By Kerrie Hickin. (Photos by Christina Jasmine).
Bluesfest 2017 Day 1
The first day of multi-day festivals is traditionally a comparatively slow starter, particularly when that day is a ‘work’ day and the festival in the sort of destination that requires planning and time to get to. This didn’t stop their being a very decent crowd for the acts playing on Thursday at ‘Australia’s Premier Blues And Roots Music Festival’ (and then some!), but it was at a much more comfortable and negotiable level without being sparse.
As is often the case, one can be impressed by a random act without any or much prior knowledge. So it was with Chicagoan Melody Angel (her real name), and her band, which includes her mother. Angel sings with a full, masterful voice and plays a mean lead guitar (she proudly lists Slash and Jimi Hendrix among her inspirations), and in leather jeans and a sparkly silver singlet comes across as a child of Joan Jett who loves soul and R&B as well as rock and roll.
She starts the set by introducing “some songs I didn’t write but wish I did, then some song I wrote – I hope that’s OK,” before launching into Lenny Kravitz’s riff-rock anthem ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way’, followed by a ripper version of Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ and a number of other touchstones from the classic rock canon given a fresh work-over – “Do NOT make fun of me; I’m 26” – as well as some original songs containing messages of self-determination. The band gets loose sometimes, with the natural camaraderie between the performers obvious, particularly the mutual admiration between daughter and mother, who provides harmonies. As she sings on Hendrix’s ‘Fire’, “Move over Rover, and let Angel take over!” Definitely one to watch for the future, particularly when her own songwriting comes to the fore.
Canada’s Irish Mythen is a singer-songwriter whose endearingly cheeky twinkle-eyed demeanour belies a stunning range and powerful vocal technique. She peppers her set’s between-song banter with little asides and jokes, as well as her observations as an international tourist (“…half Australia’s Irish, right?”). Songs can be keening romances or roundabout odes to the frailties of humanity in its many forms. She genuinely seems to love being on stage and performing, and heartily approves of the rousing response at one point stating “You little rascals! Why can’t this be every day!”
Legendary singer Mavis Staples, along with her family, The Staple Singers, is credited with being pretty-much responsible for melding gospel music with soul and social conscience themes, and ‘crossing over’ into a wider, largely secular audience in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a bold move at the time in some ways, challenging then-accepted norms about the notional ‘place’ of music. ‘Respect Yourself’ still packs a punch, as does I’ll Take You There, a song released in 1971: “You weren’t even born then!” (on behalf of the majority of the audience I beg to differ) – the line, portentous after the loss of so many luminaries including her friend Prince, “One of these days and it won’t be long, you’re gonna look for Mavis and I’ll be gone…”. She then emits a throaty extended “Yeaaaahhhhhh” with the texture of velvet-coated gravel, the vocal dichotomy that has captured and enraptured so many. Special mention should be made of the guitarist who brings a contemporary edge to the gravitas of Pops Staples’ original guitar lines, particularly impressive on the cover of Talking Heads’ cryptic ‘Slippery People’.
After a late-running start, The Miles Electric Band take to the stage, engaging the spirit and attitude of Miles Davis and his music. They reinterpret it through a virtuosic ten-piece prism, introduced by quotes that illustrate the compositional genius of Davis, such as “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there”.
They start out funky then progress to sultry uptown/downtown contemporary jazz, a well-placed echo effect providing an other-worldly dimension to the physically-disciplined trumpet playing, evidently played out across the young(er) musician’s facial musculature. Other musicians swap the lead spotlight to heroic effect, before veering off into more abstract territory, even accurately mimicking the sound of a speeding express train.
With her low-key lyrical wit and keen eye for the multi-textures in the minutae of suburban living and interpersonal relationships, Courtney Barnett is poised to join the pantheon of Australia’s keenest social-observer songwriters, including but not limited to Paul Kelly, Tim Rogers, Don Walker and the Finns, with historic precedent set by the likes of Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. Among first-time Bluesfest participant Barnett’s ‘hit’ songs, ‘Avant Gardener’ and ‘Depreston’ shine, ‘Elevator Operator’ takes us inside the complications of other lives, and ‘Pedestrian At Best’, with its wry refrain of “Put me on a pedestal, I’ll only disappoint you”, hangs on the most inviting of brain-invading hooks, the likes of which have struck a proverbial chord with a diverse many. At this point in her career, as interest and awareness grows, the sky is the limit, even though, as she sings in a confessional aside, “I have no idea how I got here”, where ‘here’ could applied to anywhere or nowhere in particular. Converts, of which there count many, recognise a gifted raconteur and lyricist indeed.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” was the opening lyric on Patti Smith‘s groundbreaking debut album Horses, appearing to the world after the puff of hippie self-indulgence was evaporating and on the cusp of punk rock’s new energy and immediacy. Smith intones these words in over the introductory keyboard chords, and in 1975 the world changed, a collision of art, ideology and life itself. She took a whiskery standard, ‘Gloria’, and turned it on its head, subverting the expectation of the well-known original and creating an altogether different beast, at turns sinister, visceral, and rousing, building to a stonking climax before dropping back and reviving anew.
Present in this lineup of what Smith states will be her final tour, are original Patti Smith Group members drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and guitarist Lenny Kaye (the absolute legend responsible for compiling the Nuggets garage rock album series). Projected behind the band is the original Horses cover art, the enigmatic unknowable gaze of Smith presenting to the world as a melding of Richards, Thunders and Dylan. Herself a student of the mythology and symbolism behind rock music, she illuminates the genesis of the abstruse ‘Break It Up’, co-written with Television’s Tom Verlaine, a mystical hallucination of Jim Morrison trapped inside an angel statue, breaking out and flying off to other “adventures”.
To say Smith has ‘presence’ would be a grave understatement: she totally owns the stage and the audience, long artist’s hands fluttering, visage purposeful and compelling, voice strong through the poetic landscape of lyrics and abstract sometimes surrealistic storytelling, juxtaposed within a rock-concert scenario. For the duration of this set, we inhabit this world with her as shamanic spirit guide, taking us to places hitherto off the map. It concludes with the intoxicating ‘Dancing Barefoot’, the darkly sensual ‘Because The Night’, and ‘My Generation’, repurposed as a rallying cry to that generation that now, more than ever, the passion that still burns should be focussed on the injustices of the present perpetrated by “governments and corporations”. She grabs a guitar and declares “I’m going to live to 110!”. And you know what? I don’t doubt her for a second.
Preview of Day #2
It’s an unavoidable fact that no matter how diligent your plans there is still the likelihood of a clockwork-precise timetable flying out the window when the reality of logistics kicks in. Bluesfest is no exception to that, but the consolation-prize is the opportunity to be exposed to some new unexpected delights.
Having said that, let’s check Easter Friday’s intended highlights.
One of the more estimable elements of Bluesfest is the Boomerang sub-section, highlighting an interface with diverse elements of indigenous culture. With performances and workshops held from midday today, the official opening and welcome is at 1.45pm.
Today is Bonnie Raitt‘s only appearance, with another opportunity to catch Mavis Staples, Eric Gales and Rhiannon Giddens. Rickie Lee Jones provides another highlight, along with good-time favourite Jimmy Buffett, Roy Ayers, and an intimate Patti Smith acoustic set.
If you missed Melody Angel‘s self-described “black girl rock” yesterday, here’s a second chance to become better-acquainted with that.
Have a great day, keep your eyes and ears open for the unplanned diversions and welcome them!