Posts Tagged ‘byron bay bluesfest’

It was a couple of Byron Bay Bluesfests ago when I came across Glenn Cardier again. Seeing his name up, I had made a point of checking him and his crack band, The Sideshow in one of the smaller festival venues. I’m glad I did – apart from being up close to the band (I am quickly losing enthusiasm for the huge tents and screens), I was mesmerised by Cardier, in pork pie and shades, front and centre,  growling his strange songs, his acoustic guitar driving the band and the crowd.

I had been a fan in the 70s. Glenn Cardier always stood out to me, seemingly of a different tribe than the grizzled ‘young fogeys’ who made up the singer-songwriters of the times. Apart from the freak-cabaret whiff of his bowler hat, Lennon specs and waistcoat, his songs seemed wryly funny, yet dark. And always entirely original.

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After seemingly bobbing up on every festival bill and touring the world with that other existential jester, Spike Milligan, Cardier retired for 25 years. In early 2002 he returned to low key gigs, and now has given us his fifth album since his 21st century resurrection, Cool Under Fire.

Recorded almost entirely by himself, with the help of some heavy friends such as Sideshow (and everywhere else) guitarist, Rex Goh and country darlin’ Catherine BrittCool Under Fire is a rich helping of what we love about Cardier. The songs are wry and droll, many illuminated with a cinematic glare or dark-street noir. The humour is there – the hilarious pulp detective ‘A Case of Mistaken Identity’ and the everyman-Elvis of ‘Impersonation of The King’; a lot of it, of course, dark and world-weary, such as ‘Cold Light of Day’ (a Weimar gypsy lurch, tipsy as Kurt Weill). CUF-cov-400

There are the Pop smarts that raise a writer like Cardier above many of his genre: ‘Win Some, Lose Some’ is loaded with hooks and the harmony of ‘Welcome Home, Johnny-Oh’ is a darker shade of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’. And of course, commensurate with Cardier’s novelistic approach to lyric, there is romance – the romance of rock’n’roll with its cars (gotta be Cadillacs, Jim), sexual heat and girls girls girls (‘She had bumper-bullets that would do a Cadillac proud‘) but also sweet, everyday romance of the sort that keeps your average, jobbing muso existential jester going.

‘The Day I Fell In Love With You’ is perhaps one of the loveliest, most unadorned love songs I have heard for a long time. Here, Cardier reminds me (not for the first time on they album) of the late American singer Warren Zevon. Cardier, like Zevon’s in his tender moments, is happy to drop artifice and cleverness if something needs to be said plain and simple. This country simple approach raises a smile in ‘Loretta’ and lifts the heart in ‘Rise and Shine’ – a song of hope.

But it wouldn’t be Glenn Cardier if he didn’t leave us with a wink, and a shadow-play and maybe a twinge of loss. ‘The Last Jukebox’ seems set in a post-civilisation Mad-Maxscape, all dust and empty desert winds. It seems dark, listless – with all hope fading out to a pale glimmer. And yet:

“Only one thing left to do –,
Only one thing left to do –,
Come on now, come over here,
It’s gonna be alright –, 
Only one thing left to do.

Dance.”

 

Cool Under Fire is released 1 August 2016.
For more information go to www.glenncardier.com

I have seen recently departed blues grandmaster B B King live in concert twice in my life. The experiences were separated by almost forty years in time and by an unmeasurable distance in spirit.

The first time was at Sydney’s 70’s concert-box-du-jour, the Hordern Pavilion. It was 1976 and B B King was riding high on a crest of fame and massive popularity. The Rolling Stones – respectful blues lovers to a man, and riding pretty high in the early 70s themselves – had asked him to open shows for them across a 1969 US tour. Despite having been a working musician since 1949, King found himself suddenly massively popular among young rock music lovers.

And no surprise. He came across as an accessible, enormously charismatic and easily loveable face of the Blues. Unlike the rawness of Muddy Waters or the downright frightening (if tongue in cheek) hoodoo of Howlin’ Wolf – both of whom found new white audiences in King’s wake – BB was regal, proud and calmly righteous.

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Unlike the dangerous sexuality of John Lee Hooker, King’s sexuality was slow, sweet and erotic; not the dominant, subjugating act of many a Blues lyric but a true lovers’ twinning of souls. This was reinforced by the emblematic call-and-response of King’s singing voice and that of his guitar, Lucille.

King would declaim, plead, beg forgiveness, argue, seduce and Lucille would answer – high, sweet, needling in anger or in pleasure. Deep pleasure. The legions of (mostly white) blues guitar heroes that followed King missed this point almost to a man. Their guitar interjections were entirely unrelated to the conversational, dramatic flow of the tune and lyrics. Rather than entwining with their Lucilles they happily and noisily masturbated away into the void, oblivious to her needs. (Not all: Duane Allman got it; so did Mike Bloomfield).

The 1976 concert showed King to be a consummate professional. This was urban blues, not grimy collared country blues. This was bowtie suits, a crack band (Sonny Freeman’s show band, from King’s Live at Cook County Jail album) and chunks of well-rehearsed schtick. Which by no means took anything at all away from the blazing performances and time-stopping atmosphere of the show. It had the stop-watch precision of an Atlantic Records Soul review, but it also had B B King, whose sincerity, big big heart and humility filled the room, your head, the whole night, for that two hours.

It is remembered by 70’s Sydney rock fans as the concert where B B King collapsed. Halfway through the show, he sat down, wiped his brow with a handkerchief and apologised to us all, saying he just could not go on. He had been relentless touring the world and it had taken its toll; he needed to rest. Not a one of us called for our money back; the talk outside afterwards, in the fragrant haze of post concert spliffs, was concerned for his health. We loved him and hoped he would be ok.

I saw B B King again at the 2011 Byron Bay Bluesfest. He was the reason I had gone to Byron that year: to pay my respects to the man who made me want to play the guitar all those years ago. I also had wanted to be like him: a strong man, not brutal and physically powerful, but a man with a gentle yet unbreakable strength of spirit.

At Bluesfest, looking dangerously overweight, and appearing aged even beyond his 85 years, King was helped on after a twenty minute warmup by his band. For a further twenty minutes the King of The Blues struggled to sing and play his guitar. Despite flashes of the old strength and fire, B B was sadly off-game. The enlarged close-ups of his face on the screens both sides of the stage were meant to show his face in contortions of feeling and passion but they showed only frustration and eons of weariness around his eyes.

We are in an age now when any artist who has managed to stay alive for more than fifty years is a legend, an icon and a living treasure. Gleaming Halls of Fame are full of them. The down side of course is that, at an age when most humans are allowed to slow down and rest, these legendary artists are whipped around the world doing show after show. B B King’s recent controversies concerning his manager’s mishandling of his illness cast that meal-ticket circus mentality in a harsh white light.

B B King is at rest now. He has died and the world is hushed with mourning. The level and sincerity of the mourning – across demographics far from the Blues or even music itself – is as befits a Mandela or a Marley or a John Lennon.

What better testimony to the beauty of the man that he has transcended a music birthed in the dirt and pain of slave plantations to focus the world’s love like a lens. That is a beautiful man.

Published May 2015 on megaphoneoz.com and theorangepress.net

Words and music.

Iconic Australian songwriter Richard Clapton has celebrated 40 years of writing and making music with the simultaneous release of his autobiography together with a three CD (plus DVD) set.

Iconic is a lazy word, overused in the relentless sales pitch that is post-war popular music but in Clapton’s case, it is entirely apt. His music has been as much a part of (and a reflection of) Australian life as Lou Reed’s or The Beach Boys have been to the American landscape or Ray Davies to the British. And it is this intertwining of his words and music with our births, deaths and marriages that un-lazys the word ‘iconic’ in his case.

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The 50-track CD set ­– Best Years 1974-2014: The 40th Anniversary Collection – shows the consistency of his vision from the beginning. The tugging yearn of ‘Blue Bay Blues’ (from 1975’s Girls on The Avenue LP) has much in common with ‘Vapour Trails’ from 2012’s Harlequin Nights – an emotional directness, an almost country-perfect meld of words and melody, a crisp and  beautifully realised production.

What raises these songs – in fact, what raises all fifty of these songs and beyond into Clapton’s back-catalogue ­– is their deep humanity. No lyric cannot be understood and felt – whether poetic or everyday (the lines “Sitting out on the Palm Beach Road/I’m so drunk and the car won’t go” somehow mean so much) – no melody fails to serve the words, no chord fails to serve the song. Nor does any production trick rankle or obscure the deep effect on the heart of these tunes. Which is triply remarkable since Clapton’s recordings have always taken production values from each of his four decades – to these ears, the best values: yes, his music even survived the synthetic, gated textures of the 80s.

Clapton’s voice of course is a big part of this. Always a little wounded-sounding, mellow or raw, its limits – like Dylan, like George Harrison – are its strengths. His is the voice of us, singing tunes that any of us can sing. (Check Jimmy Barnes’ grating howl on the live DVD reading of ‘I Am An Island’ to see how easily that spell can be broken).

Another big part of Clapton’s songs is the feeling of place, always vivid and undilutedly Australian. Songs such as the triple crown of “Goodbye Tiger”, “Deep Water” and “Down in The Lucky Country” from 1977’s Goodbye Tiger seem to breathe with a salt-breeze off the Pacific, and conjure brown-skinned girls, beach promenades, beer and humid Bondi nights. Remarkable that all three were written in a creative blue streak in a farmhouse in the freezing north of Denmark, Clapton snowed-in in more than one sense, self-exiled from Australia.

richard_clapton_best_years_1974-2014_0814It seems he took an ever glowing ember of Australia (or maybe a handful of warm Pacific sand), in his heart with him wherever he went. And went he did, and went and went – his autobiography, The Best Years of Our Lives, charts his pin-balling travels from Australia to Britain, from Germany (and all over Europe) to the US and back again. A geographical manifestation of Clapton’s truly restless creative spirit – one of many parallels to Neil Young, who also rocks like fury, yet writes clear-water ballads, and never ever stands still ­– his travels were as much driven by disaffection with Australia, his homeland, as they were by beckoning global fame.

Toby Cresswell in his liner notes to the CD set refers to his early impression of Richard Clapton as “a man on a mission of becoming”. The book maps this trajectory in great detail. Yes, there are the salacious titillations of parties, glamour, INXS, drug fun and boozy swashbuckling. Yet, there is the impression of Clapton as an artist always just a little on the outer, looking in on it all – not judging or voyeuristically but with affectionate observation, loading his palette and his brush with the hues and tints of beloved, fast-paced Life.

The book also gives the impression of a man to whom the music was all. There is nothing of his childhood or early teenage (beyond pale mention of boarding school and a distanced family), nor of his more recent divorce and its associated pain (which ironically, fuelled Harlequin Night’s sweetest moments). The book starts when music starts for Clapton and you gather this is when life started for him too.the-best-years-of-our-lives

The partying also stops when there is work to be done. Clapton as ‘headmaster’ while producing the second INXS album, 1981’s Underneath The Colours. Clapton working through the night to get things just right. The exceptional musicians he used on his albums ­– such as Kirk Lorange and Cold Chisel’s (often uncredited) Ian Moss – shows the value he put on the final work. Throughout his life we see Clapton bail out when the music seems to take second place to the satyricon.

Words and music. Please read the book, and listen to the music – take it all and enjoy it all. But leave the DVD till last.

The Best Years of Our Lives was recorded (for a live album) and filmed before a small invited audience at an Artarmon sound stage on 16 April 1989. It was a relatively drug-free event. Hardly a recipe for rock’n’roll fireworks. It was a retrospective of Clapton’s work over the years and featured a rotating band of musicians from his various past projects, such as Venetta Fields, Jimmy Barnes, INXS’s Jon Farris and Garry Gary Beers and the unknown Ben Butler (who bloody well shines on lead guitar). Despite the strong material, it could have been a self-conscious damp squib.

It is a triumph – the songs seems to galvanise the players, and Clapton’s obvious delight pushes the band into some white-hot areas. It is really what live music is all about ­– and Richard Clapton, that denizen of the all-night studio, shows his live chops in all their tooth and fang glory. (I saw him a couple of years back at Byron Bay Bluesfest and he thrilled the shit out of me there, too).

The DVD finishes with the song ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’, performed only by Clapton with spare piano backing. This song of universal hope and love of this gift that is life is hugely affecting in its full band setting. But done in simple duo like this, by its songwriter many years on, it takes on a sweet nostalgia that every one of us will always be able to relate to, and cherish.

As Clapton sings, we keep waiting for the band to come in – heralded by a thunderous drum fill – to take it up to the anthemic place which awaits these words, this melody. But it never does. Bruce Springsteen would have taken it up there, but Richard Clapton leaves it down here, amongst us.

After all, it is where the song – where all his songs – live.

 

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.

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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.

Watching iconic Australian singer-songwriter Richard Clapton at this year’s Byron Bay Bluesfest I was reminded of the deep Australian-ness of his music. A golden, salt-sprayed, surf-haze imbues his best songs, such as ‘Down In The Lucky Country’, ‘Capricorn Dancer’ and ‘Deep Water’ (with its bitterly nostalgic couplet “Sitting out on the Palm Beach Road/I’m so drunk and the car won’t go” – which was sung along to by every throat in that Bluesfest crowd).

‘Iconic’ is such a lazy word to use in music writing but Clapton’s body of work is truly that, in that it stands for a particular feeling and a particular place – perfectly exemplified by 1977’s Goodbye Tiger album. Much the same as Bruce Springsteen writing of his USA and Ray Davies or Jarvis Cocker of their UK, Clapton’s songs are about life here, down in the Lucky Country. What elevates them is their wry, resigned stance, quite different from Springsteen’s heroics or Davies’ sentimentality – a stance very Australian in its own laconic way.

At the 2012 Bluesfest, Clapton and his (lean and mean) band showcased several new songs, announcing that they were to be part of a new album. One song that stood out to me at the time was ‘Vapour Trails’, now one of eleven on that album, his first in over eight years. Called Harlequin Nights, it will be released August 4.

‘Vapour Trails’ has a widescreen breadth that is typical of Clapton’s self-production on Harlequin Nights – lush, rich and cinematic. I had visions of horizon-to-horizon aching blue Australian skies, wind through dead boughs, sand, brown rivers, blue waters… Every song has been given all the colour and drama it needs, yet it never muddies or cloys.

The album was created at a bad time for Clapton: his marriage broke down during its gestation. The timely (and possibly therapeutic) partnering with guitarist and songwriter Danny Spencer has resulted in what he describes as “some of the best songs I have put my mind to for many years”. But despite all the pain and changes it is still very much a Richard Clapton album – in preparing this review I listened to Harlequin Nights back to back with Goodbye Tiger and the creative line is seamless, yet the new one has a different atmosphere.

“Harlequin Nights is in some ways a bookend to Goodbye Tiger,” says Clapton. “Goodbye Tiger was a collection of songs written by a young man in his twenties… this new album is a collection of songs written 35 years later about the world we live in today. There is a noticeable seismic shift between the two albums…”

First single ‘Dancing with The Vampires’ is a soul rocker that contains the typically wry humour of a man who keeps his eye on the madness in the world – “So many things driving me insane/Till I feel like Charlie Sheen” and “I’ve been acting like Polanski/And its bringing me undone…”.

There is ‘Sunny Side Up’s yearning for some peace (“I’ve got to lay my baggage down/Cross on over to the sunny side”), the cold drag of age in ‘Over The Borderline’ and some Dylan-oblique fun (“he came all the way from Ghost Town/Dressed up in his self doubt”).

But, 35 years after Goodbye Tiger they are still indelibly Richard Clapton songs and it is so good to hear that voice and those salty observations again, and those true and timeless melodies that come from a deep deep place.

Harlequin Nights is out August 4 2012.

Richard Clapton will be touring Harlequin Nights nationally August thru November, starting at Sydney’s State Theatre.

Richard Clapton’s website and tour details are here.

 

Published August 2012 on theorangepress.net

Now in its 23rd year, The Byron Bay Bluesfest is truly one of the great festivals of the world. Grown from the vision of main man Peter Noble and developed over almost a quarter century, the lineups of current stars and the greats of the past get consistently better, year by year – the lineup this year seemed almost beyond belief.

Bluesfest is one of those rare festivals run by a total music fan (and of course a canny businessman) – Noble is now at the enviable juncture whereby his festival has almost become a vehicle for his wish-list. As an example, Noble personally sought out and secured original UK flower-child and faery-king Donovan Leitch for this year’s festival. Which is quite a coup, considering Donovan no longer tours!

The mix, as ever, was a delight – superstars, sentimental favourites, artistic must-sees, wildcards, local blues and roots artists.

We began with Keb’ Mo’ who, within two tunes, shot us from country blues to Steely Dan-slick funk blues. Sweet stuff. Then, sensing a dip in the program of our must-sees, we took in our first wildcard, the bouncing and boisterous Eagle and the Worm – a great mix of garage rock and soul horns whose party vibe masks some seriously ‘on’ musicianship.

From garage party to the bluegrass folk of David Bromberg – a star of the 60s folk revival and a cult hero ever since. His drummerless quartet was country clear and country simple, but the most riveting song was the duet (with bass) rendition of Jerry Jeff Walker’s evergreen ‘Mr Bojangles’ – a song, a story, a singer: you could have heard a reefer drop.

I sauntered around and met a man who had eaten a cheese sandwich with Stephen Stills the day before. Then it was afro-groovin’ with Angelique Kidjo who filled the stage with dancers and was our African Queen for that hour. From afro-ecstacy to rockabilly and grease – the buzz of a jewel-studded festival program. Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot was just that: teenage kicks with all the joy of a 1950s none of us have lived – hot rods, Peggy Sue and gang rumbles. Setzer had all the dancers dancing, the rockers rockin’ and all the guitar-players slack-jawed at his rockabilly Gretsch flash.

We left before the three double basses (!) came out to go and check Donovan who was of course as spacey and regal is expected – his swirling dance during ‘Season of The Witch’ was something to behold.

Easter Sunday we started with some local surprises – The Round Mountain Girls who were actually boys, got their bluegrass party on. Then the ‘demon blues’ of the Mason Rack Band – local but now doing things internationally, and it’s easy to see why: high-energy, howling shitstorm of the punkier edge of blues, they finished with a three-way steel beer-keg drum solo – what’s not to like!


Resigned to having our heads genre-bent by the amazing diversity of today’s lineup we went from this to the ambient wonder of French violinst/composer Yann Tiersen and his young band. It was one of those musical experiences where time truly stands still and you float (and no, I was not into the fragrant Byron Bay horticulture like many around me). I needed a little shakeup and the latin fire of Watussi gave me the shot up the jacksie that did the trick.

One of Peter Noble’s program picks of the festival this year was Australian singer-songwriter Richard ClaptonClapton’s songs, in his heyday (and even today, judging by the new tunes in the set) seemed, as Dylan did with American life, to perfectly capture and frame the Australian experience. His band was lean and hard rockin’, Clapton was boozed enough to be loose and witty and the whole crowd sang along when he sang his memorable Sydney-couplet ‘Sitting out on the Palm Beach Road / I’m so drunk and the car won’t go…’ from 1977’s ‘Deep Water’.

Our last day was centered around turning up late for the triple-whammy of John Fogerty, Dweezil Zappa and YES. Sloping in late we found ourselves before the beguiling Justin Townes EarleSteve’s boy – bespectacled, bright, witty and with a nice rock’n’roll chug to his country songs. For some reason his music, all mixed in with the Jim Beam, the humidity (a storm threatened and flashed a way off) and the general good vibes of Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm put us in a good good mood for what was to come.

For 25 years Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty did not perform any CCR songs – the band experience, souring and breakup had been too painful. But Bob Dylan and George Harrison (as well as, tacitly, millions of fans around the world) begged him to bring these songs out again. And to hear them live, with Fogerty in great voice and form made one realise that the CCR Songbook is one of the treasures of post-war pop – a perfect amalgam of psych, swamp, rock’n’roll and pop that many bands have tried but few have achieved. At times I couldn’t hear the band for the singalong around me. Magic.

And speaking of the treasures of post-war music, Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil has taken it on himself to keep the enormous, challenging and influential oeuvre of his father alive. Under the banner of Zappa Plays Zappa, he tours the world, spreading the good word with his (astonishing) band of young players. Early tech problems robbed us of a couple of songs but we were still treated to such radio-unfriendly FZ hits as ‘Carolina Hardcore Ecstacy’ and ‘Willie The Pimp’.

What better ending to such a blissed-out, bluesky and bounteous bluesfest than the expansive prog anthems of UK godfathers YES? With new vocalist Jon Davison filling in for original starship trooper Jon AndersonYES spaced us all out even further. There is a point where you surrender to ecstacy and it fills the world – if our souls could smile it would have been then.

It wasn’t only the nature-worshipping star-music of YES, it was the whole Bluesfest trip – the lack of hot-and-bother, the utopian flags snapping against the blue sky, the warmth of the earth and the sun. Thanks to Peter Noble and his wonder-workers, for another Easter weekend we were the beautiful people.

Published April 2012 on liveguide.com.au

Unbridled ego, unchecked and pandered to, can produce dire results. Famous actors’ musical vanity projects are, almost without exception, testament to this. Russell Crowe’s lumpen pub rock and Keanu Reeves’ hamfisted hardcore come to mind.

Which is what makes Hugh Laurie’s – yes, that’s right, the guy from TV’s House – new blues album, Let Them Talk, all the more of a delightful surprise. Producer Joe Henry (Solomon Burke, Ani DiFranco, Elvis Costello) – always a sympathetic and bighearted musical architect – has pulled something out of Laurie that is egoless and joyous.

There is moment on his cover of Stephen Foster’s ‘Swanee River’ that says it all – after a mournful minor key intro, Hugh Laurie starts up a rolling boogie piano vamp reminiscent of his hero, Professor Longhair, which he lights up with a whooped laugh of such unbridled joy that you just know he is tight with this music. This is not an actor’s character laugh, this is a whoop from the heart of a musician.

Let Them Talk is a loving tribute to the music that New Orleans is best known for – blues, jazz and bar room funk. Laurie and Henry have picked some absolute beauties here, ranging from the obscure to the standard. The album is weighted almost equally between a night time after-hours ambience (‘Buddy Bolden’s Blues’) and a rollicking street parade strut (Leadbelly’s ‘You Don’t Know my Mind’) – much like the notion of New Orleans itself.

Laurie is lucky (or is it a fringe benefit of fame?) to have some NOLA (New Orleans Louisiana) heavyweights helping out. Soul queen Irma Thomas (this reviewer’s hit pick of the recent Byron Bay Bluesfest) sings ‘Joe Henry’ and Dr John winks and sleazes his way through Fats Waller’s ‘After You’ve Gone’. Truly legendary New Orleans polymath Allen Toussaint provides beautifully greasy horn arrangements (check ‘em out on ‘Tipitina’) – you can almost see them played by a group of guys struttin’ down the street rather than session men sitting in plastic studio chairs.

Hugh Laurie is a brave man. In the past he has matched wits with Stephen Fry, and on Let Them Talk he matches his singing voice with (Sir) Tom Jones (on ‘Baby Please Make a Change’) and Irma Thomas – no doubt two of the great voices of postwar music. Laurie’s own voice is not great but – like Keith Richards and even Bob Dylan – if it is done with passion, style and true love for the artform, it hits the mark.

Laurie says of Let Them Talk : “I love this music, as authentically as I know how, and I want you to love it too. And if you get a thousandth of the pleasure from it that I’ve had, we’re all ahead of the game.”

Who could not get pleasure from this steaming hot, hot gumbo of an album? Dig in.

Published May 2011 on http://www.liveguide.com.au/