Posts Tagged ‘folk music’


Vivid Sydney: Sounds of the South at the Sydney Opera House

3 June 2013

Alan Lomax was a folklorist and collector of American field recordings. Any student of US roots music will know his name: the music and stories he collected in the ’40s and ’50s for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress was a driving force for the popularity of blues and folk music in the ’60s.

A collective of musicians from America (and one from Canada) played two concerts on the weekend as part of the Vivid festival that paid homage to the music that Lomax uncovered for us. That show was called Sounds of the South, and I caught the Sunday afternoon show.

The collective included Megafaun, Matthew E. White, jazz group Fight the Big Bull, Bon Iver frontman and founder Justin Vernon, and former Be Good Tanyas member Frazey Ford.



The assembled 13 musicians played a set of songs inspired by the Alan Lomax recordings. Almost none were straight covers; they were, instead, rocked-up, jazzed-up, or psyched-up. Almost all worked really well, resulting in blues-, gospel-, or folk-based tunes that showed how these themes have influenced modern music. They were exciting. There were multi-part harmonies. There were tales of sadness, and sung prayers of joy.

The middle section didn’t work for me. It got a little too free-form and discordant. I was constantly reminded of Spinal Tap’s jazz odyssey.

But most of it was really good. Vernon and Ford’s singing were highlights, as were all three brass players in Fight the Big Bull. They (mostly) found a great balance of homage and reinterpretation. And they encored with The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”.

It was the sort of rare event that keeps me coming back to Vivid.

Here’s an excellent video of one of the songs – performed a few years ago – that was one of the highlights the other night; Vernon singing Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “When You Get Home Please Write Me A Few of Your Lines”. It starts as a near-acoustic cover, then morphs into a jazz-rock groove.


Illawarra Folk Festival

20 January 2013

I’d seen posters around for the Illawarra Folk Festival (caution: that link has a loud autoplay video, turn your volume down). I thought for quite a while about going but then decided against it. It was a bit of money, I’m more of a blues fan, and I’m seeing quite a lot of events this month already for Sydney Festival.

But then the good folks over at review site Yelp had a competition for weekend pass tickets. And I was able to take an extra day off from work this week because my employer has a policy of giving you a day off on the anniversary of your start date. So I entered the competition.

And I won. Hoo-RAH!

The festival was only about 80 minutes down the coast, so we booked a B&B for the weekend and headed out Friday morning. That day was the hottest in Sydney’s history, with the mercury hitting 45.8 degrees Celsius. It was only a couple of degrees cooler where we were, so we spent much of Friday at Austinmer beach. Mostly in the water.

But Friday afternoon and evening, all day Saturday, and half of Sunday we spent wandering the tents and sites of the Illawarra Folk Festival. This is the largest volunteer-run folk festival in Australia. It certainly has that “little festival” feel. The vibe was great. Everything was close together. It was easy to get to and park each day. None of the queues were too long. And show times kept pretty close to schedule.

Ruby Boots

The music acts ran a pretty big gamut, though all had some roots in folk. Most were Australian acts but a few were from overseas. I was as pleased with the quality of performers as I was with the laid-back festival atmosphere. Given its proximity to Sydney I would definitely visit this festival again.

Here’s a very brief run-down on the acts I saw at least a few songs from (in roughly the order I saw them).

Teifon & Gareth. Two 19-year-olds from NSW. Tangos, Irish reels, and lots of ukelele.

The Underscore Orkestra. Balkan/gypsy/swing band from the US. Lively and fun.

Karen Lynne Bluegrass Circle. A proper bluegrass outfit, no messin’ about.

Mike McClellan. A popular, long-running, award-winning Australian folk legend, apparently. Pleasant enough, but a little more genteel than I like.

Mzaza. Brisbane six-piece with French, Spanish, Turkish and other influences, and mostly sung in French. Loved the middle eastern instrumentation.

Vardos. Balkan string outfit, full of laments, laughs, and audience participation.

Shalani. This local girl is 10 years old. She sings others’ country songs, writes her own with her mom about the ocean, and is saving up to buy a pony. Sweet.

Fiona Boyes. HOT DAMN. One of the festival highlights. An Australian woman who plays like she was part of Muddy’s band. I’ve never heard anyone growl and yowl through Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin'” like that. Nor tell a story about how a Reverend Gary Davis song brought her and her partner together. Fiona is a wicked guitar player and had a huge performing personality, too. She is the real blues deal.

Big Erle. Rockin’ and rough-hewn blues-folk.

Dylan Hekimian. 18-year-old from Canberra. He plays a whip-fast acoustic guitar, with a whole lot of hand-slapping percussion against this guitar body. I took some video:

Gregory Page. Classy, jazz/blues/folk singer from the US. His stories and style and easy manner made for a charming, nostalgic set.

Mustered Courage. Really good bluegrass guys from Melbourne with great harmonies, and a fun cover of Queen’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls”. Here’s one of their other songs:

Ruby Boots. Nice country blues from WA.

The Ballpoint Penguins. Comedy a capella trio made me laugh with songs about jellyfish, bottled water, kids who won’t move out, and wine. I’ve got a feeling my mom might have told me about these guys before.

Ray Marshall & the Bluegrass Deputies. Ray is genuine old-timey bluegrass with some local help.

The Lurkers. Bluegrass, but not as you’d care to know it. This was the only act I really didn’t like. I left after a song and a half.

Tommy Polden. 13-year-old local writes thoughtful little songs about monsters and other things that kids think about.

The Go Set. Wow! More a punk band than folk, but they’ve got bagpipes and a bodhrán. They made the big tent explode, and rocked hard and fast. The crowd loved the high energy. And they finished with a cover of the best rock song with bagpipes: AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”.

Paul Mbenna & Okapi Guitar Band. Paul was a singer in Tazania before moving to Australia a few years ago. Now performing with the Okapi Guitar band, Australia’s longest-running Afro-pop group, they made joyful, funky, jangly, danceable African grooves. And jokes in Swahili.

Jeff Lang. I missed his full band set on Saturday because the tent was overflowing, but caught his Sunday morning set with just him and his bassist. He was a virtuosic folk/blues guitar player, with some intense sounds.

Terry Serio’s Ministry of Truth. Gritty, eerie country songs of danger. I really liked his voice: very emotive.

Dom Flemons. Festival highlight. Incredible. Caught his last song or two the previous day, so ensured I caught his whole set this time, and decided to call it quits afterwards. Flemons is from the US, and is part of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. He is the real deal: steeped 100% in old-time hillbilly music, Appalachian banjo styles, early jazz, and every bit of roots Americana that informed everything that came after. He was engaging, and wide-eyed, and charming, and really pleased to be here. He blew me away. Check this out:

It was an amazing festival to see for free. Thanks again, Yelp.


Gig review: The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band

17 April 2011

Several weeks ago I was looking at upcoming acts for some of the smaller local music venues I know attract good musicians. Notes Live in Newtown listed a Saturday night gig for something called the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. The writeup sounded like they were the legit deal from the US, so I bought a ticket, without knowing anything more.

I later found out that Rowan is a bit of a bluegrass hero. He was only a “bluegrass boy” for Bill bloody Monroe in the ’60s: it doesn’t get more genuine than that. He was in a group called Old And In The Way with Jerry Garcia. He’s done lots of other projects, some related to rock and folk and reggae. But now he’s joined up with some other bluegrass die-hards and returned to those roots. It’s this band that’s now touring, having released a bluegrass album.

It was the real deal last night. Rowan plays guitar; the others play mandolin, banjo, and bass. Just about every song last night was bluegrass, or close to it.

Rowan’s voice is high, clear and lonely, perfect for the sort of music they play. And the other guys provide excellent harmonies; almost every song saw them do three-part, sometimes four-part.

In the first half they played just about every song from their latest recording, Legacy. My faves were “Jailer Jailer”, “Catfish Blues”, “Turn the Other Cheek”, the Carter Family’s “Let me Walk Lord By Your Side”, and the Tibetan-tune-influenced “Across the Rolling Hills (Padmasambhava)”.

After the break they played songs from Rowan’s solo career, Old And In The Way, and other influential early bluegrass tunes: “Old Mountain Dew”, “In The Pines” was awesome, Monroe’s “Roll On Buddy, Roll On” was fantastic. Another Carter Family tune, “Don’t Bury Me On The Lone Prairie”, was moving; and their “Wildwood Flower” guitar riff found its way into “Panama Red”.

Oddly, it’s some of Rowan’s most famous early songs that rub me the wrong way. They come across as mawkish and lame: “So Good”, “Land of the Navajo”, “Moonlight Midnight”, and “Free Mexican Air Force”.

But those are small whinges. This was a genuine, zero-frills, honest-to-roots, feel-good night of musicianship and vocal harmonies. These guys care about this music deeply.

If you’re in Sydney and you like bluegrass, you can catch the band on Tuesday night. They’re back in town and playing at the Cat and Fiddle in Balmain.


Surprise folk festival in St Albans

14 April 2011

Last Saturday was a sunny, glorious day. We decided to take a drive, and headed up to the Hawkesbury. We’d spent some time here last year and found it very peaceful and quite remote, despite being not all that far from the city.

Our destination was The Settler Arms in St Albans, an old pub that had a nice, quiet courtyard, their own hand-pumped ale, and good food.

I was therefore quite surprised when we rolled up and saw huge crowds of people, cars, and tents all around the pub. It turns out the St Albans Folk Festival was on that weekend.

This actually worked out very well. We had our beer and our lunch, but were also vastly entertained by the spontaneous concerts that broke out around the pub courtyard. There was a tented, ticketed area where performers put on official shows but it seems the performers were quite happy to practice just about anywhere between sets. You couldn’t turn around without hearing some beardy bloke with a fiddle playing a tune, or tripping over a banjo and guitar session that went on and on. There was even Morris dancing.

It was a great vibe, so we stayed a couple of hours, listening to everything we could. It was an unexpected musical benefit to wat was already a nice driving day.


My Formative Music: Folk Music

23 June 2010

There was a great deal of folk music played in my home during my youth. My parents weren’t hippies by any means; but they were country people, farm folk, and I think they liked the peaceful, down-to-earth sounds.

The elegant harmonies, frequent harmonisation and singalong choruses appealed to me. But what really got into my head were the lyrics that were trying to say something important. Songs could be about more than lovin’ your baby, or nonsense rhyming words.

The artists that stick out most in my mind are listed below, along with some clickable sample tracks from each.

A special mention is due to Jim Henson’s seasonal TV special Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. My family loved all things Muppet, too.