Dave Hole at the Bridge Hotel

I spent Halloween evening at the Bridge Hotel in Rozelle, Sydney, listening to the blues. This should come as a surprise to no one.

The Bridge is a no-frills place. It’s not sawdust-on-the-floors, but it’s not too far beyond that either. It’s a simple pub on one side and a small room with tables and a stage for music events on the other. The crowd the other night was, in the words of one of the performer, “small but select”. I and the two friends I went with would agree.

The first act was Canadian Charlie A’Court. I didn’t know until I looked him up, just before going into the room, that he’s actually a Nova Scotian like me. From Truro, in fact, so not far at all from where I grew up. Charlie’s got a powerful voice and plays a good acoustic guitar. He sounded great, and performed a good mix of blues, soft folk, and soul tunes.

DH

The main event was Dave Hole, an Australian slide guitarist I’ve been keen to see since I heard him on an Alligator blues collection I picked up in the early ’90s. He hasn’t toured much in recent years, and this mini-tour around Oz is an acoustic one. He came on stage with a Dobro steel guitar; he was later joined by a drummer on snare and high hat, and a bass player, so not the stack of Marshalls he admitted he usually uses.

But no matter what sort of guitar he has in his hands, Dave Hole can play a slide guitar. He coaxes all those emotive slide sounds from his instrument, the wails and shouts, the glissandos of mourning.

And Dave plays from his guts. There’s no artifice about his performance. His singing isn’t polished. He makes an effort, and grimaces and gestures and shouts, but not in a put-on way. He just has the air of someone who’s self-taught, who loves the old roadhouse blues tunes, and who loves playing them.

By the end of the night it was perhaps getting to be a bit too much of the same sliding trills, over and over, for me. But then he ended with his version of “Purple Haze” and left me with a smile. Thanks Dave.

Sugar Bowl Hokum at the Union Hotel

The Union Hotel in Newtown is an excellent pub. They have lots of interesting beers, mostly local but with a few from overseas, and even a couple of hand-pumped ales. They have pool tables and a beer garden.  Something for everyone, really.

And this Sunday afternoon they had something that surpassed all of these:Sugar Bowl Hokum, a band that plays blues, jazz, and hokum tunes from the early 20th century. They were sweet and naughty and a lot of fun. I’d definitely catch them again.

Here’s a short clip of them playing Memphis Minnie’s “In My Girlish Days“.

Lloyd Spiegel at the Camelot Lounge

I was looking at the upcoming gigs for Camelot Lounge and saw a listing for a blues guitar player named Lloyd Spiegel. That piqued my interest so I dug into it a little more. I found out that Lloyd has been named one of the 50 best Australian guitarists of all time.

Lloyd Spiegel

Then I found this video:

Then I bought tickets to see Spiegel.

The gig was Friday night. We were ‘way up in the front so we could get a good view. Spiegel in no way looks like a rock star, though, or even a blues star for that matter. He’s a completely ordinary-looking bloke, the kind of guy you’d know from work or that installs your sink. He was dressed completely ordinarily.

But once he sat on that stool and lifted that acoustic guitar Lloyd let loose with a powerful – almost overpowering – blast of blues music. He can play. The only way to know is to see it live, like in that video above, or this one:

He played standards and his own songs, accompanied by drummer Tim Watkins. It felt free of artifice, and almost overwhelming in guitar proficiency.

Lloyd is a blues shouter, with a full-throated, powerful voice. There were few mellow tunes, though I really liked this one.

For fans of the blues, or acoustic guitar playing, Lloyd is an amazing Australian act.

Christa Hughes & Ben Fink at Camelot Lounge, plus LazyBones Lounge

Camelot Lounge is one of the funkiest recent additions to Marrickville. It opened a year or two back, a music club in an old building in the very industrial space close to Sydenham train station, and the legitimate offspring of warehouse party outfit Qirkz. They focus on blues, jazz, folk, and world music in a small eclectic (and camel-centric) space. And it’s very close to where I live.

On Thursday Qirkz were giving away a couple of last-minute free tickets to that night’s show and I managed to snag one. So I grooved on down the road to see Christa Hughes and Ben Fink.

chbf

Christa comes from a musical family and performs a very cabaret-infused style of early blues and jazz. Her full-on burlesque theatricality added pizzazz to alt-rock group Machine Gun Fellatio, but she’s been performing on her own for about 8 years. Ben is a guitarist, composer, and singer who dabbles in several roots styles.

They played a set of songs that drew from early blues, back when there was little difference between that musical form and others like jazz and folk and gospel. Hughes’s powerful theatrical voice and flamboyant stage manner drew your attention, while Fink’s raw, understated playing gave it a rootsy grounding. They played standards like “Midnight Special” and Skip James’ “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” (which, interestingly, morphed into Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song”, which of course references Howlin’ Wolf’s very different “Killing Floor” and Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues”). They also did a great version of Bessie Smith’s double-entendre-filled  “My Kitchen Man“.

That burlesque naughtiness spilled over into some of Christa and Ben’s originals too. “Pig Flu Blues” was a snorting, coughing ode to feeling miserable (and a run-in with the cops). And in a move sure to entertain all the kids whose parents had brought them along for the evening, Hughes bemoaned the emphasis on anal sex in modern adult entertainment with a tune called “Bring Back the Pussy in Porn”.

While I really like early blues the shrill pantomime of Christa’s performance wears thin on me after a while. I ducked out at the intermission, suitably entertained and not wanting to slip over into the point of diminishing returns.

On the way home I stopped into an even newer music venue in Marrickville, just two minutes from my front door, located in what I believe used to be a Vietnamese karaoke bar: LazyBones Lounge. This very cool, large, ultra-loungey upstairs room can only have been open a couple of weeks. Judging by the quality jam band, interesting decor, impressively stocked bar, no cover charge, and already-substantial crowd this place has got some legs. I’m looking forward to chilling out here in the near future.

Vivid Sydney: Sounds of the South at the Sydney Opera House

Alan Lomax was a folklorist and collector of American field recordings. Any student of US roots music will know his name: the music and stories he collected in the ’40s and ’50s for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress was a driving force for the popularity of blues and folk music in the ’60s.

A collective of musicians from America (and one from Canada) played two concerts on the weekend as part of the Vivid festival that paid homage to the music that Lomax uncovered for us. That show was called Sounds of the South, and I caught the Sunday afternoon show.

The collective included Megafaun, Matthew E. White, jazz group Fight the Big Bull, Bon Iver frontman and founder Justin Vernon, and former Be Good Tanyas member Frazey Ford.

sots

 

The assembled 13 musicians played a set of songs inspired by the Alan Lomax recordings. Almost none were straight covers; they were, instead, rocked-up, jazzed-up, or psyched-up. Almost all worked really well, resulting in blues-, gospel-, or folk-based tunes that showed how these themes have influenced modern music. They were exciting. There were multi-part harmonies. There were tales of sadness, and sung prayers of joy.

The middle section didn’t work for me. It got a little too free-form and discordant. I was constantly reminded of Spinal Tap’s jazz odyssey.

But most of it was really good. Vernon and Ford’s singing were highlights, as were all three brass players in Fight the Big Bull. They (mostly) found a great balance of homage and reinterpretation. And they encored with The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”.

It was the sort of rare event that keeps me coming back to Vivid.

Here’s an excellent video of one of the songs – performed a few years ago – that was one of the highlights the other night; Vernon singing Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “When You Get Home Please Write Me A Few of Your Lines”. It starts as a near-acoustic cover, then morphs into a jazz-rock groove.

Bonnie Raitt at the Enmore Theatre

Last night I saw another great artist doing sideshows after Byron Bay: Bonnie Raitt. It was a significant change from The Stooges.

Bonnie

The opening act was a substantial set from R&B legend Mavis Staples. And yes, anyone who started performing as a member of The Staples Singers family in 1950 is a legend. She and her tight band served up a whole bunch of gospel soul. It was polished but heartfelt, a classy old-school set of songs that appealed to pop as much as civil rights protests as much as God. Mavis can still holler. They did a stirring version of The Band’s “The Weight”, and pledged some love to the departed Levon Helm. And Bonnie Raitt even came out early to play “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” with Mavis and the band.

Bonnie was soon out for her own set, though. Most people know of Raitt through her easy-listening blues-pop hits since the early ’90s, though she had been recording – and critically acclaimed, if never commercially successful – for two decades before that. She’s a comfortable songwriter and performer, a competent bottleneck slide guitarist, and has a knack for introducing a variety of musical styles into her songs in a really approachable way.

All of these aspects came out on stage. She never missed a beat, even with some ostensible on-stage confusion as she changed the setlist. Everything just seemed cool and smooth, every guitar lick sounded great. Bonnie herself sounded and looked amazing (for any age, we agreed, not just the 63 years she actually is).

The close proximity to the previous night’s punk antics made some of it a little too smooth for me, maybe. But you can’t hate Raitt, nor chastise her overmuch for being classy and caring about tone. She is the anti-Iggy.

Of course she played “Have a Heart”, “Thing Called Love”, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, and “Something To Talk About”. I was surprised she didn’t do “Love Letter” or “Love Sneakin’ Up On You”, but those are pretty lightweight hits so nothing was lost.

Highlights for me were songs that can serve as near bookends: her 1974 version of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” was beautiful, and her 2012 rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Million Miles” was spookily intense. You can watch live versions of both of these, from a show last year, below.

Note that “Million Miles” is one of two songs on her last release, Slipstream,that are covers from Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind album (the other being “Standing in the Doorway”). Good taste, Bonnie.

The blues – in one of its many and varied forms – lives on in Bonnie Raitt.

Australian Blues Music Festival

I’ve just booked a hotel in Goulburn, NSW, for the second weekend in February. I’ve done this not because of a deep desire to revisit The Big Merino(yes, I’ve already been once), but because Goulburn hosts the Australian Blues Music Festival then.

I don’t know any of the artists that are playing but most shows are free. I expect pleasant surprises.

Claude Hay and Matt Andersen live at the Brass Monkey

We got an early Christmas present from my mom, who tipped us off to the fact that Canadian blues guitar wizard Matt Andersen was touring Australia. So last Thursday we took the train down to Cronulla’s Brass Monkey to see him.

It’s a co-headlining tour of two stringed-instrument masters. First up wasClaude Hay. First impressions were of a stereotypical Blue Mountains muso: tattooed, semi-hippy, happy, and multi-instrumentalist.

Second impressions: a fantastic Louisiana-blues-based one-man-band. Hay played a twin guitar (lead and bass) he made himself, and a tricked-out sitar. He utilised a loop machine to lay down his own backing tracks, then jammed over top. His kick-drum and kazoo and bongo rounded things out. I thought he was fantastic.

With only a few moment’s changeover Andersen got on stage. First impressions: my god, that is a huge man.

Second impressions: wow, that guy is an amazing guitarist and singer. He sits and plays his acoustic six-string alone, with no other accompaniment. There are no effects pedals or backing tracks, just his fretwork frenzy and his massive blues howl. The songs are, to be fair, pretty ordinary, both lyrically and melodically. But the power of the voice from the man, who must be 180 kg, and the speed and passion from the fingers on the strings, are pretty damn impressive.

We’re going to go see Hay and Andersen again next weekend when they play at the Beaches Hotel in Thirroul down the coast. Thanks, mom!

First Aid Kit: It Hurts Me Too

“It Hurts Me Too” is one of the most-covered blues songs, based on a song originally recorded by Tampa Red. I have versions by Elmore James, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. It’s a great tune.

First Aid Kit are a Swedish folk duo, two young sisters that were one of my favourite bands of last year. They’ve now recorded a country blues version of “It Hurts Me Too” as a single on a label started by none other than Jack Black.

That’s some pedigree.

I really like their version. Listen to it right here.