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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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’.

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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).

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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

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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.

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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

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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

 

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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.

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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.