Rhiannon Giddens soars above the cotton fields

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[Thanks to Jeannine Clarke for the photos]


Prisoner – Ryan Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willow Springs – Michael McDermott


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

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

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

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

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

Gordon Lightfoot at The Royal Albert Hall



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Bluesfest 2016 – Day Two

Bluesfest 2016 – Day Two, Friday 25 March 

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

Eugene Hideaway Bridges (Delta Stage)


Eugene ‘Hideaway’ Bridges and Kasey Chambers

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

Lord Huron (Mojo Stage)


Lord Huron

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

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

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

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real (Jambalaya Stage)


Lukas Nelson – Cinnamon Girl

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

Frazey Ford (Delta Stage)

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

Archie Roach (Crossroads Tent)


Archie Roach

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

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

Songhoy Blues (Jambalaya Tent)

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

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

ABC Radio North Coast (Juke Joint)

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

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

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

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

Graham Nash (Crossroads Tent)

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


Graham Nash

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

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

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

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

Tweedy (Crossroads Tent)

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


Jeff Tweedy

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

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

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

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

Steve Earle (Jambalaya Tent)

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


Steve Earle & The Dukes

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

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

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

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



Festival staple

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

Mick Fleetwood Band (Crossroads)

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


Rick Vito and Mick Fleetwood

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

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

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

Bluesfest 2016 – Day One


DAY ONE: BLUESFEST 2016, Thursday 24 March 2016

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

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

Bros Landreth (Jambalaya Stage)


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

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real (Jambalaya Stage)

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

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

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

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

Kamasi Washington (Mojo Stage)

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


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

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

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

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

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

Emma Donovan & the Putbacks (Delta Stage)

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

Rhiannon Giddens (Delta Stage)

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


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

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

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


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

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

Tedeschi Trucks Band (Crossroads Stage)

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


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

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

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

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

Kendrick Lamar (Mojo Stage)

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


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

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

The Wailers (Jambalaya Stage)

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

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.