Third/Sister Lovers – Big Star

Third/Sister Lovers is a dissolute masterpiece which seemingly documents the fragile psychological state into which Alex Chilton descended in the wake of Chris Bell’s departure and the commercial failure of Big Star’s magnificent first two albums. It’s a wild cocktail of drugs, drink, love, indulgence, despair, madness, spontaneity, introspection and cathartic release all orchestrated by producer Jim Dickinson who had the vision and foresight to indulge Chilton and embrace that gamut of emotions rather than rein it in.

Together, Chilton, original drummer Jody Stephens, Chilton’s then lover/muse/drug buddy Lesa Aldridge, Dickinson, a clutch of top session musicians (including Steve Cropper on one track) and a string orchestra led by violinist Noel Gilbert make a glorious, impertinent sound – with engineer John Fry seemingly trying (in vain?) to prevent it all falling apart. For that is the genius of this album – it goes exhilaratingly close to the edge, constantly threatening to collapse into an over-indulgent mess but somehow manages to stay true. What stops it from teetering over that precipice is the strength of the songs; Chilton’s glorious melodies which form the soft heart of the album; the playing of all involved and Dickinson’s unerring production.

The sheer range and consistency of the brilliance at play is breathtaking: the (im)perfect pop of ‘Kizza Me’, ‘Thank You Friends’ and ‘You Can’t Have Me’ (centred by Stephen’s brilliant drumming); the desperation of ‘Big Black Car’; the woozy romance of ‘Stroke It Noel’, ‘For You’ (with it’s rousing, but still slightly skewed, string embellishments), ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Dream Lover’; the waltz ‘Take Care’ and the positively jaunty ‘O’Dana’.

Even the covers are inspired: Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’ (the only track to retain Aldridge’s backing vocals); The Kinks’ ’Til the End of the Day’ and the standard ‘Nature Boy’. Only the Jerry Lee-Lewis cover ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ feels like a mis-step – though that track did not appear on the first three versions of the album.

Then there’s the twin peaks (or should that be valleys?) of the morbid ‘Holocaust’ and the audacious ‘Kanga Roo’ featuring Dickinson’s inspiredly deranged drumming, Mellotron and guitar feedback squalls. The power of those two songs is enhanced by their placement together on both the original PVC release (tracks 12 and 13) and my 1992 Rykodisk version (tracks 7 and 8).

Much has been written about this album but its allure is perhaps best summed up by musician Chris Stamey (dBs):

“Art holds up a mirror in which we see ourselves. Sometimes the more wrinkled the surface, the more interesting the angles: you can see around the corners, find aspects of your soul that would otherwise remain hidden.”


‘Go-to’ Albums – Part One

Over recent days, I’ve been suckered into one of those Facebook ‘tag a friend’ chains which I usually avoid like the plague. This time I enjoyed reading about my Facebook friends’ ‘go to’ albums. These didn’t necessarily have to be the albums that you regarded, in a cerebral way, just those you found yourself wanting to put on the stereo.

So I thought, as I hit Day 3 of this Facebook scam, that I’d share my first few entries on my blog.


Tom Waits – The Heart of Saturday Night


The musical equivalent of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, a booze soaked, down at heel, jazz bar singer’s take on the underside of urban American (night) life presented by Waits with a ‘melancholy tear’ in his eye, packed with sharp observations and rapid-fire witticisms.

All of this is adorned by a band of crack jazz musicians backing Waits’ piano and vocals which veer from swoon to growl and even scatting. The quality of the songs remains consistent across a broad stylistic range which adds up to a near perfect album.

Amongst the many gems ‘San Diego Serenade’ stands out as perhaps the most bittersweet break up song in rock history. This is my late night ‘go to’ album (though I’d happily put on any other time too).


Teatro – Willie Nelson


When I think about my favourite albums, one name keeps re-occurring. Not an artist, but a producer – Daniel Lanois. Of course, it’s not strictly right to draw a distinction between producer and artist because what albums like these show is that the right producer is very much an artist integral to the process of making truly great albums in collaboration with the names which adorn the cover. In addition, Lanois is a fine artist and musician in his own right. If you doubt the proposition, that a producer can contribute ‘as much as any musician’, read Chapter 4 of Bob Dylan’s memoir ‘Chronicles – Volume 1’ in which Dylan said of the recording of his ‘Oh Mercy’ album with Lanois:

‘He slept music. He ate it. He lived it. A lot of what he did was pure genius. He steered this record with deft turns and jerks, but he did it.He stood in the bell tower, scanning the alleys and rooftops. My limited vision didn’t permit me to see all around the thing’.

Teatro is my favourite Lanois produced album and one of the greatest country albums ever – though to even label it a country album does it a disservice. Puts it in a box too constricting for the beauty within it. Inside the Teatro studio, built by Lanois in an old cinema in Oxnard, California, Lanois assembled a band of master musicians to create a dancehall feel inspired by Nelson’s earliest days playing in dance bands in Texas: Nelson’s lead vocals and spare acoustic guitar, Emmylou Harris’ backing vocals, Robbie Nelson’s keys and Steinway piano, the dual percussion of drummers of Tony Mangurian and Victor Indrizzo (a left and right handed combination playing a single extended kit in perfect combination) and Daniel Lanois’ guitar, mandolin and (overdubbed) bass.

Together they produced an alchemical rendering of a string of wonderful songs including Nelson’s ‘I Never Cared for You’, ‘Everywhere I Go’, My Own Peculiar Way’ and ‘Home Motel’ and Lanois’ ‘The Maker’. To my mind these are the definitive forms of these songs. This album is important to me because it completely exploded the last vestiges of my preconceptions of country music which, up until that time – despite my love of country rock – still remained somewhat constricted by a misplaced and prejudiced belief that ’straight country’ was a bridge too far. It was life-changing for me and continues to be one of my go-to albums.

If you get a copy of the album, make sure its the recent 2017 ‘The Complete Sessions’ re-issue with bonus tracks and DVD film of the band live in the studio shot by Wim Wenders.


L.A. Getaway

LA Getaway

For a period from the mid-60’s and into the 70’s the L.A. music scene became one of the greatest scenes in the history of rock music, particularly if – like me – you love the country rock sound which lay at its core. The mythology of that scene and its central players is well documented in Barney Hoskins ‘Hotel California’. That scene gave us artists such as Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Gram Parsons, Delaney & Bonnie, Ry Cooder and John Fahey (to mention but a few). Albums by those artists provide one of the backbones of my music collection (not to mention the roots of today’s ‘Americana’ sound).

Amongst that scene were three outstanding musicians – each merely footnotes to Hoskyns’ book:

  • Joel Scott Hill a guitarist and vocalist in Joel Scott Hill & the Invaders (whose greatest claim to fame was opening for The Rolling Stones in 1964 ina fairly obscure, and reportedly poorly attended, club gig), who later replaced Al Wilson as lead singer of Canned Heat;
  • Bass player Chris Etheridge, a founding member, with Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, of The Flying Burrito Brothers (and co-writer of Parson’s classic ’She’). Etheridge also had a stellar career as a studio musician and had played on albums by the likes of Phil Ochs, Arlo Guthrie and Ry Cooder (subsequently also featuring on classic albums such as Graham Bash’s ’Songs for Beginners’, Gene Clarke’s ‘White Light’, Gram Parson’s ‘GP’, Ry Cooder’s ‘ Chicken Skin Music’ and Willie Nelson’s ’ Stardust’); and
  • Drummer Johnny Barbata who had been a member of The Turtles, played sessions for Lina Ronstadt and was a touring-band member of Crosby, Stills Nash & Young at the time. Like Etheridge, he would go on to have a long and illustrious career as a session player including on classic albums by Judee Sills, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, Neil Young and J.D. Souther and become a member Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship.

In 1970, these three musicians got together in the studio over a series of sessions as ‘L.A. Getaway’, a supergroup (of sorts). The sessions also featured a raft of stellar guest musicians including Booker T Jones, Spooner Oldham, Mac (Dr John) Rebennack, Leon Russell and John Sebastian. Backing vocals were provided by Clydie King (Little Richard, The Supremes, Ray Charles, Rolling Stones and Neil Diamond).

The result was this self-titled L.A. Getaway album which, with a running time of only 40:17 and just 9 tracks, is an absolute gem, featuring a mix of outstanding songs from the likes of Mac Rebennack, Dan Penn, Allen Toussaint, Jerome Green, Booker T Jones and Chuck Berry together with original contributions by Etheridge and Hill (the majority of which were written specifically for the project). The album’s strength is the integrated sound created by the band and their (better known) guests, which manages to be both laid back and gently propulsive, through which the pristine guitar and fulsome piano/organ parts weave mercurially, providing the perfect bedrock for Hill’s dextrous, yet invitingly relaxed, vocals.

Several of the tracks here coulda been, shoulda been, classics – the rollicking blues workout of ‘Bring It To Jerome’; the blue-eyed soul of ‘Long Ago’ on which Hill & Etheridge share vocal duties, and the plaintive gospel/blues of Booker T Jones’ ‘Ole Man Trouble’ featuring Clydie King’s gorgeous backing vocals; foremost among them.

The original liner notes from the album, released in 1971, suggested that the band would soon re-convene for a second album. Alas, that never came to pass. So we’re left with just this single testament to what may have been the best undiscovered band of the 70’s. It ranks up there with some of the best work to come out of that L.A. scene. So far as my ‘go-to’ albums it is on my stereo as often, or more, than (most of) the others.

Bluesfest 2018 – Friday 30 March


Citizen Cope

Day 2 starts with Citizen Cope in the Jambalaya tent. Thanks to a welcome sleep in and an invigorating swim at Wategos Beach, we arrive a little late to the show which is an enjoyable folk soul blend grounded by solid songs and engaging performances from lead man Clarence Greenwood and, especially, the keyboardist who was clearly enjoying every moment, shooting satisfied glances to the drummer. The enjoyment was contagious.

Little Georgia (part)

We wander across to the adjacent Crossroads stage (where we will end up spending the whole evening) stopping to grab a beer from the craft beer tent. A welcome addition to the Festival which has suffered in the past from Toohey’s longstanding corporate deal and a selection of mostly characterless beers (TED and Heineken). So it’s fabulous to have access to the likes of White Rabbit and Little Creatures, as well as local Byron Bay Brewing on tap.

So, armed with our craft beers (mine’s a White Rabbit Dark Ale), we head into Little Georgia, chosen from a positive quote from Bernard Zuel on the Bluesfest app. The band is comprised of Ashleigh Mannix and Justin Carter who share vocal and guitar duties. The songs are endearing country folk with a pop edge. For mine, Mannix’s voice is a bit grating, especially when she tries for the big festival moment, but Carter’s guitar, mandolin, blues harp and relaxed vocals make him the clear star of the show.

Teskey Brothers

Next up were the Teskey Brothers back at the Jambalaya tent. I’d managed to catch a small record launch gig about a year ago at Mojo Records in the city and knew what to expect. And, despite the absence of bass player Brendan Love (‘over in the sick tent’), the Teskey Brothers deliver.


Josh Teskey’s sweet soulful voice is a wonderful instrument which immediately defines the band’s sweet southern soul blues at moments crooning, testifying and, even scatting. But the Teskey’s are far more than one one trick-pony, this is a band in the true sense comprised of way the whole band gel together is remarkable, born of 10 years of playing together (somewhat under the radar until the last year or so).

Brother Sam’s guitar work is soulfully elegant, underpinning the powerful strains which the band combines to create a slow build which consistently promises to break loose before pulling back again at just the right moment until…it doesn’t. By the time the band really go for it, in the extended outro to the final song of the set, the tension has built to a level adding a powerful sense of relief and euphoria. Not bad for an afternoon slot – and they’ll be even better on Sunday when Love rejoins them on stage.

Andy Cimone (part)

We caught the end of Andre Cimone, former school friend and band member of Prince. You can see the connection in the confident (arrogant) pimp on-stage persona complete with leather vest, pink Helton hat and sunglasses. You can also hear it in the Minneapolis pop-funk of the music. What you can’t hear is genius.

hartz (part)

To complete the Prince double-play, Hartz is billed as having been personally invited by Prince to come to Paisley Park where he received mentoring by the Purple One. Again it shows in the brash showmanship including a backdrop featuring ‘‘hartz’ written, like an autograph, in his signature font (all lower case). Again, while Prince’s genius (almost) made his ego forgiveable, its harder to take from this young upstart. He may be playing the Mojo tent at Bluesfest but his bravado is turned up to Glastonbury levels. That being said he is working hard to justify it and his songwriting and guitar makes it easy to see why he got that invitation. Worth checking out for a few songs but not the reincarnation.

Hurray For The Riff Raff

Hurray For The Riff Raff is the artistic vehicle for intriguing singer-songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra. For once, the back-story is not just a matter of marketing spin. Seeing her live on stage you can immediately recognise where this singular artist is coming from. It’s there in her unforced sneer, the way she works the stage with an urgent, yet pensive, force and in the anger and defiance of the songs, mostly coming from her 2017 concept album, ‘The Navigator’.

That album represented an artistic u-turn for Segarra whose 2014 release ‘Small Town Heroes’ was a standout Appalachian folk album with enough power and attitude that it could have been subtitled ‘O Sister Where Art Thou?’. Today’s HFTRR is a new beast and one that showcases her always powerful voice with a tougher, more muscular, musical vision infused with rock & roll swagger, liberal dashes of her Puerta Rican heritage and riot grrl attitude.

What we witness on stage is the performance of a singular artist with an unrelenting vision which is heartfelt, passionate and not afraid to be somewhat prickly. The music seems to be oozing from her core rather than merely being ‘performed’.


When she launches a bitter attack on Trump’s USA, this is not on-trend value signalling, its a visceral and urgent call to arms aimed at an apathetic public (and music business):

‘Now all the politicians/ They just squawk their mouths/ They say ‘We’ll build a wall to keep them out/ And all the poets were dying of a silent disease/ So it happened quickly and with much ease.’

Her unreleased ‘Kid’s Are Dying’ which she introduces with a tribute to a small artistic community which is speaking out (and which is based on a poem by poet Langston Hughes), is a brutal assault on both US racial culture and apathy in the face of repeated deaths of young children of racial minorities.

The set is brought to a crescendo with that track and her breakout track ‘Living in the City’ an uncompromising violent tale of a young female immigrant in New York (“Oh, I’ll take you to the stairwell/ And give you something I can offer/ You know the heart is not the hopeless/The heart is a lonely hunter’) and the positivity of her uplifting, anthemic, ‘Pa’lante’ (which means moving forward).

Then, as if in recognition of the intensity of the the set, she sends us away with a tension relieving re-casting of Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’. Even then, Segarra can’t help adding one last barb noting that Springteen’s ‘The only Boss I answer to.’

Juanes (part)

We head over to the Crossroads tent, grabbing a reinvigorating double macchiato from the Bun Byron Bay coffee tent, before moving down towards the front. Juanes is captivating with his up-tempo Latin soul, poster boy good looks and a rare on-stage charisma. We can see why he’s such a big star and would have liked to have enjoyed more but such is the nature of Bluesfest – even with multiple slots for most artists, there are some which will run into conflicts.

As the crowd begins to exit, we move forward to grab a front row position which will see us through for the remainder of the night (excepting the $300 per night interlopers who reflect a flagrant money grab at odds with the festival spirit – a fairly rare misstep by Noble). Still, the philosophical will reason that the view is still uninterrupted (most of the front rows are seated and with a gap from the rest of the audience) and the sound is actually better a little further back from those front speakers.

Youssou N’dour

Youssou N’dour will start our evening triple-bill off in high style at 6.30pm. He’s billed on the Festival app as ‘the most famous singer alive’ and for his collaborations with Paul Simon and Nenah Cherry. I remember being captivated by his voice on those ‘cross-over’ recordings but, to my detriment, never followed up to discover more. Still festivals are a great time to make up for those omissions and to discover music and genres which you might not have taken the time to explore at home in the comfort of your own home and album collection.


From the outset, Ndour and his band are spellbinding, his tenor voice a nimble instrument of beauty, warmth and dexterity. The songs are mostly mostly written in the Serer language native to Senegal where Ndour is credited as establishing the modern form of the traditional Senegalese musical style known as mbalax. That he currently serves as the Minister of Culture is reflective of the importance of art and culture to the Senegalese nation (compare Mitch Fifield, Australia’s Minister for Arts a career politician and son of two bankers).

275B8C57-AC1F-4F40-8B1C-64D71CDB657AN’Dour’s talented 12 piece band (Le Super Etoile de Dakar) comprises three percussionists (including Assange Thiam’s expressive tama) which are, perhaps the most prominent musical element, as well as strong backing vocals and guitarist Jimi Mbaye whose intuitive guitar lines weaves through the music subtly providing a melodic backbone which was never showy or obtrusive (even as Mbaye’s physical presence dominated the stage).

Also taking turns at dominating the stage at regular intervals was acrobat Moussa Sonko whose wild leaping and somersaulting dances in bright loose costumes add a comedic festival vibe to fill the tent. Though, whether they add to the fun or distracted from the beauty of the band and N’Dour’s musical performance is a matter of personal preference.

While it was the big collaborations ‘You Can Call Me Al’ and ‘7 Seconds’ which really got the crowd going, the spirit of the music and N’Dour’s sweet vocal dexterity had the crowd mesmerised for the entire 90 minute set, earning the respect and admiration of all those around me.

Jimmy Cliff

Jimmy Cliff is another staple on the festival circuit having appeared at least a couple of time previously. Despite that I’ve never caught more than a few passing strains taking a short between set coffee break behind the Crossroads tent. Tonight I see his set up front and centre. It’s fun, upbeat and engages the crowd with well known originals ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’, ‘Vietnam’ and, especially, covers like Johnny Nash’s ‘I can See Clearly Now’ and Cat Steven’s ‘Wild World’.


Enjoyable though it is, Cliff’s voice is not that great, the band solid but not in the class of some others on the programme and the rocksteady reggae lite arrangements were always a pale shadow of the likes of Marley. Ultimately, the set remains for me just a brief interlude between two other great festival sets.

Robert Plant & the Sensational Spaceshifters

There’s not much movement in the front ten or so rows between sets as, positions established, we sat, backs to the barricade, and waited for Plant’s arrival as the sound check took place behind us. When he arrived, Plant did not disappoint. He remains the consummate rock icon, commanding the stage, and steering his multi-faceted band, with the demeanour of a spiritual Svengali – which is to say relaxed but with a quietly intense focus.

For those looking for a pumped up run-through of Zeppelin’s greatest hits, sorry, but that was never on the agenda. But for those tuned into Plant’s recent work with The Sensational Spaceshifters the rewards are plentiful, if a little more mysterious.

They’re delivered in a perfectly judged mix of Plant’s recent solo material (The New World’s slow burn intensity, The May Queen’s brilliant interplay between guitar and Seth Lakeman’s violin and the percussion heavy Rainbow), traditional roots music (Leadbelly’s ‘The Gallows Pole’, Little Maggie), well chosen covers (Please Read the Letter from Plant’s collaboration with Alison Kraus, Bukka White’s ‘Fixing to Die’) and a smattering of, relatively lesser known, Zeppelin tracks (The Lemon Song and That’s The Way).


The highlight though was an extended version Zeppelin’s Joan Baez cover ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’ with guitarists Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson exchanging lead solos and, particularly, the latter’s spotlit acoustic solo.

The performance’s major rewards came from the band’s rhythmic force and snaking instrumental interplay through which Plant’s still incendiary vocals ebbed and flowed, emerging like a ship from the fog only to be enveloped again by the music. It was a masterful performance from Plant and a band which, earning its name, was certainly sensational and constantly shifting both shape and space. Violinist Seth Lakeman fitted right in with the band so seamlessly, further broadening the textures, that it is hard to believe that he is not a fully fledged Spaceshifter.

By the time the set reached its end with a crowd-pleasing workout of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, those gathered had ceased expecting, or even craving, the big Zeppelin hits. Even then, as Plant unleashed their biggest anthem, he couldn’t resist weaving it through both ‘Bring It On Home’ and the traditional ‘Santiana’. He’s earned that right.

Seymour’s sparkling tales of home and family

Mark Seymour & The Undertow, The Basement, Sydney – Saturday 19 August 2017

I first encountered Mark Seymour at the helm of Hunters & Collectors when, at a party at a local sailing club, the sounds of the newly released ‘Human Frailty’ sent the mostly 16 year old partygoers into a frenzy, singing along and dancing on tables – some even swinging from the steel rafters supporting the club’s roof. I headed straight to the source of the music, a turntable in the club’s kitchenette, on which spun some kid’s freshly minted copy of the album.

Thus began my affair with the music of Mark Seymour. Over the years I have seen him numerous times in venues ranging from the Sydney Cover Tavern to Selinas, in solo guise at Pier One and the Hunna’s recent reunion at the Enmore. I’ve collected each of his albums with the Hunters & Collectors, solo and, more recently, with the Undertow.

Tonight’s performance at Sydney’s iconic Basement was a fitting culmination of these years of fandom. Seymour remains at the top of his game – relaxed and with a focused intensity. Beside him, the Undertow (Cameron McKenzie (guitars), Peter Maslen (drums) and John Favaro (bass)) is a crack unit which serves as the perfect support providing highly accomplished playing and, most importantly, knowing precisely when to hold back to showcase the songs and when to step forward and lift them to the next rousing level.

The Basement’s low ceiling, crisp sound and cabaret tables provides the perfect setting in which to truly appreciate the songs – if only it wasn’t for the disrespect of the punters huddled around the bar, the transient self-obsessed blowhards whose constant talking made you feel sorry not only for those who’d come for the music but for the band and the real fans who’d missed out on tickets to the sold out show.

Each song is allowed to exert its own personality aided by Seymour’s informative introductions which provides an invitation to the listener to delve more deeply into the songwriter’s intent – for tonight it is very much about the songs and the songwriter. As the two sets unfold the themes of home, country and family emerge – coupled with a sensibility which mixes a robust Australian tone with Celtic songwriting tradition.

What could be more Australian than the opening lines of Home Free: ‘Shark attack on Tuesday/They shut the beaches down’; or Sylvia’s ‘Houses on the avenue/Where the eucalypts grow tall and strong’? The sense of place is strong with Seymour explicitly referencing “the great brown drain” which runs through Melbourne in “Westgate” – a very working class tale of Eddie Halsall, a rigger on Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge, who narrowly escaped death 1970 as ‘Hell broke free when the bridge came down’. And not one, but two, diversions to Adelaide. It’s there too in the historical ballad Castlemaine. But most of all it’s in Seymour’s fine tales which pay tribute to fallen Australian servicemen in ‘What’s A Few Men” and the delicate funeral tale of “Tobruk Pin”.

Then there’s the strong theme of family which is physically represented in the presence of Seymour’s daughter Hannah on supporting vocals adding both an extra dimension to the songs and familial intimacy to the performance. Seymour’s clear paternal pride is evident frequently throughout the night as he flashes glances and a wide smile across the stage. The sense of family is also present in the songs themselves. In ‘Classrooms & Kitchens’ Seymour reflects on his schoolteacher mother – from the early years in their ‘small country house’ in Benalla, Victoria listening to ‘Blue Hills on the radio’ to later times in a nursing home in Kew singing ‘Hail Mary’ and ‘counting angels’. Then Seymour turns to his father in ‘Kosiosko’, recalling the childhood moment, ‘driving high on a switchback road’, when he first discovers that his father was not the infallible person he thought he was: “I never get over the first time/When I saw that he was not that strong/Saw the white knuckles riding on the steering wheel/And I knew that he could steer me wrong”.

Yes, these are very honest Australian tales, told expertly by Seymour – a master songwriter – whose status as an Aussie rock icon often overshadows his rightful position, along with Paul Kelly and Don Walker, as one of the country’s finest songwriters. It’s a craft which Seymour  developed during the Hunters & Collectors days (witness Everything’s On Fire’s ‘kick the can around until all memory ceases’ and ‘fingers like ginger roots’) and continued through a string of sophisticated albums both solo and with the Undertow.

Underlying each of these Australian tales is a strong celtic songwriting tradition which is glimpsed intermittently thoughout the set on songs such a ‘Master of Spin’, ‘Football Train’, ‘Irish Breakfast’, a fine rocking cover of The Pogue’s siren tale ‘Lorelai’ and Seymour’s closing solo acoustic rendering of the traditional ‘Parting Glass’ (made famous by The Clancy Brothers).

Of all the times I’ve seen Mark Seymour, in various guises, perhaps tonight is the most focused, intense, pure and complete rendering of his songcraft. With the assured support of The Undertow, he presents these songs, over two hour long sets, for our appreciation with finely tuned arrangements which are equally capable of rousing rock and intimate solo moments – always in service of the songs.

Rhiannon Giddens soars above the cotton fields

Rhiannon Giddens – The Factory Theatre, Sydney – 8 April 2017


Rhiannon Giddens’ songs are  steeped in the traditions & history of the US South – not just the rich musical traditions, but the history of the place and the struggles of her people. She she sings from the soul, rendering heartfelt tributes to her civil war era forebears on her haunting trilogy of gospel infused originals which provide the backbone of this short but perfectly formed show.

‘At The Purchaser’s Option’ tells of the heartbreaking plight of a 17 year old slave girl advertised for sale with her 9 month old child being ‘at the purchaser’s option (the room audibly gasps at her introduction to the song’s origins). Then there’s the four innocent Sunday school girls at the centre of ‘Birmingham Sunday’ -murdered in the bombing of a Birmingham church by white supremacists – a tale  from which Giddens draws parallels to more recent world events.

Finally comes ‘We Could Fly’ – the last song penned for her current album ‘Freedom Highway (named for her cover of the Staples Singers’ song which appears on the album but is not heard tonight) – which takes the audience flying above the cotton fields of the deep South in her fine rendering of a folk tale of spiritual stoicism, defiance and emancipation.

If all of this sounds like it could result in a show which is nothing more than a dull, studied throwback to the past, then you couldn’t be further from the mark because Giddens and her band know that gospel music is a joyous celebration of the soul.


The band is expertly led by Grammy award winning multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger Dirk Powell  and features Giddens’ Carolina Chocolate Drops bandmate Hubby Jenkins (guitar, banjo and, yes, bones), together with Jason Sypher (double bass) and Jamie Dick (drums).

They swing throughout, infusing  every song with an unbridled spirit which provides a perfect musical scaffold in, through and around which Giddens’ rich, evocative vocals, can soar, glide and swoop – just like the slaves in We Could Fly.

The show intersperses these Giddens’ originals from ‘Freedom Highway’ with traditional dance music from Louisiana and Canada (on which Giddens’ fiddle playing raises wafts of smoke), a Carolina Chocolate Drops duet with Jenkins, ‘Spanish Mary’ (featuring Dylan’s lyrics set to her music for ‘The New Basement Tapes’ project) and her interpretations of Odetta’s ‘Waterboy’, Hank Cochran’s ‘She’s Got You’ and a medley of Sister Rosetta Thorpe songs.

When Giddens’ announces – all too early – that she has just one song left and warns that there will be no encore as she has tonsillitis and is ‘pumped full of steroids’, our awe at her complete vocal, musical and lyrical mastery are only enhanced by our recognition of her dedication.

Tonight Giddens has broken the shackles of illness and taken us flying with her high above the cotton fields.

[Thanks to Jeannine Clarke for the photos]

Prisoner – Ryan Adams

ryan-adams-prisoner-cover-crop-1480x832The word Prisoner is capable of evoking two potential emotional responses. To some, it may connote a wild dangerous criminal, barely contained, capable of escaping at any moment and seething with murderous intent. To others, the piteous figure of a man, spirit broken, securely confined to a small, well defined, box. On listening to Ryan Adams’ new album it is instantly apparent that he meant its title in the second sense. Post release interviews given by Ryan confirm that:

“What’s more heartbreaking than any single event in life is the realization that every human being is trapped in a quest for love, trying to navigate a maze of desire. That’s what this record is about. Nobody falls in love to fail.”

To an extent that is a positive thing. This is a collection of painful piteous songs delving deep into the desperate self-assessment that comes with the end of a relationship. A marriage even.

And make no mistake, Adams is often at his best in this territory. ‘Amy’ from his solo debut remains a difficult but wonderfully rewarding listen (and a song that Adams himself refuses to play live such are the emotions attached). And his subsequent albums have equally been scattered with gems of this ilk from the desolate ’Sylvia Plath’ and ‘Afraid Not Scared’ to the exquisite ‘Burning Photographs’ and the tender ‘I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say’. Indeed Adams wrote, what is perhaps one of the most devastating ‘break-up’ song ever – ‘This One’s Gonna Bruise’ which was released by Beth Orton on her 2002 Daybreaker album.

Prisoner contains a number of sharply observed and quietly desperate tracks which, in a songwriting sense, sit right up there with some of those tracks – ‘To Be Without You’, ’Tightrope’ and the album’s central highlight ‘Shiver And Shake’’ featuring the lines:

‘My chest is all tight, my heart still aches/ These are the days you need double what it takes/ I miss you so much I shiver and I shake’.

The rest of the tracks too are uniformly strong (with the exception of Haunted House which comes off as a lesser Ryan-Adams by-numbers track). But somehow these tracks – as solid as they are – suffer by comparison. They largely cover the same emotional territory but to lesser effect. Not quite as sharply written. Not quite as evocative or visceral. Not quite managing the light touch of the above tracks.

These songs tend to feature bigger production as if trying to provide a counterpoint but somehow they don’t take sufficient flight and end up weighing the album down rather than providing the variety and lift needed to balance the album.  Only the Springsteen-esque ramble of ‘Outbound Train’ comes close to adding the required respite.

It’s as if Adams knew he had a great batch of songs and was determined to craft them into a perfect, cohesive album. It’s artfully constructed – a tasteful guitar solo here, a harmonica part there – all played by Ryan himself and precise drumming throughout by Johnny T Yerington.

It’s here that the album comes to resemble the titular prisoner as a ‘man in a box’ in a less positive sense. What the album needs is a bit more of that other prisoner, the dangerous one. The one tugging on his shackles. The album needs a bit of the tension created by the thought that Adams might break-out at any moment and burn the whole thing down.

This might all sound churlish coming from someone who once accused Adams of needing an editor – someone to give him more focus. With recent albums Adams has delivered the focus but here seems to have lost something in the process. I’d love to see how Prisoner might have turned out like with a producer like Ethan Johns (who produced 2005’s under-rated ’29’) or John Porter (who co-produced, with Adams, what to these ears was his masterpiece 2004’s ‘Love is Hell’). Or perhaps even a producer like Jack White who might have brought a little of that danger to proceedings.

On the whole, this is a fine album. Adams is too good a songwriter and player to produce anything less. But with the quality of the songs it could have been more. It could have been more than another very good addition to his discography. It could have been his second masterpiece.

Willow Springs – Michael McDermott


Willow Springs kicks off with the title track, a dense, ambitious and poetic composition featuring some 25 verses which cut to the quick. It’s a stunning attention-grabber with the decidedly Dylanesque structure and quick fire array of imagery: “Pimps and pushers, presidents/The paupers preach the tenements/ The cowboy’s code, the whore laments/The coming judgment day”.

It introduces perfectly each of the themes which remain at the heart of the album over its whole course: ‘dreams undone’, days spent wandering ‘through the wasteland’, ‘squandered salvation‘ and, ultimately, the redemptive power of love.

If nothing else on the album quite matches it for sheer audacity, that’s a relief. The album is stronger for its diversity which allows the full range of McDermott’s songwriting talent to shine through in songs about cars, war and love in its various guises.

The marvel of this release lies in the the depth and authenticity of the songwriting which, while not strictly autobiographical, reflects McDermott’s own backstory. Bursting on to the US music scene in 1991 with his debut album, McDermott was quickly compared to Springsteen and Dylan by a fawning music press and celebrity fans. He subsequently hit harder times – believing the hype, living the rock ‘n’ roll life, dabbling in drugs and alcohol, losing his record contract and even spending a stint in jail. Slowly but surely he ground his way back through a series of increasingly accomplished self-released albums, the support of his wife and bandmate Heather Horton and the birth of his baby daughter (to whom the track ‘Willie Rain’ is dedicated – and whose ‘I love you Daddy’ features in it). Willow Springs completes that journey and stands as his defining statement.

Despite the evident quality of the songwriting and the lyrical themes, dwelling on the aforementioned Dylan and Springsteen comparisons would do McDermott a disservice. He has a commanding voice of his own. Perhaps other contemporary artists such as Jason Isbell, John Murry, Simone Felice or Matthew Ryan provide a fairer and more relevant touchstone. Willow Springs cements McDermott’s place in that company.

Gordon Lightfoot at The Royal Albert Hall



It is always a privilege to see music in the glorious surrounds of the Royal Albert Hall. The presence of the Hall, with the sumptuous elegance of its red velvet upholstery, detailed blonde woodwork and majestic dome brings a sense of occasion to proceedings. And the acoustics as the music resonates beneath that dome and around the circular forum are second to none.

Over the years the Hall’s played host to a who’s who of the British and international music aristocracy as is attested to by the photographs which line its vast circular corridors.

I’ve been blessed, as a resident of far removed Australia, to have been able to have frequently visited this august space including for performances by the likes of Sting, Crosby Stills & Nash and Bob Dylan (whose 1966 performance here was one of the high points of his increasingly seminal Bootleg series).

Tonight I’m here to see Gordon Lightfoot, a much overlooked folk singer and songwriter  from Canada who can lay claim to some of the finest songs of the last 50 years including If I Could Read Your Mind (a song with few peers)and Early Mornin’ Rain.

The elegant simplicity of the groove, the beguiling richness of the melodies – which, quietly, but surely, insinuate themselves into your consciousness – are the stamp of songwriting at its finest. And its not just the well known tacks but a pervasive quality throughout the the whole set from I’d Rather Press On to The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald, Sundown and Baby Step Back.


These gems are delivered in a polished form by a sympathetically understated but precisely accomplished band and Lightfoot himself out front on vocals and acoustic guitar.

And if Lighfoot’s vocals are showing the wear and tear of age,  lacking the sonorous depth which they once had, he is not alone in that. From Nelson to Nash, Kristofferson and, yes, Dylan we are regularly exposed to artists whose vocals may not be what they once were but who nevertheless deliver for us in live performance.

It may require a degree of generosity from the audience, perhaps even a suspension of disbelief. But the point is that such a reaction is not purely altruistic on our part but rather reflects a deeper respect in the audience which is not given but earned. Earned by the pure artistry and genius of the music which these artists have created.

And so it is tonight. I cannot help but be in awe of the artist, the songwriter, the band and the venue. As Lightfoot and his band leave the stage, I do not hesitate to rise, from my seat in the Grand Tier, to my feet to join the adulation bestowed by a solid core of tonight’s audience.

And if the ovation is less than unanimous then perhaps some are simply incapable of suspending disbelief.

Bluesfest 2016 – Day Two

Bluesfest 2016 – Day Two, Friday 25 March 

When a festival has 82 bands on its Schedule playing over 5 days, it is impossible to see them all. Schedule clashes will arise and hard decisions will need to be made. Ultimately, the measure of a truly great festival is the terrific acts you didn’t get to see. One small way of trying to maximise the range of music you get to experience is to move from stage to stage catching partial sets of many artists. It’s all about balance though. I decide that this afternoon would be an opportunity to do this.

Eugene Hideaway Bridges (Delta Stage)


Eugene ‘Hideaway’ Bridges and Kasey Chambers

Bridges is an American blues singer and guitarist in the mould of BB King (whom he supported on King’s final tour of Australia a few years ago). He has been a frequent visitor to Australia in the past and always puts on a great performance of authentic blues. Today’s performance is no exception and made special when Kasey Chambers comes on stage for a duet. Kasey is not scheduled to play this year’s Bluesfest and is only there as an attendee so its nice to see the spirit of collaboration which allows her to take the stage and bring an extra element to Bridges already solid set.

Lord Huron (Mojo Stage)


Lord Huron

I don’t know much about Lord Huron when I walk in. First impressions: good looking, finely coiffed dark hair and beard,  caramel pants and blue jacket give him a slightly preppie look.

He stands in front of a backdrop panoramic of blue sky, clouds and scorched earth. His voice is effective, the songs are fine enough with the occasional nice atmospherics on some songs being the only distinctive touch keeping them from sliding towards bland.

I can see what makes people like Lord Huron (despite the awkward name) and why the record companies might think he’s got potential to sell big. But for me, he’s sort of like Ryan Adams if he really cleaned up. He makes you appreciate Ryan’s rough edges all the more. Stay cool Ryan. Stay prickly. Stay real.

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real (Jambalaya Stage)


Lukas Nelson – Cinnamon Girl

I’m back for a few more tracks from Lukas this morning. A similar but shorter set which Nelson finishes off, like yesterday, with a couple of covers – Paul Simon’s ‘Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes’ (a repeat from yesterday but played so well its good to hear it a second time) and Neil Young’s ‘Cinnamon Girl’ which confirms the connection this band has to Young. Great cover. Worth catching another glimpse.

Frazey Ford (Delta Stage)

A former member of the well regarded folk trio ‘The Be Good Tanyas’ whose 2000 debut album ‘Blue Horse’ made a few ripples at the time. I didn’t know their music well but recalled it being pleasant harmony folk and a mate told me her solo stuff was worth checking out. Unfortunately her set was my first disappointment of the Festival. The songs were pretty but lacked distinction and Frazey’s performance was tentative and didn’t command the small Delta stage afternoon slot. Maybe in another setting her small folk portraits might hold subtle delights. Today on an outdoor festival stage they eluded me. Her attempt to spice up her performance with ludicrously bright pink top and mirrored skirt, then adding a bright blue gown over the top, did little to further endear her. I last only a few songs.

Archie Roach (Crossroads Tent)


Archie Roach

Roach is an Australian legend. Coming to attention with his debut album courtesy of the deeply affecting, autobiographical ‘Took the Children Away’ Roach continued to release a string of high quality albums each containing consistently good songs and a few stellar tracks. Roach is not looking all that well these days and that reflects in long spoken word introductions to his songs which, while endearing, break the momentum and seem primarily designed to allow him to rest before launching into the next track. He’s ably supported by a fine Australian band featuring familiar faces including the haunting violin of Jen Anderson (Black Sorrows, Weddings Parties Anything) and Craig Pilkington on guitar.

Although I only stay for a few songs, having seen Roach many times previously, I enjoy the short set spanning both tracks both new (‘Not Too Well’ – from his latest EP) and the old (‘Took the Children Away’).

Songhoy Blues (Jambalaya Tent)

Midway through Day Two and battling with a flu which seemed to set in hours efter my arrival in Byron as my body relaxed from its usual adrenalized ‘corporate warrior’ state,  I take a seat on the ground inside the Jambalaya tent to relax and take in the cool rhythms of the Malian blues played by Songhoy Blues.

I manage barely two songs before I receive a text from a mate informing me that Graham Nash is on stage in the Juke Joint. Hold on, Nash isn’t due on for another 45 minutes. Has there been a change in the program?

ABC Radio North Coast (Juke Joint)

I hotfoot it over to the Juke Joint to find Nash being interviewed on stage by ABC Radio North Coast. He is polite, gently humorous and affable. Apparently I’ve just missed two solo acoustic songs. Never mind, he’ll be hitting the stage in the Crossroads in just over half an hour. Just time enough to hang around in the Juke Joint to hear solo acoustic sets by, and short interviews with, Lukas Nelson and Javena Magnes (who I have pencilled in to see later in the Festival).

Nelson plays striking acoustic versions of ‘Forget Georgia’ and two new unrecorded songs ‘Music to My Eyes’ and a song introduced as being ‘about moonshine’ – both excellent and bode well for the next album. The interview which follows touches, unsurprisingly, upon Nelson’s relationships with Neil Young (who he calls ‘Captain Destroyer’ and says that he belongs to ‘part of the same soul cluster’) and his father Willie (‘He was always out on the road playing. I learnt to play guitar so that I could spend more time with him’).

Javena Magness has been recommended to me and I can see why. She’s blessed with a natural blues style and a strong melodious blues voice and is backed by a strong band. The short acoustic set ‘Everything is Alright’, ‘I Won’t Cry’ and Creedance’s ‘As Long As I Can See the Light’ whet’s my appetite to see her full blues set later in the Festival.

Having come across to see Graham Nash, I realise that I’ve become entranced by Javena and that Nash has now started over in the Crossroads tent. So I sprint back across the Festival site…

Graham Nash (Crossroads Tent)

I last saw Graham Nash a few years ago as part of a Crosby, Still & Nash show at the Royal Albert Hall. The first half of the show featured each of the members presenting a short selection of their solo material. The second part of the show was a straight run-through their classic self-titled debut. At the time, I noted that Nash was in fine voice and probably more so than the others during the solo part of the show (though the harmonies of all 3 remained superb in the second half of the show).


Graham Nash

Nash stands on the stage accompanied only by the great Shane Fontaine on guitar. Together they create a sparse but pristine sound with Fontaine’s intricate guitar work providing the perfect foil for Nash’s still warm and generous vocals.

His set balances the present with the past. Classic songs from his past including CSN’s 1969 hit Marakesh Express, ‘I Use To Be A King’ (from his 1971 solo debut) and Immigration Man (Crosby & Nash 1972) are followed a selection of the songs from his new album ‘This Path Tonight’ which themselves contain elements of the past (Golden Days’ “I used to be in a band made up of my friends” and “What happened to ‘All You Need Is Love’”), the present (‘Myself At Last’ which celebrates Nash’s new love) and a combination of the two (the title track ‘This Path Tonight’ starts with the line “Where are we going?/ where have we been?” and buoyantly, but uncertainly, declares “I’m stumbling to my heart’s desire/ on this path tonight”). It must be said that the present looks pretty good with the new songs stacking up well in the set particularly ‘This Path Tonight’ which is the best of the new lot on show tonight.

P1020387Naturally, Nash then returns to his classic material – and to the grand piano occupying centre stage – for the final four songs of the set each of which are given an introduction to place them in their historical context: ‘Cathedral’ (a song about taking acid at Stonehenge and then tripping in the nearby Westminster Cathedral), Our House (about domestic bliss with Joni Mitchell), Chicago (in which a solo Nash entreats the other members of CSNY to travel to sing at a benefit for the ‘Chicago 7’ arrested for inciting a riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968) and ‘Teach Your Children (which he dedicates to ‘all the teachers in the world’).

The Crossroads crowd sang along blissfully to the final songs and rightly gave Nash a standing ovation both in recognition of his contribution to musical history and the fact that he can still put on a great show and produce strong new material. I will certainly be rushing out to get the new album once it is officially released.

Tweedy (Crossroads Tent)

Generally I like to move between tents during band changeovers rather than spend 30 minutes in a silent tent knowing that there’s great music playing somewhere else onsite that I’m missing out on. But then there’s other times where getting a position front and centre for an artist takes precedence. Jeff Tweedy is one such artist.


Jeff Tweedy

I became a fan on first listen to Uncle Tupelo’s The Long Cut I on a CD- Sampler from an import US magazine. That track, from Uncle Tupelo’s final album ‘Anodyne’ led me to their entire back Catalogue and, subsequently, to Jeff Tweedy’s band Witco and Jay Farrar’s Son Volt. However, it was eventually WiIco that won my heart with the trio of albums, ‘Summerteeth’, ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ and ‘A Ghost is Born’ followed by a period (following the addition of Nels Cline and Pat Sansone in 2004) with a legitimate claim to being the best live band in the world. Unsurprisingly then, and despite the Tweedy album leaving me slightly underwhelmed when compared to the Wilco canon, I found my way to front and centre of the Crossroads Tent for Tweedy’s set.

Jeff Tweedy takes the stage first and begins to strum his guitar and is quickly joined by the rest of the Tweedy touring band, including Tweedy’s son Spencer Tweedy, on drums, Darin Gray on bass, Jim Elkington on guitar, Liam Cunningham on keyboard/guitars and Sima Cunningham on backing vocals. The latter two youthful band members are introduced by Jeff Tweedy as ‘school friends of Spencer who are there to keep him company and will be turned down in the mix anyway so you can’t hear them’. That, of course, is not true and the band arrangements of the songs fleshes out the songs giving them an extra dimension to the sometimes under-developed version on the album. During the first part of the set, the band works its way through the better tracks on the Sukierae album including ‘Summer Noon’, ‘High As Hello’ and ‘Low Key’ (which is ironically probably the least low key track on the album). It’s a pleasing, if not overwhelming first act.

Then the band abruptly exits leaving Jeff Tweedy alone on stage with just his acoustic guitar and a batch of stripped back solo re-workings of some of Wilco’s finest tracks. In this beguiling solo set we are treated to ‘Via Chicago’, ‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’, ‘One Wing’, ‘Hummingbird’ (complete with whistling), ‘Passenger Side’ and ‘I’m The Man Who Loves You’. It would be hard to match this set for quiet intensity, songwriting brilliance and rarity (despite frequent visits to these shores over the last 15 years this is the first extended solo performance by Jeff Tweedy on these shores). It is worth bottling and one of the highlights of the Festival.

As the band files back on stage, I wonder where they can possibly go that won’t be an anti-climax after Jeff’s solo set. However, they pull it off with great style giving us two Uncle Tupelo era songs – a cover of Neil Young ‘Losing End’ and ‘Give Me Back The Key To My Heart’ and close out the performance with the jaunty ‘California Stars’ from the Mermaid Avenue project.

Steve Earle (Jambalaya Tent)

Steve Earle has been a frequent visitor to Australia in recent years frequently performing at this Festival, so when he shouts, mid-set, ‘This is the greatest music festival in the whole world’ it sounds more than just your typical keep-the-locals-happy lip service. And we’re glad to have him back.


Steve Earle & The Dukes

When he was last out two years ago I found his performance strangely lacklustre – as if he was tired, depressed and just going through the motions. Sure it could have been jet lag, or just age, but given he had recently separated from wife number seven Allison Moorer, it seemed to be more than that. Then there was the desolate (but incisive) tone of the album he was touring at the time ‘The Low Highway’.

So when Earle took the stage, I was hoping to see the Earle of old days stepping up to the plate with his full band behind him. Reports from friends who attended his Sydney show (and who had shared by 2014 reservations) were promising. However, initially I found him flat – not helped by (rare for Bluesfest) sound issues with his microphone for the first track and half. Songs from the new blues album ‘Terraplane’ made up the first part of the set and, while the band was in blistering early form, Earle himself seemed to be tossing off the vocals with less than full commitment – which is a shame with material as strong as the opening ‘Baby, Baby, Baby’ and ‘You’re the Best Lover I’ve Ever Had’.

But Earle soon settles in and by the time he gets to the track ‘My Old Friend The Blues’ he’s fully engaged  giving a tender emotional undercurrent to this superior love-song to traditional blues. It’s that track which marks a turning point from which he and the band launch into  a blistering second half of the set featuring such Earle classics as ‘Someday’, ‘Copperhead Road’ – given a twist by the introduction of coda featuring Earle on mandolin (made for him by Steve Gilchrist in Victoria), Galway Girl, Johnny Come Lately, Tennessee Kid, King of The Blues and finishing up with Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’ featuring a fine solo from Chris Masterton (though one which can’t compare to that of ‘Cool’ John Ferguson at last year’s Bluesfest – then who could?).

Despite the slightly distracted start (or was I still just reeling from the quiet intensity of Jeff Tweedy’s solo set?) Steve Earle and his Dukes/Duchesses ultimately deliver in spades. I suspect that the full set from his Sydney shows would have really been a sight to behold.



Festival staple

I’m starting to flag slightly by this stage having been hit by the onset of the flu shortly after my arrival at Byron and pushing through buoyed by the great music, the energy of the festival and some cold & flu tablets. So I take a bit of a breather with friends in the main food tent near the Jambalaya/Crossroads tents enjoying the traditional Festival mainstay of a Fish Taco – not only a fantastic tasting meal but the perfect way to observe my childhood upbringing which forbade meat on Good Friday. One Bluesfest I managed to take the record for 18 of these babies over the 5 days of Bluesfest, a record I have no intention of trying to beat this year. As we eat we take in the sounds of St Paul & the Broken Bones from the Crossroads Tent a band many are tipping to be a highlight and which I have pencilled in for Monday night.

Mick Fleetwood Band (Crossroads)

Earlier in the year I’d had tickets to see Fleetwood Mac but had to travel to London for business so missed those shows. So it was great when Bluesfest confirmed the Mick Fleetwood Band for Bluesfest particularly as I’d always been a bigger fan of the earlier bluesier Mac (the Peter Green Mac) than the later pop band that soared to popularity with Lyndsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.


Rick Vito and Mick Fleetwood

I move to the front of the seats in the Crossroads tent to watch the Mick Fleetwood Band.  Centre stage is guitarist and vocalist Rick Vito himself a bona fide blues legend in his own right having won a coveted W.C.Handy Blues Award. Vito took over Fleetwood Mac guitar duties when Lindsay Buckhingham left in the late 80’s and has played sessions or in the touring bands of such artists as John Mayall, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Bob Seger (to name a few). With Fleetwood set behind a huge drum kit to the centre rear of the stage, the superb band is rounded out by Mark Johnston on keyboard and harmonica, and Lenny Castellanos on bass.

Mick Fleetwood makes a pleasing and avuncular MC and his drumming is, as expected, superb but he allows Vito to prowl the stage soloing and hollering through a series of blues numbers drawing predominantly from the band’s 2008 Blues Again life album (which itself incorporated early Fleetwood Mac numbers). Early highlights are Peter Green’s ‘Looking For Somebody’ and Vito’s ‘Fleetwood Boogie’.

About two thirds of the way through, I finally succumb to the flu and promise myself that I’ll catch the remainder of the set tomorrow after a good night’s sleep. It’s been another superb day but the Festival is a marathon not a sprint so if I’m going to shake this flu I’ll need to get a good ten hour sleep before tomorrow’s kick off.

Bluesfest 2016 – Day One


DAY ONE: BLUESFEST 2016, Thursday 24 March 2016

An excellent Thursday line-up this year brought in bigger than usual first day crowds – at least for the later gigs. Predictably Kendrick Lamar was a big drawcard for the younger fans and plenty of curious old blues dogs (who’d, mostly, been urged by the children not to miss him).

In past year’s I’ve noticed the trends that seem to move through Bluesfest from ever present trombones one year, then a few years ago, every band seemed to have the wooden organ. More recently it was ubiquitous banjos one year and mandolins the next. While each of those instruments show up in a number of acts this year, based on what I saw on Day One, 2016 will be the year of the ‘double drummers’.

Bros Landreth (Jambalaya Stage)


The day starts with Bros Landreth, the eponomous band of David and Joey Landreth, who play with their father Willie Landreth. These Canadian brothers produced a polished performance of slide and blues guitar which tips its hat to the traditions of the American South but land much closer East Coast blues. Its solid, fluid and impressive throughout. While none of the songs really stand out on first listen, there’s more than enough here in their sound to suggest a big future ahead.

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real (Jambalaya Stage)

Up next is Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. Not only is Lukas the son of the legendary Willie Nelson but his band were selected by Neil Young to support him on his most recent album ‘The Monsanto Years’. In those two references you can hear most of what is good about this band. They are a loose and loping in much the same way as Crazy Horse but a little less raw and ragged than that comparison would suggest. And Willie’s influence is equally apparent. It’s there in the frequent stoner lyrics, the deft use of covers and the fact that, while Lukas’ vocals are decidedly more rock than Willie, you can’t escape the frequent glimpses of his father’s voice and phrasings.

The band features both Anthony LoGerfo on standard drum kit and Tato Melgar on percussion including bongos which together with Corey McCormick’s bass provide a strong percussive groove out of   which Lukas weaves his tasteful, and surprisingly understated, guitar lines. Impressive technique is on show for sure, but Lukas wisely avoids overindulgence opting for a more supple sound that pushes towards that line but never crosses it.

P1190091The set starts strongly and really gains momentum in the second half of the extended 90 minute slot with tracks such as ‘Four Letter Word’, which starts off all Roy Orbison swoon before locking onto a solid rhythm punctuated by Nelson’s solos and ‘Don’t Take Me Home’. Nelson introduces ‘Forget About Georgia’ as a song about breaking up with a girl named Georgia and having to play through his father’s frequent live performances of the Ray Charles classic Georgia.

Then there are the choice covers of Paul Simon’s ‘Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes’ (featuring a pretty neat drum and bongo solo) and the closing duo of John Phillip’s ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair’ and the Door’s ‘LA Woman’ which lets loose like the set has been promising and is all the more powerful for the earlier restraint, then pulls back to a more languid ‘Lizard King’ groove before taking off again with Nelson even launching into a guitar solo played with his mouth. Even then his soloing remains tasteful (if you’ll excuse the pun).

Kamasi Washington (Mojo Stage)

I venture across to the main Mojo Stage for the first time this year to see Kamasi Washington. Washington’s triple album ‘The Epic’, an appropriately titled fusion of jazz, soul, hip hop and, occasionally new age, was my pick for album of the year in 2015. Washington however probably took less encouragement from that than he did from the fact that it received the same accolade from The New York Times.


So it was with great expectations that I came to this performance – an opportunity to see the way the sounds built, multi-layered, from each member of the member of the band. Early on it becomes apparent that we are not going to get a faithful reproduction of the album. Washington has set the performance for maximum Festival impact. Disappointingly, this means lots of extended soloing as each instrument takes its turn to step into the spotlight – an  approach which reaches its nadir in a 10 minute+ double drum solo (which, in the context of a 75 minute show, seems somewhat unnecessary).

When Washington introduces the band part way through as ‘all childhood friends’ one suspects that more than Festival convention has shaped the set structure. Washington seems a genuinely nice band leader who wants to give his friends their chance to shine often, disappointingly, taking a back seat himself. Ultimately it’s all too democratic and makes you wish Washington would play a stronger leader’s hand.

When the whole band comes together on the tracks where Washington takes the lead with strong saxophone lines, the material dazzles, the band expertly combining to provide a multi-layered fabric out of which Washington’s saxophone emerges, retreats and emerges again creating a sublime and transcendental whole.

One of the set highlights is ‘Henrietta’, a song written by Washington about his grandmother, which combines all of these elements with the assured and beguiling vocals of Patrice Quinn and a deft flute solo by Kamasi’s father Ricky Washington.

The set closer promises to be a highpoint as the band launches into ‘The Rhythm Changes’ (the standout track on the Epic) and it all melds perfectly for a while before it breaks into a farewell cycle of band solos in the established Festival spirit. Over the course of the set we’ve glimpsed the wonder of which this band is capable as an ensemble but frustratingly that has been all too infrequent. While the performance is never less than very good, it should and could have been great but all we got were glimpses of that. The measure of a good player is ultimately how well they integrate into the overall band sound to create something greater than the individual parts. On ‘The Epic’ that is abundantly clear, by deconstructing that to showcase the individual components, Washington has frustratingly given us something less.

Emma Donovan & the Putbacks (Delta Stage)

I catch only the last 4 songs of Emma Donovan’s set having previously heard bits and piece on Koori Radio and her terrific duet with Archie Roach on his ‘Down City Streets’. Live she is astonishing, a big soulful voice and warm personality which reminds me of a younger Mavis Staples. Like Staples, Donovan melds strong themes of female and black empowerment  with overt spirituality. However. Donovan’s spirituality is very much that of her ancestors. I enjoy the tail end of her set and start rearranging my schedule for Saturday to fit her full set in.

Rhiannon Giddens (Delta Stage)

Rhiannon Giddens is a startling talent as she made quite obvious with her stylistically diverse debut, T-Bone Burnett produced, solo album released in 2015 and her contributions to the New Basement Tapes project which left a number of more established/famous contributors in her wake.


I take my place in the Delta tent, front and centre on the rail, in the space vacated by Emma Donovan’s mother at the close of her set. I am soon joined by friends and a throng of others who have heard the good reviews from Rhiannon’s recent sideshows.

Rhiannon takes the stage dressed in a sweet circa 1930’s rag-doll spotted dress and grey felt hat. But its her sassy  range of facial expressions which indicate that we’re dealing with an independent, powerful, assertive and fun personality. It’s when she opens her mouth to let the first perfect notes effortless spill out that we remember why we’re here and know that we won’t be disappointed.

The set starts with the killer triple whammy of Spanish Mary (words by Bob Dylan Music by Rhianon Giddens), Don’t Let it Trouble Your Mind (Dolly Parton) and She’s Got You (written by Hank Cochran first performed by Patsy Cline). We’re only three songs in and she most definitely has got us – even the official photographers give her a respectful ovation as they’re ushered from the front pit.


Rhiannon is supported by her regular touring band which includes Hubby Jenkins (from Rhiannon’s other band the Carolina Chocolate Drops) on banjo, mandolin and guitar, Malcolm Parson (cello), Rowan Corbett (guitar), Jason Sypher (bass) and Jamie Dick (drums) together with Chance McCoy (from Old Crow Medicine Show). Together they present an intricate set of old time blues which draws upon bluegrass, country, soul, Celtic, Cajun,  jazz. Indeed, the set covers a stylistically diverse range from country love songs (the aforementioned She’s Got You), period balladry (the beguiling Tomorrow is My Turn), working songs (Waterboy), spirituals (Sister Rosetta Thorpe’s Up Above My Head) and even a feverishly paced  Scottish traditional sung by Giddens in Gaelic and featuring Rowan Corbett playing the bones (Mouth Music).

While Rhiannon has the undeniable star power and to-die-for vocals, she has wisely assembled this talented band and given it room to shine creating a unique whole which is more than the sum of its (illustrious) parts. The whole band inhabits these sounds, these styles, these times completely and transports us with them. Even relatively early on day one, this is likely to be the set of the Festival for many.

Tedeschi Trucks Band (Crossroads Stage)

Sandwiched between the unmissable Rhiannon Giddens and the ‘man of the moment’ Kendrick Lamar, I manage to catch 45 minutes of Tedeschi Trucks Band’s massive 2 hour set at the Crossroads tent. I’ve heard reports from their Sydney sideshow which suggest they are in career best form and am not disappointed.


Already 30 minutes into their set the band are locked into a solid groove when I arrive and make my way, with surprising ease, towards the front of the tent. The extended jam, featuring some typically pristine slide solos from Trucks, immediately showcases the full range and intuitive interplay between this incredible band.

From there, they launch into extended versions of ‘Midnight in Harlem’ written and with lead vocals from backing singer Mike Mattison (formerly the lead singer of the Derek Trucks Band), ‘Get what You Deserve’, ‘A Kind of Feeling’ and Bobby Bland’s “I Play the Fool’. Each continues the blues masterclass of how a well oiled band should play as a single unit unobtrusively integrating its various elements while letting it’s stars shine. While Tedeschi’s powerful melodious vocals and Trucks’ fluid slide guitar are the stars here, they effortlessly fit within the wider band dynamic and are deployed only in service of the very fine songs.

Only once does the jamming seem to overwhelm the song, during a seven minute double drum solo, thankfully livened somewhat by being highlighted by Trucks’ guitar lines played unobtrusively in the background.

The advance word is on the mark, this band is on fire right now. Frequent visitors to these shores, and Bluefest, in the past, I have never seen then better. I am primed for Sunday’s full set.

Kendrick Lamar (Mojo Stage)

Tearing myself away from Tedeschi Trucks Band was difficult but worth it to catch a glimpse of the zeitgeist at Kendrick Lamar. My timing is impeccable as I enter the large Mojo tent in full swing. Standing just behind the mixing desk on the left hand side I am able to take in the full glory of a Blvesfest major act wh clearly has the crowd enraptured. The front of the tent is a sing writhing mass of hands in the air intensity hanging off every word on ds movement of Lamar who commands the stage in front of a full backing band and giant backdrop bearing the provocative ‘WHAT DID THE ______MAN SAY’ quote attributed to ‘Cornrow Kenny’.


While I wouldn’t count myself as any type of authority on hip-hop (indeed other than some older Del La Soul, Tricky and Massive Attack, I am largely clueless when it comes to this form), I have enjoyed Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ album as much for its elaborate jazzy musical backing as for Lamar’s more-literate-than-usual rapping.

Coming in late, I may have missed a guest spot by Kamasi Washington (?) but am disappointed not to see him on stage. What doesn’t disappoint is the three tracks I catch, ‘Jump’, ‘u’ and ‘King Kuta’ all expertly delivered by Lamar and his strong live backing band and lapped up by the exuberant crowd. Indeed, so exuberant has the crowd become that security threatens to shut the show down over safety concerns after two patrons scale the 20m tent poles – a warning relayed via Lamar himself. Not sure where he is going after King Kuta in any event, sensing at least a short wait before proceedings restart and feeling fairly satisfied by the trio of big hits, I make a bee-line for the Jambalaya tent right beside the Southern gate to catch the end of the Wailers’ set.

The Wailers (Jambalaya Stage)

The first of the Wailers’ four slots at this years’ festival, the band, featuring original member Aston “Family Man” Barrett described in the press kit as ‘Bob Marley’s right hand man’, are performing the albums Exodus, Survival, Uprising & Legend respectively. I enter the tent towards the start of One Love and join the crowd dancing and singing. As it ends I see the huge crowd coming from Lamar’s gig (was it shutdown ten minutes early?) and heading for the exit. Just then the Wailers strike the opening chords of Exodus which seems like an invocation. So I duly dive into the river of happy festival goers flowing out the gates as Exodus continues to play in the background – a fitting way to finish up Day One of Bluesfest 2016.