From the Sun Ra Arkestra to John Grant and the Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile!
Hobart, Tasmania – January 15-19, 2013
By Brian Wise
Newspapers here have proudly reported that last year Tasmania attracted one million tourists for the first time ever up 15 per cent on the previous year. Much of that increase must have to do with the increasing attraction of David Walsh’s astonishing Museum of New and Old Art (MONA) with a side effect being the associated popularity of the annual Festival of Music and Art (MOFO for short).
Now in its sixth year the five-day festival, curated by Brian Ritchie (of the Violent Femmes and The Break), attracts more than half its attendees from interstate. He claims that the festival is not a commercial venture but rather features artists chosen for the interest their music creates.
So this year, the music included the Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile, the Sun Ra Arkestra, ex-Bad Seed Mick Harvey doing Serge Gainsbourg, a tango orchestra, avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson Kathleen Hanna’s The Julie Ruin, singer songwriter John Grant, the Australian Chamber Orchestra Quartet, British dance music outfit the Orb, a local death metal band and many more eclectic selections. (Last year both Elvis Costello and David Byrne appeared).
Like MONA, the music festival might not be to everyone’s taste – in fact some acts might drive you out of the Macquarie Wharf building where most of the music is housed – but the point is to open your mind and enjoy the experience rather than over-analyse it. (And if you do sit outside for a break you can enjoy the view of the harbour and city and sample the local brews and food).
In fact, MOFO has to be the largest annual gathering of hipsters in Tasmania – beards for men seemed almost compulsory – and luckily all of those hipsters can fit on one wharf.
Thursday opened for me with Mick Harvey’s revisiting the work of Serge Gainsbourg through the mid-‘90s solo albums Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants which paid tribute to the singer. Harvey was helped by guest vocalists, Sophia Brous and Xanthe Waie taking Jane Birkin/Brigitte Bardot/Francois Hardy parts.
The Sun Ra Arkestra have continued undeterred by the fact that their founder Sun Ra died more than 20 years ago (or was transported back to Saturn). Led by 89-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen the ensemble is never less than enormous fun and equally colourful in their sequined costumes. It is interesting how music that sounded so far out a few decades ago can sound so contemporary: ‘Interplanetary Music,’ ‘Saturn,’ ‘Space Is The Place.’ They even tackled ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’ It was wonderfully entertaining.
One of the main acts that had attracted me to MOFO was the Punch Brothers’ mandolin virtuoso (who you can also hear on the soundtrack of Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest Coen Brothers film). Thile leaves little doubt about his brilliance, performing a selection of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas from his latest solo album. (‘Let the partita begin,’ he joked at one point). He also performed what he called other ‘stuff’: the Louvin Brothers’ ‘Broadminded,’ Fiona Apple’s ‘Fast As You Can,’ and ‘Dylan’s ‘Don’t’ Think Twice It’s Alright,’ as well as his own tunes.
It is one thing to be a mandolin virtuoso but an entirely other thing to be able to keep the attention of 1500 people in a confined space. But after dazzling the audience with his ability, Thile charmed them, amused them, vastly entertained them and had them shouting for more. By the end he was telling us how great it was to play in something that looked like an aircraft hangar but sounded like a cathedral and how he wished he could do it every night. There is no doubt in my mind that Thile was one of the hits of the festival. Possibly the best audience reception for a mandolin player in Tasmanian history!
The Orquesta Típica Fernández Fierro, a 12-piece tango combo from Argentina was almost an anti-climax after Thile, although its music was certainly dramatic. As the night fell, the music matched the darkness with its soaring rhythms.
On Saturday, Kathleen Hanna’s group The Julie Ruin took things to another level with their ‘post-feminist’ punk. Formerly of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, Hanna’s history was impressive and her performance even more so. Dressed in a leotard, which Hanna firmly pointed out to someone up the front was ‘not underwear,’ she bounced and shouted with exceptional enthusiasm and energy – enough to completely belie her 45 years.
Out in the courtyard surrounding the venue, a group of local blacksmiths were having their hammering amplified and sampled into some weird electronic music by Nick Smithies (of course). Instrument of the festival: the amplified anvil!
Sunday afternoon started early with The Perch Creek Family Jug Band in the Backspace (just behind the main Mac2 venue). Their music does indeed feature the jug and washboard and is vastly entertaining and had everyone tapping their toes. At first, they seemed totally out of place but, hey, this is MOFO!
Then emerged what was possibly the biggest contrast possible when I witnessed my first (and possibly last) Death Metal gig with local band Psycroptic, who are I am assured Tasmania’s most successful band at the moment being famous in Europe. ‘I think you’ll like them,’ said a young fan sitting next to me, which immediately gave me pause to wonder what exactly it was about me that might give him that impression!
I can tell you I thought Psycroptic were incredibly loud and checked them out on an App at 102db (which surprisingly I found out later is only as loud as a motorcycle). While the music is thunderous and the lyrics incomprehensible the band is hardly as threatening as it at first seems. Singer Jason Peppiatt who prowled around topless, displaying his tattoos and whipping his hair around, paused at one point to apologise for his language. “I shouldn’t swear on stage,” he said, “my child is in the audience and my wife is looking at me funny. Sorry darl.” A death metal kitten!
Ngaiire, Sydney –based but originally from Papua New Guinea, was given a short set but proved enough with her electronic soul and her excellent band that she is marked for much bigger things. The audience agreed because her gig at the Backspace was packed.
Saxophonist Colin Stetson has played with Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. He has mastered the art of circular breathing and produces some amazing sounds with his tenor sax (his bass was held up by the airline in Sydney). At times the music sounds like Philip Glass but here it is only one instrument with Stetson laying down a rhythm and his throat-mic producing some eerie sounds to accompany it. It was mesmerizing. When asked by someone in the audience how he mastered the circular breathing, after noting that he had only ever been asked that question in interviews, he said, ‘Start practising when you are fifteen. You can learn anything when you are fifteen.’ Good advice.
Strangely, or so it appeared to me, the volume for Colin Stetson (and for John Grant later) was almost exactly the same as it was for Psycroptic, maxing out at around 100db – which goes to show how much louder things seems when your chest is being thumped by the sound of a bass drum!
John Grant closed the evening for me with another of the festival’s highlights. Grant’s baritone voice is something to behold – rich and emotive. With a band sourced mainly from Iceland where he lives these days (with keyboardist Chris Pemberton from the UK), Grant’s music ranged from the dramatic to the majestic. Starting with ‘You Don’t Have To’ he moved into ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ which was even more powerful than on record. Some of Grant’s songs are almost wistful (‘Mars’), while some are defiant (‘Great Motherfucker’) and every so often they are laced with a humour that only some of the audience seems to get (‘Sigourney Weaver’). At times it seems that Grant’s lyrics are influenced by Warren Zevon – which might seem a strange comparison but they certainly seem to come from a similar dark place.
The epic ‘Glacier’ featured a stunning ending that Grant said he had commissioned Pemberton to write to reflect a glacier carving out a valley. ‘Queen of Denmark’ was equally stunning. But the encore featured the amusing ‘Chickenbones.’
The evening closed late with The Orb but by that stage I was sated.
As I did with the magnificent MONA museum (over two days) I had dipped in and out of MOFO as it suited, exhilarated by the discoveries and immersing myself in the experience (even some I did not necessarily enjoy). This is my third visit here. It will not be my last.