Bluesfest 2016 – Day One

 

DAY ONE: BLUESFEST 2016, Thursday 24 March 2016

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

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

Bros Landreth (Jambalaya Stage)

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

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real (Jambalaya Stage)

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

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

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

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

Kamasi Washington (Mojo Stage)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma Donovan & the Putbacks (Delta Stage)

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

Rhiannon Giddens (Delta Stage)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tedeschi Trucks Band (Crossroads Stage)

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

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

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

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

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

Kendrick Lamar (Mojo Stage)

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

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

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

The Wailers (Jambalaya Stage)

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

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Prince – Delving Deeper

 

Prince – Piano & A Microphone Tour                               Sydney Opera House Saturday 20 February 2016

Prince with just a piano and microphone? Isn’t he just a pop-funk artist peddling slinky, sexy, grinding funk lines with his suggestive lyrics and louche ego-centric persona? How’s that going to work? Sure, his razor sharp pop lines gave us a stunning, and constant, flow of hit singles through the 80’s and into the early ‘90s but how will those songs translate to this format? And won’t the more recent – decidedly under the radar – material dilute the strike rate in a show billed as including material drawing across his entire (39 album!) career? It’s fair to say that I had some misgivings about the show, not least the prohibitive pricing of any half-decent seats.

Still, beyond the singles, the gigantic ego, the shorthand song names and ridiculous ‘artist formerly known as/love symbol’ debacle, I had always suspected that there was something more – principally based on some of the less commercial material from the likes of Parade and (for me his career highpoint) Sign o’ the Times. Then there was the fact that so many friends – whose opinions I respect (many of them musicians) – rated him so highly. So the prospect of this gig intrigued me. It was an unrepeatable chance for me to challenge my preconceptions of Prince and his music. It provided the ideal opportunity for me to approach his music afresh and with an open mind. When a pair of $230 seats (warning: partially obscured view!) became available, I jumped right in.

IMG_1181As we entered the Opera House Concert Hall through a near vertical stair climb up to the choir stalls and took our seats in the rear Box-F, the sparse stage set up of piano and candles heightened my sense of intrigue. His 7pm entrance was at once surprising (orchestral introduction, the walk and bow of a renowned conductor – albeit with a showy pirouette) and quite predictable (purple suit, flamboyant afro and purple high heeled boots – not Johnny Cash cowboy boots or even Bowie platforms but slim stiletto heels!). It was clear that the format was going to fully explore the tension between the pop star and the consummate musician. It was not yet clear which would win out.

Prince appeared to revel in that tension. His opening trio of songs – Big City (from his current HitNRun album), Joy of Repitition (Grafitti Bridge) and The Ballad of Dorothy Parker (Sign o’ the Times) – may have seemed contrary to some but quickly satisfied my desire to delve deeper into his catalogue, to explore the full range of his compositions and  to revel in his sheer musicianship. Of course, the funk was never far from the surface and the hits were interspersed regularly enough for Prince to keep the audience in the palm of his hand. They were there to tantalise – as often as not co-joined like the early Little Red Corvette/Dirty Mind or the later Rasberry Beret/Coffee & Starfish pairings. In some instances the hits appeared – like Paisley Park – as no more than teasing intros inciting instant crowd squeals only to be abandoned on whim.

This structure gave Prince full license to take his adoring audience on a journey of his own choosing – to his roots firmly located in a jazzier territory than I (and probably many in the crowd) had hitherto appreciated. The revelation of the evening was the suppleness and subtlety of much of his piano work which proved him adept at caressing and coaxing the notes from his instrument like a seasoned jazz pianist. It was only after the show that I became aware that his father, John L Nelson was himself a jazz pianist of some note. And from our ‘cheap seats’ behind the stage we had the advantage of elevation allowing us to see the kaleidoscopic lighting on the surface of the stage but, more importantly, to look directly down upon the keyboard and enjoy every movement of Princes hands across the keys.

Of course, the underlying tension was there in his piano playing as well, so the jazz vein which ran through the evening as often as not segued effortless and suddenly into a pop flourish, a funky bass repetition or even a Jerry Lee Lewis run. For every studious conservatorium interlude there was a rock star pose as he contorted his legs at right angles – or lifted them in the air – prior to standing and kicking his stool aside. The variety in his solo accompaniment matched seamlessly with the range of his voice for which he is well known and deservedly loved – from the soulful baritone of Screwdriver to the plaintive falsetto of I Luv U But I Don’t Trust U Anymore in the space of two songs and occasionally scatting like a seasoned jazzman.

The set continued through a varied selection ranging from 1979 through to several tracks from the last couple of years. The quieter moments entranced – especially The Beautiful Ones, How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore and Venus de Milo. The funk anthems got the hands clapping with Breakdown, Girls & Boys and Cream standing out in their superior arrangements. When, during Cream he followed the line ‘You’re filthy cute and baby you know it’ with the quip ‘I wrote that line while looking in the mirror’, it somehow reminded us of the tension in this gig – simultaneously appearing as a shared intimacy and reminding us of his cultivated pop-star persona.

And then there were the covers, which arrived in the form of Unchain My Heart (good but surprisingly restrained – more Ray Charles than Joe Cocker), Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain, and a beguiling version of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You.

No matter where Prince took this Sydney Opera House audience, they followed willingly, lovingly, enthusiastically. I have rarely seen a better Sydney crowd. They sat is hushed reverence where appropriate (even shush-ing the odd fool who sought to break the spell with a banal song request). They clapped, sung and cheered enthusiastically where that was called for. At about the 90 minute mark as Prince segued from Cream into a rousing Free Urself, the crowd’s delight was clear. Suddenly the Opera House ‘choir stalls’ adjacent to my seat transformed into a the stalls of a Baptist Congregational. In the midst of this, Prince left the stage, signalling to the crowd to continue. The crowd dutifully obeyed, for several minutes, before Prince re-emerged to sit on his piano and simply take it all in.

It was then that we knew that Prince really had the crowd – and they  had him. When he later started into Paisley Park promising ‘one more’, he stopped after a few bars – looked at the crowd and said ‘No. I really need to play this one for you’ before launching into Kiss. Returning once more to the stage after that to cap off the evening with the majestic Purple Rain. At slightly over 2 hours, this was the longest set of his Australian tour to date. It honestly felt that the set had been extended on the spot to recognise the deep connection between audience and performer.

I left the gig in elevated spirits. I had ventured forth, challenging my own pre-conceptions and been rewarded with a show which surpassed my expectations and showed a depth and dexterity to Prince’s musicianship that I had glimpsed but had not previously been fully revealed to me. Sometimes you’ve just got to see artists live to truly ‘get it’ and the ‘piano and a microphone’ format provided the perfect vehicle. I’ll be surprised if I was not the only one at the gig to go from someone who enjoyed his string of pop hits to a fan with a true appreciation of the depth of his talent. Though, by the reception given to him by the crowd, perhaps they got there before me.

Great music leaves scars

What defines a great artist?

Is it synchronicity – being in the right place at the right time, being in and of the moment, seizing the zeitgeist? Or is that altogether too fleeting to define greatness? Does greatness require longevity? Perhaps a great artist must build a great body of work – one which surpasses fashion or trend. Is consistency a necessary – or even desirable – ingredient?

Popularity is probably not a good measure. Many far from great artists have attained popularity, while many great artists never rise above cloistered critical respect among devotees.

Innovation is surely a factor – the ability to bring something new and fresh to the table and to influence others in a way which contributes  to the continued evolution of the popular music form.

There is no accounting for taste. Music is inherently subjective. The definition of greatness  is intrinsically ephemeral. All my favourite artists have a combination of some or all of the above attributes.

Ultimately, for me (and, from my observation, others who are as passionate about their music as I am) the only compelling ‘must have’ is soul. The ability to not just move the body but to emotionally connect with the listener at a deeper level. It is that soul – or truth – that anchors all great music,  surpassing fancy or whim and hitting you where it hurts.

Music that connects with you on that level leaves a scar. It becomes part of your reality – your being, your future and your past. It inspires you to dream, to reach higher. It helps you deal with sadness or loss. It elevates you, plugs you into something vibrant, beyond the paint by number dreams of everyday life. Listening to such a song years after you first heard it can provide a bridge to your past, associations of where you were, who you were with and what you were feeling when it first made that connection with you. The ability to create music which affects others on that level is great artistry. That, is soul.

This blog is dedicated to great music, the artists who make it and the enthusiasts who, like me, have been scarred by it.