Review by Rob Dickens.
JamGrass Music Festival – Bundoora Park, Melbourne – Saturday November 7, 2015
JamGrass has slowly grown and is now located at Bundoora Park, a large green space fifteen kilometres north-east of Melbourne. Last year was my first experience of this little festival (then held over three days at The Thornbury Theatre) and I was taken by both how impressive the music was on offer and also the fact that the event didn’t attract more punters. While Melbourne is such a renowned music city it has had a somewhat checkered history with roots music festivals, perhaps because of the sheer number and diversity of live shows that take place.
JamGrass organisers took the bold step this year of moving the event outdoors and confining it to a single day (with a launch party the night before). I assume that this was an attempt to expand the event through attracting more ticket sales – there certainly seemed to be a good deal more promotion surrounding the build-up to the event, than in past years).
Now JamGrass is not a bluegrass-only zone. It does embrace bluegrass, but only as part of a broader roots focus which includes jug, folk, old-time, psychedelic, roots jamming, alt. country and indie rock. What’s in a name, anyway? It could well have been called ‘hardly strictly bluegrass’, if someone else hadn’t thought of that badge first!
I was at the festival site early. The rain of the past two days had luckily finished and, by 12.30, it was cloudy with a light cool breeze. The festival precinct was around a historic village and farm settlement. The single stage was on a gentle slope, with great visibility. There was plenty of interesting psychedelic art work around and it looked like almost all the helpers were volunteers.
The new space allowed for plenty of food options – California Salsa, Cajun Kitchen, The Nutty Nut and Juice Hut, Sam’s Enviro-Pies, Donuts for the sweet of tooth, and a groovy retro coffee cart. Altogether, a vast improvement on last year’s cuisine offerings. There was also an art stall, merchandise tent and the Bootleggers Bar, including the mystery drink “Old Smokey Moonshine”. There’s plenty of space to walk around, see the blacksmith in action and, as the day wore on, catch various informal jamming sessions from the performers.
Okay, over to the serious part. Twelve acts over eleven hours or so.
Mr Alford played a diverse set of original country songs, with four albums to his credit and the country blues-grooving “Sailor Jerry Rum” was a salty yarn to close a nice introduction to the day.
The John Flanagan Trio provided some engaging folk and Americana songs, with thoughtful lyrics and a delightfully melodious voice and precise group harmonies. He has recorded an album in Nashville with Viktor Krauss (to be titled There’s Another Way To Where You’re Going) which is due for release early next year. Some new songs were showcased and I believe the new album will be one to look out for – “Bodhi Tree” and his account of a meeting with Paul Kelly, “The Last Of The Cassette Men”, were just two highlights. Toto’s “Africa” got an interesting and fresh makeover, as well.
The Stetson Family were up next, on the trail of promoting the new, well-received and lovable album True North (released in July 2015). From that collection, Bob Dylan’s “Billy” was the opener and simultaneously, the sun came out with its greatest strength of the day – it was a nice moment. The set included “Run Daddy Run”, a lively tale of a fiery relationship and the tender ballad “Every Beat Of My Heart” (an album highlight). The cautionary “Haunted Hills” closed the set. The Stetsons I’ve seen a few times now and they are in top form with a nice blend of bluegrass, old-time and Americana elements.
The Drunken Poachers formed with a critical goal in mind – ‘so they didn’t have to pay for their drinks’. The set included whiskey and beer punchy ballads, Irish jigs about drinking, and moonshine tales of, er, drinking – some Old Crow Medicine Show influences and memorable ditties like “I’m A Hooligan When I’m Drinking”, “Chase My Whiskey With A Whiskey” and “All For Me Grog”. It was catchy, strident and a lot of fun, and the first sign of dancing for the day.
Talk about something completely different. Returning from a long UK and Scandinavian stint, The String Contingent added some spirited refinement, with a number of reflective and powerful instrumentals. The acoustic chamber-folk trio comprises Australians Chris Stone (violin) and Holly Downes (double bass), with Scot Graham McLeod (guitar), together beautiful exploratory musicians, moving gracefully through classical, Celtic, baroque, jazz and Indian styles, all pitched in a contemporary sound.
The Morrisons hail from New South Wales and are big band (seven-piece) roots collective – they have a full bluegrass and folk sound, with the high and lonesome harmonies a feature. The set kicked off with an interesting choice – Nick Cave’s powerful “I Had A Dream, Joe” and the list included a lightning take on Paul Kelly’s “Taught By Experts”, some interesting originals and finished with Cold Chisel’s “Flame Trees”. The band won the 2014 Folk/Acoustic Song Of The Year at the Australian Song Writers Association Awards.
The Imprints are a high-energy duo from Melbourne (actually, Northcote). Featuring an unlikely combo of violin and drums, there’s plenty of looping string sections and intricate and pulsating rhythms with a Mediterranean influence. A unique sound and one the crowd appreciated. Remember The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” from the classic album Who’s Next? At the end of the song, there’s a wonderful segment of a crowning violin with the band building, leading to a crescendo. That’s a taste of what The Imprints sounded like. Brilliant!
Indie folk outfit Tin Pan Orange hit the stage around 6 pm. The sun had previously built up some dimension and consistency, but was now quickly waning. The natural light was softening and the artificial lights on the stage were beginning to show some ascendancy. The band’s “Barcelona” was swaying through the air and the set included a soft and sensuous reading of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya”.
I mentioned the cool breeze a while back and this was relentless for those insufficiently attired. It was enough to send a few people packing as the reality set in of an outdoor festival in Melbourne’s unpredictable mid-spring.
There was plenty of entertainment in the synthesizer trance rock, power sitar and self-deprecating humour of Richard In Your Mind.
The Quarry Mountain Dead Rats are JamGrass favourites and have a raw and gritty old-time style of style of bluegrass, with a definite Australian twist. The outfit almost has the classic bluegrass instrumentation, except the violin/fiddle is replaced by a washboard and there’s plenty of intensity and vibrancy. A host of new engaging songs were on display, as was a break-neck version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues” as the dance ‘floor’ filled for the first time today.
Mustered Courage provided an appropriate next step in the bill. In its fifth JamGrass appearance, there was plenty to like. The sound, as it had been all day, was excellent and much better than where I stood at the band’s Out On The Weekend‘s set a few weeks back. Mustered Courage has always pushed the bluegrass boundaries. I saw them at the IBMA’s (International Bluegrass Music Association) biggest shindig, in Raleigh North Carolina last year where they were received with much acclaim as their high energy and innovative performance stood out from the more traditional fare. Since then, a record deal signed with Lost Highway Australia, a new album, member changes, the addition of drums, keyboards and, today, a flirtation with a pair of trombones. The crowd revelled in the band’s spontaneous and spirited set.
The headliner Harts, from New South Wales, is in fact a young man with plenty of stage presence alternating between guitar and keyboards and accompanied by drums. Part guitar rock god and part electro-funk rocker. None other than Prince is reported to have said about Harts – “He reminds me of how I was at that age”. High praise, indeed. The remaining crowd loved the vitality and showmanship.
And so it ended. Somewhat of a music marathon.
After outgrowing a series of indoor halls, concert spaces and ballrooms, the festival has created its own outdoor space. There was an abundance of variety on and off stage and, for a gate price of $65 (cheaper with an earlier booking), fantastic value.
JamGrass has grown a little more again. If it’s held at the same venue next year, it can easily accommodate more ticket sales simply by moving the stage further down the slope.
Let’s hope there’s a JamGrass VI. Its imprint on the Melbourne music scene is becoming undeniable.