Live Review: West Coast Blues and Roots Festival – Fremantle Park (28.03.10)

This year saw the West Coast Blues and Roots move to a new home, this move was billed as a move to make the festival more comfortable and to make use of a bigger space to entice a greater audience. Unfortunately the opposite occurred; parts of the festival were incredibly cramped, with bottlenecks turning up around one end of the ground where it was decided that everything should be placed – bars, merch, food and stages… Crowds and queues alike collided making it difficult trying to get from one stage to another in a hurry. Which you had to do, considering the sheer talent on show and the crushing overlaps with artists. There were also some minor timekeeping issues on some of the stages, but then this is to be expected when there is so much talent on show.

However, despite this, these logistical issues can be overlooked for one simple reason! The music on show was sublime; this was a real music lover’s festival. Not only was the music sublime, it was also incredibly varied, from white British Blues to Hassidic Jewish Reggae. Here are some of the highlights of the day.

Dan Sultan and his band helped kick the day off for me, and they seemed to draw a pretty good crowd early in the day. He is definitely a rising star in the Australian musical world, and rightly so. His music has a definite 50’s and 60’s American rock ‘n’ roll and blues feel to it, making it a perfect fit for the festival. He mixed his set up well, mixing old with new, and fast-paced with some slower numbers, all whilst giving a charismatic and captivating performance. Special mention has to go to the horn-section as well, which really gave the music an added dimension. In my opinion more bands need to think about embracing the horn-section in their music.

I caught a small section of Lisa Mitchell’s set before making my way to the Big Top via Food Stalls for The Swell Season. Her brand of quirky melodic pop seemed to go down well, with many of the crowd up the front dancing and clearly getting into it. I feel that a whole set of that sort of music may have begun to grate on me, but what I heard was non-offensive.

The Swell Season were up next, Glen Hansard opened the set solo, before bringing on Marketa and their band the Swell Season which comprised mostly of his previous band The Frames. The whole set was strong, with some captivating guitar and vocal work from Hansard, and some understated and delicate backing vocals from Marketa. It was a pretty varied set, mixing content from the soundtrack for “Once” to their more recent albums recorded under the moniker “Swell Season”. Not only did they play their own music, they chucked in a couple of covers as well, the first being a solo cover of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”. The next cover was something special though, Glen Hansard and the band had been to the Pixies gig the night before, and had got speaking to them after the gig. So something was decided, and here we are at the closing song of the set, and Hansard starts singing a Pixies song, and then out pops Black Francis for “Where is my Mind?” – great festival moment right there!

The next on the list of people to see was a genuine Blues legend, John Mayall, and he didn’t disappoint; his voice may not as strong as it once was, but that didn’t stop the crowd swelling around to catch a glimpse of his talents. The highlights were some great harp solos from Mayall and some great guitarwork by his touring guitar player. It was nice to see that the crowd wasn’t one-sided demographically and that there were a number of younger audience members getting into it. Unfortunately I couldn’t stick it out for the whole set, as the powers that be deigned it necessary for Taj Mahal to overlap with him.

Taj Mahal put on a great set, with plenty of strong guitar work and great banter with crowd. His brand of the blues isn’t melancholy at all, like he said; “the Blues doesn’t have to be sad to be good!” and his set demonstrated this perfectly. Taj Mahal is an adept showman; he is capable of holding an audience’s attention and drawing them in. He succeeded in making them simultaneously chuckle and dance through some great rhythm and heavy use of innuendo. He also proved he could still move around the stage despite his 60+ years. His set was also pretty varied, mixing up tracks and influences from all over the world and his other albums.

Next on stage was Matisyahu, backed by Brooklyn-based Dub Trio, they managed to draw quite a diverse crowd, from old to young, all there for one thing – Hasidic Jewish Reggae. The set was an amalgam of beat boxing, reggae and some good ole head banging rock, with some crowd-surfing chucked in for good measure. All in all it was a very energetic set, with Matisyahu whirling around the stage, moving from soulful vocals to complex rap at the drop of a hat. This was his first time on the west coast of Australia, and I sure as hell hope we get him back for some headlining shows in the future.

The new look John Butler Trio were next on the main stage, but there was no way I was going to be leaving the big top. On next was the legendary guitarist Jeff Beck, and boy, he did not disappoint. Dressed in almost typical Beck gear, he came out in sleeveless top, metallic bracelets, and sunglasses, and proceeded to launch straight into some great prog rock. Amongst the set were interspersed some sublime instrumentals; first to feature was a great little cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” which really highlighted his skills with the guitar. Though for me the real highlight was his cover of the Beatles’ classic “A Day in the Life”, I have been waiting to see this played live for a long time now, and when the time came, it didn’t disappoint. There was talk in the front row that we may never see Beck in Australia again, let’s hope this isn’t true.

The final act of the night was the kings of gypsy punk Gogol Bordello, and the one thing I will say about them from the start is that they are energetic, and even that is an understatement. I managed to get no photographs of these guys, because none of them stood still long enough. Their set was highly entertaining with special mention going to their great fiddle player Sergey Ryabtsev, who was incredibly skilled on the fiddle but also very entertaining. Also a special mention should go to the mic-stand technician, for the sheer amount of times he had to run over and replace the stand, or stand it back up again, during the same song after lead singer Eugene Hutz tried his best to break it.

Despite some small logistical teething issues with the new venue, this was a great day of music, and here’s hoping for the same next year. Hopefully with a bigger and better line-up and stretching it back to its usual two day set-up.

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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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