Posts Tagged ‘Mayer Hawthorne’

Firmly established in its 24th year as one of the premier music festivals of the world, the Byron Bay Bluesfest continues to top its already heady highs. The lineup for this year’s festival was a dream program for lovers of blues and roots music and anything else festival director Peter Noble decided to throw our way.

Criticised in the past for veering too far from its original blues brief, Bluesfest has outgrown these criticisms purely by booking the biggest acts in the world, and some of the most interesting – over the past few years headliners have been Bob Dylan, B B King, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Yes, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, Paul Simon and (almost) Roger Daltrey performing Tommy (even though Daltrey didn’t show – next year maybe?).

Noble’s knack for picking the greats, blues or not – and a demonstration of the power he wields on the world festival circuit in doing so – was vindicated by this year’s record attendance: capacity crowds of 17,000 per day which adds up to 85,000 in toto.

And I was one of those fools dancing in the rain. And the smile is still on my face.



Taj Mahal

Accompanied by Gaz T, my intrepid local tracker and native guide, my 24th Byron Bay Bluesfest experience started on the Friday with the wonderful Taj Mahal. Mahal was one of those bluesmen – like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee – that the 1970s hippie freaks took to their hearts back in those fragrant days. His popularity has remained undiminished since then. As is often the case, I expected a creaky veteran, tottering on a chair – but what we got was a big man, standing tall, whipping his trio through modern blues, pre-war country blues and even calypso flavoured blues. Yeah!

And if Taj Mahal surprised me with his age-denying vigour, reggae and ska legend Jimmy Cliff utterly floored me. Cliff was already a star in Jamaica while Bob Marley was merely learning his trade, and at 65 he has lost nothing – twisting, dancing, leaping through his set. It is this pin-sharp showmanship that reminds us of the huge influence classic 60s Motown had on pre-Marley Jamaican artists. Slick, soulful and bang-on, his beautiful songs had heart, message and groove.


Jimmy Cliff

Shuggie Otis

Shuggie Otis

While everyone headed to Steve Miller in one of the big tents, I moved towards the smaller Jambalaya stage and blues guitarist Shuggie Otis. Otis was a child prodigy of the blues guitar, the son of rhythm-and-blues bandleader Johnny Otis. After a few semi-hits in the 70s he faded from view. After a 40 year hiatus for whatever reason, he is back touring the world and I could not miss him. Rail thin and now with the angular almost-Latin good looks of his father, Shuggie seemed troubled and ill at ease. But when he found his zone and soared, he soared higher and higher. His beautiful playing took my breath completely away. In a way it was more exciting to see an artist who could easily miss, but hit it so well; compared to all the other in-the-pocket coolly-pro bands at Bluesfest, Otis’s set had that element of danger. Sublime and edgy.

Then the rain hit and my Bluesfest experience sprung a leak. Not having brought a raincoat or wet-weather gear I was soaked to the skin in minutes. Not being able to squeeze into the Steve Miller tent I stood in the rain and watched him play ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ – rain will come and go, the beautiful epoch-defining voice of The Space Cowboy (some call him Maurice…) singing this glorious freedom song was here and now. Around me, teenage fans danced in the rain to Miller’s golden period hits, singing every word to ‘Rockin’ Me Baby’ and ‘The Joker’. It’s only rain, it can soak our skin but it can’t dampen our spirit.


Carlos Santana

Keeping the San Fran psychedelic vibe going – albeit in a very very different way – Santana’s set began with cosmic interstellar graphics fading in and out of the two huge screens either side of the stage. Then it was a brief drum roll from drummer Dennis Chambers and the Santana band roared into 1971’s ‘Toussaint L’Overture’. As well as Chambers, the percussion backline was made up of long-time conguero Raul Rekow and Karl Perazza on timbales – who together propelled the music like a freight-train, but a freight-train which skips and dances lightly along the track. Of course the main voice of this band has always been the elegant guitar playing of Carlos Santana – always lyrical, always going for the emotional connection over the empty dazzle of technique. Which ultimately makes him, above and beyond his Latin and jazz phrasing, one hell of a great blues guitarist – as we heard from a short (and all too rare) snatch of Santana playing some straight blues during the set. Can music reviewers still use words like ‘celestial’? I guess I just did, because it is the only word I have left to describe Santana’s unearthly performance.

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

The day ended with a truly soulful set from The Tedeschi-Trucks Band. The absolute highlight of my first ‘Fest two years ago, the band of slide ex-wünderkind Derek Trucks and his wife, vocalist Susan Tedeschi never fails to amaze. For their 2013 return they brought their three-man horn section along and their firepower went up a notch. The thrilling ‘Midnight In Harlem’ – a song that is built on an almost sexual upward curve – had Trucks’ solo coda taking it up and up into that region that Carlos Santana used to (and I am sure still does) call ‘spiritual orgasm’.

I was saturated with rain, good vibes and killer music. And I still had two days to go.



Allen Toussaint

Saturday we eased in with the once and future king of the Big Easy himself, New Orleans magus Allen Toussaint. The man’s CV is virtually a history of modern R&B, soul and funk and his urbane cool belies his immense impact in shaping these musics. As if his beautiful, artfully funky music (and stunningly virtuosic piano playing) wasn’t gift enough, he threw Mardi Gras masks (and green and yellow AFL footballs?) to the crowd. A charmer in every way.

After a while cruising the human river and people watching (a Bluesfest pastime in itself) I chanced upon Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. And it was one of those wonderful music moments when seeing a band live makes you an instant fan – all subsequent listening experiences filtered through that thrilling ‘Eureka!’ moment of discovery. Wilco’s music seems to beat with the same American-classic heart at the centre of the songs of Neil Young and the darker Bruce Springsteen material. The band (especially guitarist Nels Cline) seem to be able to paint perfect soundscapes behind any of Tweedy’s songs, be they dark rockers or sweeter country-tinged ballads. A revelation.

Floating on the beauty of Wilco’s music I was yanked back down to earth by Status Quo. Britain’s answer to AC/DC, the indestructible Quo have been playing the same song for over 40 years – a variant on 12-bar pub boogie that has sold 118 million albums (think about that figure for a minute). Watching their flawless set, with mainstays Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt rocking hard before banks of white Marshalls, I could (almost) forgive them their awful Coles ads. Some bands are simply a force of nature and Quo are a blast of the simple joy of undiluted rock’n’roll.


Robert Plant’s Sensational Shape Shifters

The straight-from-the-botttle thrust of Quo was perhaps a good brain-scourer –  an astringent appetiser – for the almost too-rich feast that was Robert Plant, which followed next. The fabled Led Zeppelin vocalist has been the main obstacle to any Led Zep reunions, as he has always moved forward with his music, taking his former band’s world-music aesthetic to greater heights than they ever did. His new band, The Sensational Shape Shifters, are the best version of Plant’s patented future-primitive groove – to one side of the stage we have Juldeh Camara working a Gambian wooden banjo, to the other side keyboardist John Baggott (ex-Massive Attack) sits in a nest of synths and laptops. Plant acknowledged the faithful with a few Led Zeppelin tunes, but messed with their anthem ‘Whole Lotta Love’, bedding it in a chugging African drum figure. Unlike almost every other ‘legendary’ act at Bluesfest he made no attempt to recreate his past, instead giving us a show we would think about for many months to come – a show driven by the restless creativity and often contrary nature of a true and uncompromising artist.


Sunday we awoke to clouds and gray skies over the succulent green of Byron Shire. At the ‘Fest, Tony Joe White’s Swamp-Fox baritone conspired with the dull skies to lull us into maybe too deep a state of ‘relaxation’. We needed a wake-up!



And we got it in the shape of Melbourne nine-piece Saskwatch. Bursting with chops and youth – and fronted by their not-so-secret weapon, vocalist Nkechi Anele – the band mixes soul, funk and Afrobeat horns to great effect. Like Mayer Hawthorne in the US they also take the bouncier, pop-soul side of Motown and do great things with it. Last year it was The Eagle and The Worm that assured me music is in good hands for the future – this year is was the snap, crackle and (soul-)pop of Saskwatch.

My 2013 Bluesfest experience wound to a finish in a mix of rain, muddy dancers and 1970s progressive rock classicism. Jon Anderson, the vocalist of perhaps the greatest of all Prog bands, YES, played an intimate solo show for us that was quite sublime. (Oddly, YES played Bluesfest last year with –surreally – a replacement vocalist who was drawn from a YES covers band). Listening to Anderson peppering his set with acoustic, folky versions of YESsongs made me realise that it was in this form these tunes were written and presented to the band – who then proceeded to inflate them to Prog size. Unadorned with pomp, they are lovely songs, Anderson’s voice is one of the sweetest in all Rock and the man is once of our most beloved space cadets.

My prize for 24th Bluesfest Festival Moment goes, however, to the experience of standing in the teeming rain, with my 5 dollar poncho disintegrating on my back as I listened to Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson singing ‘It’s Raining Again’ (with not a drop of irony from what I could gather). But of course, the magic of his songs – one beautifully uplifting hit after another – sung in his spacey tenor blew away the rainclouds in my head and warmed the souls of all who listened. Once again, it’s only rain; this was bliss, a good reason to live right here, right now.



Beautiful people

So that was it – right there, right then. Bluesfest 2013 – a festival beyond belief in so many ways. Criticisms? Around me I heard faint grumbles of over-selling and over crowding, and yes, it seemed fuller that previous years. But it is never anything like a problem – considering the logistics of an event that has grown to such proportions, artistically and attendance-wise.

What will Peter Noble conjure up for us next year? Being the 25th Bluesfest, he and his intrepid team will need to go beyond the pale to top the jaw-dropping line-ups of the last few years. The Jimi Hendrix Experience? The Beatles? Elvis Presley (pre-Hollywood of course)? I am just putting it out there – and knowing Noble’s almost supernatural powers (coupled with the soul of a true music fan), I really wouldn’t entirely put it past him.


Published April 2013 on


I was dodging the flailing arms and hair of the wildly dancing girl in front of me, as well as trying to balance my red wine (plastic) glass here stuck between all the heaving grooving bodies, when it suddenly struck me: I was in the presence of the anti-Elvis Costello for the New Shiny Age. But I will get to that…

Who do you get to support such a self-assured, yacht-rock-pop-Motown übercool überGeek such as Mayer Hawthorne? Both supports – the big voiced Fantine and the astonishing Electric Empire seemed too grown up and too serious for this silly, fun party.

Fantine, supported by her lone guitarist (well, as lone as a guitarist with a loop-box of tricks at his feet can be) was perhaps the most truly original artist of the night, or at least the one who buried her influences deeper than E.E. or M.H. Her voice was huge, her songs cool yet accessible – keep a weather eye on Fantine; she should be big.

Electric Empire of course thrilled as ever – with three knockout vocalists and strong strong material, we always gladly overlook the too-close Stevie and Marvin 70s capital-‘s’-Soul references and grooves. Their Soul was from Motown (Wonder, GayeInnervisions, ‘Inner City Blues’) as was Mayer Hawthorne’s (Supremes, Temptations, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’) but like the gulf between 60s and 70s Motown, their musics were a galaxy apart.

Heralded by his band, The County’s funk groove (his bass player gets the award for best hair of the nite – Afro d’Excellence), Mayer Hawthorne bounced onto the stage in a swirl of hyper-energy and fun. The small fact that his vocal mic wasn’t in the mix for the first few seconds was overshadowed by his perfect Yacht Rock styling: white jacket, white Bermudas, stripey socks and white trainers (he would later team this ensemble with a white Epiphone Les Paul – ahh, I could almost hear Hall & Oates sighing with envy from a sunny marina far in the distance). I guess it was at this point that the niggling thought entered my head for the first time tonight: Is Mayer Hawthorne serious or is this all some (albeit-beautifully-constructed) post-modern gag?

The music is great: three songs in ‘The Walk’ – the single from his new LP How Do You Do? – put the party into drive. A perfect groove, a perfect hook, delivered to an audience that Hawthorne could point his mic at at any time and they would sing back the next line – it was all too good to be true. A little like Mayer Hawthorne himself.

He welcomed us to the ‘Mayer Hawthorne SHOW’, emphasising that this was not a ‘concert’, or an ‘orchestra’ (sic) but a Show – directing all the Party People down to the front and shoo’ing the party poopers up the back where they belonged. This of course was pure 60’s Motown – pure entertainment for the people (he says his favourite show as a child was the after school dance show ‘The New Dance Show’ – perfectly recreated for the clip to his song ‘A Long Time’). Pure entertainment for the people – or is it?

Hawthorne bends to give a female audience member his guitar plectrum. He takes a picture of all of us for Twitter. He lets us take a picture of him holding a bouquet of flowers like an Academy Award winner. He tells us to now put our cameras away and ‘pretend’ we are at a Show enjoying it in ‘real time’. A friend said Hawthorne reminded her of a pop music Jeff Koons – the US artist who replicates cheesy ads starring himself that walk the thinnest possible edge of irony.

The girl dancer flailed, the audience heaved around me, my red wine spilled. It flashed on me that Hawthorne was the anti-Elvis Costello for the New Shiny Age. All the parallels and opposites were there: both Elvis Costello and Mayer Hawthorne draw upon 60s pop music as the base template for their songs – E.C. used 60s British Pop, M.H. the sweeter Motown equivalent. Both affect a speccy-nerd style, with ill-judged/perfectly-judged clothes to match – with E.C. it accentuated the bitterness of his songs, with M.H. it charms us into his (supposedly) irony-free world of party party party.

Elvis Costello was a razor-sharp signifier of his place and time, Britain in the late 1970’s – the intelligent, sensitive loner in a bleaker and bleaker world of Government thuggery and societal fragmentation. Mayer Hawthorne is equally a spot-on signifier of his own place and time, 2012 USA. The breeziness of his delivery, the uncrackable smile, the tan, the summer-weight clothes suggest an American Dream free of cares or thoughts or woes. His is the music of a youthful affluence that America and the world cling to against all signs to the contrary. And it’s great to dance to.

Check out Katja Liebing’s pics of the show here

Published February 2012 on

Retro-based music, even when it is as lovingly created and truly heartfelt as the rash of nu-soul releases of the past ten or so years, is nonetheless a tightrope walk. The balance of ‘nu’ to old school is a fine one –Amy Winehouse could do it beautifully (especially under the style-eye of Mark Ronson), Adele can do it just fine with her great big heart – but too often, the old school looms too big in the mix, and the thing falls flat, sliding into nostalgic pastiche. Why is this? One theory is that it is easy to cherry-pick from the extant past which lies below one’s fingertips in racks upon racks of Motown and Stax vinyl, but much harder to create ‘nu’ ideas.

Andrew Mayer Cohen’s second album How Do You Do? under the nom-du-Soul ofMayer Hawthorne (a portmanteau of his middle name and the Michigan street of his childhood) is a release that has got me thinking on this nu/old school thing again. The album sails so close to the wind most of the time – pureTemptations here, spot-onSmokey Robinson there, a little too Isaac Hayes here again – that it is all too easy to sniff and go back to the ‘real stuff’, the original Soul sides that echo endlessly on this record.

But – and this is a big BUT – How Do You Do? is so damn good that it knocks my over-thought critique flat on its tweedy ass. Impeccably constructed, smartly arranged and played with real juicy groove (the Funk Brothers smile down from the golden-brown Motown sunset upon these righteous tracks), it is irresistible.

Yet it is the vocal that makes one really sit up (it is always the vocal that makes one sit up!). Hawthorne’s voice can stand up to anything these twelve neat tracks (12 x 3min tracks – just like they used to do on 70s vinyl) ask of it. From smoky Smokey Robinson falsetto to David Ruffin-style urgency to Teddy Pendergrasslove-man come-on, the vocals are a treat. Even the mirrorball dappled spoken-word intro (“So here we are, at the end of the night… “) to opener ‘Get To Know You’ is cool, not corn.

They call it blue-eyed soul, but like so many odd loops in popular music, it is the music of white artists emulating the black artists who emulated white artists – indeed, mighty Motown aimed directly for the 60s white teen market under the banner ‘The Sound of Young America’ with cool, stylish acts such as theMiracles and the Supremes. This Groovy sound was heavy on the pop, hardly breaking a sweat (that was left to the hardcore soul labels such as Stax and Atlantic) as it chewed up the charts, turning on bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys.

Much of How Do You Do? harks back to that Motown sound – ‘The Walk’ and the driving ‘Hooked’ are pure Detroit pop-soul gems – with much of it also reminding me of the slick Hall & Oates 70s take on soul. But even more than that, tracks like ‘Dreaming’ or the finger-popping ‘Stick Around’ bring to mind the almost forgotten 1967 Beach Boys ‘soul album’ Wild Honey. Perfect sunkissed harmonies and an innocence in the lyrics make this all very pretty music – even a guest spot on ‘Can’t Stop’ by the wry Snoop Dogg doesn’t dent its white-gleam sheen. Nothing wrong with pretty; pretty never did the Supremes or Muhammed Aliany harm.

Mayer Hawthorne is undoubtedly one of the real kool kidz – his talent and cool is beyond doubt; to realise this grew out of a side project encouraged into the studio by his label boss, Peanut Butter Wolf (yep, that’s what it says) indicates how easy it all is for former-rapper Hawthorne. 

Is it all an ironic pose? Doesn’t seem to be, even though Hawthorne’s hipster credentials had me forensically searching How Do You Do? for signs of post-modern fuck-off. When he says “I have found my own unique sound on this album” I think he must be kidding – beautifully rendered, yes; unique, no. This is the man who issued his debut single (‘Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out’) on a red, heartshaped 7” vinyl single.

Whatever. How Do You Do? is a groovelicious, party-starting, gooey-romantic gas. I am going to spin it again now – I am getting to quite enjoy being knocked flat on my tweedy critic’s ass.

Published February 2012 on