Posts Tagged ‘Blues’

Trumpeter and composer, Ellen Kirkwood is a Sydney jazz artist I always look forward to hearing more of.

She first made me prick up my ears with the all-women Sirens Big Band, whose catholic orbit happily included her Balkan/jazz/blues mashups (check her ‘Balkanator’, the opening track on Siren’s LP Kali and the Time of Change). Her first album under her own name (ok, Captain Kirkwood), was a jazz/spoken word retelling of the ancient Greek legend of Theseus and The Minotaur.

She also bobs up with Mister Ott and Serge Stanley’s On The Stoop as well as others around town, including David Sattout’s grisly Zappa-flavoured Facemeat. The binding quality of her music and her collaborations is that is consistently has one foot firmly in jazz and the other trailing in the waters of a tangy broth of blues, rock, gypsy swing, klezmer, reggae and you-name-it.

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Her new release – under the band-name of Fat Yahoozah – titled I Don’t Care, is no exception to her unique catalogue. Maybe a bit more fun, maybe a little more raucous, but as smart and brightly arranged as anything that has come before.

And she adds the arrow of vocalist to her quiver. The title track, ‘I Don’t Care’ has Kirkwood singing a world-weary lyric over a breezy pop song (Lotte Lenya goes to Bondi?). Simon Ferenci’s trombone solo is light and grinning before a lilting horn/voice ensemble riff.

‘Klezmore’ (get it?) is a drunken wedding waltz with a dark lyric of childhood foreboding. Even though I am reviewing this album in dry July, I look forward to listening to this tune (hopefully live) after maybe one too many shiraz cabs. Once again, beautifully balanced and heartfelt horn arrangements paint the picture.

‘Translation Day’ has Ruth Wells’ soprano intro-ing with some Eastern European blues before the ensemble clips along on a lovely village polka; Jessica Dunn’s bowed bass singing like Grandpapa. The tune accelerates and accelerates until all the winter leaves are blown off the trees. This tune made me realize how vivid the sound pictures are on the album; how much Soul it has.fat yahoozah 1

The band Kirkwood has assembled helps paint the pictures beautifully. She has smartly drawn the players from her previous and current collaborations – Wells from the Sirens and Facement, David Sattout on guitar, Serge Stanley on sax and accordian, Ferenci, The Sirens’ Dunn on bass with Evan McGregor on drums and percussives.

I know the band has been knocking everyone out playing live around town – it’s a killer one-two punch: jazz chops with gypsy party moods that anyone can love. It’s awfully good to drink to, but even better to listen to. I recommend you do.


Published July 2015 on


There is a place called Americana – not to be confused with that all too real country, America – where everything is larger than ordinary life, where feelings run hot and sorrow can make the world come to an end at least once an hour. It is a place where the population is not bothered by parking tickets (unless they lead to a stretch in jail) or taxes (unless the taxman closes down the farm); a place where all women have great strong hearts, which are easily bruised, and every man will gladly destroy his life for a woman with a great big strong bruised heart.

Not to be found on any map, Americana lives in the grooves of records and in guitars, bars and cars – it lies at the intersection of country, blues and rock’n’roll (specifically rock’n’roll of the Sun Studios flavour).


Central Coast songwriter Lianna Rose proves that you don’t have to be American to make great Americana. She proves it – almost too easily – on her new album Travellers, released this March. Over thirteen sharply penned songs, she covers rockabilly, ballads, pop-country and rock and roll. The rise and fall of the album – its sequencing following an arc from rattling double-time openers ‘Willy Wagtail’ and ‘Big Ass Town’ through to the middle set of ballads such as the title track ‘Travellers’ and ‘Pillar to Post’, heating up again for the last barrage of rockers: ‘Cowboy’ and ‘Take its Toll’ – gives Travellers a strong cohesion and makes it a vivid and cinematic journey through Rose’s own little isthmus of Americana.

Great songs, honestly rendered and beautifully played. Her voice is capable of raising the roof, Wanda Jackson style, on the rockabilly tracks yet can fall away to a blue reverie on the deeply felt ‘Travellers’. The innocently sung ‘Somebody Save Me’ could easily be a pop hit with its lush hook and perfect song craft.

That the small group of crack players on the album can cover all of these grooves and moods so adeptly is no surprise; with players such as Matt Fell and Dai Pritchard on board. Pritchard brings some of his Rose Tattoo mojo to ‘Cowboy’ and ‘Take it Toll’, his slide guitar weaving in an around Rose’s voice, summoning that hair-raising spirit that Duane Allman did so damn well. LIANNA-FRONT-COVER-TRAVELLERS-copy-Small

Unlike much of current Americana, Travellers comes from an honest and deep place. As a genre, Americana can be too often overburdened with fake authenticity and second-hand experience. Rose writes and sings from a place of experience, with all its hurts and joys, and the songs breathe with the salty (and slightly bourbon-sweet) breath of real life.

An American poet once said “I am like a country song; all my sads are real.” That could apply to Travellers but, in Lianna Rose’s case, so are all her happys.


Lianna Rose’s website is


I love all these fantastic unique ensembles popping up wherever I look! From big bands to little big bands to sex-sept-oct-nonets, the desire to create colour, flavour and harmony out of varieties of instruments and personalities seems to be growing.

Mike Nock – an abundant kind of guy himself – has described the debut album of Sydney’s Acronym Orchestra, Initially as an “abundance of ideas…an upbeat collection of original compositions”.

Yes, the septet’s sound is highly original – a horn front line driven by guitar, keys and tuba (Mr James Greening) working in all sorts of intriguing combinations and interweavings – yet, the past is not forgotten.


From the Soweto Hi-Life shuffle of opener track, guitarist David de Vries’ ‘Miss Coconutz’ through the New Orleans street march of ‘If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It’ to the mariachi flavours of altoist Peter Farrar’s ‘Bastards’ (even if they were crap, I would give them four stars for song titles alone…), the past shadows their Now sound.

De Vries’ ‘Jesus’ has gospel flavours; tenor player James Loughnan’s ‘Branches’ digs into its own kind of blues; trumpeter Joe Derrick’s ‘Joe’s Piece’ unearths a whole different blues (maybe a shade more turquoise) yet again.

It is a wonderful thing to hear The Acronym Orchestra and many of their contemporaries joyfully celebrate and integrate and build upon the musical language of, and beyond, the Jazz tradition – blues, gospel, jump, New Orleans, and even further back to Africa and the Middle East and both West and Eastern Europe.

It is of course what the musicians then do with the tradition they have been given that separates the gilt from the dross.

Echoes from the past bounce around the walls of this music, but what The Acronym Orchestra does next will amaze you – as it did me. ‘Miss Coconutz’ is riven with angular tenor sax; ‘If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It’ grows into a nagging accelerando; ‘Bastards’ leaves Mexico behind in its jet trail; and the heavy lope of ‘Branches’ phractured Phrygian melody is gunned down in a blizzard of free blowing, with drummer James Waples poking holes through the howl.acronym1

And there is profound beauty too. Pianist Harry Sutherland’s ‘Misty’s Dilemma’ contains some pearlescent, shining horn writing. De Vries’ ‘Deep Sea’ pours out a translucent texture for Farrar’s alto lines to dart beneath like silver fish.

Album closer ‘Funeral March’ is perhaps the most startling. A jaunty, life-gripping march is answered by mourning sighs from the horns until, slowly and almost unnoticeably, the piece smears, like paint, into a wash-blur of sadness, and then… it’s gone.

‘Funeral March’ is only one example here that shows what an original voice and conception The Acronym Orchestra posses. For a debut, ‘Initially’ is truly remarkable.

And, to quote Mr Nock again, it is music – often because it is joyous, but often because it is so damn good – “that’ll put a smile on your face.”

Published February 2104 on

Like post-punk has done since the 1980s, Jazz has gradually eschewed and expunged the Blues from its vernacular.

Yes, there are still lipstick traces left from the grand old dame, but many contemporary Jazz artists seem intent on (consciously or sub-consciously) avoiding her patois, perfumes and punch-drunkenness in any overt sense.

Sydney’s Dubious Blues Trio have no such qualms. In fact the Trio drink deep not only of the blues but – horrors! – the blues’ boozy trailer-trash cousin, blues-rock.

Made up of guitarist Cameron Henderson, double-bassist Elsen Price and drummer Tully Ryan, The Trio are one of the current young bands that make me jump for joy. Genre-hopping is admirably rife in the modern jazz world, but done as it is here on their debut – Dubious Blues Trio – so unselfconsciously and with a real blues wildness, is a buzz.

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After a short ‘Intro’ (a bit of cod-blues piano quickly devoured by an electronic belch), Henderson’s ‘Shoemound’ snaps our attention – the unmistakeable tang of Stevie Ray Vaughan salting his Stratocaster. Yet the line he plays winds into some snaky shapes – hhmmmm, dubious blues indeed.

‘Mousterious Moustache’ takes their tough sound into 6/8 and ‘Bigger Than The Mammoth’ has some Zappaesque riffing slding into a very SRV boogie.

Bassist Price’s ‘Fixy and Your Haircut’ flies along in a bluegrass handbasket-to-hell – Price has recently been seen around town playing with bluegrass mavericks The Morrisons. Price’s choppy triple-time bowing opens it up for Henderson’s banjo-like guitar. It’s all over in 1:36 but we are sweating.Dubious Blues1

The funky ‘King Hustle’ goes back past SRV to Jimi Hendrix, who seems to be as much a touchstone for Henderson as Bill Frisell or, maybe even moreso, Wayne Krantz. After a languid, gospel-throated bowed solo from Price the whole piece dissolves beneath a (not-so-)hilarious montage of phone recordings of the guys hustling for gigs – and accepting having to “play for tips”.

Dubious Blues Trio leaves us with Price’s ‘Miscellaneous Whale’ – a 14:15 monolithic jam featuring trumpeter Will Gilbert. Gilbert’s breathy tone, together with the black-hole ambience of the piece, dimly recalls Miles Davis’s electric anti-jazz psychedelia of the 70’s. Whatever their influences, this is entirely original music made by fresh-thinking players – Gilbert’s longing horn, Henderson’s whale-song guitar, Price’s leaden bass moans. Special mention here goes to drummer Ryan – a piece as stretched out as ‘Miscellaneous Whale’ is a true challenge for any drummer and he is always in the right space with the right colour at the right time.

Dubious Blues Trio was recorded live in the studio, which adds a layer of danger and shows the Trio to their best advantage. Henderson, Price and Ryan have a wonderful thing here – a three-way joy of noise and a questing group-mind. There is no leader, and no followers – as it should be, but too rarely is.

Dubious Blues Trio brings the blues back into jazz – not the clichés and the tired down-home trappings (we’ll leave that to the official Blues® scene), but the innovation, the openness and, above all the humanity that the best blues always had. And it is about time.


Published February 2104 on


“Big Blind” Ray Lechminka is one of the towering characters of the Sydney blues and roots scene. His larger-than-life presence – both physically and musically – is reminiscent of a time when giants such as Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson roamed the earth, blowing down tall trees and even taller women with a mighty blast from a Marine Band blues-harp.

Big Blind Ray may not quite yet be of that immortal stature, but I for one would not want to be in his path when he blows his harmonica, son. His Trio’s self-titled debut – Big Blind Ray Trio –  has captured that raw power and just plain workin’-mojo across eight chooglin’ tracks.

Together with guitarist Karl “P. Hound” Mardon and livewire drummer Rebecca Clarke, Lechminka has cooked up a feast for fans of the Blues, ancient and modern. From opener ‘Hipshake’ – the Slim Harpo raver made famous by the Rolling Stones on Exile on Main Street – through essentials such as Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and Willie Dixon‘s totemic ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, the Big Blind Ray Trio cooks with all pots on. Originals ‘Keep Myself Close’ and ‘Mereki’ – written with guest guitarist Cam Kinsey – fit seamlessly with the classics; the band obviously eat and breathe this music.

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Recorded at Katoomba’s Soundheaven and Sydney’s Nut’n’Butter, and mixed by simpatico mixer Michael Wheatley, the resulting album catches a nice balance between live vibe (with this music moreso than almost any other, if the vibe ain’t there, don’t bother) and sharp playing. big blind ray3

And, thank God and Muddy, Lechminka doesn’t seem to have a purist bone in his big body – mixed in are Tony Joe White‘s wry ‘Polk Salad Annie’ (nuzzled along by Serge Coniglione‘s Fender bass) and The Stones’ ‘Ventilator Blues’ – along with ‘Hipshake’, a nod to their 70s golden-period (not to mention the ‘secret track’ at the end of closer ‘Goin’ Down South’, a moody take on Sticky Fingers‘ ‘You Got To Move’, Sydney via London via Mississippi Fred McDowell).

It’s all good, big-hearted stuff. If you like the Blues, if you like the more current take on the form, or the ancient tales retold loud and proud, you will love Big Blind Ray Trio.


Prior to posting this review I asked Ray Lechminka a handful of questions. Here are his responses.

The Orange Press: The Trio sounds very raw and lean – was it a conscious decision to travel light without a bass player?

Big Blind Ray: Very much so. Apart from the obvious aspect of having one less mouth to feed – musically I felt the need to work on a project that omitted the bass as a way of developing a sonic framework that was sympathetic to this. I think we have managed to successfully pull this off and in turn further develop our individual style. I was also very much inspired by the sounds of the North Mississippi Hill Country Blues style and the modern interpretations that spawned from this movement.

TOP: Your material draws from the best – Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and even second generation white bluesmen such as The Rolling Stones and Tony Joe White – do you think the past was a golden period for The Blues?

BBR: I think so yes. The songs that we picked to record on the album were the acid test as to whether we could take our simple line up and make it work in a modern context without losing the sensibility of the old style.

TOP: What do you think it is about Blues-based music that seems to still get people jumping for joy?

BBR: For me, discovering the Blues was like returning back to a source – THE source if you will of Western Pop and Rock based music. When I listen to the Blues it feels like I’ve come home musically and that brings me joy. There has certainly been a resurgence in the sound over the past few years and perhaps the new blood out there spearheading and embracing this old sound are experiencing something similar to what I did and still continue to feel.

TOP: Will we be seeing more originals creeping into The Big Blind Ray Trio’s set over time?

BBR:  For sure! We are writing new material and hope to record again round this time next year with all original content. But it’s no race. As much as we want to be regarded for originality as well as keeping the old sound alive, writing good songs is paramount and particularly writing original music that incorporates the sound of my instrument (Harmonica) within a context that isn’t just straight out 12 bar blues matters to me.

TOP: What are your thoughts on the state of The Blues today?

BBR:  I think the Blues is alive and well. If anything there has been a resurgence of the genre locally over the past few years and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down and that excites me.

TOP: What are your thoughts on mainstream music in general today?

BBR:  There is a lot of great popular music out there. I won’t delve into my guilty Pop pleasures but hey – I’m sure we can all agree on this: What makes music so beautiful is that there is something for everybody and if you find you connect with a song and it brings you joy then who am I to cast judgement as to whether that is in good or bad taste and who are you to do the same?


Published October 2013 on

The illusion of much modern recorded band-oriented music (dance is a whole other trip of course) is that it is played live: the whole band laying it down for you in one perfect passionate take.

Of course, since Les Paul in the early 1950s, multitrack recording has allowed the performance to be staggered in time – pulled apart and put back together. The rise of huge multitrack desks in the late 70s and early 80s took multitrack recording to an almost ridiculous level, and of course ProTools has carried recording beyond ridiculous – to a degree where every touch of a hi-hat can be modelled and moulded to diamond-like perfection.


There are certain forms of music that benefit from such infinite care and almost forensic sound-shaping. And there are musics that don’t. The latter is music that is based on a rawness and immediacy that is part of its intrinsic make-up – such as Blues.

Tasmanian (yes, folks that’s about as far from Chicago as you can get) Blues guitarist Pete Cornelius recorded his new album Groundswell in a neighbour’s holiday house in Elephant Pass, virtually entirely live. And it shows.

There is a theory that says that every step of the process between the artist’s heart and the listener’s ear diminishes the emotional force of what the artist is trying to say. If true, that certainly applies to simpler, more direct music such as country, blues and roots where there is not too much left once you strip the emotive power away. Cornelius’ decision to record live was smart, and as good a proof of this theory as I have heard for a while.

Cornelius made his name fronting The DeVilles, a hard rockin’ Texas blues powerhouse that matched Cornelius’ SRV-style gun-slinger trip. But the band has settled into a more mellow thing, firstly on Pete’s last album Tumbleweed and the new one Groundswell. As his music has focused on songwriting, it has taken on extra dimension, away from guitar solos and Texas raunch.

Not that there are no longer moments of real guitar fire – the Hendrix-howl solo on ‘Repo Man’ shows where Cornelius’ rep comes from. But hopefully Groundswell will give him a parallel rep as a warm-hearted songwriter for songs such as opener ‘Drinking the Blues’ – a sly New Orleans groove – or the very pretty ‘Goodnight My Love’ – a soul lullaby to his new young daughter.groundswell-cover-small

And like SRV, like Eric Clapton, Cornelius’ voice is a perfect foil for his guitar-playing – check acoustic closer ‘Strong Suit’, a song so nicely rendered I truly expect to see it covered by other artists. There is a slight country lilt to his voice which works equally well across the Meters-like hipshaker ‘Talkin’ Bout New Orleans’ and the sinewy lope of ‘Cold Water’ (with its wry – and very funny – lyric), and matches the country-blues filigree of his playing.

His playing – yes, still dazzling and highly original while still reflecting the colours and shapes of his obvious influences  – is nicely balanced against the songwriting and vocal (and great band interpretations of the songs) across the album. A player of Pete Cornelius’ imagination and great fingers could just put out another collection of sizzling jams and the Australian Blues audience would eat it up.

It is testament to his musical evolution – that quality that separates out the true long-term artists in any genre – that he went for a wider palette of colours and emotions that make up Groundswell.

Published September 2013 on

Sydney go-to guitarist Illya Szwec has to be aware of the irony of titling his new album Introducing Illya Szwec. Ok, it is his debut album as a leader, but the man has been around forever, played with everybody and very definitely needs no introduction.

The bio that came with my review copy is two solid pages of star-time names – not two pages of the usual double-spaced flummery, puffing up a thin resume as too many are, but two pages dense with names such as ‘Continental’ Robert Susz (Szwec has played in his Continental Blues Party for the past 7 years), Declan Kelly (gigs and recording on his Adrift LP), boogie-king Don Hopkins, boogie-queen Bridie King, The Wolverines, Wendy Saddington, Jim Conway, Ray Beadle, Johnny G, Eugene ‘Hideaway’ Bridges, and such.


It is such a virtual phone book of Australian blues, rock and roots royalty that it could easily sway my review of Introducing Illya Szwec – hell, that’s what PR is for, right?

Which is exactly why I totally ignored it and did my best to listen to Introducing Illya Szwec with clean, unencumbered, objective ears (hell, that’s what record reviewers are for, right?).

Open ‘Ain’t Nothing That A Young Girl Can Do’ instantly brought a smile to my jaded sensibilities – a warm Meters-style NOLA groove gently pushed along by Szwec’s gently needling Telecaster. Pure taste – which left me a tad apprehensive as well: there is a musical element in this town which exalts ‘taste’ above all else, sometimes expunging all grit and juice from the music in the process. I hoped this was not going to be the case as I listened deeper.

It wasn’t – second track, a cover of Cream’s psychedelic anthem, ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ blew away my concerns. With a cap-S Soulful vocal from Stephanie Marchant and driven by Ed Schots’ muscular horns, Szwec’s ‘Sunshine…’ owes as much to Ginger Baker’s 1970 Airforce version as it does to any number of cooking Stax soul treatments.

The sole Szwec composition here, ‘Lois Maxwell’ is a witty and snappin’ piece of James Bond-inspired reggae (the lady of the title is the actress who played the smart but unrequited Miss Moneypenny in many Bond movies). Reggae pops (literally) up across Introducing Illya Szwec on the smooth ‘Missing You’ (nicely felt vocal from Troy Blanch) and in a more funky, ska-hot form on James Booker’s ‘Big Nick’.szwec1

It is the loose-limbed forms such as reggae and funk that seem to fit Illya Szwec’s musical shape well. His playing, whether fuzzed-up on ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ or hollow-body howlin’ on ‘Fire Eater’ (driven by Clayton Doley’s happening Hammond), combines a warmth of personality with a cool passion – in short, in common with most great instrumentalists it has a very human voice.

He also speaks fluent Blues – hardly surprising as it is of course the Blues which is the dark river that flows through all of this music, like rich blood under skin. Check out Szwec and Marchant’s take on Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s ‘When My Love Comes Down’. Tingle-making stuff.

Too often a booked-up super-instrumentalist releases an album that ultimately amounts to not much more than a professional’s portfolio – a kind of aural show-reel of their skill-set – with all the glassy blandness that such an approach implies.

Introducing Illya Szwec ain’t that at all. Sure, the skills and craft are there – which is why this album is crammed to the rafters with Sydney’s finest players. But they are all having a time of it, obviously inspired and brightened up by the big heart that beats deep inside Illya Szwec’s guitar playing.

Published September 2013 on

To pay tribute to any artist by releasing an album covering their songs is a brave step. The kicker is that any artist worth paying tribute to is usually a one-off, an utter original – in effect, uncopyable. When the artist is Etta James, the brave step veers close to kamikaze.

James was a restless, troubled and driven soul, who blazed through a wild and rocky career, bouncing from gospel to blues to rock and roll, writing the book on cap-S Soul styling along the way. To pay tribute to such a chimeric and meteoric talent in a meaningful way is a tall ask.

But, if the tribute is done with love and a sense of celebration – as Darren Percival recently did with his Ray Charles album – it can work like a charm.

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Sydney soul singer, Alex Hahn‘s new release The Wallflower – named for the ‘polite’ renaming of James’ sexually explicit ‘Roll With Me Henry’ (which appears here) – works. In fact it works like a fucking voodoo charm.

Hahn – one of Sydney music’s best kept secrets – has put together one hell of an album covering all of the styles that Etta James chewed up and spat out in her career of almost six decades. From the rolling blues of ‘Baby What You Want Me to Do?’ (with its growling vocalese solo) through the boppin’ rock’n’roll of ‘Tough Lover’ and minor key gospel of Randy Newman‘s ‘God’s Song’, Hahn and her band never hit a weak spot.

A mention here needs to go to the band – The Blue Riders – who easily capture the vibe of the song, be it a pumping Motown strut like opener ‘Tell Mama’ (Janis Joplin also paid tribute to Etta with her own version in the early 70s), or the evergreen (everblue?) Etta James staples, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ or shimmering alum closer ‘At Last’ (special mention here – and across the whole record – to guitarist Charlie Meadows who reads the songs’ intent and vibe beautifully; limpid or bullying accompaniment could kill these tunes, and he shines on every track).

But of course, it is Alex Hahn who has taken the kamikaze step – it is her voice and the sincerity behind her delivery on which The Wallflower will be judged. While it would be unfair – and missing the point – to directly compare these tracks to Etta James’ versions, one rightly expects the same tough/soft, fiesty/sweet, rockin’/weepin’ complexities (the same that go for all the greats such as Bille Holliday and Joplin) to be preserved in Hahn’s interpretations.

To my ear, not only are they preserved intact, but they are built on – the band and Hahn grabbing many of the tracks by the mane and taking them higher.alex hahn2

And this is where the sense of celebration comes in and entirely vindicates The Wallflower project. It is one thing to get the music and groove right and replicate towering songs such as these – but it is merely replication, cover versions in the most base sense.

It is entirely another to generate the passion, insecurities, bruises and lionheart of a truly iconic performer such as Etta James and to let that blaze up through the blues or rock or gospel or whatever format the songs take. Alex Hahn with The Blue Riders have done it on The Wallflower, painting a bright and vivid portrait of a multi-dimensional artist in the best way possible – with their own voice.

Alex Hahn launches The Wallflower this Sunday, September 1st, at the Roxbury Glebe from 6.30pm.

Alex Hahn’s website is


Published August 2013 on

Ah, Fat Freddy’s Drop – more than just a band, more a force of nature.

Aotearoa’s ‘seven headed soul monster’ has grown organically over the years, eschewing much modern music-biz marketing stratagems and long-range forecasts. They just play music, man. I always loved the fact that their first full length, 2001’s Live at The Matterhorn contained four 18-minute tracks – four gorgeously open-ended deep soul/dub adventures in sound. (It was barely promoted and sold and sold and sold…)


Subsequent releases have been more song based in parts, but it is still the great strength of The Drop (named after LSD blotters carrying a pic of Zap Comix freak brother, Fat Freddy) to take us out to the further reaches of dub with an almost Jazz sensibility laying the road beneath us as we travel.

New album Blackbird holds some delicious dub as well as some beautifully stoned soul. Opener, title track ‘Blackbird’ sets up the trip with a bass line that is worth the price of admission alone. The track moves through some Latin piano, sweet soul vocal and dubby horns, coming out the other end into a big, blazing horn coda. All the FFD elements are there, better than ever to my ear – Blackbird seems to have distilled the most perfect expression of their sound yet.

‘Russia’ continues the trip, digging even deeper. ‘Clean the House’ suggests a Motown soul thing, complete with squelchy guitars and floating horns – you won’t hear another rhythm section play a straight 1/8th-beat pattern as funky as this.

You also won’t hear another band roll out a shuffle – the track ‘Silver and Gold’ – quite like The Drop. And here is where the genius of FFD and the remarkable interaction of the band lies – after playing this many gigs (innumerable European and Australian tours) each member seems to work ego-less and uncannily as a part of the ‘seven headed soul monster’, intuitively shaping the sound. Telepathy abounds! It is a very ‘black’ music consciousness – working as part of a greater community, the opposite mid-set of the ‘white’ thing of ego-battle and cult of the individual. (Pardon my glaring generalisation here – but you get my drift…).ffd

And it makes for some entirely sumptuous grooves – the soul pump of ‘Bones’, the almost surreal dubscape of ‘Soldier’, the rattling Latin clip of ‘Mother Mother’ (which contains some of the tastiest horn writing on the album). What is always remarkable about Fat Freddy’s Drop is that they can pick the eyes out of contemporary music, mixing elements of any style – blues, dub, techno, jazz (acid and acoustic), electronica, soul, R’n’B and rock – and always come up sounding like themselves. Is it magic? Blackbird certainly sounds like it is.

To their fans and to new audiences at home and around the world, Fat Freddy’s Drop can do no wrong. It is music that has an irresistibility that comes from its deep humanity and echoes of the most deeply-felt musics of the recent and deep past. And Blackbird will continue to spread the good word, in wider and wider circles.

Details of the Blackbird AlbumTour are at

Published July 2013 on

Soaking up the rootsy atmosphere at this year’s Byron Bay Bluesfest (often to saturation point), I began thinking on music and the notion of authenticity. To be honest, I began to get a little irked by the relentless barrage of worn leather, road-dusted denim and sweat-ravaged Strats used in the style-language of this music.

Ben Harper, modern roots superstar

Ben Harper, modern roots superstar

There is a division of Fender Guitars, the iconic US manufacturer of the Stratocaster whose job it is to create a patina of age and wear on factory-new instruments. The ‘Road Worn’ range comes complete with distressed paintwork, rusted hardware and, apparently, built-in ‘history’. It really is a bunch of bullshit in anyone’s language, but of course they sell like hotcakes (or maybe out-of-date cheeseburgers).

The unstoppable Buddy Guy, generation-spanning blues guitar master

The unstoppable Buddy Guy, generation-spanning blues guitar master

And I often wonder if the same can be said of the very notion of ‘realness’ in 21st century Roots music.

Roots music – like World Music, a catch-all term invented by marketing/media to weave a saleable genre out of multiple disparate threads – comprises Blues, the less airbrushed forms of Country and the more earthbound elements of Jazz. A prerequisite seems to be that it appeals to everyday people and usually conjures up either elation or deep emotion – ‘good times’ or ‘blues’. Roots also prides itself on its ‘realness’.

I love Roots music deeply and its innovators and artists – both old and new – I hold in the highest regard. But is Roots music any more real than any other form of music? Is it any more real than Punk, or Hip-Hop, or Black Metal?

If a music’s level of ‘realness’ can be measured by the importance it has in a person’s life then the music of Dance-Rave people is easily as important as Roots – they live their musical culture minute by minute. If the question of history comes up – the longevity and historical development of a music in years – then J. S. Bach is the rootsiest muthafucka on da block.

If the idea of authenticity is where ‘realness’ comes from – music woven like veins or DNA helices into the fabric of a culture, inextricably – then I direct you back to the above para about Fender USA’s factory-made ‘soul’. These days, ‘rawness’ and authenticity can be bolted on, as skilfully and easily as a (factory-)‘rusted’ Strat tailpiece.

And it appears to be something Roots fans are all too ready to believe. Maybe because there is so much plastic fakery about, we imbue the lesser fakes with at least some hope of Truth.


With these cogitations swirling in my mind, I decided to ask some people, way wiser than I, for their thoughts on Roots, ‘road-worn’ and realness. They are Johnny Cass, blues-guitarist and vocalist extraordinaire, DJ/producer Marc Scully, known to Australian dance-music fans as Omegaman and Jim Woff, man-about-town and bass-player with Sydney band Crow.

Titan of the blues, the larger-than-life Howlin' Wolf

Titan of the blues, the larger-than-life Howlin’ Wolf

Here are their responses:

What does the term ‘roots’ music mean to you?

Johnny Cass: A derivative type of music. Just like the roots of a tree, genres of music grow from a base and then branch out into other genres.

Marc Scully: To me its about tradition – blues, country, reggae etc – some acoustic element, a certain heartfelt rawness, echoing back where it all began… back to basics…. at a grass roots level

Jim Woff:  Someone once asked Thelonious Monk what he thought of folk music, he replied “all music is folk music”.  The rural blues of the twenties and thirties sprout country and jazz, while the blues itself mutated countless ways using the same three or less chords. If we’re talking about how “roots” earnt it’s inverted commas, that seemed a 21st century thing. Good when it was Gillian Welch, not so hot when it was hippies with dreads and acoustic guitars and rich parents. The soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou was significant.

Does ‘roots’ music need to have a historical/traditional element to it?

Cass: Yes. The term roots has been overused and has lost its definition.To understand Roots music you must know its history and the struggles of the people of that time.  To keep true to it meaning ‘roots’ music must have strong similarities to the roots genre it claims to be from. Those elements would be chord progressions, tonal qualities of instruments and melody.

Scully: I think so, an element of nostalgia and instrumentation is required, a nod to the past, you would not be playing a certain style if it weren’t for what came before you, something that inspired you to dig deeper, caught your ear in the first place – something styles don’t need re-inventing.

Woff:  I think so. The historic/traditional aspect doesn’t necessarily have to be old, electronic music has a relatively short history for example. The work of the German bands in the seventies is a “roots” music, it’s been incredibly influential.

Can the idea of ‘roots’ be applied to any form of music?

Cass: No. I don’t really think you can say that roots can be applied to Classical music. Roots music was spawned from the urban areas, city streets and small towns and communities. It was a way for the people to express themselves, Roots music was not born from the Aristocracy it was born from the worker, the farmer, the musicians on the street.

Scully: As long as there’s a traditional element, having said that really I can’t see glitch, dubstep or techno being termed ‘Roots’ music.

Woff:  Cave men blowing flutes, wandering minstrels on lutes, spreading the gossip and news from town to town… it’s all free reign, go nuts. I wish more people were as good as Beethoven but you can’t have everything.

Gillian Welch, folk-country artist whose music resonates with older forms

Gillian Welch, folk-country artist whose music resonates with older forms

Does the ‘roots’-iness of musics such as Country and Blues make them any more ‘real’?

Cass: I think the rawness of those musics keep it real. Acoustic forms are the most real. Those instruments don’t lie. The combination of flesh, wood and emotion really take aim at hearts. As the listener or the musician there is no room to hide. There is no wall of sound to get lost in, the message gets through, its more personal.

Scully: To me, yes… some artists can sound quite contrived, be real = be true. Raw, back to basics music played by real musicians – doesn’t have to be flash.

Woff:  Those early recordings… Louis Armstrong… Hank Williams… the Blind men of the blues, Willie Johnson, Lemon Jefferson, WiIllie McTell… Duke Ellington… all rather real. You could appropriate their sound but it wouldn’t be real. You have to make your own sound to be real.

Does the ‘roots’ factor of music such as Blues hold back its future development and evolution?

Cass: Musically, maybe. Lyrically, no. Roots music evolves into new genres as it branches out. The most pure form of the genre will always be respected. What may end up happening is roots music won’t be performed as much. Without the support of mainstream it becomes harder for roots genres to exist. Only purists will hold onto its legacy.

Scully: Not as long as artists still carry a torch in salute of what came before them, you have to acknowledge the past, the birth of a style – without that, there is no future.

Woff:  I’d argue that jazz hit the wall in the eighties but I’m sure there’d be plenty to take issue with that. Blues has never changed but it’s influence is a musical universe. From a young Jagger and Richards listening to Muddy Waters through Tom Waits reeling in Howlin’ Wolf to Nick Cave obsessing over John Lee Hooker, it’s all pervasive. Country hasn’t changed much.

What are your feelings on current ‘roots’ music in particular and the wider art/product of music in general?

Cass: Reality talent shows concern me. Their lack of integrity make music take the back seat. Those shows are not about the music, and they are not about the performer, they are about getting the most viewers and exploiting people’s dreams, disabilities and personal crisis. I understand that it gets some musicians a chance they would not normally get, but it’s fleeting. Viewers that sit at home and don’t experience the live factor of music. That is the real feeling of music. Watching music being made in real time in front of you, is like having your food cooked to order. It tastes better and feels better. That goes for music too.

The Coen Brothers' 2000 movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? invigorated interest in bluegrass music

The Coen Brothers’ 2000 movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? invigorated interest in bluegrass music

Scully: Some of the modern roots artists can sound a little contrived… that goes for all styles. You are either true to your art or you are following musical trends. Way too many producers out there that know how to use a music software program and call themselves artists… Be yourself, learn how to play an instrument, you don’t have to be the best at it, as long as you are passionate about what you do.

Woff:  “Roots” was a Noughties thing, wasn’t it? The good ones will continue to grow while the imposters are already considering another career path.