it all. 

Early, it’s Speed; that’s a place. Constant. Hardcore. Angry but joyous, which defines most of the day, the third and final day of Knotfest, rumbling dirty up the east coast, not stopping hardly at all; no quarter asked, none given. Heavy metal; make your excuses at your own cost.

They thrash about in their own way and I, having traversed the covered carpark and the striped black and yellow tape and the chat and the ‘lemme check yr bag, bro’, ‘yeah, man’ dance, come out onto the terrace and immediately follow the music, and so I find Speed thrashing about in their own way, and it’s not my way, but man… it’s infectious as shit, and – for the first time all fucking day, and make no mistake it’s a long fucking day – I get someone else’s groove.

And so I hit my booted heel into the ground in time with the beat. 

And I start moving my head in time with someone’s beat

And this defines the day. The beat.

And the riff. The Beat and the Riff… this is heavy metal, no? Agree or not.

And, indeed, agree or not. This is also heavy metal, for, like politics or religion or any other shit on this goddamn glorious sphere upon which we all stomp, it’s all subjective; you dig it, or you don’t. But, in the instance of Knotfest 2024, we dig it or we don’t in the same space, about the same thing. ‘Metal’ is an umbrella term – you don’t have to dig it all, but at its core, we’re all here together.

And so we are in Brisbane on this sultry late-summer’s day. The sky hangs low like an elephant’s undercarriage, more often than not loosing a fine drizzle upon all us metal faithful, spending our Sunday in the sanctity of the beat and the riff and the Cathedral of Fuck You (“This is our church,” sings Elizabeth Hale of Halestorm later on, as they finish their set) where no one is left behind and we’re all one and together.

Metal crowds – the nicest and best of all musical crowds.

After Speed, on the right-hand-side stage, is Skindred from Newport in south Wales who delight in the drop… the long groove that then drops into the ‘headbanger’s delight’ – man, I did not (having not heard their music prior to this very weekend) expect this from this crew, but (again), I find someone else’s beat and I also find (quickly and effortlessly) how easily I can adapt to how they’re shaping metal and so I listen to vocalist Benji Webbe

(Cheeky motherfucker that he is – “Who needs a t-shirt?”, holding up a band t-shirt [crowd yells that they do], “Fuck you, sixty dollars once you’ve left.” Throws it back over his shoulder)

and, yes, this is (to some extent, at least) ‘My Jam’. Or his, or hers next to me, or anyone’s roaming about the grounds. I came into this day with a list of who I wanted to be in front of and Skindred weren’t on that list but they are now.

And I’m more than happy with that, and this, as was inevitable, is where the Jack Daniels comes into play. But, as we’re all in Sunday Sanctuary together, who gives a goddamn?

Escape The Fate step to the pulpit next up and begin with ‘Forgive Me’, a song which any self-respecting clergyman would denounce (as it contains the line, ‘I killed myself today’), but let’s be honest – how many men of the cloth are here today? Unless, by cloth, you mean some sort of black t-shirt with any number of slogans printed upon same…

[Examples of t-shirts spotted at Knotfest, 2024…

  • Kanye? Never Heard Of Her (with a picture of Lemmy) – Classic
  • I Like His Beard (he, next to her, wears a matching shirt saying, ‘I Like Her Butt’) – Fair play
  • My Beard, Your Boobs – Classy…
  • It’s A Slut Party Right Here – FFS, I almost wish I was in actual church…]

ETF, again, aren’t my tin of overly-priced booze, but you’ve gotta tip the hat where it’s due; new(ish) guitarist, Matti Hoffman is a monster across those six strings and when the band see fit to drop it all down to the tacks, the tacks, then it’s as good as most else I hear all day long.

Knotfest is set up in the same vein as CMC Rocks, or as Big Day Out used to run – two huge stages, side by side, one being used while the other is hurriedly prepped – crew scuttling about gantries and hauling cable like ants before a rain storm – the change between sets, then, effortless, hardly more than a handful of seconds all day long (and, on the odd occasion where there is a short delay, some wag in the booth presses play on the likes of Vengaboys’ ‘We Like To Party’, or Backstreet Boys’ ‘Everybody’) and so the morning lethargy burns off and we begin the run into the long, hard, flat afternoon moving from stage to stage, a whirlwind of guitars, thumping and churning and rolling about on the flat-trodden grass, slick underfoot as the drizzle carries on.

Thy Art Is Murder do exactly as you’d expect them to, razor-sharp, tight as a drum; Wage War simplify things somewhat, more four-to-the-floor thrash, punctuated, as they’ve been want to do in the past, by a solo acoustic number that fits well within the confines of the middle afternoon, Briton Bond’s voice careening back off the stands, filled with people sitting, watching, waiting.

Everyone is waiting.

Waiting for what? I don’t know and so lope off to find food, somewhere to sit myself, watch the bats, the people. I watch Asking Alexandria too, at least for a bit as their brand of metal – metalcore? Touches of industrial? Too much singing, not enough growling? – isn’t for me and so I wander through the market past the lockers, smoke a cigarette in the corner, flick it in the bin and head back onto the worn grass in the late afternoon as The HU come on stage, and this is wild shit.

Mongolian folk metal, if you can dig it, which most seem to be doing – their set is underpinned by an almost constant low and heavy drone, it (the music as a whole) seems to slowly emanate from the stage, slowly seeping out and out and through you until it hits brick up the back of the old stands and then rolls right back – the traditional throat singing enhances the drone and so it all seems to follow you, no matter where you’re lurking onsite…

Filling cracks and crevices.

They are fucking happy to be here, man, they raise their arms to the sky and growl their appreciation, which is hurled back ten-fold, indeed, and the use of the traditional morin khuur (a bass guitar / violin kind of combo, two strings, played with a bow) is of a level above even the next, and the next… sounds you’d reckon Dimebag Darrell would get excited about.

It’s getting dark around now. The bats, they’re out and they swoop low and look to settle but lift at the last second and then they’re gone, lost in the evening mist.

Halestorm bring an immense energy to proceedings, Hale vivacious and vicious all at once; strobing stage lights cut patterned lines through the falling rain, for quick nips of time brightening the dark corners, high in the stands down the back, booming up iridescent as the Riff comes in, all of it breaking down into a sludgy puddle that seems done and dried all too soon, but then one switches their attention to the left side stage and Lamb of God begin, and this is metal, the heaviest of metals, the most precise and yet rangy and fucked up metal of the day, frontman Randy Blythe a goddamn pinball of pent up aggressive energy…

He bounces and never stops, jumping off drum risers and fold-back speaker alike; he holds court, talks to the crowd, riles them up and pushes them back, pushes them around and the circle pit down the front churns and churns and those of us back a ways, about the base of the sound tower, nod our heads heavy in time with it all, and truth be told, this set is the first of the day that finishes far too soon, way too soon, they do finish though and the lights flash a dirty yellow and then it’s done.

Out the back, on the front terrace or in the alleys between stands or on the slick and hard concrete behind Machinery Hill, people are milling about and it’s blurry; time and space constantly warping… is it the drink? Maybe. The dull thud in heads that mutes the sound? Perhaps… people are still waiting.

I stop and lean against the wood outside the Cattleman’s Bar, take stock for a moment but fall into impromptu conversation with Dylan, who’s only got one shoe having lost the other in the LoG pit and so his sock is sodden but he couldn’t give less of a shit; he bums a few tally-hos and we talk about bands and the act of worshipping in the high church of heavy metal, which he seems fairly well attuned to, and then his phone rings and he hops off to find his mate. Hops off to continue waiting, like everyone else.

They’ve been waiting all day.

For Disturbed? Yes, for many. Disturbed have been doing what they’ve been doing for some thirty years – three decades of ‘The Sickness’, three decades of their nu-heavy hybrid that is, by now, tight as a new snare and so they Deliver. I observe from the side, from high up in one of the stands, from the back. I don’t like their music, I never have, but one cannot deny how fucking good they are at what they do – this is music done clinical; for many, when they’re done, it’s a devastation.

But, of course, it is now time. This is what people have been waiting for; people who’ve been wandering about all day taking in the Beat and the Riff but, really, waiting for the Beat and the Riff that they’ve known for decades, that they haven’t seen in the flesh since 2001…

And so it is then, that Pantera take the stage, and people push forward, eager faces lit large by the flashing strobes… and there they are, Rex on his goddamn bass and Zakk (you can never see his face, covered, head down, intense) and Charlie (metronomic, the Beat) and Phil, Phil, fuck I’ve missed you, brother…

And then the sound gives out.

They don’t know it through and so continue thrashing through ‘A New Level’ having a fucking ball, but us out in the dark are howling, screaming, trying to be heard (the drums and vocals are still alive) – ‘fix the fucking sound, man, the sound…’ Word gets to the band and so they stop and there’s a pause – the quietest period of the entire day – and then, a minute or so later, they’re back and so they begin again, ‘Mouth For War’, and they’re off.

To my mind, to my devastated mind, the sound never quite comes back to how it was though, Wylde’s guitar remains too low in the mix (you’ve gotta strain to hear it, strain…) but damn, man, Pantera after all this time – and they (Rex and Phil) have schooled Zakk and Charlie (pros, total pros, as you’d expect) and so the sound is Pantera – Vinnie and Dimebag loom large, each a face on Benante’s kick drums… For the fans, for the brotherhood, for the legacy, printed on t-shirts and posters and all over the fucking place, that’s what this tour is.

And they own it. They whip and howl through what is surely the shortest set of the day. It cannot be over… ‘Walk’, ‘Strength Beyond Strength’, ‘Fuckin’ Hostile’, vague memories of favourites swim through the murk later on… but it is over and we’re left standing on wet grass in the middle of an arena, Brisbane lit around us as the sound fades and finally, finally dies. The band hug on stage, they salute the faithful, and it’s done.

The bats have gone, and I imagine, as I trudge out with my brethren, that the flat-track concrete out the back of Machinery Hill is quiet now. Rain drips from the figs and the closer you get to the front gate, you can hear slow traffic out on the Terrace, the sound of real life.

My head thrums. With the Beat and the Riff. All together, some sort of sonic melange, a day’s worth of heavy shit, stuffed into my head. People sing as we walk through the carpark but the further away we get the more the crowd thins and the sound and the singing and the laughter die off and then I’m alone on a slick street somewhere in Brisbane, Knotfest behind me, but the Beat and the Riff living on.

Anxious Times Before Kickoff… A Contest Ensues… This Cruel Mistress That Is The Game We Love…


The text message comes in moments before kickoff. ‘Talk to me, mate. What’s going to happen tonight?’ It’s a question I’m unable to answer as I watch the two teams stream onto the park, Manly looking fit and confident, Brisbane somewhat nervous, not sure themselves of what’s to come.

As the pandemic has eased over the past weeks, there’s actually a crowd in at the Central Coast Stadium, albeit a small one – 178 it’s later revealed, a handful of diehards allowed into the ground to cheer, to back their Team. They all seem to be old blokes, Manly supporters draped in maroon and white, waving flags, sipping beer from plastic cups, eyes bright under the brims of logo’d caps.

What is going to happen tonight, I think to myself, a cold can in one hand, the other nervously twirling the edge of my moustache, my go-to when I’m nervous, anxious, not sure of what’s going on.

After last week’s mauling at the hands of the reigning premiers, it seems a fair few changes have been made, but how effective could they possibly be? Coach Seibold has wielded the axe in the ensuing seven days, players shifted up, others moved across the park, some on the bench, yet more this week watching from home; still beset by injury and suspension, it’s a Brisbane team that projects little more than uncertainty.

Indeed, the two pre-pandemic rounds, as is pointed out by Andrew Johns in commentary, seem a world away, two games Brisbane took relatively easily, only to stumble so overwhelmingly after the break that those games have almost ceased to exist in the minds of the Faithful.

Still, Faithful we are and so I’m on the couch, myself draped in maroon and gold. I’m not too concerned on the result, I write in reply to the text message, but I do want a good game of footy. A competition, at the very least.

From the outset, it seems this might be a tall order. Brisbane receive the kickoff; their ensuing runners are easily muscled into submission; Croft, at the end of the first set of the game, kicks out on the full. Manly then, with their first set, seem to be able to run the ball with consummate ease, their forwards chewing up post-contact metres.

I shift uneasily on the sofa, take a sip from the can.

It seems, at this very early point, and indeed, over the past fortnight, that what Brisbane have needed is two-fold (three, if you count their dire need for ball, over the last two games) – one, they need someone talking, leading. Two, they need someone (either that leader, or anyone else), to provide a spark. This is Brisbane after all, they’re not a shoddy team (at least not on paper), and so one gets the impression that if someone were to just do something good, then the team would automatically lift.

As the opening ten minutes tick past, agonisingly slowly, it gradually becomes apparent that this is a vastly different Brisbane team to the one which failed to show up last week. I sit up straighter, lean forward, begin to hope that perhaps that contest I’m wanting, will actually happen.

For Brisbane are beginning to play football. Manly, no doubt expecting the same opposition the northerners provided last week, are knocked off their game – Brisbane begin to look cohesive, they begin to move with purpose, the momentum begins to shift their way, they start to get the ball, keep the ball, use the ball.

It comes down to possession – give Brisbane an equal share of said ball, and they’re dangerous; give them the majority, and they’re looking near impossible to overcome. Starve them though, and they immediately retreat to survival mode, which in this competition, as has been evidenced by teams like St. George, Canterbury and the Gold Coast, isn’t enough to stop a rout, a rot, a general collective falling apart.

And then the spark – a high kick on the fifth across field to the right and the lightning fast figure of young Xavier Coates is there, takes it mid-air, manages to offload to a rampaging Kotoni Staggs, back from a week in the sin bin, who steps, pivots, decides against a safe pass for a certain score and instead kicks, chases, grounds it.

Brisbane are playing football, and it looks like we’ve got that contest on our hands.

Coates, who only last year dominated for QLD in the Under20 State Of Origin, looks set to begin, properly, what may well be a long and successful NRL career – a Greg Inglis clone, as Johns points out, multiple times, in delight, and that he is. The intuition, speed and power, not to mention his freakish ability under the high ball in attack, that he exhibits throughout the first half, is prime and indeed, just what Brisbane need; Croft and Milford constantly kick high to him on the right, and more often than not, he answers the call, scoring once, coming close again multiple times.

It could well happen, as a result of the youngster’s solid game, that Brisbane will need to swap out an Oates for a Coates on that right edge. Shift big and tall Cory to the left, fill the gap currently being juggled between Farnworth and Arthars, both of whom seem, at a glance, too slight to play a position that these days, is as much about power and brute force, as it is speed and grace.

Just look at Manly’s Moses Suli – playing in the centres, he harks back to the likes of Gene Miles in that he’s got grace (not that Miles had much grace, lets be honest…), but is as big as most front rowers getting about these days. Up against him on the Brisbane side was Darius Boyd, who obviously, during the week, knew what was coming his way and so aimed to tackle low in order to stem the man’s rushing game, which Boyd did to decent effect throughout the course of the match.

It all proved too much for Brisbane though, their collective foot coming off the gas not long before halftime, and not really returning until the final five minutes. During this gap, they didn’t capitulate, more just lost touch, not something you can do against a team like Manly, even with a three try lead. Manly scored three times, once shortly before half time, again shortly afterwards, again soon after that. A couple of soft penalty goals and it’s gone from 18-0 to 18-20, and the lead has slipped away.

Despite the fact Brisbane were offered a couple of opportunities to snatch it from the proverbial jaws of defeat, it wasn’t quite enough to overcome an opposition they should have, after leading by three converted tries, wrapped up and disposed of easily.

But, as I think to myself as I drain the last of the can and flick off the teev, I wasn’t too concerned about the result. Yes, they should have wrapped that up. Yes, they should have maintained focus for the full 80 minutes, not put on 18 points then leaked 20.

But to have played a game like that, having played as they have for the past fortnight, is such an improvement as to bring much joy to hearts north of the border, hearts that have been in mouths (if not downright shattered and left lying, bleeding, on loungeroom floors all over Queensland), hearts that would have been questioning what the fuck is going on?

There’s a long way to go, and indeed, this could again be ‘one of those seasons’, one where the word ‘rebuild’ gets thrown about as a damp and clammy bandage attempting to cover the wound of ‘not that great right now’. But this young team have promise, and as such, if blunders like the past two weeks can be forever vanquished, they should begin to gel properly and so reap the rewards us, The Faithful, know they’re entitled to.

Wherefore Art Thou, Maroon & Gold?

 It’s late, sometime after ten, when the malaise sets in. My phone, now silent, lies on the table amidst the debris; two or three empty beer cans, a half full bottle of Makers, the overflowing ashtray.

Claire has long since gone to bed and I’m left in the semi-dark to contemplate the cruel nature of sport, of life in general. The immediate post-game analysis has petered out, a series of rapid-fire text messages with others around the country, and aside from the chill wind through the palm trees, it’s quiet.

I know it’s naught but a game, but the malaise thickens, swirls overhead, settles on the cold concrete beneath my feet. What can one really do about it, I suppose to myself. I pour another bourbon, splash some on the faded wooden table-top, try but fail to think of something else.

Conceding some ninety-three points across the space of two games while scoring only six, is another level, a level previously unheard of, at least north of the border. There are no doubt many heads being scratched as people search for answers, backs of necks being rubbed while eyes are downturned, those responsible lashed by torrent after torrent of verbal kickback, asking the question, What’s Gone Wrong?

Boys playing men it seemed in large part, one team so much more suited to the game than the other, that it became embarrassing as it dragged onward to its eventual sad and desperate conclusion.

Embarrassing for those watching at home, yes, but surely more so for those on the turf in the face of the booming hurricane, little before them but a sort of red, white and blue miasma, wave after ferocious wave pushing them closer and closer to the rock-strewn edge, where, after 80 minutes, they eventually beached, bruised and battered, on the shores of sporting oblivion.

Or so it seemed at the time.

Not much can be read from the final result other than one team was far better than the other – far, far better, essentially a non-contest, which at this level of professional sport is almost an affront to the game itself.

For two weeks now, this once proud team (and indeed, proud before the pandemic break, having won two from two), have succumbed, they’ve capitulated almost. They’ve been starved of possession, robbed of top-flight players due to injury and suspension, they’re the youngest team, on average, in the competition, they’re much maligned anywhere south of the 25thparallel, and yet these excuses, as they were, are no longer useful.

Perhaps if the contest had been closer, but two consecutive results like these, hint at something else, something deeper and more sinister than the likes of an injury or two, the odd suspension.

So what did go wrong? What has gone wrong?

A lack of communication, for sure; a lack of commitment, most likely; a lack of passion, a lack of confidence. A team Lacking. A team struggling to adapt to even the most simple of situations. A team better suited to a level well below that of ‘elite’. A team not even there. For if they were, a contest would have resulted, which while it may have still been one-sided, wouldn’t have been embarrassing. It’s one thing to lose, but to have fought. It’s another entirely to lose and to have done very little, if anything, about it.

People, many people, will be sitting with elbows on knees, chins cupped in hands, staring at a dark television screen thinking, so what next? Is this the nature of it all now? Is this what we, as supporters of this team, have been waiting for these months of lockdown gone?

Perhaps. It’s easy to pick up the draw and look ahead to what’s on the cards for next week – indeed, isn’t Forward the best direction in which to look? Yes, but moving forward is a struggle if you’re not acknowledging what’s come before, and as such, these past two weeks’ results can’t be merely swept under a rug.

No. The root cause needs to be found, and a rebuild needs to begin. Again. For otherwise, the malaise will thicken all the more, the miasma will build and swirl, the hurricane and the rocky edge, the shores of sporting oblivion, will become all the more prevalent. But where to begin such a rebuild? Sitting in the semi-dark, pouring more bourbon, flicking a butt into the ashtray, the malaise rises and boils again. I don’t even know where to begin.

ALBUM – Catherine Britt

[Published in the Spectrum section of The Sydney Morning Herald, July 21]

COUNTRY Catherine Britt

Catherine Britt & The Cold Cold Hearts (ABC Music/Universal)


Catherine Britt knows country music, and as such her seventh studio record bristles with knowhow. Instrumentation courtesy of Michael Muchow, Andy Toombs and Australian legend Bill Chambers lend it the earthy sound integral to the genre while Britt’s unique voice commands attention, vying with banjo and guitars to conjure a sound that’s as much Nashville as it is Tamworth.

Where Britt shines in this instance however is in how she’s able to capture a sense of Australia – its wide and brown expanses, its flora and fauna, its foibles and fortunes – without falling into any sort of songwriting or cultural cliché. Which is refreshing, as too much Australian country falls victim to this. Britt is very obviously singing directly from the heart on this record too, and given what she’s gone through in recent years, this isn’t surprising: a serious health issue; an extremely full professional plate; and finally, a new member of the family – this album is about the happiness beyond the storm, and as such it truly resonates with a realism many struggle to attain.

Recorded in her backyard studio in Newcastle, it’s Britt reuniting with her roots, a solid mixture of the mainstream and the underground. Samuel J. Fell


ALBUM – Shannon Shaw

[Published in the Spectrum section of The Sydney Morning Herald, June 16]








Rock/Pop/Roots Shannon Shaw

Shannon In Nashville (Easy Eye Sound)


Well versed in the ragged and raw, coming as she does from a garage-punk background via the long-running Shannon & The Clams, Shannon Shaw shows on her debut cut that she’s also across a whole lot more.

Releasing on Dan Auerbach’s new(ish) label, Shaw is afforded the opportunity in this instance to delve deeply into other musical interests, the resulting 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and 1960s pop/surf conglomeration forming the basis of what is a tough yet fluid record. The versatility in her voice bodily pushes a lot of the tracks along, from low and almost guttural before hitting sweet highs, giving the album a good deal of texture, often within the one song.

It’s a cathartic record too, in that all songs (six written by her, the rest co-written, with Auerbach, among others) deal with love and loss in some form; this emotion helps fuel the record, the songs bleeding honesty and truth, they’re alive and real as opposed to mere lovelorn pastiches. Occasionally, Shannon In Nashville does find itself exploring a little too much and so genres and styles are touched on only fleetingly, but this is something which will no doubt be remedied with time. Samuel J. Fell

LIVE – Mullum Music Festival 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The barbershop doesn’t have eftpos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – Dave Hole

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

BLUES Dave Hole

Goin’ Back Down (Independent / Only Blues Music)


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

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

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

ALBUM – Joshua Hedley

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


Mr. Jukebox (Third Man Records / ADA)


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

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

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

ALBUM – Courtney Marie Andrews

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

AMERICANA/ROOTS Courtney Marie Andrews

MAY YOUR KINDNESS REMAIN (Fat Possum Records / Inertia)


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

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

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

Album – Neil Young & Promise Of The Real

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

The Visitor
Reprise Records / Warner Australia

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


Samuel J. Fell