West Coast Blues and Roots, Fremantle Esplanade, 18/4/09
Festival season ends later and later every year here, which is just dandy because festivals are about as exciting as Perth gets. There was a festival here in 8 of the last 12 months: it’s pretty tough for even the biggest anti-Perthist to whinge whinge fuckin’ whinge about that! The West Coast Blues and Roots festival was almost the last for this season and anyone who dared to pay attention to its eastern counterpart would have seen the glaring omissions from WA’s line up. At a guess it would seem Sunset, after having their fingers in the Southbound, Stereosonic, Raggamuffin and Laneway pies may have over invested this year: a ballsy financial decision for obvious reasons. This was by no means a bad thing for WA though and Sunset should be highly regarded for their efforts to inject some diversity into their roster and the festival circuit. But for West Coast Blues and Roots fans expecting the 2 days of global music gods the festival has become known for over the last two years, the cost cut version was a hard bill to swallow (hard bill- you know you love it!).
The punters also seemed to be choking on some rancid set times: Ben Kweller at 12:10, Little Red at 11 and CW Stoneking at 12:40? Surely the popularity of these 3 acts warranted them a later time for pick off, especially when the notoriously nocturnal music junky is more often than not still in bed at 11am on a Saturday.
This ill feeling needs to be cast way way way aside though, because once inside the show it was the earthy, no frills all thrills atmosphere that Blues and Roots gigs always are. No bloody – “photos for Facebook’ happening in every corner, just genuine people loving genuine music. Ok there may have been one million too many Jason Mraz hats happening on the heads of these genuine people but at least it was a fresh change from one million too many southern cross tattoos happening on methed up xenophobes.
Augie March was a popular choice for first band to watch of the day given the fact their musicianship rarely disappoints. Glenn Richards has one of Aussie rock’s richest vocal tones and talents for song writing. With some orchestral additions to the five piece’s set up, their folk reflections were given an engaging density. This added a live depth to radio favourites like Pennywhistle Blower, Lupus and of course, One Crowded Hour but was most enjoyable in This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers. If it wasn’t so early in the day it would have started a riot of Irish jigs.
Seasick Steve returned to Blues and Roots this year with a bandwagon full of admirers who filled up the big top/oven in raucous celebration. The man has lived outside the system for so long that he exudes an unmatched honesty about the world through his standard southern blues licks. This honesty makes him instantly likeable and also the fact he plays through what appears to be a miked up 80 watter, who needs a stack? With drummer Dan Magnusson channeling Animal from The Muppets and Steve taking swigs of whiskey from his home made – “diddly bo’ guitar, it was a – “fuck you system’ blues set. He finished by telling the perspiring crowd he was going to shoot his step dad one day but decided to pack up and go play guitar on the streets instead. A big top full of West Aussies appeared thankful that he did.
Paul Kelly can please a crowd and he can piss a crowd right off, fortunately he chose the former and gave everyone what they wanted: Dumb Things and To Her Door performed as everyone knows them. Traffic was apparently stopped on the streets outside as one drunken fan stood on the road playing air guitar and singing in fine tune to Dumb Things. Gotta love Australians and Australian songwriting icons.
Kelly’s acoustic storytelling seemed a distant memory once The Easy Star All Stars dutched up the Big Top. These guys made the day with their dub twist on tracks from three of the most complex and influential albums ever produced. The offbeat and timing of reggae is hard enough to perform without trying thread it into covers from Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dark Side of The Moon and OK Computer but they did it with seamless precision and a reggae cheekiness.
Missy Higgins and Jason Mraz on the mainstage were predictably well received and well shunned. They play safe music and safe live shows and their fans will love every minute of it while their detractors will stand around and snidely ask passers by if someone just turned on Nova or Channel 7. Love them or hate them, they didn’t take anything away from the festival and were just one variation in what was always eclectic bill.
There was only one man this bill was about for a lot of people and that was Freo’s favourite son John Butler playing with his longest serving band members for the last time. It has been amazing to see the transformation of Butler from the reserved live presence he used to be, to the self confident professional that bounded on stage on Saturday night. His last Blues and Roots effort in 2007 saw him stick to tracks from Sunrise Over Sea and Grand National which didn’t sit well with the JB purists, but this was not the case this time round. Unleashing Pickapart early on and Betterman a few songs later, Butler let everyone know this was going to be a JBT retrospective. The two hour set allowed him to indulge in what made him popular in the first place: his intricate solo jams and dulcet 12 string harmonies which were made all the more atmospheric by the amazing video being captured on the stage screens. Seemingly having spent a lot of time with Keith Urban recently, he frequently referred to the crowd as – “y’all’ which was confusing for seasoned JBT gig followers who had never been called – “y’all’ before. Embellished versions of Treat Your Mama and Used To Get High rocked out before the crowd showed their gratitude to Michael Barker and Shannon Birchall for the last time. John Butler surrounded himself with some incredible talent with these two and they showed just how incredible they were with some mighty solo work. Barker must be one of the best drummers in the country and wherever he goes from here needs to be followed. Cheers lads.
It was hard to leave this classic John Butler set an hour into it, but with Perth missing out on The Specials tour in July, The Special Beat was the next best thing. What a great band to see play on such a small stage; it was the biggest crowd the Port stage drew all day and as was to be expected it was a pit of boys and girls skankin’ their heads off to A Message To You Rudy. Why the hell Perth doesn’t get more ska acts here is a complete mystery, whenever they come people rock up in droves to see them and have fuckin good time doing it.
This may have indeed been the most modest line up West Coast Blues and Roots has produced, but it still offered up the good times, good moods and good loving that it always does and a bonus Sunday recovery… 4 months till Parklife.