Festival Review: West Coast Blues and Roots 2011 – Fremantle Park (17.04.2011)

I believe it was Bob Marley who said “one good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain”. Well, the punters at this year’s Blues and Roots were in for a pain free day, with the music on offer being of the highest quality from artists of the highest calibre. Organisers have been calling it the biggest line-up yet; technically I think there are less people on the bill, but it’s clear that this year the organisers have gone for quality over quantity.

Blues and Roots lovers once again found themselves making their way to the festival’s new home in Fremantle Park. Whilst there were a few teething issues last year, they were more or less nonexistent this year, with the bottlenecks eradicated for the most part. Cutting the stages down from four to two certainly helped in that respect. Whilst the reduction in stages almost guaranteed a decrease in the bands playing, it also meant that the bands on the bill were able to give more flushed out sets. No more frantic fitting in of that classic crowd pleaser before being rushed off stage.

Up first was the lone local, or should I say, the only official local on the bill, James Teague and his band (insert band name rhyming with Teague). They managed to garner a reasonably healthy crowd for the opening Eleven AM slot. Musically, they are a bit of an eclectic bunch, though land more frequently in the folk and country bracket than others. With mandolin, banjo, fiddle and a plethora of guitars (electric and acoustic) on stage, there was plenty of variety to keep the sound fresh and engaging. Teague’s vocals are quite distinctive and blend seamlessly with the instrumentation. Confident performers on stage and quick to banter, the band provided a positive start to the day.

Rockwiz was next, I am sure many of you are au fait with the show and its workings. But for the uninitiated; it’s a music quiz show, which features live performances, musical guests and from what I saw a healthy dose of sarcasm. Already filmed in front of a live audience in St Kilda, it wasn’t a huge leap to make the transition to the bigger festival stage. Contestants were drawn from the crowd by Brian Nankervis before the start, and then whittled down on stage to a final group of four. Then it was time for the “show” to properly begin, with hostess Julia Zemiro making her way on stage to welcome on the four audience contestants and the two “secret” team captains.

The first being Glenn Richards from Augie March and the second being Marcia Hines, perhaps most famous these days for her role as judge on Australian Idol. As is the custom on Rockwiz, both performed a song before joining their respective teams. It was about twenty minutes into the main show that we were treated to special guest number three, the ever engaging and charismatic Tim Rogers of You Am I (the second “local” on the festival bill). Rogers performed a Keith Richards track before taking over from Glenn Richards as team captain, eventually bringing home the win. The show was closed out by Marcia Hines and Glenn Richards performing a duet of The Walker Brothers‘ classic “Make It Easy On Yourself”. Not something you would see every day.

It was then across to the Park Stage for Elvis Costello and the Imposters. With a full hour and fifteen minutes at his disposal, Costello managed to dig through his considerable back catalogue and play a variety of tracks, from the very well known to some rarities. Having only seen him in solo guise previously, it was great to finally see him backed by his band. Despite a few early mixing issues, Costello offered up one of my personal highlights of the festival, replete with funk, folk, and rock, and a mean whistling solo. Certain songs garnered more of a reaction from the crowd than others, with well known tracks like “Allison”, “Watching the Detectives”, and “Pump It Up” getting the biggest cheers. Set highlights for me would have to be the aforementioned “Allison” (with added “Suspicious Minds”), a particularly rocking take of “Radio Radio”, and new track “A Slow Drag With Josephine” (featuring the aforementioned whistle solo). The latter just featuring Costello on acoustic highlights his versatility as a performer, moving from band leader to troubadour with a practiced ease. Though to be fair, it can’t be that hard to lead a band of the Imposter’s quality. They were top notch throughout, with some sublime keys and organ from Steve Neive, some quality and solid drumming from Pete Thomas and some great backing vocals from bassist Davey Faragher. It was on this solid musical platform that Costello was able to add his trademark vocals and some great guitar work. With a varied but quality set, Costello proved why he is considered to be one of the world’s top musicians.

The next two sets seemed like the crowd was split in about half. With Michael Franti whipping one half into frenzied action, and the other half finding themselves captivated by the sublime musical offerings of Gurrumul Yunupingu. Certainly by the time I reached the Big Top, the crowd were bursting out the tent. Gurrumul is an incredibly gifted performer, with sublime vocals and an incredible ability to bring a festival tent to complete silence. Gurrumul was backed by long-time band mate and spokesman Michael Hohnen on double bass, as well as two other guitarists. Moving between guitar and piano, Gurrumul held the audience continually in his grasp; moving from the beautiful and moving music of his debut solo release to some more up-tempo numbers, with an almost distinct country-ish feel. My favourites from the set were a beautiful rendition of “Bapa”, and the finale song “Gurrumul History” which saw him shift between his native tongue and English.

It was about this point that the Big Top started to fall behind schedule. Robert Randolph & The Family Band took to the Big Top stage in front of a fair sized crowd in full voice. Live, they are a joy to behold. They are certainly a band which finds real enjoyment from being on stage and performing. Launching straight into newer song “Travelling Shoes”, the energy levels never dropped, with the band and crowd feeding off each other’s energy. The sheer quality of musicianship on show from the band was outstanding; the sounds that Randolph can get out of his pedal steel was amazing. It was one of those sets where you could just let the music wash over you; Randolph was able to convey so much emotion and soul just through his playing. The set at times dissolved into a wonderful jam session, with long instrumental periods; which only went further to highlight the quality of the musicians in the band. The set featured some of the best bass playing I think I have ever seen, with bassist Danyel Morgan alternating between 5 and 6 string bass guitars. Vocally, the whole band were spot on, with Morgan offering up some great backing vocals throughout.

Next, I split my time between The Cat Empire and Rodrigo Y Gabriella (who started late due to delay). The Cat Empire managed to amass an impressive crowd, offering an up-beat and fun soundtrack to the sunset. Michael Franti joined the band on stage for a bit of a jam session, much to the delight of large portions of the crowd.

I only managed to catch a few tracks of Rodrigo Y Gabriella’s set before it was time to make my way to Bob Dylan. But what I saw was certainly impressive. The sounds they manage to get out of their guitars is always astounding, and the fact that they never seem to screw up a note, despite the fevered pace at which they play, is always astonishing. They really are a musical force of nature, with the speed of Gabriella’s picking pushing the camera to its technical limits. Whilst there are no vocals, the emotion arguably comes across through their playing. And besides, when the guitar work is that good, who wants vocals on top? I have to say it was quite the challenge to pull myself away from their set. From what I saw, it looked like it had the makings of a classic.

I must admit I headed across to watch Bob Dylan with no small amount of trepidation. I hadn’t heard great things about his live performances from friends and others. But, like others, the draw of a music legend proved to be too much. It’s clear almost from the outset that Dylan does not necessarily conform to people’s expectations of him. I have to admit I do like that he blatantly refuses to play his songs the way he recorded them, especially what can be seen as his recognised “classics”. As you expect, and as befitting his position as a living legend of the music world, he drew a sizeable crowd. This of course meant that there were quite a few people in the crowd who, like me, were relegated to the fringes (though only at first) and were treated to an irritatingly distant projection of the stage. There were a few grumbles from a few people that surrounded me. Eventually, as the crowd’s size began to wane slightly, I was able to move to a marginally better viewing position.

On a whole it was a pretty varied set, with a few crowd pleasers dotted in amongst some of his lesser known works.”A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” was slipped into the set, just before a wonderfully up-tempo and rocky “Highway 61 Revisted”, with both featuring some great gravelled vocals from Dylan. Mostly, Dylan seemed happy just to add his vocals and some harmonic to the mix, letting his band go about business. As a band they were incredibly tight, each member played their part exceptionally well, but for me at times they felt a little bit too controlled, and a times it felt like the energy was slightly lacking.

An assured festival moment if ever there was one came with “Like A Rolling Stone”, which featured some impassioned and intense crowd sing-along moments. The set as a whole was a good one, with some wonderful gravelled vocals from Dylan as well as some brilliant little harmonica interludes. I just wish his band was a little less reserved. It was, however, a distinct pleasure to be able to witness a musician who has had such an impact on popular culture and music go about his business.

I closed my 2011 Blues and Roots experience with a small sampling of Toots and the Maytals, who had the crowd worked up under the Big Top. With the day having been made up of largely rock and roll driven sets, it was nice to hear a little bit of reggae infused music before the day was over. I was also there just in time to hear their superb cover of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road”, a wonderful song, which brought my day to a joyful close.

Those that stayed on for the final two acts, were treated to a set from former Bond villain and imaginatively dressed Grace Jones. From all accounts her set was energetic and hit laden, with Jones choosing not to stick to her own back catalogue. Whilst across in the Big Top the Blind Boys of Alabama with guest Aaron Neville brought the festival to moving close.

All in all, it was a fantastic day, with some amazing musical performances and a great vibe. Blues and Roots is over for another year, I for one will certainly be on the lookout for next year’s line up. Though I feel the organisers may find it difficult to top it (though to be fair, I think I have said that every year I have been going).

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Simon Clark

Books Editor. An admirer of songs and reader of books. Simon has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature. All errant apostrophes are his own.

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