Album – Catherine Traicos

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

FOLK/ROOTS Catherine Traicos

LUMINAIRE (Independent)

4/5

Singer-songwriter Catherine Traicos’s sixth record, Luminaire, was reportedly the most difficult for the Melbourne-based artist to pull together. Three years in the making and almost not seeing the light of day, Traicos has said she didn’t know if she’d have the energy to complete the work, that she barely relaxed throughout the recording process. And yet you’d not know it, so effortlessly does this clutch of songs bloom forth, their almost eerie and dark vibe infectious, demanding repeat listens. There’s a strong cohesion that runs through the record, despite how old some of these songs are, Traicos and her impeccable band able to inject them all with a subtle power that binds them; whether casually skipping through a sonic meadow (Bitter Bones), or grinding in the dark (Tide, with its dissonant cello), it all comes together as an album, as opposed to a mere collection of ten songs. Bookended by Luminaries I and Luminaries II, the former wrought from an emotional time for Traicos, the latter its more joyous sequel, this album may have been hard to make, but its eventual birth marks Traicos as an artist of exceptional poise and talent, as many of us have known for years. SAMUEL J FELL

LIVE – Out On The Weekend Festival, 2017

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

Jonny Fritz, Traveller. Pic by Stephen Boxshall (via RS)

OUT ON THE WEEKEND – Seaworks, Williamstown (Melbourne) – October 14, 2017

Leather-soled boots crush Melbourne Bitter cans against cracked concrete, the flattened discs frisbeed into yellow-topped bins. Cigarettes are rolled and zippo lighters flicked – metallic chink – plumes of smoke wreathing around black-banded cowboy hats. Pearl button-snaps, sideburns half grey, nudie suits and swing skirts, red lipstick, bowlo ties, salt-n-pepper stubble and full beards that smell like thick and dark brisket smoke.

Seagulls ride the chill breeze off the bay, silhouetted against the spring sun.

Fanny Lumsden sings songs inspired by the long, straight stretches of bitumen one finds in western Queensland, the orange and brown dry found in same. And yet it’s not sad, it’s not melancholy and flat but it bounces and skittles along like the old caravan she and husband / bass player Dan Stanley Freeman towed behind them while on the road looking for inspiration for new record Real Class Act. Lumsden and band, fleshed out somewhat for this set, showcase new songs then, and old. They play Australiana, but it’s a new kind, they make it their own.

Robby Fulks too, inhabits his own slice of an ancient musical form, his take on folk music a meandering through the Great American Songbook, frags of country and blues. Shad Cobb is on fiddle and he sizzles, frenetic playing from a maestro who’s played with the Osborne Brothers, Steve Earle and Willie Nelson. The Deslondes hail from New Orleans, their 2015 eponymous debut a real country affair, but in the flesh they’re rollicking rock ‘n’ roll and bluesy twang, country for sure, but an upbeat melding of styles from one of the world’s great musical melting pots.

All Our Exes Live In Texas have perhaps evolved the furthest of all acts on the bill today, a real muscular set now replete with rhythm section backing the four main players, their music now slick and polished. For mine, this detracts from their original appeal a little; where before it was harmonies over a simple sonic bed, it’s now harmonies over a thick and shmick sound that throbs a little too much. I yearn for their earlier sound, despite it being hard to deny their energy and skill.

Pigeons settle in rafters under tin eaves. People sit at wooden tables, on benches and rusty bollards. There’s a Greenpeace boat moored further down the marina. What looks like a pirate ship under full sail glides slowly past in the middle distance, at odds with the city and its skyscrapers lit tall behind it.

The sad music envelops it all, one cocked knee and an elbow on the bar, half a beer wreathed in tears, the country music lament.

Josh Headley’s suit shimmers under the stage lights, sky blue and sequined, slashes of colour sewn on. Big hat and beard, bigger voice. He’s Hank Williams, set to a new time and place. He sings sad songs about life, love, the loss of both, just him and his acoustic guitar, he gets Robert Ellis up for a song, as he’s done before. He’s one of the best on the planet, his songs perfect, his music beautiful.

The sun disappears behind the hulking old sheds and the chill sets in and The Sadies start their set, a thundering cow-punk-a-billy explosion. Travis Good swaps guitar for fiddle, the same punk/rock enthusiasm displayed no matter which strings he’s thrumming, and the band rumble and thrash about, their set a brutal and welcome passageway from the daytime to the night as people swap beer for margaritas and Jack Daniels, flipping up their collars to ward off the icy breeze.

Son Volt have never, in 22 years, been to Australia and they’re the unofficial headliner as a result – a dark and mysterious set which kicks off immediately, no holds barred, three songs that shake walls with their rumbling riffage… this, for me, was an introduction, and so it’s all new, exciting. Jay Farrar, sunglasses on, solid stance, barely utters a word to the crowd, just leads the band through an hour and a bit of up and down, hard and soft, pop and country, rock ‘n’ roll. Mark Spencer plays keys, swaps to pedal steel, picks up the guitar; Chris Frame excels on the slide. It’s a heady set, a beast, people raise cans in salute as the band fade off the stage as it all goes dark.

In contrast to Traveller, who light it up and drag in the crowd, pulling us into the smaller outdoor space and we’re serenaded and yelled at, cajoled and ribbed. Jonny Fritz (silver-suited), Cory Chisel (heavily-bearded), Robert Ellis (cosmic-jacketed) plus rhythm section, a party band with one foot in Nashville, another in Las Vegas. Pushing new record Western Movies, Fritz leads from the front spending more time jiving with the crowd than he does with a guitar in hand; by the end of the set we all know which room of which hotel they’re staying in and it all seems like three buddies making music and fucking around together. Which it is, and which is why it’s so good.

People have melted off into the cold dark and so there’s room to move by the time Justin Townes Earle come on to close it out. He’s backed by The Sadies and they add an edge to Earle’s crooning country tunes. He’s in fine form and his music tears at heartstrings, the addition of two more guitarists giving it all more power and depth… it seems fun for them up there and for those of us in for the long haul it’s fun too. Earle, like Dylan, changes his set, his songs, the way he delivers it all, on a regular basis and so despite having seen him numerous times, this is as exciting and familiar all at once, as it’s ever been.

And then it’s into the cold dark for us. The gulls are roosting somewhere, the Pirates Tavern is still open and people spill out with plastic cups of frothy beer as they wait for the ferry to take them home. Out On The Weekend is a happening, and while it seemed a smaller happening this year, it’s a meeting of a tribe, a musical tribe to whom country music ain’t a dirty word, y’all, and to whom this happening is one of the best of the year. One will happily raise a can to that.

Samuel J. Fell

LIVE – Byron Bay Bluesfest, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – The Rolling Stones

[Published in Rhythms magazine, January/February 2017]

The Rolling Stones
Blues & Lonesome
Polydor

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

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

Samuel J. Fell

Stars & Hype Reviewed In Rhythms Magazine

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

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

LIVE – Mullum Music Festival, 2016

[Published in Rolling Stone, November 2016]

THE MAGIC OF MULLUM, by Samuel J. Fell

Mullumbimby Music Festival

Mullumbimby, NSW

November 18-20, 2016

You can hear it long before you can see it. A New Orleans-style second line street parade, starting down by the Council chambers, slowly making its way up Burringbar street. It’s all brass, trombones and trumpets, the sun reflects off the big silver sousaphone mouth, the drummers start. That sound, that hot and sweaty sound, bounces off shopfronts as the crowd gathers and the tambourines begin to shake.

I’m standing with Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson, I’ve just interviewed them over a late breakfast, we’re about halfway up the street and we can hear it properly now, see it coming. The first wave are twirling flags, there are kids on stilts behind them, sequined costumes glinting in the morning sun, the sound gathering and getting louder. People take every vantage point and the place heaves, the quiet little main street of Mullumbimby alive and moving for the one day a year this happens; most times you come into town on a Sunday morning and there are tumbleweeds – the Sunday of Mullum Fest though, the place is jumping.

Pic by Kurt Petersen

We join the back end of the parade as it makes its way past, strolling down to the corner of Dalley Street, a right turn and we all end up outside the Civic Hall, horns blasting, drums thumping, people are dancing and sweating in the early summer sunshine. We bump into people we know, yelling to be heard, smiles abound and hands are shook and we all stand in the middle of the road, a little community coming together, united by music in this odd little town, tucked away in the Byron Bay hinterland, Mount Warning hazy in the middle distance.

The street parade kicks off the final day of a festival which shares a Shire with some of the country’s biggest. Bluesfest, Splendour In The Grass and Falls all run around here, but it’s Mullum Fest which is truly the jewel in this area’s crown. While not able to boast an international reputation, while only small, while only a three day event, Mullum Fest isn’t about the prestige and the pulling power – no, it’s about voices rising as one, filling old halls; it’s about banjos and mandolins rejuvenating the backrooms of the local RSL, the bowlo; it’s about world music and hip hop and rock ‘n’ roll turning the normally staid high school gymnasium into a musical wonderland, a myriad sounds from all around, filling pubs and halls and all manner of spaces in this little berg, out of the way, off the beaten track – that’s why Mullum Fest is so good.

Running for the ninth time this year, there’s a lot to explore. Friday night I sit in the gloom and take in Gareth Liddiard’s solo acoustic set at the Village Vanguard. His songs are wordy, the acoustic accompaniment minimal, his voice creaks a little and at a glance, it’s nothing to take note of, but if you sit and invest the time, you become enamoured with the way he crafts those words, how he weaves tales through it all, how it all starts to make sense. His songs grow large, the stories larger. It’s a fantastic set – the man has a knack for creating swathes of power with very little.

Gareth Liddiard. Pic by Kurt Petersen

Jordie Lane takes to the same stage next up, a Mullum Feast regular, although he’s not been here for a few years. This is his only show with a band – keys, bass, drums – and the first time I’ve ever seen him wield an electric guitar. Lane’s songs are strong too, his writing has strengthened, he’s mature now – the music is muscular and powerful, Clare Reynolds harmonises with him, minimal piano accompaniment, her voice is strong and assured too and it melds with Lane’s perfectly. He showcases a number of tunes from recent release, Glassellland, along with a slew of older material, all executed with easy aplomb.

At one point I walk through town to the High School to see Hat Fitz & Cara, but am waylaid by Lez Karski on the Bowlo stage, who dishes out wave after wave of Chicago-influenced electric blues. Hat & Cara, by comparison, offer the blues too, but use it as more of a base from which to build. There’s a strong gospel element to their music these days, a lot of soul – they also showcase a number of tracks off new album After The Rain, bringing a choir up on stage to help them close out a strong Saturday set.

The Wilson Pickers fill out the Vanguard stage down the other edge of town, five-part harmonies, their songs strong, filling the big room. They don’t play too often anymore – all five members carry solo careers, or work with other acts – but they lose nothing with the passing of time, still as solid as ever.

To the Civic Hall and Eilen Jewell, the Queen of Western Swing – the place is full, people overflow into the courtyard where beer is swilled and it’s loud and hot. Jewell leads a stellar set, based heavily in country music but with more than a healthy dose of swing, a head-nod to the likes of Bob Wills and Wayne Hancock. Guitarist Jerry Miller is The Man, he’s the slinger of the weekend, his solos shimmer like gold, he bends notes to his every whim, a man who knows his way around a guitar and it shows, again and again, a weekend highlight.

Henry Wagons. Pic by Anthony Moulay

Henry Wagons closes out Friday and Saturday, resplendent both nights in sequins and sideburns, big glasses and country swagger in spades. He leads his new band onward and upward, as indeed, only Henry Wagons can. They cover Springsteen’s ‘State Trooper’ on the Friday, and it’s one of those perfect Mullum moments.

Sal Kimber & The Rollin’ Wheel inject a solid dose of country soul on the Sunday afternoon; Jordie Lane and Clare Reynolds in duo mode again highlight their uncanny understanding of each other’s musical moods; Julien Baker, only 21 years old, holds a full Civic Hall captive with her ethereal voice, minimal electric guitar underneath, one to watch, no doubt.

It all ends far too soon, as most festival weekends do – Mullum tends to move faster than most though, almost too good to be true and so it’s gone in the blink of an eye. The town itself, a country hamlet, is half old farmers, half old hippies and this odd melding has, over time, created a place with its own extremely unique charm – only in a place like this, could a festival like this one go down. It’s a true community, playing host to a true happening, and as has been the case for the past eight years, this year was a hell of a happening indeed.

 

LIVE – Out On The Weekend, 2016

[Published in Rolling Stone, OCTOBER 2017]

AMERICANA FESTIVAL LETS LINEUP SHINE BRIGHT, WRITES SAMUEL J. FELL

Out On The Weekend

Seaworks, Williamstown (Melbourne)

Saturday October 15, 2016

There’s a gale warning for Port Phillip Bay, although one doesn’t need a warning. Winds batter windowpanes and shake down trees, limbs flailing and cracking, the power of it all hitting you in the face, making your collars flap angrily, slapping your ears as you walk from the train toward the pier through the usually quiet and gentrified Williamstown streets; one doesn’t need a warning, it’s painfully obvious, debris scattered everywhere, leaves and branches, overturned bins and the like.

The crowd braces forward though and navigates the headwind, we make our way to Seaworks on the water’s edge where Out On The Weekend is running for the third time. An intimate gathering of likeminded souls whose only aim, despite the inclemency of the weather, is smoked meat and cold cans of beer imbibed to music of the country variety, Americana, alternative country if you will.

It’s an industrial scene, towering iron sheds arching over concrete throughways and rusty bollards, the incongruous and ramshackle Pirates Tavern across the lot from the Outdoor Stage where All Out Exes Live In Texas harmonise over a bed of accordion-led merriment, guitar and mandolin and ukulele skipping carefree alongside. This quartet has come a long way in a short time and the overtly sweet nature of their music, at times in the past too syrupy sweet, has a harder edge to it today, their sound a little tougher, although this makes it no less beguiling. It seems at odds with its physical surrounds, and yet draws it all together in a way which makes sense. People tap booted feet on old and cracked concrete. It does all make sense.

Inside, the hanger-like space eked out to form the main stage, the wind is less obvious, no gusts whipping skirts up and blowing hats off, merely ominous rattles and creaks as the old structure leans into it. Pigeons fly overhead and settle on rafters. Josh Hedley – suited, bearded, ten-gallon-hatted – commands attention with a voice of uncommon power and poise, using just his guitar as accompaniment, along with Will Van Horn on pedal steel, a near-virtuosic player whose tear-jerking country slide adds a glorious, warm melancholy to Hedley’s already heart-wrenching country songs.

Hedley himself is a character and his patter is upbeat and happy, belying the nature of the songs themselves. Van Horn hasn’t played any of said songs before, which highlights even more so his skill, and the pair embody country music and the big crowd raise cans of Melbourne Bitter in unison. Robert Ellis joins them for a track before it all wraps up and then it’s back out into the wind and to the bar and back to the Outdoor Stage.

The Cactus Blossoms, a brother-brother duo, two guitars and voices, somewhat reminiscent of The Milk Carton Kids, but with less punch and panache. They play well together and their voices meld into one and yet I’m left a little cold, not enough grit and grime for my liking – I like my country music set up against a bar, holding a beer into which to cry – but then, anyone to be seen after Josh Hedley had big shoes to fill.

Lindi Ortega

Lindi Ortega’s music has evolved over the past couple of years, more than just a little. Where before it held a strong element of western swing melded well with a rockabilly strain and was subtle and sharp, today it’s a full-blooded country rock assault. ‘Champagne’ James Robertson on guitar, along with Sly Juhas drumming, build the base from which Ortega’s impressive howl grows and yet as the set goes on, it all seems to blend into one and even the older songs are treated in this full-throttle style and so there’s no light or shade, just loud and fast. All well and good, but I feel this could have been done better.

They finish with a version of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire’, which at first seems tainted as the foldback seems to have failed and so they can’t hear themselves but then it all just meshes as they make the best of a bad situation and the song – dissonant, broken, cracked – becomes the highlight of the set.

Robert Ellis. Pic by Kane Hibberd

Robert Ellis, who’s swapped his casual day attire for a denim suit studded with rhinestones, has also evolved a great deal. No longer a solo artist armed with nothing other than an acoustic guitar and a clutch of well-written songs, Ellis today commands a crack regiment of musical soldiers who back his heaving, multi-headed beast of a set with an aplomb not often seen.

It all veers from near-cabaret to country to rock ‘n’ roll and back again, careening at breakneck speed from one style to the next and yet it’s seamless and adventurous, it’s stepped off the beaten path and can’t find its way back and yet it doesn’t need to – this is a musician who’s shed any semblance of normalcy and is intent on finding something truly different. It’s one of the most powerful sets I’ve been privy to and it leaves many standing stock still, mouths agape, limbs akimbo, not quite sure what just happened and yet wanting it to happen again in all its gruesome glory.

Many of us step outside, patronise the bar, stand around drinking beer, bourbon, stunned, before moving onto the next leg.

“Did you watch the last US presidential debate?” a colleague then asks me. “The last ten minutes or so,” I reply. “Did you see how Trump just stalked the stage?” “Yep.” “That’s what Cash Savage does, she stalks, although she does it properly.” It’s true, Savage stalks from one side of the murky stage to the other, stepping between members of her band – guitars, bass, fiddle – mic in hand almost daring someone to do something wrong or stupid before filling the air with her howl, her freight-train vocal express. The band pack a punch, the crowd heaves, almost breathing in and out as one, the band spend most of the set as silhouettes, country punk ‘n’ roll coming out of the blackness with more power than the wind which still whips the usually insipid bay water to angry, frothy, white caps.

Marlon Williams & The Yarra Benders

And so to the finale, Marlon Williams in his only Melbourne show of the year, a man whose star has risen so quickly and with such dazzling speed that one wonders where, if at all, it will finally peak. With his Yarra Benders in tow, Williams does as he has so well these few years past – songs of intricate beauty, a thin vein of country running through them all, crooned and howled, whispered and wailed, his voice is his weapon as is his arsenal of simple-yet-poignantly strong songs – it’s little wonder he’s as popular as he is.

A cover of Neil Young’s ‘Out On The Weekend’, for which this small festival is named, goes down a treat and it all wraps up a little too soon and one wanders out of the big ol’ shed at the end, with everyone else, and are buffeted again, gulls floating overheard in the dark on the wind above the taco trucks and burger bars (now long sold out), we all saunter out and talk it over, voices raised above the gusty howl, try and find a cab, an Uber, eventually to the train and back into the city leaving behind another example of how a music festival – one with the music and the punters in mind, more so, at least on a surface level, than the making of multiple monies – should indeed be run. A resounding success by all accounts, the music for the most part, truly great.

 

Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – Jordie Lane

[Published in Rolling Stone, October 2016]

Jordie Lane & The Sleepers

Glassellland

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.

4/5

Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – Matt Malone

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

Matt Malone

S.I.X

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.

4/5

Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – Archie Roach

[Published in Rolling Stone, November 2016]

Archie Roach

Let Love Rule

Liberation Music

 

Archie Roach’s tenth record is a gem. At its core is the theme of love, but overall it’s an eleven song-long message of hope, “what I wish for” as Roach himself says. Covering a range of styles, Let Love Rule centres around his deep and rough-edged voice, the mainstay through these songs which paint vivid pictures of a theme which in no way seems clichéd or overused, not in Roach’s hands anyway. 

The addition of the Dhungala Children’s Choir and the Short Black Opera Choir on the title track and No More Bleeding is a masterstroke; Jen Anderson’s violin throughout plays a pivotal role; the songwriting is poignant and as strong as ever, on an album which fair oozes soul and honesty.

4/5

 

Samuel J. Fell

 

Key Tracks: Let Love Rule, Mighty Clarence River, No More Bleeding