Book Review: Stranded by Clinton Walker (2021 revised and expanded edition)

Clinton Walker’s updated 2021 edition of Stranded, while billed as a chronicle of the Australian independent music scene from 1976 to 1992, is much more than that. It’s also part thesis on the workings of the independent record labels, distributors, stores, venues and characters which drove the scene, and part fractured memoir of Clinton’s participation in the scene (as critic, record store clerk, PR man and general ‘friend of the band’).

Clinton doesn’t try to review the output so much as observe it from his, admittedly prejudiced, viewpoint as a pro-indy anti-establishment participant.

It’s wonderful to follow in detail the development of the scene from The Saints and Radio Birdman, through The Boys Next Door/The Birthday Party, Go-Betweens, Scientists/Surrealists, Laughing Clowns/Ed Kuepper, Beasts of Bourbon/Cruel Sea, The Moodists/Dave Graney, The Triffids, Died Pretty and Hoodoo Gurus – along with a host of other bands. Some you’ll likely remember, some you’ll likely not.

Because the book is a personal chronicle, rather than purely a historical account, it benefits from an amazing array of first hand anecdotes and personal observations from the author. But it is, in equal part, burdened by the author’s staunch prejudices.

Bands like The Church are dismissed blithely for being too eager to be rock stars. There are other notable omissions such as the great Ups & Downs whose debut was self-released in 1983 before the band moved to Volition, Truetone and ultimately Mushroom. They would have seemed an ideal candidate for Walker’s thesis but don’t rate a mention despite both hitting the mainstream charts and being nominated for best new talent category in the inaugural ARIA awards in 1987 (the award was won by Crowded House).

Those whose record collection boasts Australian releases on independent labels like Au Go Go, Missing Link, Hot, Citadel, Big Time, Volition, Truetone, Waterfront, Red Eye, Shock, Phantom etc. will enjoy the inside glimpse of the people behind the labels and the connections between them.

The most rewarding aspect of the new 2021 edition is the addition of numerous footnotes and a new Preface and Afterword in which Walker reflects on his own prejudices:

‘I feel quite differently now about much of the music from that period. I was able to finally cast off my blinkers and listen without prejudice to, say, Cold Chisel, and hear a lot to like’.

But the reassessment goes only so far:

‘although other bands I disliked back then – the Oils or the Angels, for example – still leave me cold.’).

Ultimately Walker’s new Afterword chooses to re-conclude his thesis through the person of Peter Milton-Walsh, sometime Go-Between and Laughing Clown and leader of The Apartments. The Apartments has released seven studio albums (at least two of which Walker describes as ‘masterpieces’) plus two live albums and several single/eps over 25 years. During that time it has featured members and collaborators including: Greg Atkinson (Ups & Downs), Wayne Connolly (who might have rated a mention in the latter part of Walker’s book a mentioned as a member of The Welcome Mat from 1989 and a producer at Paradise Studios, home to RooArt records and as producing early work by You Am I – and went on to further achievements in Knievel and as a multiple ARIA award winning producer after the timeframe covered by Stranded) , Amanda Brown (Go-Betweens), Chris Abrahams (The Necks, The Sparklers) and Nick Kennedy (Knievel and Red Eye Records in Sydney).

Milton-Walsh, a close friend of Walker, is taken to be emblematic of the great unsung heroes of Australian music who have plowed their trade and produced a body of work to rival many household names, yet remain largely anonymous (often receiving greater recognition overseas than in Australia) barely earning a living from their talent.

It’s a fitting post-script with which discerning music fans all over the country would readily agree and likely add a list of their own. Mine, for example, would include – in addition to Peter Milton-Walsh – Rob Snarski, David Bridie and Chris Wilson for starters [Rob Snarski and David Bridie are mentioned in Stranded. Wilson curiously is not, though Harem Scarem, for whom he played harmonica and saxophone, does get a few positive passing mentions on pages 260-261].

The new edition’s revisions further support and refine Walker’s thesis and, in part, address some the original’s shortcomings. Overall, the book is a rollicking read and remains essential for anyone interested in the history of independent Australian music.

Highly recommended.

A collection of great re-releases in 2020

With independent records stores struggling from COVID lockdowns and a relative dearth of new music releases – with many artists holding releases back in the hope of touring them – the industry reacted with not one but a series of (mostly online) Record Store Days. Despite the sometimes bloated pricing of such releases taking fans for a rise. It’s a cause, I’m happy to get behind particularly in 2020.

Here’s a list of some of my favourite re-releases, archived releases, cover albums and tributes from 2020 (in no particular) order.

Lovey – Lemonheads

An absolutely brilliant package of my long time favourite Lemonheads album. It featured a hardcover book binding enclosing not only a new 20th anniversary vinyl pressing of Lovey (long unavailable) but also a bonus LP of a vibrant and typically ramshackle 1991 JJJ Live at the Wireless performance.

Archives Vol. II – Neil Young

Like Volume I, this is a sublime package of rare cuts, live and ‘lost’ albums. Like Volume I, it’s beautifully packaged and produced. Like Volume I, it annoyingly was preceded by many of the albums being released over the last couple of years, so by the time it was released, fans had already recently forked out for much of the content. Still, we needed to have it for the packaging and the deep cuts not available elsewhere.

Homegrown – Neil Young

Finally Young released his shelved personal follow up to his smash hit Harvest album. While not at the very top of Young’s cannon, it is a worthy addition to your collection.

Wildflowers & All the Rest – Tom Petty

A great (2014) remaster of Petty’s greatest solo album and of his his best releases overall spread over 2 vinyl LPs – plus a third LP of other studio tracks recorded during the sessions. Also available as a 7LP Deluxe edition with additional demos/outtakes and a live show from the Wildflowers Tour. I settled for the value 3 LP edition.

Gimme Some Truth – John Lennon (4LP Box Set)

Picks the eyes out of John Lennon’s, often inconsistent, solo albums. Arguably the best way to hear Lennon’s solo cannon – just the good stuff.

Long Hot Summers / The Story of the Style Council

Another terrific band whose output was often great and, in retrospect, groundbreaking – but which suffered from inconsistency when heard in the context of the individual albums. At the time, they also suffered from comparison of the vital The Jam albums which preceded them. This compilation, selected by the band itself, includes many extended versions which go deeper and represent better the bands vision. Essential. As the first vinyl run of the collection sold out in no time, I’ve had to make do with TIDAL until my back order arrives.

The Palace at 4am (Part 1) – Jay Bennett & Edward Burch

The 2002 Wilco Documentary ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’ famously shows in graphic detail the breakdown of the band’s central partnership between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett. We all know what happened next with Tweedy’s Wilco continuing to achieve great success. This album is what happened next for Jay Bennett. How I never managed to discover it before this 2020 RSD re-issue is perplexing. It’s a classic. If love great pop music, check it out.

Mental Notes/ Second Thoughts/ Dizrythmia – Split Enz

2020 saw the release of a 40th Anniversary`of Split Enz’s 1980 masterpiece True Colours, but what really excited me this year was the re-issues of their first three albums in glorious coloured vinyl editions with superbly curated gatefold sleeves. An overdue chance to revisit these wonderful art-pop albums which contain much to love beyond the recognisable ‘hits’.

Grandpa Would – Ben Lee

The story of Ben Lee’s discovery, as a 15 year old Aussie school kid by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and signing to the Beatie Boys’ Uber cool Grand Royale record label is now legendary. Lee’s pairing with producer Brad Wood (hot off having produced Liz Phair’s classic debut Exile in Guyville) provided the perfect setting to capture a rare mix of innocence, raw talent and youthful exuberance and translate it to vinyl. This 25th anniversary set presents the resulting debut album on LP1 and further demo’s and outtakes on LP2. The second LP is interesting but the original LP remains a classic which captured a moment of creative synchronicity the heights of which Lee never recaptured.

drag – k.d. lang

This concept album of covers of songs loosely arranged around the theme of smoking presents k.d. lang’s skill as a vocalist and interpreter in fine relief. This 2020 RSD edition marks a welcome vinyl release of the album.

Sign of the Times – Prince

Prince’s definitive statement as a musician in a new remastered package. A masterpiece.

Please Leave Your Light On – Paul Kelly & Paul Grabowsky

Paul Kelly, one of Australia’s best songwriters, has always had a way with a piano ballad. His solo piano led renditions of a number of this songs as part of his famed A-Z Tours proved that beyond doubt. His paring here with Grabowsky, one of Australia’s finest jazz pianists and bandleaders is inspired (and given their previous connections, long overdue). A fantastic recasting of these classic songs.

Blonde on the Tracks – Emma Swift

Recording a whole album of Bob Dylan covers would hardly seem a natural choice for a young female songwriter from Australia – but relocated to Nashville – and with a reputation based largely on one excellent EP (Bittersweet). But so beguiling – and audacious – are these versions that it has thrust Swift into the spotlight. We can’t wait to see what she does next.

Truckload of Sky, The lost songs of David McComb Vol. 1 – by the friends of David McComb

I’m not generally a fan of multi-artist tribute albums. With a few exceptions, the majority are more miss than hit. Delivering either too faithful (but inferior) copies or reinterpreting them to lesser effect, or worse, losing the spirit of the original. That claim can’t be made here. Firstly because these are ‘lost’ songs written by David McComb but never released. Secondly, these are not just random bands with some label affiliation but a group of musicians who were friends and/or collaborators with McComb. They came to the project out of love and with an innate understanding of the McComb’s artistic spirit. It’s the embodiment of that spirit which makes this album a triumph and one of my favourite albums of the year in any category.

Sunday – Vika & Linda

Vika & Linda are national treasures whether as part of the Black Sorrows, accompanying Paul Kelly or on their own releases. This isolation recorded album of covers achieves an intimacy which suits the mostly gospel material.

Back To My Roots – Solomon Burke

Solomon Bourke is indisputably one of the soul greats. This RSD re-issue of his 1976 Chess outing is yet more proof of that fact. And the worth the money for the cover art alone.

Unreleased 1998 – 2010 – Powderfinger

As the name suggests, this collection of unreleased tracks spans the bands career and capture each of their many facets which made them one of the countries most popular bands. While it’s a little hit and miss, there are some real treasures here and it adds up to more than a mere curiosity.

Sharpie’s Favourite Live Albums of 2020

Idiot Prayer – Nick Cave Live at Alexandra Palace 2020

2020 was not a great year for live music thanks to Covid-19 BUT it was a great year for streamed live performances and, in the case of Nick Cave, a concert event filmed live in June 2020 at Alexandra Palace in London and streamed live to ticket holders prior to a worldwide cinema release. It was the apotheosis of the streamed concert a phenomenon which saw ‘real’ live-music-deprived concert geeks attending streamed gigs all over the world on their TVs. So thoroughly, and intimately, did Cave reinterpret his broad cannon, that this performance stands with the best live albums ever made and certainly my highlight of the year.

Live at Canterbury House 1967 – Joni Mitchell

Canterbury House was a vibrant community centre set in an old converted print shop in the university district of Ann Arbour Michigan. Its community centre, part coffee house part counselling centre, part performance space. In addition to hosting intimate alcohol free musical performances (for which it acoustics and state of the art sound system were perfect), it was also used for film nights, plays and church services.

With a capacity of only 200, and due to its ‘60’s community spirit, it was a special place for musicians seeking an intimate connection with their audience. It’s that spirit which pervades the music on this wonderful release of Joni Mitchell’s early career performance here on 27 October 1967.

Recorded prior to the release of Joni’s debut Song of the Seagull, the set list included a number of tracks from that album as well as early Mitchell penned songs which has already been hits for others and which would be subsequently released by her on later albums like ‘Both Sides Now’, ‘Urge for Going’ and Little Green’.

For fans of Joni Mitchell this is an indispensable glimpse of her early genius as she started her journey which would be era diving and create a body of work the equal of any other artist from that time.

Live Drugs – War on Drugs

I had the pleasure of seeing War On Drugs live at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre in 2018. So warn, entrancing and insistent was the enveloping sound of Grandulciel’s band that it rendered the band’s name oxymoronic. The music enveloped us all in its warm narcotic grip. This live album can’t quite match that intensity but delivers the band’s sound and greatest compositions so naturally that it allows their beauty to shimmer in a way the wonderful studio version never quite do.

Live at the Forum – The Teskey Brothers

When Josh Teskey, part way through this live album, breaks into a cover of Jealous Guy and admits it is influenced more by the Donny Hathaway live version than the Lennon original, we are reminded that Melbourne’s Teskey Brothers are the real deal. They have lived and inhabited the music that they have grown up with and loved and coupled it with their own distinct songwriting and brother Sam’s excellent guitar work to win fans around the world festival circuit. While that is in hiatus, we can comfort ourselves on this live album which is redolent of the great live discs of sound music, Otis Redding, Bill Withers and Hathaway, without ever feeling like a mere tribute.

The Complete Inconserated Live – The Replacements

Recorded in Milwaukee in 1989, following the release of Don’t Tell A Soul (the 2019 release of the original mix of which – as Dead Mans Bop – was the highlight of of last year’s re-release schedule). This 2020 live RSD release contains all 29 songs from that performance (a shortened version was included with the Dead Man’s Bop set). The Replacements were a famously unpredictable live proposition but both this set and the previous Replacements For Sale catch them at their incendiary best – constantly courting the shambolic edge of oblivion but never descending into the chasm – an ability which made them, on their best nights, amongst the set live acts around (and got them banned for life from NBC shortly prior to this performance). As a huge fan during the late ‘80’s, it was a dream to catch them live at the Roundhouse in London at the tail of their 2015 live run. It’s great to now have two live albums available in full to remember them by.

Galaxie 500 – Live at Barbue Copenhagen Dec 1st 1990

Another RSD live release by one of my favourite bands. Hard to get a hold of – and, like many RSD releases, overpriced – but worth it. Galaxie 500 at their short lived peak. First time available on vinyl.

Kiss My Blood – Iggy Pop Live at The Olympia Paris France 1991

An RSD 3LP set recorded as part of the Brick To Brick Tour. Contains all the tracks you know and love him for performed with just the right mix of professionalism and intensity. Comes with a limited edition numbered tour poster too.

Live at Goose Lake August 8th, 1970 – The Stooges

Everything you’ve heard. About this gig is true. Raw, shambolic, incendiary, punk which pushes it all the way to the edge – and over. The soundboard recording only enhances the legend.

The Allman Brothers – Live a Fillmore West 1-31-71

Allman Brothers. 1971. No need to say more.

Live at the Hollywood Palladium December 15, 1988 – Keith Richards and the X-pensive Winos

An old favourite I’ve owned for years on CD finally re-issued on vinyl. The definition of swagger.

Sharpie’s Favourite Albums of 2020

A personal selection by a music fan who has admittedly failed to listen to every album released in 2020 and has his own preferences and predilections

  1. Rough & Rowdy Ways – Bob Dylan

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Dylan dropped, without warning, just as COVID-19 was announcing its presence, his epic new single Murder Most Foul. The track, clocking in just shy of 17 minutes, picked the eyes out of institutions, politics and pop culture centreing on the assassination of JFK. It was a major artistic statement which Dylan had reportedly been working on for over a decade. If that was all he had done in 2020, it would have been sufficient to confirm his presence as a relevant and vital artist (if 2012’s Tempest had not made that clear enough). Dylan, however, followed it with I Contain Multitudes and then the album Rough & Rowdy Ways to seal the deal. R&RW was not merely an unexpectedly resurgent artistic statement but a reassertion of Dylan’s status as an artist still in touch with his muse and still relevant almost 60 years after he first burst from New York’s folk bars and coffee shops to become the defining voice of the ‘60’s. It was the standout album of 2020.


2. Song for Our Daughter – Laura Marling

I saw Laura Marling play live at the Sydney Opera House on 7 March 2020. Little would I know that it would be the second last show I would see in the next 9 months. The crowd present showed great appreciation for the strong new songs interspersed throughout the evening – some of them being played live for the first time. The album, when it arrived, did not disappoint. Perhaps Marling’s defining statement and certainly the equal of her impressive catalogue.

3. Letter to You – Bruce Springsteen


Not even the surprisingly strong, if overproduced, Western Stars (or its superior movie soundtrack recorded live in Springteen’s converted barn which now serves as his studio) prepared us for the Boss’ resurgence with Letter To You. Anchored by a selection of older songs, and billed as a letter of thanks to his fans, Letter To You contained echoes of his classic albums accompanied by the finely honed musicality of the E Street Band. Arguably his best since the under-rated Devils & Dust


4. The Prisoner – Phoebe Bridges


A fuller, more complete, artistic statement which built upon the promise of her debut.


5. Hey Clockface – Elvis Costello


A sprawling tour-de-force displaying the full range of Costello’s talents but (somehow) coalescing into a complete and congruous artistic statement.


6. Good Souls, Better Angels – Lucinda Williams


Ms Williams channels her righteous anger at external targets (principally Trump) rather than her usual introspection, and hits a bulls-eye perfectly suited to 2020.


7. Reunions – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit


Isbell continues to mine his talent for stories of peoples, places, struggles and redemption. The 400 Unit continues to back those songs with exceptional playing rivalled only by that of the Springsteen’s E-Street Band. If Dave Cobb’s too slick production (which appears designed to take Isbell to the next level) distracts from the honesty of Isbell’s songs, its a minor quibble and the songs, most notably ‘Only Children’ and ‘St Peter’s Autograph’, continue to shine through.


8. You Be the Lightning – Tracey McNeil & the Goodlife


2020 was supposed to be the year for Tracey who gave up her lease to hit the road in a van with her partner in life and music Dan Parsons to support the long awaited release of this album. The music lived up to its promise but the timing was crueller by COVID-19. It deserves wider recognition.


9. In and Out of the Light – The Apartments


Another fine addition to the all too infrequent – but uniformly excellent – catalogue of this fine band. Thoughtful, literate, chamber-pop doesn’t get better than this. Underpinned by Peter Milton Walsh’s sonorous languid vocals and superior songwriting ably supported by his fine band including Chris Abrahams’ (The Necks) elegant piano flourishes and Nick Allum’s haunting drums and percussion.


10. World on the Ground – Sarah Jarosz


Another fine country/Americana album from a hugely talented singer and songwriter. With the help of Jon Leventhal, Jarosz has taken a marked step forward with both songwriting and performance on this album.

The next 10…

11. Lightning Show Is Your Stuff – Grant Lee Phillips

12. Blue Hearts – Bob Mould

13. By The Fire – Thurston More

14. Taylor Swift – folklore

15. Walking Proof – Lilly Hiatt

16. A Hero’s Death – Fontaine’s DC

17. Old Flowers – Courtenay Marie Andrews

18. Hermitage – Ron Sexsmith

19. Summerlong – Rose City Band

20. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

A Performance For The Good Times

Kris Kristofferson & The Strangers

State Theatre, Sydney

27 September 2019

The legendary Kris Kristofferson took to the stage, with his trusty acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, and raised one arm into the air in acknowledgment of the warm reception from the crowd.

He was surrounded on the stage by none less than The Strangers, the late Merle Haggard’s long time band featuring Scott Joss (fiddle and vocals), Doug Colosio (keyboards & vocals) and Jeff Ingraham (drums).

As we sat in the State Theatre’s plush crimson velvet seats, watching Kristofferson’s entrance and anticipating the show, it was hard to ignore that Kristofferson’s presence, though retaining a hint of his trademark smirk and glint in his eye, was withered and showing the effects of his 83 years. You could say he looked nearly faded as his jeans.

As he launched into opener Shipwrecked in the Eighties, it became clear that those years had also affected his vocals and guitar playing.

kris

The Strangers provided a solid base for Kristofferson’s songs with flourishes of Joss’ fiddle and Colossio’s keys adding accents to the too sparse palette of Kristofferson’s vocals and minimalist acoustic guitar. At times, it seemed the band showed too great a deference – a reluctance to overshadow Kristofferson. As a result, they hung back which left Kristofferson’s performance limitations on display and hard to ignore. It was, at times, uncomfortable to watch. [A friend of mine, and fellow Kristofferson fan, called it, rather less kindly, a ‘train-wreck’].

The tracks where the Strangers asserted a firmer hand worked best, where Scott Joss’ excellent vocals swooped in to play a strong supporting role or the Merle Haggard covers, and Joss’ own ‘How Far to Jordon’, on which he took the lead vocal. But we had come to see Kristofferson perform his fine songs, so the band’s reverence was understandable. Still, many of those songs would have benefitted from a ‘second’ guitarist given Kris’ playing was rudimentary (at best) and failed to deliver the ease and beauty of the finger picking melodies essential to the songs.

It was hard to quibble with the set-list though, which included a long list of Kristofferson’s greatest compositions including: Darby’s Castle; Me and Bobby McGee; Best of Both Possible Worlds; Casey’s Last Ride; Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again) [all from the first set] and Just the Other Side of Nowhere; Duvalier’s Dream; Jesus Was a Capricorn; Sunday Morning Coming Down; For the Good Times and Why Me [from the second set]. It’s just that we didn’t get versions which did justice to the brilliance of the songwriting or came close musically to recorded versions. Too often Kristofferson’s delivery failed to enunciate the superb lyrics clearly and the much-loved melodies failed to emerge.

Luckily, we all knew those tunes so well that our imagination was able to fill some of the gaps and salvage some enjoyment out of the undeniably brilliant batch of songs. Towards the end I even started softly singing along  (something I usually detest when I’ve come to hear the performer) and was joined by others around me at the front of the theatre in a concerted communal effort to somehow offer our support to Kristofferson by willing a bit of melody, life and energy back into the songs.

When the show concluded, the audience, in spite of it all, rose to its feet to give Kristofferson a rousing standing ovation. It was a gesture of love and generosity, but one which left me personally conflicted. Should I stand to join the ovation so generously offered by those around me? Should an ovation be offered to acknowledge the life achievement of one of the greatest songwriters of all time or should it be reserved for a great performance on the night in question? (I remained seated.)

Ultimately, the pervasive feeling throughout the evening was that, as far as live performance goes, it was impossible to deny that our love affair with Kristofferson was well & truly over but, despite it all (as revealed by the ovation and much post-show chatter) the audience was determined to do its best to make believe we loved him one more time. For the good times.

Sharpie’s Favourite Albums 2018

2018 has just come to a close, so it’s time to reflect on the year that’s been. Here’s my rundown of MY ten favourite albums of 2018.

2018 was the year where I got back into vinyl (thanks Taine for the hardware). In many of these albums, the vinyl has helped bring out feel and layers of the music which was missing from my early listens on Spotify and even from the CD versions. It’s also disciplined my listening, urging me to stop other things and just listen to the music – devoting my full attention.

2018 was a brilliant year stacked full of great albums from old favourites and a few new discoveries.

This list is not a list of ‘best’ albums just those that rang my bell. There are a number which just missed out which sat up there all year. Some of those that just missed the cut  may be ‘better’ as in more original, newer or more inventive but these are the albums that I just wanted to listen to over and over.

1. Vanished Gardens – Charles Lloyd & the Marvels with Lucinda Williams

MI0004445162

Charles Lloyd and the Marvels’ Vanished Gardens intersperses jazzy country flavoured instrumentals with four Lucinda Williams vocals. The version of Ventura in particular surpasses the (very fine) original thanks to Lloyd’s saxophone lines which weave around Williams’ typically languid vocals. The production and the fine playing by all involved – including the dream combination of Bill Frisell on guitar and Greg Leisz on pedal steel and dobro – is utterly entrancing throughout the many fine compositions. My most played album of 2018. It sounds amazing on vinyl.

2. Heaven & Earth – Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington- Heaven and Earth

Kamasi Washington’s beguiling ‘Epic’ topped my list on release in 2016. Heaven & Earth is his second Masterpiece. The 2 CD/4LP work is arranged into two halves, the first “Earth’ traces the protagonist’s journey on earth from young firebrand (‘Fists of Fury’ – a version of the title track from the Bruce Lee film) through realisation and ultimately a form of wisdom and acceptance. ‘One on One’, the final track of the Earth half features a thematic ascension rendered by increasingly exuberant playing matched by swirling, uplifting choral voices. The second half ‘Heaven’ continues that journey with the music increasingly moving into the celestial realm culminating in the joyous ‘Will You Sing’. Concept albums can be vexed but not this one, Washington’s great accomplishment is to present this explorative journey in a manner which seems natural and unforced subtly integrating the individual tracks into a thematic whole not unlike an opera or symphony. Masterful.

3. Woman Gotta Cry – Yolanda Ingley II

51GyekiAa6L._SS500

In what has been an excellent year for local ‘Americana’ music Yolanda Ingley II’s ‘Woman Got To Cry’ stood out from the pack coming on like a lost 60’s folk/soul classic. The production by Sam Teskey and the crack band they’ve assembled at his Half Mile Harvest studio in Melbourne – including Teskey’s own intuitive guitar work – make the most of Ingley’s immense songwriting talents and engaging vocals. If you told me each of these wonderful songs were lost classics taken from the Great American Songbook I would have believed you.

4. The Crossing – Alejandro Escovedo

MI0004483127

Escovedo has been making great records, largely under the radar of commercial success for many years. He rarely disappoints. The Crossing is a new highlight (and possibly benchmark) of that illustrious recording career. It captures Escovedo’s chosen oeuvre – down at heel explorations of dusty towns, moral foibles and seductive women – in the vivid, cinematic monochrome of a concept album in which two immigrants meet in Galveston, Texas and begin their journey of discovery finding ‘an America that no longer existed’.

5. True Meanings – Paul Weller

pw

True Meaning is yet another highlight of Paul Weller’s already illustrious solo career. The uniform quality of the songs and gentle dynamic interplay between voice, guitar, keyboards and lush (but not overplayed) intertwined strings adds up to one of my favourites of the year. The album renders 14 pieces of stunning consistency into a compelling collection which grabs attention from the opening side and never flags or repeats itself overs its course. The cover art work features Weller’s black clad image holding a cigarette and staring in contemplation and reflection while seated on a lush vintage teal velvet chair. It’s a shot which conveys a mix of age, style, poise and control which sums up the album perfectly.

6. No Mercy In This Land – Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite

bh

This second collaboration between Harper and renowned harpist and blues legend Charlie Musselwhite is a resounding success. The two seem immediately more familiar than the first time around working with a nuanced understanding of each other’s musicianship. Meanwhile Harper brings to the table some of his finest writing dropping at frequent intervals a beguiling turn of phrase – try these: ‘I found hay in a stack of needles’ (from ‘Found The One’); or ‘Come close you’ll see the red/ Of a well bitten tongue’ (form ‘No Mercy In This Land’) or ‘You practice law without a license/ Psychology too/ But your PHD is in giving me the blues’ and ‘ You get away with murder/ You got a way with words’ (both from ‘Movin’ On’). Great writing and great performances all around. Same goes for their excellent show at the Sydney Opera House.

7. Between Two Shores – Glen Hansard

91v+saZkQuL._SY355_

Glen Hansard’s solo material continues to go from strength to strength with Between Two Shores, his follow up to 2016’s Doesn’t He Ramble. From the slow burn opener Roll on Slow to the straight ahead rock out of Wheel’s On Fire, the pensive Setting Out right through to the final denouement of the final two tracks of resignation and renewal – You’re Heart’s Not In It’ and ‘Time Will Be The Healer’ – each of which is as good as anything Hansard has previously done in any guise.

8. Hope Downs – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

rbcf

Expectations on Rolling Blackouts CF were high following two excellent EPs. Their first long player does not disappoint. It continues, and develops, the strengths shown on those EPs – the urgency, the chiming guitars, the impressionistic half-spoken vocals. Sure, it’s been done before (by the likes of the R.E.M., the Db’s and particularly the Go-Betweens) but when it’s done this well I’m not about to complain.

9. Running – Ryan Downey

rd

Downey is a Melbourne based singer songwriter who burst onto the scene (for me at least) with this solo debut. From the opening cohenesque title track (I dare you to find a sexier slinkier song this side of Hotel Chelsea No.2) to ‘Those Eyes That Answer’, ‘The Weather Song’ and final track ‘The End’. Just consistently great.

10. The War & Treaty

wt

A glorious fusion of gospel, funk, soul and rock featuring husband and wife team Michael and Tanya Trotter trading vocal lines over a bed of acoustic guitar, lap steel and driving bass. All of which acts in the service of Michael’s consistently excellent compositions. It’s joyous, groovy and fun. Brilliantly produced by Buddy Miller and featuring a guest appearance by Emmylou Harris. I can’t wait to catch these guys at Bluesfest next year.

 

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.

DAY ONE:

Tom Waits – The Heart of Saturday Night

TW

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).

DAY TWO:

Teatro – Willie Nelson

willie

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.

DAY THREE:

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

8657896B-0D30-4BC2-9C36-DADC8E8BA2C4

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.

EBD2E068-28E9-4D02-BFB9-E4FE8239721C

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’.

BA9AC909-9D5D-45C5-A525-782D736DC958

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.

37446318-0C9D-4569-B226-B1C17601B1C5

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’.

E2F5A05D-36AE-4CDE-AF81-DD7F5C92A673

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).

939EBF59-5EC9-4943-911E-7365AB0A7098

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.