Kerrie Hickin: Bluesfest – Saturday & Sunday Highlights

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By Kerrie Hickin

Canned Heat  – Delta Stage, Saturday March 31

You can feel it almost before you can hear it, that tingling, the air vibration, the buzz growing. Then the harmonics, as the anticipation builds. And then the primal boogie kicks in, as we all knew it would – Ba Dum Ba Dum Ba Dum Ba Dum Ba Dum Ba Dum Ba Daa Daaa – and together we’re all on that road again, riding with Canned Heat in the psychedelicbluesrockmobile, It’s a machine that’s been chugging along since the early 1960s, visiting both Monterey and Woodstock, lost and gained members along the way, but maintaining the much-loved sound. Some in the crowd would be content to just have Canned Heat playing continuously over the five days, such is their regard, reliability, and tenure.

Nominal band leader, veteran drummer Fito de la Parra, holds down a steady beat, his unusual drumming style seeing him holding the right-hand drumstick in what would be considered by some as upside down. Relative newcomer Dale Spalding (with only ten years on the clock) takes up the role of spokesman, in the introduction to one of their best-known song, exhorting the world to work together “you know what I’m sayin'”, needed now as much as ever in these uncertain times – the history of humanity has proved us unreliable caretakers for this planet and its inhabitants.

“We’re still all about peace and love – what’s wrong with that?”

Afro Celt Sound System – Delta Stage, Saturday, March 31

Flute, violin, keyboards, OK so far. There’s a djembe, that’s a bodhran, I think they are called uilleann pipes and… what the heck is that thing? Look, I’ll level with you, I don’t know what all the instruments are called. But I do know that together they make an exhilarating and joyous mix – this nine-piece group’s music is about as uplifting as you can get without a crane.

This band is a testament to diversity, bringing together disparate national, cultural, physical, generational, and gender strands through the universality of music – a common force that binds us all together in humanity – and bringing the ancient into the modern world with the help of technology, and tons of charisma.

The performance is an energetic visual feast of colour and movement, as members take turns fronting the stage – and at times in FRONT of front of stage, balanced on the somewhat wobbly speaker stacks. Traditional forms melded with beats and samples that leave ye olde Celtic Women wandering around in the mist wondering what just sped past them. A couple of pre-teen boys to my right in the audience were having a great time too, bouncing along in time with the music. Sometimes it can be a hard job convincing kids that their music lessons are worth pursuing, but here was proof that even nominally ‘daggy’ instruments can be wielded like rock stars, with enough confidence and the right attitude – the massed instrumental ‘machine gunning’ of the audience a cute touch effectively subverting rock music’s dominant macho guitar posturing.

Is it world music? Is it folk? Who cares; it’s awesome!

Jose Gonzalez – Mojo Stage, Sunday, April 1

“Helloo, how arr ye din”, Jose Gonzalez (or José González to give it the correct diacritics) greets the audience, in his ambiguously-accented lilt. Just a man, his voice and his acoustic guitar – with capo, stomp box and sympathetically deployed effects. There are no histrionics, no look-at-me ego posturing; the music is the primary driving force that makes this performance so compelling.

His pure, sweet voice and folky finger-picking have drawn favourable comparisons to Nick Drake’s intimate confessionals. He captures and maintains your attention, the songs multi-layered and open to interpretation rather than either overt or deliberately obscure, each maintaining enough mystery to keep us guessing its real intent. Is it a love song? A cautionary tale? A damning indictment of society wrapped so sweetly that it felt like a virtual kiss? The music is light yet complex, with occasional subtle modulations pulling focus in to parts of the composition, an unseen rhythm maintained, and deft use of atmospheric drone notes on his signature track, his timeless version of Massive Attack’s iconic ‘Teardrops’.

Projected visuals of slightly-altered trees, leaves and fronds imply a connection back to the ever-present natural world that we tend to take for granted in our haste for progress at all costs – Down The Line sparkles with allusions to touching the soil of the earth as a salve to worldly stress: “don’t let the darkness eat you up”.

The final number of the set, a nuanced version of Swedish electronic act The Knife’s song ‘Heartbeats’, leaves us wanting more. It has been a pleasure.

Sheryl Crow – Crossroads Stage, Sunday

Somewhere, sometime, there is a whole essay to be written on how smart, literate, emotionally-mature female songwriters express love, desire, yearning, power, vulnerability and powerlessness. If it’s me who writes it, I’ll be calling forth Sheryl Crow’s ‘Strong Enough’ for illustration, a perfect double-edged love song, tender yet emotionally brutal (and a whole slew of Melissa Etheridge, who veritably bounces off the walls with that stuff, and Lucinda Williams, and Juliana Hatfield, and and…). But meanwhile, back at the Crossroads tent, there’s a show going on while I’m pondering the topic, which can wait for another day.

The introduction mentions nine Grammy awards and album sales of over 35 million – that’s thirty-five MILLION albums sold. Gee, if I had a dollar… but I hope Sheryl Crow does indeed get that dollar – she deserves it.

While still working as a teacher, Crow was ‘discovered’ by Michael Jackson who put her in spandex and a frightwig and a prime spot in his touring band. It’s not hard to hear why her agile vocals would impress – effortlessly taking octave jumps and holding long notes for an almost-impossible interval. And there she is, in spotlight-catching sequinned trousers and a Blondie singlet. “Jump in, let’s go, lay back, enjoy the show”, she sings on her first number out of the gates, ‘Every Day Is A Winding Road’. In ‘A Change Will Do You Good’, she is conjuring with striking verbal images that blend the celestial with the very earthy. If you take every song as strictly autobiographical, then Crow has certainly has an interesting life, lots of highs and lows, skanking about with morning breath and a hangover, or taking off on a whim.

‘All I Wanna Do’, ‘If It Makes You Happy’ and ‘There Goes The Neighbourhood’ certainly cover a lot of lyrical ground. Next, introduced with “we didn’t write it but we sure do like it”, was a shimmering cover of ‘First Cut Is The Deepest’.

Later, Lukas Nelson guested on a stirring harmony-laden version of the Allman Brothers’ classic ‘Midnight Rider’. Crow praised Nelson, and then extolled the audience to “support the musicians who are making the music to get us through these hard times”. Her kids apparently describe their incumbent president as “cray-cray”, so one can only hope that somehow we can stem the tide of insanity and actually have some fun before the proverbial sun goes down over whatever road you’re taking on your personal journey.

 

 

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