LIVE – Mullum Music Festival 2017

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

SLOUCHING TOWARDS MULLUM

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)

3.5/5

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]

COUNTRY/AMERICANA Joshua Hedley

Mr. Jukebox (Third Man Records / ADA)

4.5/5

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)

3.5/5

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]

NEIL YOUNG & PROMISE OF THE REAL
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.

3.5/5

Samuel J. Fell

Album – Suicide Swans

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

SUICIDE SWANS
Augusta
NearEnoughRecords

With second long-player Augusta, Toowoomba quintet Suicide Swans have endeavoured to expand their sonic repertoire – a common aspiration as a band approaches that difficult second record. More often than not however, a band falls into the trap of broadening too far, sacrificing cohesion and identity in the process. With Augusta, Suicide Swans have managed to not just broaden their musical palette, but present it in a way that’s undeniably theirs. An exemplary understanding of each other’s strengths, along with outstanding use of Wurlitzer, complimentary guitars, fiddle and subtle rhythm section sees a thick vein of commonality running through the record’s ten songs, whether they be of the rock ilk (Horses, with its pulsating guitars); grey-sky lament (Let Me Be); or of the style with which the band made its early mark, that of more traditional Americana (the fiddle-laced Canyons; the acoustic Wall and Come & See). It’s this ability to explore new avenues without the results sounding alien or out of place together, that makes this such a good record. Four-part harmonies abound too, harsh voices made beautiful in the context of one of the best roots albums of the year.

4/5

Samuel J. Fell

 

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