Observations From Isolation: Ch.23 – Trucks On The Beach…

The Moreton ferry terminal is eerily quiet for a Monday morning. No people about, ticket office closed, a distinct dearth of big boats. I briefly wonder if we’re too early, but a quick check of the Facts reveals we are, it would seem, in the wrong place – the passenger ferry and the car barge depart from very different locations.

And so our calm, organised beginning quickly turns into a mad dash across peak-hour Brisbane; stuck at lights on Ann Street in the Valley, behind delivery trucks and buses, the minutes counting down all too quickly. By some minor miracle we make it to the Port with time to spare though, tyres squealing and hearts beating, onto the boat which pulls out minutes after we’ve come to a halt.

Claire and I regard this a success, despite the wayward start to proceedings, and the week away begins.

Booked on a whim almost a year ago, six days on Moreton is the situation, the fact the northern border opened up two days prior to our departure a glowing coincidence we take full advantage of. The truck is packed and Relaxation is on the cards, swapping one beach for another in an effort to Slow Down, to Unwind, to take minds off what’s happening the world over and Take Stock. Keep it Chilled Out.

There’s enough beer in the back to stun a horse, and between us we have at least six books. Good times ahead, no?

The house sits on the edge of the hill, across the path from the western beach, Moreton Bay spread in various shades of blue before it, Brisbane itself hazy on the horizon, slightly south. A couple of mates and their daughter, us and ours, another family of mates a few houses down, a decent arrangement. We wheel off the boat onto hard-packed sand, wing a right and find the house, parking and unpacking, sorting the details.

Truck tyres are let down to 18psi. 4WD has been engaged. Fishing rods and tackle boxes litter the tray. The sun is out and the stereo turned up, windows down, sea breeze on your face as you ride up the beach, the slight to and fro as you cross loose sand becoming part of the appeal of it all.

The interior track leading from western beach to east is a half hour jolting wander, second gear most of the way, the occasional kick down to first to navigate the heaping soft sand thrown up by trucks come before. The landscape changes dramatically multiple times, from lush rainforest to scrubby dunes and back again, sparsely vegetated to jungle-thick. The track cuts through narrow crevices you can touch out the window, heavily rutted and bouncing, Addy in her seat in the back like a pinball, loving every second of it.

On The Tuesday, we manoeuvre across the island onto the vast eastern beach, bordered by the wild Pacific, and head north to the lighthouse, up the sandy track to the park and out to walk the North Point. Marty, Claire and I lean against the railing at the top, overlooking the north-east corner. The water is innumerable colours, stretching far east where it becomes almost black. Two whales frolic on the edge of the deep, slapping the water with their tails sending plumes of white froth skyward, rolling about without a care in the world.

Far below us, in the shallows off the rock, we see a couple of what appear to be large fish. We can’t tell what sort. To the right, a piece of rock juts from the headland, capped underwater by what seems to be a seaweed forest – from this forest, this hive, come more and more of these fish. Sharks, not sure what kind, but more than a dozen appearing from the gloom. They’ve spotted a shoal of fish and, for the next few minutes we watch them corral the shoal into a tight ball before attacking – jagging into the swarm and getting their fill, dozens of them, feeding together.

Far bigger, darker shapes get wind of what’s happening and from the deep, we see them gliding in for their turn.

On Wednesday, we point the trucks south along the eastern beach. The Bay has pulled back and the tidal flats stretch toward the mainland, myriad colours painting a swirling portrait. We stop at the dunes halfway down, I climb to the top twice in an effort to get some exercise. The views are stunning, dramatic. We pull sheets of old board from the back of the truck and the kids carry them up, and sit on them to slide down.

Our true destination is the Gutter Bar, a grocery-cum-bar tucked into trees on the southernmost tip of the island, famous (or infamous, depending on yr view) for serving little else other than burgers and stubbies of VB. We sip and eat in the sun, wander about the point finding shady spots with jerry-rigged wooden seats that’d be nigh-on perfect for an evening brew, watching the sun sink over the country across the Bay.

We head back north, just beating the tide, up onto the bypass track that winds up and across the hill behind Tangalooma, an hour journey that ‘bypasses’ a single kilometre of resort. It’s heavily churned and is slow going. Claire gets out before we hit it, and walks the rest of the way.

Two days later, and the trucks stink like rotten fish, the result of dead starfish washed up on the beach popping under tyres and coating the undercarriage with their insides. There were thousands upon thousands of them littering the sand on our way to the south end, I didn’t realise what they were until I’d driven over a patch of them.

We stopped and got out for a closer look, Addy picking a few up and putting them gently back into the water. Vast armies of Soldier Crabs watched us on stalked eyes, skittering away like flat blue waves whenever we got too close.

Each evening, we’d convene on the top deck to watch the sun sink. A quiet beer, a glass of bubbles, Addy messily eating dinner, regaling anyone who’d listen about how she fed a dolphin last night (we know, we were all there), and how she’s still hungry (we all know, she always is). Dinners are pulled pork and slaw; vego lasagne; curry; a buffet of leftovers. Drinks are beer, Micheladas, sparkling wine, the odd whisky nightcap. We watch the footy on Thursday and Friday night, the former being Marty’s team who win easily, the latter mine who lose brutally.

I turn it off before fulltime and head out to the deck where Claire and Verity are drinking wine and discussing the state of the world.

I read two books and write some stuff. A few of us go fishing and catch nothing. Claire goes for walks and the three of us play tennis and basketball. Addy is enamoured by the older girls and they babysit her for an evening while the adults go to the bar and have a couple of margaritas.

On Saturday afternoon, truck packed, we wheel back onto the old barge, beached with ramp down onto the sand. We’re tucked into the back corner and Claire and Addy head upstairs to sit inside and watch the island pull away behind us (the latter chattering constantly), as I mooch around on the main deck waiting for the air compressor to become free so’s I can pump up the tyres.

4WD has been disengaged. Relaxation has been achieved. It’s time to swap this beach for our regular beach. We’ve Slowed Down, Unwound, Taken Stock, kept it Chilled Out. I head upstairs too, and watch the Island fade away.

ADDY & I: walking the streets of jaffa at dawn…


It’s dark and still, for just a little while more, nothing moving out there except the cats. Rogue and freeform, they pad along stone pavements ducking under heavily-flowering bougainvillea, spiky trees written bloodshot that yawn over ancient walls and cascade down to the ground below.

I roll over behind shuttered window – glassframe beyond open to the encroaching summer heat – left side numb, not attuned to the feline wander but awakened through an odd juxtaposition of ancient and infant as the former, the salat al-fajr, begins its eerie wail and at almost the same time, the latter, Adeline, stirs at her mother’s breast and rolls, four months alive, onto her back and almost smiles.

We’re halfway across a world as we, two of three of us, awake. From cold to hot, from quiet to loud, from the antipodes to Tel Aviv; a four-month-old girl with the promise of golden curls, myself and Claire, lodging with her brother in digs as alien as they seem familiar.

We get here late in the night prior, and despite that, Adeline down, the three of us older ones sit up and drink Israeli beer and talk and the moon traces its silvery path across the desert sky and yet we still talk and drink in each others’ stories and experiences because it’s been a time between meets and each of us thirsts for knowledge of what each other has done in the ensuing time and then, eventually, we sleep.


And so when I awake, my left side is numb because I’ve been propping Claire upright, back to back, so’s she can accommodate the nugget who, since we’ve left home, has ceased to sleep on her own and will only drift off when she’s touching her mother and so both haven’t slept well.

I rise in the dawn light and walk to the bathroom to piss, drink some water. I quickly, noiselessly across richly-rugged marble floor, dress and pull on my battered old Blundstones, moulded to the shape of my feet, and strap on the carrier, thick loop around my waist, pick up Adeline and press her front to mine and encase her in the canvas, loops over my shoulders, a clip in the back to hold it all in place.

Her tiny, white legs hang from the side and tap against my hips as I walk out of the room, her hands gripping the front of my shirt, her head sideways, eyes drooping and she’s asleep again before I’ve made it to the kitchen.

Behind me, Claire has rolled over for the first time all night and is asleep too and will be for hours.

We walk through the kitchen and down the steps to the front door, street level, and haul it open, stepping out onto HaTsorfim, crouching to pick up copies of The Jerusalem Post and the international edition of The New York Times which have been delivered before first light and which I stuff into the back pocket of my shorts lest I have a chance to sit and drink coffee and read while she carries on sleeping (something which, as I discover as we do this over the coming days, never happens as nothing opens early in Tel Aviv, much less the city section of Jaffa, ancient or otherwise).

We walk down HaTsorfim, a small single-lane one-way street that passes under old arches and becomes too small for any traffic other than foot – follow the curve past a couple of restaurants, closed at this hour, follow onto Tayelet Mifraz Shlomo directly opposite the Ottoman Empire-era Mahmoudiya Mosque.

There’s no traffic, there are no people. The cats have gone. It’s quiet and still, warming up as the sun begins its ascent proper as we walk down Russlan to Retzif HaAliya HaShniya on the foreshore, the deep green-blue of the Mediterranean stretching as far west as I can see. We walk along the stone boardwalk above it all heading south towards the ancient port, her small legs swinging slightly, she turns her head, breathes out loudly, continues to sleep.

As we wander further along the path, watching the sun dance off the water’s surface, on the left the old city rises from the scrubby bluff sloping down from Segev Street, golden stone walls building southward until they’re all-consuming, rising from the cobbled footpath and soaring high, a buttress against the ever-surging sea and whatever and whoever has coursed across it over decades, centuries and centuries.

Now the southern-most part of Tel Aviv, the port section of Jaffa – or Yafo, in Hebrew – was established almost two thousand years BC, built on a high ridge above the water, a site associated with myriad biblical stories, a site of military importance, a bustling centre for trade over the course of the ensuing four thousand years.

Today, in the early morning light, it stands serene, like it’s made peace with whatever has happened in the past, and whatever happens next hardly matters at all.


(The week prior, we’d been in England, in Yorkshire, staying with an uncle, and it was here that Adeline had stopped sleeping in the manner to which Claire and I had become accustomed and so I’d been walking early with her for seven or eight days. There though, it’d been along misty country lanes, bordered on both sides by woodland, the sounds of pheasants running through ground growth and pigeons in trees, the odd hare pulsing across verdant fields.

It’d been just as solitary – the two of us, in a place far from home – but as different a setting as one could possibly imagine from the one in which we find ourselves now).


At random, I turn into an archway hewn into the yellowed wall and we slowly make our way up stone steps worn smooth by the footfalls of countless people both ancient and modern. We leave the Mediterranean behind us, the smells and sounds of the sea and the greasy green lower walls against which it’s pounded for aeons fading along with the sunlight as we’re encased in shadow, into the gloom, the stairway curving left and upward.

On ledges above, cats now sedentary regard us languidly from under heavily lidded eyes.

It’s a maze; the steps crest to a landing running back north, more steps head toward the east, another landing above heading three ways. Doors dot the stone leading to small artisan studios, galleries, homes in there too, tiny windows high above with small pots of coloured flowers on the outer sills, the glass behind them open slightly to let in any hint of a breeze.

(I quietly, as much to break the silence as anything else, describe the surroundings as we – two of three of us, from so far away –  pass through places where so many have been before but which to me, and so to her, are of another world and even though she will never remember this, I feel she might need to hear. She sleeps and clutches my shirt, her ear so close to my words and yet so far away.)

We follow landings, go up steps, around corners. We have the place to ourselves, not a soul about. Even though we’re in shade and the stones are cool, I’m sweating but she seems fine, legs still hanging, hands still clutching my shirt. A small flock of birds flutters overhead and land as one high up on a wooden beam jutting from the stone.

We pass the Vatican Embassy, wend our way around about and up, eventually coming to the top and into the Kdumim Square at the Zodiac Signs Fountain, back into the sunlight and the mounting heat, the white stone almost blinding as my eyes readjust. There’s no one up here either, normally a bustling mass of fleshy tourist surge, but at the moment bereft of it all, tranquil.

A breeze in off the ocean cools us for a second and brings with it the sounds of the city awakening below.

Even though we’ve been turned all about whilst climbing, I have a general idea of which direction is which and we head past St. Peter’s Church and over Segev via the Wishing Bridge, carved with more signs of the Zodiac. I stop and look down the hill now we’re in the open, the crescent moon bay below stretching north, the sea a constantly moving, rippling jewelled sheet. The modern city of Tel Aviv in the middle distance – tall glass towers, reflecting the light and seeming to shimmer – presents in stark juxtaposition to where I’m standing, to where I’ve been walking.

I look for respite from the heat across Abrasha Park, past the Ramses Gate, restored from an archaeological site dating back to the Egyptian ruler’s time in power (not long after this port was first established), and we find palms throwing skinny shade where we stop, and down the hill on the other side we can see the house we’ve come from.

I count the top floor windows from the left and find ours, know Claire is dead asleep behind it, in the cool of the tiled room, away from the sunlight, ever-present now, dancing on the water, the stone, off the pale walls of houses shuttered against the building heat.

I fan the two of us with one of the newspapers pulled from my back pocket. She moves a little, changes the position of her head, the outward breath, keeps sleeping.

I begin to wander down towards HaTsorfim, through the Sha’ar Ra’amses Garden, out into a carpark and onto the street. To the left a little way is the house. To the right, past the end of the street and down an alley is the suspended orange tree, heavy in the morning still, not swaying at all.

We pass across, through a covered side road and wait by Yefet Street, beginning its morning bustle, sloping downward towards Yossi Carmel Square and the clock tower. I dart across and we’re in quiet again, shade by the side of more modern buildings for a block or so, apartments and bodegas, small businesses, some smart, others shabby, flyers pasted haphazard on their front doors, across the glass windows.

All locked, no one here yet, nothing to sell at this hour in this old town. No one here but mounting traffic back across the way, and the two of us, wandering odd streets at an odd time in what seems like an odd city.

I think to myself that it’s probably us who are odd.

For want of something to do with my hands, I gently tap Adeline’s butt through the canvas carrier and she breathes and doesn’t even stir.

We’re in the flea market now, a maze much like the ancient stone web we’ve already made our way through, but flat and in place of stone walls and glass-smooth footstones are endless alleys bordered on both side by cafes and restaurants, open spaces where people are erecting small canvas roofs to escape the sun and protect the wares they’re preparing to sell, odd switchbacks and deadends where nothing seems to be happening until you look closer and see, through small unwashed windows, short rows of tables, another café, somewhere to eat, part of the fabric of this tiny cut of Jaffa.

Alleyways and narrow paths are covered with swathes of coloured cloth, nothing is open and we’re hidden from the sun under the faded blush cover and old, distressed sun-shades stretched across alleys entwine with electrical wires and ornate strands of fairy lights to create a glorious chaos, a melange of old and new painted ochre with desert dust and baked under a middle eastern sun.

I don’t know what the time is at this point, my watch is on the small table next to the bed and I can’t see a clock. It can’t be much earlier than eight, I think to myself, and yet the place is almost deserted.

Nothing starts early in Tel Aviv, and why would it?


(Later on, the three of us venture through the market, the maze of small streets, and it’s a different beast entirely, awake and going about its day, gently pulsating, slowly heaving with people both alert and not-so-much. We sit and drink weak coffee under the shade of a faded orange sheet strung across an alley outside a small café, watching the people – young and old, some with children hanging off them, in prams and strapped to chests, men on scooters with cigarettes dangling from lips and mobile phones pressed against their ears, the sound of car horns always on the breeze which comes in from the Mediterranean and becomes a part of the city noise.

Cars and trucks and bikes through the round-about at the clock tower a few blocks down, horns and shouting, street hawkers and people gawking and yelling.

The sound of a city shifting restlessly in the midday heat).


As we slowly walk these streets and alleyways, I think to myself how interesting a prospect this is, how almost familiar and yet never quite Jaffa is, how it almost seems like a place I know, a typeof place I know, and yet it never quite makes it there and I then feel like I’m lost somewhere in the world and not a soul – not one who can do anything about it, anyway – knows where I am or what could happen to me.

Most likely nothing will happen, and yet this place is indeed as alien as it is familiar. I’ve wandered streets in much the same fashion (sans small child) in various European cities, southern American rural settings, Asian markets and English villages and yet this is New and Different and, with my tiny sleeping charge, exciting and Real and seemingly Raw.

I tell her this, dropping my neck forward so’s my words rustle through the light fuzz that adorns her skull, my eyes still upward, mapping our path ahead. She’ll not remember it, but perhaps she’ll soak it in.

I smile to myself as I gently tap against the canvas, in time with my slow footsteps and she sighs and turns her head again and I see on her cheek, a small imprint of one of the pearl snap-buttons from my shirtfront.


We wend our way toward where I think the house is, down new paths and alleys, across actual streets, albeit small ones within the warren – Rabi Khanina, Ami’ad, Rabbi Yohanan, in no particular order – the place gently waking up and coming back to life. I recognise this and that, eventually marking a bodega as one I know if close to Yefet and we find the winding road and wait, traffic building bigger now, and quickly cross onto the shady side, a bit further north and so down HaHalfanim, a foot alley, a trickle of grey water down its centre, out onto the restaurant curve of HaTsorfim and left a couple of small blocks to the front door, digging in my pocket for the key, unlocking and reefing the heavy wooden door open and into the stone cool, up the steps and into the kitchen where I put the kettle on and Adeline wakes up and looks up at me and her blue eyes sparkle like the Mediterranean we’ve just left behind us.

I step out onto the covered terrace, shaded and bordered by myriad plantings, overflowing tomato stems and terracotta pots in long and ungainly formation, a long table, cool tiles underfoot. I unclip the carrier and lay her down on a small blanket and she lies there and waves her legs around and clutches the small, woollen sheep an aunty had given her in the UK.

I make coffee and spread the papers on the long table and spend more time talking to her about where we’ve just been than reading the news.

She won’t remember any of this.

But, four months alive, she rolls from her side onto her back and smiles.

LIVE – Mullum Music Festival 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The barbershop doesn’t have eftpos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel J. Fell

Jerusalem… A Brief Portrait


Jerusalem throbs with a religious fervour, with a visceral sense of time and place, with tension you can almost cut and with a power that’s hard to put your finger on.

It swelters in summer heat, its maze of streets – in both the new and old cities – an indecipherable sprawl of foot-polished stone, undulating with the hillside, sharp left turns and dips, rivulets of some liquid or other coming to pool in the cracks, covered over with wet cardboard and shredded paper; detritus and bits and pieces that, at the end of the day, are hosed off and left to fester in the damp heat.

Damascus Gate

Outside the daunting Damascus Gate, perhaps the most formidable entrance to the Old City, long and black guns are strapped to uniformed fronts, tan pants tucked into boots planted firm on shining flagstones behind blue Police barriers. Inside the gate though, in the Old City on the final day of Ramadan, in the Muslim Quarter, the market booms and bustles and people throng. A seething mass bumping up against one another as they move from place to place, up steps, vanishing into dark corners behind the old rock, the giant walls disappearing behind as you descend into the maze, covered alleys decked with garments and plastic toys and sweets with names you can’t pronounce and shouldn’t pretend to.

We follow the stations of the cross and stop in small churches amidst lush gardens, oasis’ from the heat and noise outside. For the most part, they’re empty and quiet and our footsteps echo and we whisper just because. A lone woman kneels at the alter and starts to sing and her voice fills the entire space, ricocheting and furling back on itself and it sounds like a choir and stuns us to silence as we listen, before slowly fading out.

Temple Mount

The Temple Mount is closed and things are quiet at the Western Wall. We don yamakas and wander down to the ancient barrier and touch its smooth sides, think for a minute about what it all means. The tension doesn’t seem too heightened here, the sunshine layering the scene perhaps a pleasant distraction from what could, or what has, or what might happen. An electrifyingly religious place for so many with varied beliefs and opinions as to what it means, what happened, who has ownership, who can do what and when. The guns are still there, but they’re hanging loose and it all seems so calm.

Jordan (background)

Having dinner with the ABC middle east correspondent on the hill above town, Jordan visible through the heat haze as the sun sets. We talk shop and throw opinions and observations onto the table among the tall cans of Budweiser and bottles of red wine, olives and bread and shredded meat. Talk is cheap and as the wine flows, so to does the speculation. Half a dozen people from halfway around the world trying to dissect a place as tangled and gnarled as any on earth.

Flashes of gold from a way across the desert as the setting sun reflects back off glass in another country.

The streets around the Old City seem grey and listless. The closer you get, the busier it is though, cars and buses bumper to bumper, horns blaring. At the crossing, men and women of different religions and belief systems stand side by side, the minutia of the everyday relegating them from sworn enemies to mere people crossing the road together, with their shopping, to catch the bus, to head home, to pray, to pick up their children.

The market bustles and a young Asian man sprints past, accosts someone, seems his passport has been lifted from his pocket. The accosted man is indignant and the Asian kid nearly beside himself, potentially trapped somewhere he no longer wants to be.


James and I head out later, at night, to a shisha bar where we smoke giant pipes and drink cold Lebanese beer while discussing this and that. Stray cats play in the garden and jump from the trees. A young woman sitting by herself receives a birthday cake from the staff who sing to her, and we wonder why she’s there alone.

Ramadan had finished the day before, and having dinner high atop one of the local hotels, we hear what seems an explosion, but are told it’s just the signal for the sun setting and so the feast begins – seems an odd signal in this part of the world, an explosion. To get here from Tel Aviv, we’ve driven through the West Bank, a long and fast run through the desert which, before you realise, is bordered on both sides by high barbed-wire fences, cameras every fifty metres on tall poles, monitoring the scene… one doesn’t stop on this road, not even for a flat tyre, one just drives until the destination, either way, is reached.

We pass through checkpoints along the way, and the soldiers manning them look no older than seventeen.

You can see the Palestinian towns, marked by tall mosques, and the Israeli settlements, marked by red-tiled roofs and huge Israeli flags. It’s tense and I feel the car speed up a little. It seems so incongruous that this place, the West bank and Jerusalem itself, these volatile pits of possible violence and despair, are so close to Tel Aviv with its convivial feel and its cosmopolitan ambiance. They seem of different countries.

We leave Jerusalem after a couple of days having walked the flagstones and seen the people and the places. It still sat heavy and foreboding, despite the sun and the heat, a place that could erupt at any time and yet is so full of history and tales tall and true that one could get lost there for decades.

It recedes behind us in the rear-view mirror as we re-enter the West Bank, past checkpoints and guns, and seems like it wasn’t even ever real, just an imaginary place where trouble brews but where people just get on with life as if it’ll never change.

Samuel J. Fell

Tel Aviv… A Brief Portrait


Tel Aviv shimmers rippled gold from the midnight desert. A sprawling jewel against black from the tiny airplane window, disappears as we bank left, reappears on the far side. Closer now. The thud as we touch down and reverse thrust and finally, still.

From verdant English countryside to layers of burnt orange and gold, a layer of dust covers it all in a dull warmth, the heat from the dying day a slow and languid wash that envelops you as you navigate the airport, Hebrew lettering and blue and white flags and shawls draped and flaccid in the marble quiet.

In the old town, Jaffa and its ancient port, lights are lit and music tumbles from old, arched doorways despite the time of day and we sit on the top deck and drink Israeli beer after we’ve put her to bed and we catch up, smoking in the still air, wafting upward. The new city burns bright in the middle distance, white light, while below us basks in yellow, the flickering painting the cobbled streets in ever-changing layers of light and shade. Stray cats prowl and the purple bougainvillea spews over an old grey wall like spent beer from a bottle left in the freezer overnight.

The next day we wander the maze of the port, ancient and labrynthian, tiny galleries and churches hewn into rock on the side of the hill rolling up from the water. We stand on the hilltop and look across the half-moon bay. Sunlight, ever-present, dances on the water, on the stone, off the pale walls of houses shuttered against the building heat. The cats sit in the shade in high places and watch from under lidded eyes.

Across Yefet Street, into the flea market and its own twisted alleys and underpasses, antique dealers’ wares spill onto the roadways. We sit outside a café under an orange umbrella and drink weak black coffee with small glasses of water as people wander past – young and old, some with children hanging off them, in prams and strapped to chests, men on scooters with cigarettes hanging from lips and mobile phones pressed against their ears, the sound of car horns always on the breeze which comes in from the Mediterranean and becomes a part of the city noise like the talking and the yelling, the call to prayer and the music from weddings and churches, Arabic music and Jewish music, the occasional burst of a western sound, cars and trucks and bikes through the round-about at the clock tower, horns and shouting, street hawkers and people gawking and yelling.

The sound of a city shifting restlessly in the midday heat.

In the mornings, I strap her to me and we walk for an hour or so while she sleeps. I pick up one of the newspapers thrown on the front step and tuck it into my back pocket should I come across somewhere to drink coffee while we’re out but I never do, nothing is open this early. We have the old streets to ourselves and we make for the water, along the foreshore, into the maze of the port and upward, upward, steps and slopes, warn smooth from centuries of feet, so many feet, up to the crown of the hill overlooking it all and down the other side. Across the wishing bridge. Past the church facing west. Into the shade and bustle of Yefet and into the market where nothing is open and we’re hidden from the sun under shade of narrow paths and old, faded sun-shades stretched across alleys entwined with electrical wires and ornate strands of fairy lights and wreaths of coloured cloth.

We get home before she wakes and I make coffee in the kitchen and sit out the back under the passionfruit vine and read the paper until she wakes up and we have breakfast together as the rest of the house stirs and comes to join us

Everything is burnt orange and gold and there’s a layer of dust that covers it all in a dull warmth and yet it shimmers with a vibrant colour and sheen, polishing the edges and washing the roadways of rubbish and refuse, detritus from centuries of use and overuse and underuse, and the green-blue Mediterranean gently pushes up against its edge and the palm trees bow in the breeze and Tel Aviv exists, shimmering rippled gold in the midnight desert.

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.

American Deep South Vol. 4 – Nashville, Tennessee

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Songwriters In The Row

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Deep South Vol. 3 – Memphis, Tennessee

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

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

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

Beale Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The place is magic, pure magic.

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


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

American Deep South Vol. 2 – New Orleans, Louisiana

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

American Deep South Vol. 1 – Austin, Texas

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

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

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

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

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


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

Salt Lick BBQ

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

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

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

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

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

Stubbs Gospel Brunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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