Rob Dickens looks back at 2016.
Best Australian Albums 2016
- Tracey McNeil and the Good Life – Thieves (SlipRail)
McNeil’s fourth studio release is packed with personal, mature and engrossing songs. The loss of her father (musician Wayne ‘Mac’ McNeil, to whom the album is dedicated) has led to some cathartic and brilliant writing. McNeil wrote all ten songs on Thieves which were penned across three countries and McNeil & the GoodLife combine seamlessly on these tracks. Co-produced by McNeil and the band, with Shane O’Mara, there is not one wrong move here.
- Oh Pep! – Stadium Cake (Dual Tone)
Individualistic and striking. Talented pair Olivia Hally and Pepita Emmerichs deliver a collection of twelve songs replete with pristine vocals, mesmerising choruses and distinctive arrangements. Dig into the lyrics and there’s many surprises. After two EPs, it was time for the duo to knock our socks off with a full-length debut – and they have.
- Sweet Jean – Monday to Friday (ABC/Universal)
Both bold and brilliant. An audacious follow-up to the duo’s Dear Departure (2013), it houses Brit. power pop, soaring choruses and jangling guitar, all combing with their distinctive calibrated harmonies and frank observations, resulting in an engrossing collection of ten songs here. Worth the admission price alone, the exhilarating ‘Main Street’ with its metronome beat – here Keath has never sung better and with more feeling – it’s feisty, uplifting and irresistible “I’m ready for a fight, I’m ready for a rumble tonight”.
- The Weeping Willows – Before Darkness Comes A-Callin’ (Independent)
Four Golden Guitar nominations cannot be wrong! Alt.country/Americana duo The Weeping Willows give us ten tracks of shadowy tales of ruin and risk. As a successor to Till the North Wind Blows (2012), they (Laura Coates and Andy Wrigglesworth) decided on a more collaborative and organic method, resolving to be bold and stretch themselves. Enlisting the services of Grammy Award-winning engineer Ryan Freeland and a bunch of top session players in L.A., they have provided us with a mature, courageous and beguiling experience.
- Josh Rennie-Hynes – Furthermore (Independent)
While second albums can be problematic, here Rennie-Hynes leaps from acoustic singer-songwriter to a fuller, more mature vision. Furthermore was recorded on his family farm in Woodford, Queensland over a period of three weeks, working every day from morning until late at night. Alongside his friend Steve Grady. Rennie-Hynes produced, engineered and recorded all the songs and they played the bulk of the instruments. Where Did I Go’ is a snappy, slow hypnotic triumph, ‘Richmond’ is beautifully constructed and ‘Picture Frame’ is hauntingly beautiful song with under-pinning banjo and plaintive pedal steel.
- Bill Jackson – The Wayside Ballads Vol 2 (Laughing Outlaw Records)
Jackson, with brother Ross and Pete Fidler, make a formidable team, giving us more colourful tales of larger-than-life characters. A highlight is the delightful and gleamingly irresistible ‘Rollin’ into Rosine’. It came about after a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe in Rosine, Kentucky and you can picture it all, such is its powerful imagery. In fact the song inspired me to go there myself this year – no greater praise have I.
- Chris Altmann – Renaissance Man (Ridin’ High Records)
There is plenty to embrace in Renaissance Man. The songs were written between trips to Nashville and recorded at his ex-pat. home in Canada. The Altmann loose-limbed style is evident here. It is not exactly low fidelity, but it does have a fresh and ‘lived-in’ quality to it. The album showcases Altmann’s maturity as a songwriter, with well-assembled tales of personal loss and adopting change. The arrangements and production values are clearly on display and there is that sense of awe as to his playing talents, which seem to be ever expanding.
- Phil Smith – 1,2,3,4….(Independent)
For his new release, Smith enlisted a full band to flesh out a great array of songs, recording them so quickly that they smell as fresh as newly-mown hay. The end sound has a beautiful vibe that is foot-tapping and brain-engaging. ‘Straight & Narrow’ is the opener which comprises an underlying alt. country groove, strong chorus and exact harmonies. ‘Ruby’s Song’ is a bluesy urban story full of colourful characters and searching for answers – a headland achievement.
- Sean McMahon and the MoonMen – Shiner (Independent)
Stepping out from the guitar side-kick shadows, McMahon ensures that Shiner contains plenty of personal reflections, many of which are pretty painful – leaving behind personal hang-ups, breaking downward spirals and harking back to dark moments. Above all, it’s a testament to the power of creating music to cope with these dark thoughts. This intensity helps make this an important release.
10. Mike Elrington – Two Lucky Stars (Supersonic)
This blues axe-man releases his first acoustic album. Two Lucky Stars sees Elrington’s trademark passion and honesty, delivering a formidable mix of blues, roots and swamp-rock. There is some personal and sometimes confronting song-writing here. As well as the usual fights for exposure, Elrington has had dark battles with himself, through depression and bipolar disorder, a fight he described as “nothing but empty and horrible” back in 2009, as things got bleak. But Elrington eventually rediscovered his love of music and life.
Top 5 Gigs – International
John Prine The Station Inn, Nashville
The most RSVP’d event at AmericanaFest this year (where there were over two hundred performers and I don’t know how many more performances). Prine performed two riveting sets – one which featured his first, self-titled 1971 album front-to- back, with a second set of songs around his new duets release and some of the greatest songs from his extensive catalogue. A terrific band, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires guested. The Mayor of Nashville was up the front. It was a special night alright and I suspect that the person front of stage enjoyed it more than anybody in this iconic room. This was a show for the ages. One that will gloriously stay with everyone in the room.
The Americana Honors and Awards Show Ryman Auditorium, Nashville
Steve Earle’s thunderous rendition, with the Buddy Miller All-Star Band, of ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’, a tribute to his close friend Guy Clark who passed away this year, was worth the admission price alone. Other performances included Alison Krauss, Stuart Duncan, Joe Henry, Bob Weir, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Shawn Colvin, Bonnie Raitt, Dwight Yoakam, The Milk Carton Kids, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Jason Isbell with Amanda Shires, Billy Bragg, John Moreland, The Lumineers, Parker Millsap, William Bell, Lucinda Williams, George Strait and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Numerous awards were handed out throughout the night and some Honors for some of our greatest artists. Enough said.
Chris Stapleton, The Riverfront, Louisville Kentucky
It was not the easiest build-up, as a series of somewhat strange and unsettling things happened to me during that day. Plus, the concert itself was not particularly well-organised. But… when Stapleton hit the stage with the growling ‘Nobody To Blame’, everything was forgotten. Songs from his recent (and, incredibly, only solo album) Traveller featured throughout the night as you would expect, the beautiful two-step duet ‘More Of You’, the long, burning ‘Outlaw State of Mind’, the chilling ‘Was It 26’, ‘Might As Well Get Stoned’ which really showcased his ‘monster’ voice, ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ and the soaring ‘Fire Away’ were there as well. I was surprised that Stapleton was doing all the guitar work himself, accompanied by bass, drums and wife Morgane on backing vocals. A fine player he is too.
William Bell 3rd & Lindsley, Nashville
Bell received an Americana song-writing award two nights earlier – he released great songs when the Stax label ruled Southern soul. His songs include ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’, ‘Born under a Bad Sign’ and ‘Everybody Loves a Winner’, and have been covered by Albert King, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Idol, Jimi Hendrix, Etta James and Warren Haynes. In 2016 he released This Is Where I Live (produced by John Levanthal), on a revitalised Stax label. Here he had a twelve-piece band, the sound was brilliant, his voice amazing and the new material standing up very well e.g. ‘Mississippi Arkansas Bridge’. Stax is back and Southern soul reigns again.
Darrell Scott Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee
Respected singer-songwriter Darrell Scott had some unexpected help during his set at the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival. Scott provided a moving rendition of his recently-deceased friend Guy Clark’s ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’ and, at the perfect and most poignant moment at the close of the song, a freight train blew its whistle and shuffled past only meters behind the stage, as if it was part of the act. Add to that, a virtuoso performance – Scott’s exemplary guitar playing, the great Kenny Malone on drums and Bryn K Davies on acoustic bass. His version of Paul Simon‘s ‘American Tune’ was brilliant. There were a few songs from his captivating 2016 release The Couchville Sessions and many from his impressive back catalogue. ‘Down to The River’, which opens the new album was played with Clark’s recorded voice-over broadcast tonight over the P.A.
Top 5 Gigs – Local
Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings – Palais Theatre
The 2016 tour in Australia came after the legendary performances now some years ago and every show was like as a renewed love affair as the darling Americana/traditional music pair wowed us from one end of the continent to another (which they drove rather than flying). Never was the relationship between performers and audience so close as in Melbourne and the show this night was a joy from end-to-end.
The Decemberists – Hamer Hall
This Bluesfest sideshow was an acoustic delight as this indie folk outfit from Portland Oregon showcased songs from their latest release and took material evenly from most of their earlier albums. There were many highlights – ‘Down by the Water’, ‘The Rake’s Song’ and ‘Cavalry Captain’ come to mind. More rollicking fun ensued with an epic version of ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ featuring a large and delightful toothy whale prop. Three encores were met with standing ovations which capped off a memorable night, a triumph for a band whose shadow continues to grow rapidly.
Eric Burdon and the Animals, Palais Theatre
The opening ‘Spill the Wine’ set the scene beautifully. He was dressed in black, a peace sign on his T-shirt, shades and white hair. The voice is great. ‘See See Rider’ with its thumping organ, ‘When I Was Young’, ‘Monterey’, ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ and the ballad ‘Anything’. During the middle section, there are some interesting and enjoyable choices from his latest album Til Your River Runs Dry), ‘Mama Told Me Not To Come’, a scorching ‘In The Pines’, Chuck Berry’s ‘Downbound Train’ (an absolute highlight) and an engrossing ‘Star Man’/’Sky Pilot’ medley. As Burdon left the stage to a standing ovation from the near-full house, he pointed to his watch with a cheeky grin – it is closing time. Still the cool guy in charge, Eric Burdon’s legend remains well and truly intact.
Jack Howard’s Epic Brass – House Concert
Ayleen O’Hanlon and Rich Davies – House Concert
House concerts are the new black?! These two were joyous occasions. Completely different settings and occasions, but the home gig model works beautifully – arrange great musicians, get a bunch of friends, add some fine food and beverage, enjoy the intimate and comfortable setting, the only noise comes from the stage, meet the performers before or after the show, get some merch. autographed. Artists get money direct. Win, win, win!
Highlights of the local music scene for 2016:
The growth of house concerts (see above)
The Gillian and Dave Tour – have we seen the likes of it before?
The restoration of The Palais – bravo
The establishment of Americana Australia – the term is here to stay
Above all, the quality and quantity of local artists – we are blessed