Part 1 – An American innocent, abroad
So, I’m laying on my back on the dewy grass, listening to the soothing sounds of Imogen Heap on the main stage about 100 feet away. She’s got a lovely voice, intricate arrangements and incomprehensible lyrics. I can imagine her as a little girl who made a wish, once, on a falling star that she would one day grow up and be Kate Bush.
She got close.
So, I am laying here, 7000 miles from home, surrounded by 50,000 total strangers (including two I am sharing a tent with). I’m not drunk, I’m not stoned (indeed, this place has the most liberal open air dope smoking policy I have ever seen anywhere – and being from Santa Cruz county, that’s something!) but I am exhausted beyond any meaning of the word. My back is spasming, my feet are bloodied, blistered, broken stumps, my right leg is inflamed and a threatening mix of blood red and purple for about 4 inches above my sock line (grass seed allergy?) and my hands and wrists are swollen and aching.
But I feel fine.
And I still have Wolfmother, a South American harp trio, Germany’s finest R&B Combo and a 22-piece Ska orchestra to get through! So, I’ll just lay here a little longer, letting Imogen work her magic.
Of course, if it were Kate Bush, I’d get up….
7,105 miles. The line here is much straighter than the one I actually took
* * * * *
So how did your good friend and neighbor Ol’ Sebby – only son of a German-American used car salesman from Pittsburgh, beloved MySpace poet and the last registered Republican in northern California, come to find himself sitting in a field in Australia – surrounded by hippies, skinheads, stoners, surfer dudes, goth chicks, uptight 40 something assholes like me, Bob Dylan, ZZ Top, BB King, Elvis Costello, jugglers, stilt walkers, fire eaters, green eyed banjo playing beauties, an ice cream man, a guy who cleans porta-johns via telekinesis, underwear inspectors, kangaroos and the girl who would be Kate Bush? And what was I expected to accomplish by doing this? Well, like most questions in life, this one has a short answer I can posit in a sentence and a longer one that maybe we’ll come to through the course of this little essay.
Short answer is simple – this trip, to the 2011 Byron Bay Blues and Roots Music Festival, held in Northern New South Wales, Australia, was sponsored by my employer as a reward for delivering $21 million dollars worth of projects on time, on budget and without significant hitches (and putting myself into intensive care in early March in the process), as an incentive for me not to jump ship before 6/30/2011 and to re-up my contract for 2011-12 and to actually do some journalist type work in order to maintain my position as a working journalist at a newspaper of record for San Mateo county (a legal nicety – but the fact that they didn’t bother to send validation of my or my colleagues credentials to the festival organizers sort of says that the legal nicety was less important than the “for god’s sake take a vacation, man!” aspect). My two colleagues, one of whom I knew passingly and one I did not know at all, were along for much the same reasons.
But that’s boring, let’s not talk about that. You’re all here to hear tales of sex, drugs, debauchery, youthful rebellion and rock and roll under the Aussie sun aren’t you? Ah. In that case, I have to disappoint you again. Apart from flagrant open air sparking up (which was so common place it was passé – I can tell you that the Aussie weed seems to be of the “stinky, stinky shit” variety and not especially potent, but this is an observational deduction not an empirical one), there was no drugs to speak of, there was definitely no sex to speak of and debauchery was limited to our neighbor in the tent diagonally across from us who decided to go bikini-topless under a see-through top, until her father told her to cover up and one young lady who, at the outrageously excellent Melbourne Ska Orchestra’s set, wore far too little in the way of underwear to make her choice of Stevie Nicks as a dance moves mentor a wise one.
So, that just leaves youthful rebellion and rock and roll, then. It’s not the kids who misbehave or cause the aggravation at festivals like this, it’s the uptight, self-entitled, tribalist 40 plusses who are trying to defend a patch of dirt for an AOR act coming on six hours later and sit (yes, sit – more on this later) there talking on their cell phones or bitching loudly to one another about how they can’t hear what the singer is singing or why they have to pay to see “nobodies” (the band who attracted that comment was the legendary Little Feat!!) and wait for whoever it is they want to see. Not all oldies were that bad, though – I met a guy called Ian who had such a great attitude I hung out with him on a few occasions. Ian is a big, burly Aussie bloke –he looks like a long haul truck driver but is in fact a High School Science teacher from Victoria, in the south of the country. While Ian is a devoted and passionate Bob Dylan fan (when he told me of this I joked with him “oh yeah, I have heard of him – back home in the States he’s seen as quite the promising newcomer”) his credo for the festival is that he doesn’t want to see an act he has ever heard of, he only wants to hear new music. I remembered his words on the Friday night as I was being crushed inside the tent to see BB King – he’s absolutely right – so I split and went down to the see the Aggrolites. That worked well for me, because the Aggrolites went off and BB King, sadly, bombed.
But sitting, and chairs, became an issue. One of the real bringdown was people bringing camping chairs into the venues and planting them in the 4th row, taking up the space that three people could comfortably occupy and making a lethal trip hazard for dancing throngs. I was waiting for Raul Malo to come on, surrounded by these people and I thought to myself “they have no idea what is going to go down when Malo hits that stage” because if you have ever seen Raul Malo in concert, you will know that no one (and I mean no-one) can turn a room into a surging, seething, dancing, ecstatic party pit quicker than Raul Malo. And your little chair is going to become a very serious liability.
The great Raul Malo. The Tex-Mex Chair wrecker
The only thing worse than assholes with camping chairs inside the tent is assholes with kids in strollers inside the tents. That isn’t anti-social, that’s just insane.
One last word on the subject of people in venues sitting on chairs. Waiting for Raul Malo, there was couple sitting defiantly to my left. I had to feel sorry for them, for, you see, I had just partaken of the $11 Indian vegetarian feast for lunch. So having your head in the immediate propinquity of my butt in the immediate aftermath of that event was, well, I’ll leave that for you to figure out…..
So, debauchery not so much. But Rock and Roll and odd stories related to it – ah! there are plenty of them, So let’s get to the nub of my essay – how Sebby got his groove back and rediscovered how music actually works, in the process.
Part 2 – Ukuleles, didgeridoos and white guys in dreadlocks
On the Thursday, things kicked off about 4pm local time so after a morning of trying to reorient ourselves having gone both backwards and forwards in time, plus a nap to catch up on some much needed sleep (although I sleep well on planes, especially if I have an aisle seat, which I did), we wandered in amongst a thin crowd and past friendly but very efficient security. The first shock I got and the first clear indication I received that these Aussie yokels have NO IDEA how to stage a music festival, was that water wasn’t $9 a bottle. It was, in fact, the same price one paid at the gas station up the road and, even more outrageously, after you bought the first bottle it was FREE! I am sorry but that is just un-American. Same for food prices and all of the merchants – apparently everything was priced much the same, or less, than it was in any Main St. grocery store. Huh. You ain’t at Boonaroo no more, boy, that’s for sure.
I am the only person in a 15 mile radius in a collared shirt
So, picking up a 104 page full color festival program (once again, FREE!), we read the artist profiles and selected an act called Joewah as our festival opener, in the “Juke Joint” tent (the festival has 5 stages, each under a giant circus type tent – Apra, Juke Joint, Jambalaya, Crossroads and Mojo in order of size).
Joewah (right) and his ensemble. Funky ukulele not pictured.
Joewah is a Maori musician and, after about one hot minute, it was obvious he is a natural showman and a kicking guitarist. His songs are nothing to write home about of themselves, but they are couched in such hot playing and sweet singing that you just get wrapped up in them. The guy can also seriously rock a ukulele. Oh, and he used a Gibson SG for one song and it sounded real good. This becomes significant later.
We left his 45 minute set feeling uplifted and, during its course, I notice a strange sensation – it may have been some inner ear disturbance set off by the red eye flight or something, but about 5 minutes into Joewah’s set, I noticed I felt I was swaying, slightly, side to side – but it seemed to clear up once the music stopped. I was concerned, but soon forgot about it as we made our way to Mojo to see Xavier Rudd.
Xavier Rudd takes the stage. Ladies, please assume pre-swoon positions
I have never heard of Xavier Rudd, but my colleague Summer is a big fan. I was surprised to learn that until recently he was actually Prime Minister of Australia, until the Aussies dumped him for some woman who, from the local’s description of her, is some kind of cross between Cesar Chavez and Yoko Ono. Well, Australian politics’ loss is rock and roll’s gain, because Rudd is a performer of limitless energy and charisma and no little skill. Backed by a funky South African rhythm section, he banged out his carbon neutral anthems with zeal and winning conviction. By way of trivia, his biography states he was voted the word’s sexiest vegan a few years back – and his vegan status appears to have imbued him with level 3 vegan didgeridoo playing powers.
yes, yes, yes. He is ridiculously good looking….
So, yeah – to be honest, I’m not going to walk way and buy a stack of Xavier Rudd CDs (on the other hand, I certainly wouldn’t change the station if he came on the radio) but I have to acknowledge the guy is a tremendous performer and he makes the most of the statement he wants to make with his music and his sincerity and commitment is evident every second he is on stage. So much so that he has reversed my previous position on white guys with dreadlocks. If they are okay by the former Prime Minister of Australia*, they are alright with me.
All that smoke you can see is not from a fog machine. Guess what it is from…
Also, I might add, during his set, the infectious rhythm of his music retriggered my palsy and it returned, in a secondary progressive fashion, as a David Byrne-like folding and unfolding of the body took over. Fortunately, it cleared up just in time for me to make my way down to the first of my “must-see” acts of the festival – the mighty Mr. Ernest Ranglin….
Part 3 – The Importance of being Ernest.
Traditional Owners Welcome Ceremony – much respect to the original people**
After Xavier Rudd (who did feature Australian indigenous dancers in his performance), the local traditional owners performed a welcoming ceremony for us. I don’t feel qualified to comment on the merits or nuances of the performance except to say three short things – 1) the performance was so moving and gracious and beautiful it moved me to the point of tears (Aaron Neville actually got me to cry on day 2, but more on that later) 2) some of these kids are amazing, amazing dancers in any objective assessment of the art and 3) I think there is great merit in making this practice, of the original owners giving their welcome and blessing to events like this, being adopted as widespread practice back home in the US. We’ll never do it, but we can always dream.
So, my conscience stirred, it was down to Jambalaya to see worship at the feet of not only a true legend, but an inspiration – Ernest Ranglin.
And what’s to be said about this man that hasn’t been written better elsewhere (read up on him – http://www.allmusic.com/artist/ernest-ranglin-p116996/biography) . Every bit as much the living legend as BB King, Ranglin gives hope to anyone who loves guitar and is dismayed by the seemingly endless production line of cookie cutter indie rock guitarists or shred ’em by numbers hacks that seem to dominate these days. Ranglin takes everything you were taught not to do by the guitar professors and makes a virtue out of it.
I’m pretty sure the “How to Play Guitar in 12 easy steps” book
doesn’t tell you to put your left hand there!
The photo above isn’t a great one, but it makes my point – in between laying down smooth and funky grooves of reggae, ska, bluebeat, rocksteady, jazz and surf music, Mr. Ranglin takes time to conspicuously and joyfully break every rule in the book – his thumb goes places polite guitarist’s thumbs do not, he clicks the frets with insouciant disregard, he plays notes about the 22nd fret, he creates Coltrane-like sheets of harmonic feedback and then re-emerges in the slinkiest, most sensuous melodies. By this point, my feet had utterly broken loose and I was swaying, shimmying, boogalooing and making strange hand shapes in time to one of the all-time greats.
And at this point, I learned something. Chicks dig an old guy who can get down. Both me and Ernest.
Go, Ernest, go!
Ranglin seemed genuinely affected by the response of the crowd – I am guessing he doesn’t get too many festival gigs in front of younger audiences and the raucous reception to each songs – the roar, the whistles, the slightly manic American hollering “oh hell yeah!” seemed to really rub off on him and it egged him on to more virtuoso showboating. A great gig from a towering man.
By now, the humid day had given way to a cooler, clearer evening. There was a short, hard shower during Xavier Rudd’s set, but the festival site was set up so that it didn’t instantly become a morass of mud.
Bluesfest by night – images from the street parade
So, armed with my newly liberated dancing feet, I made my way back to Mojo to see the Funky Meters. Descended from the legendary Meters, I feel honor bound to inform you that while the “Funky” may be a legal necessity, it is an adjectival redundancy –because within seconds, any confusion between this band and the Unfunky Meters is impossible. The funk is indisputable. Even without the great Zigaboo Modeliste, they are still a great party and a LOUD one – I was 4 rows back and the kick drum was threatening to perforate my right eardrum, so I had to retreat a further 4 in order to resume my dancing with what now a manic spacticity.
The Funky Meters – true magnitude of their going-offage not accurately conveyed in this picture
I impressed some of the locals by actually knowing some of the songs and being able to join in the singalong parts (it’s not hard – fiyyyyyyyyyyyyah on’ te bayyyyyyyyyyyyooo, eh – poccy a weh! etc. do tend to come easy to the memory). The locals, also, seemed much impressed by N’Yorlin’s finest, too – Scott, a gentleman I let stand in front of my on account of my being a full foot taller than him, described them as “going off like a Japanese Reactor”.
We don’t need no Zigaboo fuckin’ Modeliste!
I would have liked to have shot the breeze with Scott for a while yet, but I had to make my way down to Crossroads, for there were three guys there I had a date to meet and I wasn’t going to risk being late.
Part 4 – A shocking confession!
I love ZZ Top. I love them for everything they are. I love the 70’s ZZ Top, I love the 80’s ZZ Top and I love their last few records, too. I love that they remain unpretentious, humble and hard working. I love that Billy Gibbons still has the snarliest, stinkiest, lowestdown guitar on the planet. I love ’em.
But I have never seen them live in concert.
I know. How can I be the most awesome dude you all know when I have never seen ZZ Top live in concert?!? So, to say I was excited by the chance of seeing them (finally) on this trip is just about the understatement of the year. The big crowd of scenesters had gone along to see Ben Harper at Mojo – but I cared not a jot as I swam through them, aching of foot and hoarse of voice, to Crossroads to try and grab a spot up front.
8 rows back and slightly to the left of stage had to be good enough for me. Older crowd, lots of dope smoke about, me buzzing and jittering and thinking about a rare chance to cross an item off the bucket list…. and then they hit the stage!
Ladies and Gentlemen – awesomeness personified
Right from the get-go, as they rip into “Got Me Under Pressure”, it is immediately obvious that this is not a band that has stopped by to churn out the hits, take the cash and split (part of the reason I wasn’t too cut up about missing seeing Bob Dylan at this festival is that I have seen Bob in take the money and run mode too often) . The band is propulsive, fierce and full of an inventive joy – Frank Beard’s drumming liberates the song from memories of its 80’s click track and fills it instead with a supple swing and drive (Beard’s drumming all night is a revelation, but more on this later). And the crowd – forget this myth about Aussies being all laid back and mellow – these guys sure love their ZZ Top and they are not afraid to show it.
The opening part of the set is a selection of hits (“Got me Under Pressure”, “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide”, Cheap Sunglasses” plus few more recent tracks and a version of “Jesus Left Chicago” which set the tone for things to come – as Beard led the song through morphing verses, each showcasing a different facet of the blues, Hill and Gibbons each stepping up to show not only what a skillful band they are, which one would expect after 40 years from what Gibbons called “the same three guys and the same three chords”, but how deeply committed they each are to the form of the blues and how intimately they understand its shades and nuances.
Hat envy is an age old theme for the blues, dating back to Mississippi John Hurt’s “Stack O Lee” blues, in which Stack O lee shoots Billy over a brand new Stetson hat. Here another Billy expresses his admiration for a fellow bluesman’s stylish hat…..
Of course, being ZZ Top, these guys have a far more civilized way of obtaining the right hat….
and all is well again!
The middle section of the set was where it went from being a great band playing the hits with passion and commitment to them being a great band with something valid and ever-lasting to contribute. The guys stretched out into an extended pure blues set, going way back to find the music that inspired them as kids to play music. Here’s where you got to see what really made these guys tick and the sense of connection was palpable – once again, Beard led the band with subtlety and genuine feel, while Gibbons built his junkyard dog licks and riffs on Hill’s rock solid basslines. It must be said that Pearly Gates, Gibbon’s famous 1959 Les Paul didn’t make an appearance – Gibbons relying on his trademark Gretsches and what looked like a customized Les Paul Goldtop reissue, complete with P-90s
In another stylish move, the video screens, instead of playing the standard Jumbo vision replays of the band, showed a montage of the bands history as the blues set unfolded, further connecting the history of the band to the music they so obviously love.
But, moving as the blues were, the hits proved irresistible and the final part of the set was a spirited and good humored gallop through the big ones – including “Party on the Patio”, Gimme All Your Loving”, “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” (which turned into an audience sing along, much to the amusement of Gibbons and Hill) amongst them – before the band finally quit the stage to ecstatic applause.
My only complaint is that they didn’t spin around like in the video!
Of course, an encore was inevitable. As soon as that honking riff from “La Grange” snaked out, the entire crowd surged into a churning mass of boogie and my back gave out for the first time. No matter – for 11 minutes we got the mother of all guitar workouts from Gibbons as he once again drew on every aspect of the blues he knows and the backline of Hill and Beard made the song chug, rumble and swing like a motherfucker. Then, a delirious roll and tumble through “Tush” (more mass sing-a-long) and we were done.
What?! No “Tube Snake Boogie?”
And done we were. My companions and I made our way, tender of foot and spent of voice, to our camp – backlight by a silver full moon. And, as the sound of the crowds quickly faded in the post- midnight, as the revelers fortified themselves with sleep ahead of the next day’s trials and delights and the air filled with mysterious sounds of rainforest that surrounded the festival site, all swooping bats and screeching night birds, I took to mentally calculating some things. Mainly things like distance – things like the distance between Capitola and here, the distance between Elk Grove and here (I offered to pay Dan’s way out here but because of it ostensibly being a work thing, no dice. Even though she is a pain in the ass about live music and I would have heard all night Thursday and all of Friday hearing about how handsome Xavier Rudd is – that is until she laid eyes on Trombone Shorty and then it would be “Xavier Rudd looks like a pig”…. I missed her. I’m not looking forward to three weeks in Europe without her.), the distance between my toes, the fact that the distance between Capitola and Byron Bay is a bigger number but a smaller gap than the distance between Capitola and Elk Grove and the fact that the distance between the first step you set out to dance followed by the second step is further and harder than them all. And, suddenly, the dark foreign world outside wasn’t so scary. And nor was the dark foreign world inside.
Day 2 – starts in Paris, ends in LA
Part 5 – Croissants for breakfast?
After a bumpy night’s sleep we woke around 8:30 on Good Friday to forage for breakfast and plan our day. Breakfast was found and best soon forgotten and, despite the pleasant distraction of the topless teen in the tent across (until her old man harshed our vibe, totally), the morning was spent drifting in and out of power naps and the latest Carl Hiassen novel – until 11:00 am rolled around and it was time for us to once again walked the half mile or so to the festival grounds.
One worrying development on the first day was that my right leg had become badly swollen and inflamed (my left leg a little so, but nowhere near as much). It didn’t hurt, unless it touched it in which case it stung like a sunburn, but it was fierce enough to attract the sympathy of strangers – and, given recent medical developments, any unexplained symptoms are a cause for me to worry. Still, I had rocking out to do and I figured I would sleep when I was dead (which would be ironic if the red inflammation ended up killing me.)
with random Aussie dude near the merch stand. I’m not sure if you can see how red and swollen my right calf is in this pic. It was much worse the next day….
One thing I did learn the previous night was, that while it is all well and good rediscovering the carefree dance of youth, it would be nice also to rediscover the capacious bladder of youth. Two moonlit walks across the chilly dew to the porta-johns I could have done without. A word about the porta-johns – which I will call portaloos as is the local custom – over the three and a touch days we were there, between the three of us we only encountered one portaloo that was gross and disgusting and none of us ever had to queue more than one person deep to use them. And they all had paper in them. Also, every morning, they seemed to be impeccably cleaned and fresh smelling. To me, this is another clear sign that these Aussies have NO CLUE as to how to run a music festival. It just isn’t a festival without the total breakdown of sanitation at some point…. I do have an explanation as to how this occurred, but this is for day 3.
Members of the Poo Crew – heroes of the toilet situation or frontmen for an altogether more bizarre toilet cleaning phenomenon?
The day was warm, but breezy and we were in high spirits after the great day on Thursday. We stopped for Gelato (hoping we’d catch Xavier Rudd there so we could shout “It’s milk and eggs, bitch!” like the total hipsters we are) but had to settle for the best Gelato I have ever had in my life (I had Mango and Passionfruit). We checked out the stalls a little, bought T shirts from the merch tent, and headed down for the days’ first act – Yodlice at Mojo.
Yodelice are a French four piece, whim I could describe by saying they are “like” a lot of bands. I tagged them as the band REM once were, the band the Decemberists could have been and the band Radiohead wish they were. Only they aren’t – they are a feisty, fresh, innovative combo who use pop song form impeccably and then destroy it, with equal impeccable-ness.
Yodelice rocks out – note the Gibson SG – I told you in part one that the Gibson SG would be significant later!
Yodelice’s “trick” is to write winning power pop songs – both rockers and ballads (sung in English) and then gradually transform them, either by guitarist singer Maxim Nucci’s excellent solos or via layers of samples and loops composed on stage, into free form jam pieces and then resolves them again as tightly constructed powerpop closures. The band themselves are incredibly tight and the interplay between members is delicate – also, the band has a highly theatrical presentation which adds another layer to the experience.
30 seconds ago, this song was a Fountains Of Wayne style poprocker. Now it’s something altogether different!
I was so enthused by their performance, as they left the stage, I excitedly shouted out “Come back Soon!” not realizing I had invited them back to Australia, not to Northern California, where I really wanted then to be! I’m sure Australia would be very glad to have them back, though, because they rock in extremis.
Part 6 – How I became a legend in Texas; or – the ice cream man cometh.
Australians love Americans. They are probably the only people in the world who still do – so the merest hint of an American accent instantly makes you friends over here. Usually, the first thing they say is come out with is a variant on “Oh god, I love your accent” followed by “where in the states are you from”, followed by “are you with one of the bands?”. These three are invariably answered with “hey, I love yours, too man/darlin'”, “well, I live in Ca’fo’nya (eyes widen in recognition) but I’m from Bawlmer, Muhrlen (eyes narrow and brow furrows in confusion) and “naw, man/darlin’, I’m here working for a newspaper” – which gives me the right to ask them all sorts of questions and take their pictures.
Of course by the evening of Day 2, this was getting a little old so I tried a variant on two drunk girls – I answered “Austin, Texas” to question 2 and to question 3, I got ambitious. “No, darlin'” I drawled “but I am thinking of coming out next year so I’m checking it out in-cog-nito like”. “Oh” they asked, skeptically “who are you?”
“My name’s Ray. Ray Hubbard. Pleased to meet you”. I felt pretty sure these two lovely young ladies had never heard of renowned Texas curmudgeon Ray Wylie Hubbard. They had not. After a few more perfunctory questions ‘ “what kind of music do you play”, “do you have a record” “what do you think of the festival” I didn’t feel like playing my luck any longer and made my excuses. But it did feel good to be a legend in Texas for five minutes.
Next act on our bill was C.W. Stoneking – an act I was very interested in seeing.
the icecream man cometh – C.W. Stoneking and His Primitive Horn Orchestra
Whereas I was happy to briefly impersonate Ray Wylie Hubbard to a pair of uncritical and drunken teenagers, Stoneking plays the game on a far higher level – adopting the persona of a 30’s bluesman and performing a range of original songs strongly evoke the era. He is a superb storyteller with a ludicrously improbable CV which allows him to slip from one yarn to another between songs. Judging by the smiles and banter passed between him and the rest of his superbly sympathetic band, all five of them enjoy very much the experience of playing together.
don’t be fooled by the polite outfit – he sounds like a cross between Tom Waits and a young Ry Cooder
His songs range from “boasting” Calypsos (which he claims he discovered on a prospecting trip to Trinidad) to the wonderful New Orleans rhumba “Love me or Die” (which he told us he learned while working as a part-time hoodoo Doctor in the 6th ward) to a Jimmie Rodgers yodeling tune he explains he wrote while running a gold mine in Africa. Apart from being ridiculously entertaining, of course, Stoneking is also playing a vital part in keeping a music alive through authentic interpretation and reverent reinvention – much the same as ZZ Top. Another act I cannot recommend strongly enough that people check out.
We had a little free time after Stoneking so it was back to talking to the locals, as well as fantastic and cheap vegetarian feast for lunch from one of the vendors, before we wandered down to catch half an hour of Eric Bibb’s set.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a fan of Bibb’s. I think he’s too lightweight – but Aussie fans beg to differ because his tent was packed and the response from the audience was rapturous. And I have to admit, sitting on the grass outside the tent, in the gentle sunshine, he did get a really mellow and relaxing vibe going that was just right for the moment.
Eric Bibb – Aussies love him!
Part 7 – If you’re going to sit for it, I’m not going to stand for it.
Chairs in the Crossroads tent. Really sugared my cookies.
There’s a word for people who place camp chairs in the fourth row of a rock gig. Actually, there are two – “assholes” before the gig starts and “victims” after it starts. I can only assume these people have never been in a festival situation and have no understanding of the mechanics of a crowd in such circumstances. The key thing is you have placed a semi-fixed object that takes up three times the space of a human being in the path of, oooh, 2000 other human beings who are going to instinctively rush forward the minute they hear the first note of music and crush whatever is in their path (did we learn nothing from the Who at Cincinnati in 1979?). If you are sitting in your chair at that time, you are going to the ground and people are going on top of you. If you aren’t in your chair, your chair is going to be trip hazard that will put other people on the ground. Thankfully, by day three the festival security had got wind of this practice and security were moving folks with chairs back behind the sound board in each tent.
Our next act was just the kind of guy who could work up a room full of festival goers to make chairs in the way a real danger – the great Raul Malo.
I had one advantage over 99% of the locals here – I’ve seen Malo live before and I know that as well as having a killer band, a superb voice and a great set of songs, Malo can work a stage like few you have ever seen before. This guy works so hard he makes Brice Springsteen look like a sad old man who trades off the glories of 30 years ago (which, when you think of it, he is). And today, he was smokin’
Raul Malo in da house. Consider it rocked.
For the next hour, 2 and a half thousand people were held in the palm of a charismatic performer as they danced, swayed, swooned and crooned along to man who lived up to every expectation and, it must be said, has improved as a singer to the point where his timbre is reminiscent of Roy Orbsion’s.
And I did not stop moving for that hour, relentlessly shuffling, mamboing, two stepping and leaping up and down, and was a trembling mess of sweat when he stopped – and when he did stop I simply raised my right palm and waited for the first stranger to high five me in joy.
It took less than two seconds for that to happen.
By my estimate – if there were 2,300 people in that tent who didn’t know who Raul Malo was, he left with 2,300 new fans that day. I saw him, the next night, being mobbed at an artist signing. And he deserved it, because that guy worked for it.
Mr. Malo is not the kind of man to stay still on stage long enough for a decent photo to be taken
Next up was Los Lobos – and, given the excellence of their last record and the fact that I was still buzzing after Raul Malo, I had high hopes. What we got was the first real dip in quality of the festival – a restless and lackluster performance from a band that usually cooks. A poor mix didn’t help – the band had three guitarists on stage and there was just no distinction between each instrument. They improved though, later, when they went more into Latin music – even getting Raul Malo to reappear to play percussion, to a huge cheer.
There’s no band that isn’t better for the injection of a little Raul Malo
But it just wasn’t happening on the day for LL and after a hurried closer of “My Generation”, they were gone. General perception from the folks around was they went over okay, but I wasn’t so sure. They were adequate, but I have seen them 10 times better. However, kudos to them for having the cojones not to play their only hit single at a festival gig!
Part 8 – I’m getting happy. Toots, not so much.
At this point, the tent began to get very crowded – both the folks who were coming in to see the Blind Boys of Alabama and those coming to stake an early spot for BB King, who was to follow. My companions split to see Toots and the Maytals at the Jambalya tent – and I will tell their story first.
Toots Hibbert. Likes: Reggae, weed, freedom. Dislikes: feedback (non-talented progeny pictured waving)
I really wanted to see Toots but he was always scheduled against acts I felt it was more important to see – ZZ Top and Aaron Neville. Tough call, but one has to make the tough calls. Anyway, given the stories that came back to me, I think I made the right one.
Toots opened by sending his daughter out to perform a number, which she apparently did while sounding like a gunny sack full of rabid badgers. Toots himself then came on to perform a set comprising of no recognizable hits, merely long form reggae jams consisting Toots repeating a single word “reggae”, “ganja” or “freedom” for example, over and over again and occasionally asking the audience to spell the word out for him. He also took the time to ask the crowd why it was that, with an important artist such as he, the festival couldn’t arrange a competent sound engineer and then he stormed off stage.
Toots Hibbert. When he isn’t single-handedly inventing reggae, he’s a bit of a butthead.
Meanwhile, I was back in the Crossroads tent, getting my dose of old time religion, courtesy of the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Now seven decades into their careers – and with three original members still intact, the Blind Boys are now led by an irrepressible showboat with the unlikely name of Jimmy Carter. Unlike his namesake, Carter is a charismatic and unforgettable performer who sent the tent into a spasm of rapture when he (led by his minder) came down from the stage not only to hi-five the front row, but then took off on a run through the crowd, shaking hands and slapping palms in a semi-circle of 20 rows or so – all the time while this was happening, the band on stage as his co-vocalists kept up the surging gospel sounds at fever pitch. Later, they performed their version of the James Brown cape routine via a game of musical chairs for the blind.
The righteous Jimmy Carter. Not to be confused with the self-righteous Jimmy Carter.
The Blind Boys were accompanied by the legendary Aaron Neville. But they were far from a back-up group to the big star – Neville integrated his unique style into the Blind Boys somewhat more rough edged approach, weaving through the twin tenors and making the whole sound richer – not just showcasing himself.
Aaron Neville – telling it like it is.
A small personal aside. If there is one thing in the world pretty much guaranteed to reduce me to tears, every time, it is the song “A Change is Gonna Come”. Aaron Neville singing “A Change is Gonna Come” is not only in the “reduce me to tears category”; it is in the “embarrass myself in public” class. Just one of those moments, you know?
Things started to get a touch crazy after the Blind Boys set finished (complete with blind drummer handing the sticks to his aide to toss into the crowd. The politically incorrect amongst us suggested that it was the drummer doing his own stick tossing that caused the blindness to the other three members) as the BB King crowd started to flood in. From about 10 minutes out, a huge wave of fans started to crush into the tent from the front left and center – forcing the very front rows forward into the crash barrier and those of us midfront back – in my case, up against a support pylon. Add that to the crowd surge that was still going on as Jimmy Carter worked his way through the crowd, things started to get kinda hairy.
By about 10 minutes before BB King was due to go on, the crush was bad enough to make me want to leave. Two women and I decided to fight our way out, cutting a meandering path to the side of the tent – but it was just as crowded out there. I was still kind of determined to see BB King, so I worked my way to the very back of the grassed area and sat down against the rear fence – which was good for my back and aching feet. I got into an interesting conversation with some stoners , listened to their entertaining lies, told some of my own…
It was at that time that the words of my friend Ian came back to me – why wait in dangerously over packed tent to see a guy I have seen five times previously when I could go down to another gig and see someone I haven’t ever seen before, playing music I have never ever heard before?
Just as I determined to leave the gig, BB King hit the stage. Or, more correctly, didn’t. His orchestra played and a sound-a-like guitarist fronted them, but for the first two numbers – no BB. Just as the second number started, Summer and Ike returned from Toots. We made up our minds, on the spot, to fight our way out and see the Aggrolites.
Part 9 – Dirty and Dirtier and we’re done.
The Aggrolites – representing for the Fender Mustang and dirty reggae!!
Why is it that 3rd wave ska is always lumped with lame bands like No Doubt or Sublime? Case in point – the Aggrolites. Now here near the acclaim of the two no-entities I’ve just mentioned, but here is a band that works it’s ass off, sounds great, has five pieces that work as five pieces – no crossover – has kick ass songs and knows how to work every inch of a room.
So, of course, within seconds we’re dancing, but I’m dancing and thinking. What is a better contract between audience and band – a stiff, territorial reverence or the energy of a new discovery? Do we connect better through what we know and the relationship to what we expect (viz ZZ Top or BB King) or better through what we learn via either native curiosity or serendipity? It’s a bigger question than can be answered in the 800 words I have left, but what I do know is that, on the evidence of 4/22/2011, is that stiff, territorial reverence had me crushed up against a pole and native curiosity and serendipity has got me a Taylor Momsen look-a-like grinding up against me and I be lettin’ out whoops!
the kings of the new jungle
I guess that music is a highly communal thing and how you perceive it depends on the community in which you find yourself. Sometimes, you’re in the big tent and that’s alright – there’s no room for dancing but you know you’ll get what you paid for. Other nights, you’re in a little tent and all you can do is dance….
After the Aggrolites finished , the room successfully owned and my back, knees and ankles all shattered, we had a half hour before Fishbone (Summer’s favorite band) came on so we went to the next tent down to check out Ray Beadle (who got an in stage shout-out from ZZ Top the night before).
It wasn’t hard to see what the Top were shouting about!
Ray Beadle. This guy is having way too much fun to actually have the blues
Despite his singularly un-bluesman-like use of a PRS guitar, Beadle leads a crack band (the bass player is especially impressive) through country-tinged blues which he sings with a real feeling. Apparently, he was a long haul truck driver up to a year ago before he decided to throw the whole thing in and give the blues a try. I think he’ll go further with the blues than he did in any truck he used to drive.
At this point, as we headed back across to Fishbone, it is opportune to mention that I hadn’t eaten for 11 hours and the $11 vegetarian feast was therefore proving exceptional value!
Fishbone, who had been shouted out as heroes by The Aggrolites (and the love was returned by Fishbone), shook the tent with a churning mix of funk/soul/hiphop/ska/R’n’b (the good kind)/hard rock/free jazz and broad comedy.
What’s the name of this band? FISHBONE!
It may be something about Australians, or just the particular vibe at this festival, but I would have thought that Fishbone (and Wolfmother and the Melbourne Ska Orchestra the next night) would have seen some kind of informal mosh pit setting up at their gigs, but no…. frenetic and manic as the dancing may have been, it’s done in a sense of the individual contributing to the corpus of the audience rather than the individual either trying to impose themselves as dominant on a subsection of the audience or passively offering themselves to be dominated, as in a mosh pit.
The soprano sax sounded real good and was very enjoyable. That’s not a statement that you will ever hear that often
Pit or not, we staggered away from Fishbone, back down the familiar trail for the camp ground, thrilled again with the day. Back at the camp, an odd and potentially embarrassing thing happened. We got to chatting with our neighbors, which turned to us having a beer with our neighbors, a guitar was produced and all at the circle were expected to sing a song. I have a fatal weakness whenever a guitar is thrust into my hand – I can never think of any song to play and usually just start to play the first one that comes in to my head, because once the song is in there, I have no way of shaking it out. Usually, this has very bad consequences because while I might be able to play the song, there’s no guarantee I’m actually capable of singing it. Case in point – the first and only song that came to me to play was Roy Orbison’s “Crying”. After about 4 bars, it back obvious to me that even without having shouted myself hoarse all day long to Raul Malo, Aaron Neville, the Aggrolites et al, there are notes in that song I would never be able to hit (as a general rule, the secret to singing Roy Orbison is like driving on the 101 – you pick a lane (or octave) and stick to it) but, fortunately, a very nice girl called Rebecca was there to step up and help me out with some of those times when I made the awful miscalculation of actually trying to sing the notes in my head instead of the ones that I really should have stuck to. We got through that one so well, we even did an encore of “In Dreams”. She had to sing a lot more in that one!
That night, it was colder and I didn’t sleep as well. I got to thinking about how 50,000 people with no connection to one another apart from the desire to share a common experience came together on each of the last two days to create a mirror of very thing that works in us both as a society and as a species. Sure, there are chair hogs, sure there is the stoner guy in the Rasta hat that kept hitting me in the stomach at the Blind Boys gig but as a whole, we saw human beings ability to act ethically and nurturing within a group with little emphasis on hierarchy and a great tolerance of difference –and, maybe that’s just Australians, but that was very affirming and refreshing for me.
So, a stranger in a strange land, I fell to what little sleep there was to me. The last thing Summer said before we all finally drifted to silence, was that tomorrow should be a much more laid back day.
Oh, how very wrong she was.
Day 3 – H Day
Part 10 – Housekeeping, Hot Water, Honky Tonkers
I don’t believe in much but I am a firm believer that the key to a successful day is a good breakfast. When you’re working in the field, generally there are three essential breakfast food groups – motel food, airport food and jerky. Of course, we could have tried our luck at the festival general store again, but after the previous day’s disappointment, the less said of that the better – and besides, I had jerky….
I had, in fact, the Cadillac of jerky. Not strictly a jerky, Hans striker salami sticks contain just the right balance of salt, smoky, greasy fats and (dare I say it, vinegar) that, when taken with some dry crackers, comprises the new breakfast of champions.
The other thing ol’ Sebbie needs to get the day moving is a hot shower. I know I sang the praises of the portajohns in the previous installment – well, equal praise is due the showers. Damn it, the showers in the middle of that field cut in the Australian rainforest are hotter and stronger than the one I have at home.
The good news was that my leg hadn’t killed me, but the bad news was that my feet were beating it to it.
So fed and clean, whiled away the hours between breakfast and a showtime with some more of Hiaasen (“Star Island” = typical Hiaasen, he never really varies – if you love him you love him, but totally pas par toto, like James Bond novels) and shopping for garish tie-dyes at the hippie shack for the girls, we shambled off to the Crossroads tent to see an act that were described, in the program, as being capable of making you feel like you were sitting in your favorite recliner chair and being slammed face first into a brick wall – Wagons.
Wagons – they’re wheely, wheely good
Wagons are an odd fish – a gothic country act led by a flamboyant, if overly chatty frontman with a voice that seems strangely incongruent with the material – indeed, it took a couple of numbers to actually get a fell of what the band were trying to get at, musically. But the performance built, strongly after the half way point and ended with the epic Nick-Cave-manic “Jail is Hell” which was altogether one of the more impressive performances of the three days.
extra kudos for the washboard
Next up was one of the acts that I was really looking forward to and one that proved to be one of the best of the weekend – Dale Watson & his Lonestars. I know Watson by reputation as one of the last few true practitioners of the Bakersfield sound – an old school honky-tonker with a voice that can summon up ghosts, but I had not ever seen him live.
And I walked away glad I did. For an hour he cast a spell over the tent, holding a couple of hundred under a spell that was roots-proud and home-humble, as Watson mixed story telling, crack musicianship from his excellent band and songs that spoke of a life hard-lived and a country music all but buried under the weight of the Nashville hats and what have you.
Dale Watson. He’s the real deal.
Watson’s stories of drinkers, truckers, love gone wrong and love gone right, Texas Saturday nights and Texas Sunday mornings, as well as what he calls the “mandatory Merle Haggard song” (“Mama Tried” – is there a greater line in country music than “I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole*”?)all sung in a rich baritone redolent of the younger George Jones, got a rowdy and enthusiastic reception (talking to folks afterwards, Aussies apparently love country music with a passion).
Even Summer, who usually abhors country music with every pore of her body, had to acknowledge what Watson was doing up there and put him in her top 5 acts of the festival for her.
I want me a coat like this guy has.
Bouyed by Watson, lunch was called for – excellent hamburgers all round. People were still trying to do the “chairs in the tent” stunt, but security has decreed that no chair should go any further forward than the mixing desk and the dudes were kept bust as people wandered in and planted their chairs down in what we had dubbed the “boogie zone”. Soon, we got to setting stopwatches on them to see how long it took for the men in black to descend and move on the squatters – even going so far as to lay bets on who had the closest time. And, of course, every person rousted by the narcs felt it necessary to plead their case as to why they and they alone should be allowed to sit where all others stood.
Part 11 – hoy hoy, hip joints and hallelujahs
Little Feat were next up and I have to say I wasn’t expecting much – I’ve seen them live a couple of times and they just seemed like an aimless jam band. But, on this occasion, they bought the A game and, while still shifting rhythm and tempo into extended improvise section, maintained a deep funk groove all throughout.
Fred Tackett, it must be said, is still a formidable guitarist and the band itself, seems to be reasonably intact form its glory days notwithstanding the loss of Lowell George (and face it, Tackett is a phenomenal replacement) and Ritchie Hayward (both deceased) – although the new drummer is an excellent player who lead them seamlessly in and out of their stylistic shifts and musical shapes.
Little Feat – one of the surprise packages of the festival.
Of course, not everyone seemed as thrilled by Little Feat as I did and I was constantly cut off by streams of people walking out. I couldn’t figure it out – a few people suggested they may have been going to see Aussie country cutie Kasey Chambers ( I say that in a completely non-patronizing manner – this girl is ten times cuter than Taylor Swift and 100 times the singer) but she started a full half hour after Little Feat finished, so why did people start leaving half an hour into their set? – the band onstage was cooking and playing music that could be listened to and appreciated for its complexity as well as danced to.
After their 10 minute epicly funky version of “Dixie Chicken” this band should be renamed “Aching Feet”!
Whatever the case, the band played a rousing version of “Williin” and a 10 minute workout of “Dixie Chicken” that I found a serious groove in that I got into and came out as a candidate for hip replacement.
Those who stayed seemed to get it, though, and gave Little Feat a rich round of applause as they left. I for one, was deeply impressed by the performance and I certainly had some preconceptions shaken up!
The mass exodus and the popularity of Kasey Chambers meant that the tent would be spared a repeat of the Blind Boys of Alabama crush for Mavis Staples and her Band. I stress the “and her band” part, because the band was stunning delight – not at all what one would expect for a high energy gospel music gig, but a lowdown, gothic country outfit strongly redolent of the Cowboy Junkies or some Daniel Lanois assembled ensemble. The bass player, we all noted, was possibly the most morose looking individual ever seen on a stage. Accompanying the band were three back up singers, to seemingly balance out the shock of the left-field musical approach. The lady herself was in fine form, salty as all get out and full of feisty energy. I dragged Ike two rows forward to be alongside me , shouting at him that he was about to hear something the like of which he had never heard before.
The beauty of Mavis Staples is not that her voice has the greatest range– Aretha Franklin always beat her out for that and she doesn’t have the all out power of someone like Patti Labelle, but what she does have, in spades, is command of phrasing and almost preternatural control of timber – making her singing deeply sensual and personal to the listener. Form the opening moments, it was apparent that Mavis had come to play and the band complimented her approach and the songs she chose (from John Fogerty, Alex Bradford, Jeff Tweedy, her father the great Roebuck Staples, et al) complimented them.
“Tell Mavis”. Note her forlorn looking bass player in the background….
Stapes swaggered about the stage, delivering new and traditional gospel hits with every ounce of that eldritch skill she has in selling a song. After one song, where she cautions against trusting the press (well, why would you trust us. We’ll tell you were Ray Wylie Hubbard for fun….) and the television and politicians, she advised there are only two people you can trust to tell you the truth – Jesus…… and Mavis!! She sat one song out (she didn’t leave the stage, she just sat on a little chair at the rear) to showcase her band, who played the bluest, dirtiest, most utterly bereft version of “I’m So Lonesome I could Cry I have ever heard (By way of trivia I only heard two Hank Williams songs all weekend – the Blind Boys did a version of “I Saw the Light” with Aaron Neville) but stormed back to complete her set in fine style, prompting Summer to declare “Damn, once that girl has sung it, it cannot be unsung” – ending on an ecstatic version of “I’ll take you there”.
She took us there. Oh, how she took us there.
She’s an old lady, but she’s got spunk!
Mavis did have one extra treat – one the next to closing number, she gave a shout out to Trombone Shorty, who came out to blow a while and sent an already rhapsodic tent into the stratosphere.
Man, that bass player is hardcore emo. Even the awesomeness of Trombone Shorty can’t cheer him up
Summer took this photo – and it is just about my favorite of the three days
Part 12 – Hot Sauce
Mavis left the stage to ecstatic acclaim and an excited quiver came over the tent – Trombone Shortly was the next act and he generated such energy and such a good vibe in his five minutes in stage with Mavis Staples that the place felt like it was going to burst.
Trombone Shorty (and his red hot band, all of whom appeared to be no older than 18) did not disappoint. In fact, they did the opposite. I walked away from the set thinking that was not only the best gig I had seen at the festival, but it was very possibly the best gig I have ever seen anywhere any time.
This kid is so talented, he makes Prince look like a bum. Superb on trombone and trumpet, he is a wonderful singer, a first rate funk drummer, he can dance like nobody’s business (including a moonwalk which brought a roar from the house and, in the interest of full disclosure, I singularly failed to replicate that BB & The Blues Shack gig later) he has great charisma, fantastic musical sense and, yes, class. For his closing number he told us he wanted to play us a song from his home town (New Orleans, 6th Ward to be precise) and his band took us through a very traditional reading of “When the Saints go Marching In” which he morphed into “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” as a tribute to Solomon Burke, whom he was signed to replace on the Festival Bill after the King of Rock and Soul’s untimely death in late 2010, (that’s class) and then segueing into a slamming take on James Brown’s “I Got The Feelin'”. And then, to fill the final few minutes, the whole band swapped instruments for another slamming, sweating, shaking, souls searing jam.
The rest of the band deserve mention – mixing as they do fatback funk, first and second line New Orleans forms, hard rock, free jazz, soul and hip hop. Plus they all know the Blues Brothers dance routine to “Everybody Needs somebody to Love”. And, seriously, every one of them would be carded if they tried to buy a beer afterwards.
Here’s a bunch of young guys who, much like ZZ Top on the first night, manage to re-affirm what’s important about music, least wise to me. It’s not about the ritual of reliving your life through the hit records, it’s about reaffirming your life and values by being reconnected to what made you passionate about the music in the first place, via the passion of the musicians.
And with Trombone Shorty, it’s about how a young guy can take the thing I value in music and represent them in a startlingly new context and make it relevant again. And make it live again. And suddenly, when that happens, there’s that knowledge that there is an ongoing community for your knowledge and passion and it is not just your dollar that the door that counts. And that means a lot to me.
So, the upshot of this is if Trombone Shorty comes to your town, drop everything and go and see him. Buy his records. Buy his DVD. Buy the T Shirt, Buy the ghost written life story, Buy any cookbook he may release.
The mojo of Trombone Shorty extends far beyond the Crossroad tent where he was performing. It is my considered opinion, for example, that the perpetually clean toilets and ever hot showers were in fact so rendered by the pure charisma of Trombone Shorty. The Poo Crew is, in fact, nothing but a front. The departure of the rain on Friday corresponded with the arrival, at the Festival, of Trombone Shorty. The $11 vegetarian feast wasn’t what sustained me the previous day, either – I was merely feasting on the residual awesomeness of Trombone Shorty.
One other unusual fact about Trombone Shorty – he isn’t short.
So, we staggered out of Crossroads, back to Mojo, sore all over, thoroughly drenched in sweat and exhausted. I collapsed on the dewy grass outside the tent, where Imogen Heap was playing het set.
This is where I came in……
Part 13 – heavy, hairy & hotsteppers
Imogen Heap was lovely and we certainly appreciated her calming vibe as we recovered from the exertions of Trombone Shorty. Soon enough though, we were mid tent amongst a massive crowd for local favorites Wolfmother – a wonderfully hirsute aggregation of Gibson-toting Aussie yobs who appeared to have no deeper desire than the be a Deep Purple tribute band… oh, I kid….. volume pushed up to 15, these guys played an unsubtle variety of sledge hammer rock that exudes joy and a sense of
The Gibson SG continues its’ dominance
what every young guy wants to do when he is 15 – rock out and not worry about being “deep” or “cool” or whatever – it’s headbanger music in the grand Australian tradition of AC/DC. And tremendously entertaining. The energy in the tent was fantastic as the lighters were waved the beach balls batted about, the condom balloons floated above the crowd, satan was duly hailed and the young girls were hoisted, totteringly, on to young men’s shoulders. All the good stuff!
Wolfmother – they take being hairy very seriously
An interesting observation – Imogen heap’s audience appeared to be, say 80% female and Wolfmother’s was equally, 80% male. The act following Wolfmother was The Indigo Girls, who I would safely estimate at being a 90% female constituency (even though I am a great admirer of Amy Ray’s “Prom” album). Wouldn’t it have been easier, from a human movement management point of view, to put the Indigo Girls on directly after Imogen Heap and allow the higher concentration of common fans to stay in one place?
After Wolfmother, things got a little confusing. We were all so tired we were not so great at making decisions, but about 4 bars into the first Indigo Girls song, we decided we had to flee so we made our way down to see Victor Valdez and the Marin Brothers.
On our way, we walked passed the CD store, where Raul Malo was just finishing a CD signing session. We waved and gave him the thumbs up, and hollered that we thought he was awesome. Perhaps he would preferred we bought a CD, but still, time was tight…
I wouldn’t say I regretted that decision, but I did both rue and lament it. After three days of connecting to music with my heart and gut, I found the first act I actually didn’t like because I couldn’t get my head around what they were doing.
Let’s call this an “artsy” photo of Victor Valdez and the Marin Brothers
The line up was a guitarist who played in a South American style, very nicely, a harp player who did basically what harp players do , just waved their hands back and forth across the instrument – which was all fine, but the bass player appeared to be on another planet. And I just couldn’t put the three elements together intellectually to make sense of them as music. My colleagues were also getting itchy feet at this “difficult” music so we decided to head for something more dancey – Germany’s finest R&B combo BB & The Blues Shacks.
Let’s call this a photo of Victor Valdez and the Marin Brothers taken on a proper camera, not a cell phone
BB & The Blues Shacks are a hard swinging, hard driving group that plays everything from straight blues, to 40’s style jump R’B to straight ahead Chicago style soul with consummate skill and they sure know how to whip the cored into the frenzy – the Juke Joint tent was a hot mess of twisting, frooging, watusi-ing and hitch hiking – we couldn’t even get in and had to watch and dance form the sides ( I blame the gravelley ground for my epic moonwalk fail). It was here, again, that the “chicks love an older guy who can still get down” as I made the acquaintance of several lovely aussie young ladies who admired my boogalooing form (and who obviously failed to witness my moonwalk fail).
The Blues Shack themselves are led by two brothers – one, whom I assume is BB is the singer and the other (whom BB introduces as my “real brother”) played a mean cherry red Gibson 355. (You can tell it is a 355 from the varitone pickup selector and the block inlay neck)
Well, they obviously aren’t TWIN brothers…..
and they play their music with such a joy and authenticity that there is no novelty in them being from Germany – they may as well be from the southside of Chicago they speak the universal language of R&B so fluently.
Either he is doing a handstand on stage or the keyboard player (out of frame right) has chosen an inopportune moment to remind the singer of some money he owes him
Now running on vapors and less, we grabbed a quick caffeine jolt before heading down to the far end of the festival site, to the Jambalaya tent, to catch the last act we would see on our stay – the Melbourne Ska Orchestra – a 26 piece ensemble dedicated to the finest first and second wave ska as to offer. Summer who is a ska fanatic, had been pacing herself for one final, all out dance floor assault and we were expected to leave whatever we had left on that floor with her.
Luckily for us, there was a gap before the Ska Orchestra was to come on so we got to chill and listen to the sounds of Trinity Roots, a New Zealand Reggae/Dub three piece. As we sat in the lawn in the front of the tent, the unseen singer announced they had time for one more song. “This one usually takes about 40 minutes to play, but I think we can wrap it up in 13”. Normally, this is not a good thing, but in this case, I found myself really getting to the tune about 3 minutes in, just tuning into the deep, deep bass – maybe it was just exhaustion or something, but I really found it a good place to zone into and I was really disappointed when it ended – I think I could have ridden the whole 40 with it.
Melbourne Ska Orchestra. It got frantic up there.
The Ska orchestra, when they did hit the stage (one of the very few late acts over the weekend – although Grace Jones was apparently 75 minutes late for her set – the Ska Orchestra a mere 15 by comparison) did so with unabated and manic abandon. The sheer depth and punch of their sound was incredible – you can’t really compare what they are doing with the weedy sound of the records they learned form and within three songs I was a wreck – a lather of sweat much as I was post-Trombone Shorty. And I don’t even like Ska!
was there ever any band that was not improved by the addition of congas?
The band crashed through the gamut of Trojan and Studio One hits from the Wailers, the Skatalites, The Ethiopians, the Pioneers, Desmond Dekker et al as well as some more exotic Latin fare. Shout outs were given to Toots and much respect paid to Ernest Ranglin. It was during a Colombian dance medley that my back spasmed and I had to totter out to the side and sit out a few numbers, but I returned for a frantic version of “Night boat to Cairo” which was followed by possibly the most staggeringly awesome version of “My Boy Lollipop” ever produced on this planet.
I’ll just let that sit with you for a while – but I will say this – I will never again look at “My Boy Lollipop” as a novelty song again. To me it will always be one of the most ferocious dance songs ever made.
By 1 am, it was all over. The three of us stood in front of the tent, unable to speak or unable to think of anything to say even if we could. The cloudless night illuminated a fast evacuating fairground. The festival still had three days to go, it was merely half way through. But for us, the carnival was over.
Part 14 – Home
So I’m sitting here at home in Captiola, the whole adventure almost a week behind me. There were a few more minor twists in the tale – we left at daybreak the next morning and promptly got lost and couldn’t find the highway back and spent a pleasant journey back on the backroads of northern New South Wales, before we found the main road some hour or so later. We also contrived to get ourselves lost on the southside of Brisbane before finally finding the bridge across the river and the road to the airport – but that’s all just ephemera.
Driving out of the campsite, a small dark colored kangaroo hopped out onto the dirt track in front of us. None of us had camera, but we cheered none the less.
But what’s the real story? What happened to me, positive or otherwise, out there that will be the real value I take away from this experience?
I’ll take a shot at it here. Our lives are short. And they should be good. Give my circumstances, I don’t have many years of dancing left in these legs, many years of clapping left in these hands and many years of watching left in these eyes. That much I know and there is nothing I can do to control that. What I can control is how I wring every step, every clap and every experience out of that time. The steps may be wrong ones now and then and the claps may be out of time and I may need to pause to find the beat. But what I did learn out there was that the beat is still there and the dance is still up to be danced. And that’s good. That is a good thing to know.
*I can think of one about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, but not many others
** my leg cleared up just fine by the day I got home.