Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Wilson Pickers

Published in Inpress (Melb), 30th March, 2011

The Wilson Pickers

Sunday afternoon at the Beach Hotel in Byron, late winter and so quite cool, but still with that warm edge so prevalent in this part of the world, the sea breeze ambling through the beer garden whipping cigarette smoke every which way and cooling the throng that swigs and sways around tables and props up the big central bar.  In the barn, the roofed part off to the side – quite large, tables scattered everywhere – a band plays, and they play hard and people sitting outside drift towards them, drawn like bugs to light by the raucous sound, the passion and precision that rains down and drenches people in a bluegrass-tinged, rock n’ roll film.  It’s a special time when the Wilson Pickers come to town, and this one is no exception.

A good seven months after this show, I get a chance to chat to one of the men behind this group, Sime Nugent, and we briefly relive that set at the Beachie, one of many for the band on what was a national tour in aid of their second record, Shake It Down.  This has turned out to be a record which has cemented the band as a serious venture, more than just the fun side-project it began as – not that the viability of such a group wasn’t immediately apparent, the band’s debut, Land Of The Powerful Owl, put together in less than three days, being nominated for an ARIA the year of its release.

These days then, despite the myriad other projects the Pickers’ five members are involved with, the Wilson Pickers is a band in its own right, one garnering fans with every performance, one tightening and becoming more and more real with every passing day.  They’ve undergone some changes since I saw them last, that August day, with co-founder Ben Salter leaving the group recently (on good terms) and being replaced (at least in a temporary guise) by bass player extraordinaire, Grant Cummerford.  This, according to Nugent, has left them not wanting, but hungrier and eager to move on, to keep the momentum going.

“Yeah, Ben did leave a few months ago, which was a real amicable shame really,” Nugent muses on these changes firstly.  “I think eventually he got bitten by being too over-committed, he’s got so much going on and is trying to make his solo record…so that was coming for some time.  And I guess as the band ramped up, because of the response to it…it was best for us to plough on and for him to do what he wanted to concentrate on.  So in terms of attrition, that’s really been the only loss and it’s a real sad one because we totally love the man and wish he could be available for all the shows, but he’s not, and that’s fine.

“So we’ve kept the ethos of the band going and when it’s time for us to make another record, we’ll take that one in our stride with whoever is travelling with us at the time,” Nugent adds.  Taking things in their stride is part of what makes the Wilson Pickers as strong a unit as they are – Nugent and guitarists Andrew Morris and Danny Widdicombe all have solid solo profiles, and along with fiddle player John Bedggood, all play with the likes of Carus Thompson, Bernard Fanning and Tim Rogers.  To manage all this as well as playing with the Pickers’, they have to be a strong unit, and so they’ve evolved and adapted as quickly and as solidly as the band’s profile itself.

Where we see the Wilson Pickers now then, is in established territory.  Granted, they’re not tearing up the charts and wowing jaded industry execs with their meteoric rise to the top, but they’re proving that what they’ve got is something to be paid attention to, and so the next move will be an important one.  Where to from here?  Two great records, fans all over the country, appearances at festivals like Port Fairy, Bluesfest and Woodford.  The obvious answer, is to look further afield, and this is exactly what the band are doing.

“Danny and Andrew won the Grant McLennan Fellowship, a grant which goes out of Brisbane, which gave them some money to spend a month in Berlin,” Nugent tells on where to next.  “Just to be working on music and to get a feel what it’s like to play and work overseas.  Myself and John, we’ve done a fair bit of touring overseas and so has Andrew with Bernard Fanning, but Danny hasn’t so it’ll be great from his point of view so he can get a feel for the landscape over there, it’s a totally different musical landscape in Europe…so the theory is that they’ll go and do a months homework and then we’ll join them and put a run together.”

What Nugent is getting at is that the Wilson Pickers will head to Europe, taking their firebrand bluegrass hybrid to a whole new audience, for what will be their first overseas venture.  It strikes me as almost absurd, given how well they’ve been doing here in Australia and how often its individual members have been over to Europe, that this is the first time the Pickers’ have left Australian shores.  “Yeah, I suppose so,” Nugent muses.  “I guess we have done a lot of miles individually and only a small amount together, so yes is the answer, it is weird, because we feel like we’ve been around the world a dozen times…which is kind of the case, but just not collectively yet.

“And it makes a lot of sense to try to expand it, and we’ve had a great run with the festival circuit here so we’re looking to keep running with that and to go further afield as well,” he goes on, before adding with a laugh, “I never believe it until I’m on a plane….so anything can happen and we’ll certainly be working our arses off to get there.”

2011 then, marks a new frontier for the Wilson Pickers.  The smart bets are on the band to make waves overseas, such is their talent and drive, coupled with the overseas knowledge of most of the band’s members.  Having said that, it’s always a gamble, and as Nugent acknowledges, it’s not until he’s on the plane, that he’ll feel more at ease with the whole situation.  Still, this is a golden opportunity for one of the more exciting roots-based Australian bands to have emerged in recent years, and there are many, many people outside the band itself, who’ll have their fingers crossed.

And so to the rest of the year, one which has begun strongly, which will no doubt continue strongly in Europe, and one which begs to end strongly too.  “Well, we’ll come back and will be releasing the third single from Shake It Down, a song called ‘Tailem Bend’,” tells Nugent.  “And we’ll be doing a reasonably extensive east coast tour around September.”  Sounds like a good deal to me, and the fact Grant Cummerford will most likely be involved is icing on an already tasty cake.  The past has been a surprise for the Wilson Pickers, the present is full of opportunity and the future, well, it’s never been brighter.

Samuel J. Fell

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