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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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’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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Samuel J. Fell
Key Tracks: Let Love Rule, Mighty Clarence River, No More Bleeding
With his eleventh studio album, Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock has proven, once again, that he is indeed the master of juke joint swing. The Austin, Texas-based Hancock, who’s been active since the late ‘70s (although not releasing his debut record until 1995), delivers here a set that embodies the foot-stompin’ American south; a melding of western swing, hillbilly and country, along with elements of jazz, to create a sound that, while a throw-back, comes across as fresh today as it would have been in the day of Bob Wills.
With a crack band behind him, Hancock is at the height of his powers – the humid and slow Dog Day Blues, the rollicking title track, the jazz-inflected instrumental Over Easy, a fine reimagining of Merle Travis’ Divorce Me C.O.D. The man’s laconic delivery, his mastery of the form, all this combines to create a record which just flows – it’s not forced, it’s not pre-meditated, it’s not slick and sharp. Nope, it’s a Friday night in a lean-to tonk somewhere in Texas, sweat running down your back as you shuffle across the dance floor, cold Lone Star beer in hand – a cracking release from the master. 4/5