Sunday, 25 September 2011

A Living Legend

Published in Inpress Magazine (Melb), 28th Sep 2011 (Excerpt below)

Allen Toussaint

In New Orleans, where grown men sweat 24 hours a day, there’s some history and there’s a groove.  The history is etched upon the faces of the myriad cultures that call the Crescent City home, it is prevalent in the architecture and the way of life and the food and the Dixie beer.  The groove though, that’s just in the air, it’s what you breathe as you stroll down Bourbon Street or sit in Congo Square, it’s what defines the people and the vibe and the ethos of The Big Easy, a place where good men go to die and the rest of us stagger out sated, but never full; in N’awlins, the groove always lives on.

If you step off the beaten track then, outside of the French Quarter, away from the tourist hotspots, you’ll come across the real city, the places where the legends were born, places where music was made that still resonates today, with a verve and raw power that epitomises the base urges of this huge, sweaty melting pot.  Music that lives and thrives, music that has inspired countless others (it’s part of that history), music that is its own entity, its own life-force, a force which has fuelled so many for so long. 

Guys like Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and Champion Jack Dupree got the ball rolling, guys like Dr. John, James ‘Sugar Boy’ Crawford and Irma Thomas have kept it going, the barrelhouse piano and jump ‘n’ jive of that distinct New Orleans R&B running thick through their veins, where a horn section is never far away, where you know there’s somethin’ cookin’, and it ain’t always BBQ.  And then of course, there’s the King.  The man perhaps most responsible for all of this, and more, and this man is a true giant amongst men, amongst musicians, amongst all and sundry, a true legend, Mr. Allen Toussaint.

Toussaint will, later this month, make his first appearance in Australia, but don’t go thinking that this is because he hasn’t been around.  For Toussaint, even though his name won’t ring as many bells as some others’ will, is a giant of our time. As a pianist and arranger, he’s contributed to literally hundreds of albums over the past 40 years (including records from Wings, Eric Clapton and Elvis Costello), but it is his producing and songwriting for which he is best known. 

As a producer, he’s worked with the likes of The Meters, Dr. John, BJ Thomas, Solomon Burke and Sandy Denny, and as a songwriter, he’s had his songs covered by almost anyone you can think of – the Rolling Stones (‘Fortune Teller’, also covered by The Who, The Hollies and Robert Plant), Boz Scaggs (‘Hello My Lover’, amongst others), Irma Thomas (‘Ruler Of My Heart’), The Yardbirds (‘A Certain Girl’, also covered by Warren Zevon), Ringo Star (Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley’, also covered by Phish), Iron Butterfly (‘Get Out Of My Life, Woman’, also covered by The Doors amongst others), Little Feat (‘On Your Way Down’, also covered by Trombone Shorty and Widespread Panic), Bonnie Raitt (‘What Is Success’), The Band (‘You See Me’), Bo Diddley (‘Going Down’), Van Dyke Parks (‘Riverboat’), you name it; Allen Toussaint is a songwriting legend, he’s New Orleans’ finest, he’s the Southern Knight and he’s still got that groove.

“The idea of coming to Australia is very exciting,” Toussaint is at pains to point out early on; indeed, given the length and breadth of the man’s career (which began in the mid-‘50s), it almost boggles the mind that he’s not made this trip before.  “Oh yeah, well that’s just the way the cookie has crumbled,” he smiles, in his slow, measured way.  “But as they say, it’s not too late – I’m glad to be comin’.”
Samuel J. Fell

Monday, 19 September 2011

New Rollin'

Full feature published in October issue of Rhythms Magazine - excerpt below.

Sal Kimber

I feel like I’m walking down a long, brown country road, dust on my boots, the sun beating down upon my head.  But I’m not, I’m sitting at my desk in Brunswick Heads.  I feel like I’m in an old hall in some small country town, old couples dancing slowly to the band up on the stage, plates of sandwiches and lamingtons just over the way.  But I’m not, I’m sitting in the chair out the front, smoking a cigarette in the sun.  I feel like I’m walking through the woods, twigs snapping under foot, big ol’ trees towering overhead.  But again, I’m not, I’m driving up the Pacific Highway towards Brisbane, far removed from the life I’m feeling, the life I’m living almost the polar opposite.

So why am I feeling these things?  Why am I being drawn into someone else’s world so effortlessly?  What is this world and where is it even coming from, picking me up and embracing me so endearingly and acting like it’s my own, but really it isn’t real.  Not for me anyway.  The reason is the power of a song, of a collection of songs, the lyrics lapping at my subconscious like waves upon a shore – they’re there, but they’re not mine.  The power of a song indeed, taking you places you never thought possible, whilst never really taking you anywhere at all.

The songs are part of a record, a new record, from an artist and a band who I’ve been listening to a lot recently – at my desk, out the front in the old chair, in the car on the road.  And these are songs that mean something to the person who wrote them, who is singing them, and that is what makes them so powerful, that is how they’re pulling me in, making me feel like I’m somewhere else.  They’re songs about a life lived, sometimes vicariously, but mainly from the point of view of the author, one Sal Kimber, a musician with a lot to say, and the skill to say it in a way that resonates with you.  Whether you’ve been there or not.

I first saw Kimber, with her band The Rollin’ Wheel, at the Port Fairy folky a few years ago and was instantly drawn in; the lyrics, yes, but also the low-down desperation of the grinding, churning sound the band produced, the banjo intertwined with accordion and both electric and acoustic guitars.  “These guys blew my mind, and I left, each time, wanting more and more”, I wrote in my review of their set, and really, those words don’t do justice to how I remember the band moving me.  Since that weekend, I’ve been waiting for them to release another album, and they finally have, and as I’ve said, it’s been taking me places, places I’ve never been.

“Probably my Dad,” Kimber laughs, a little self-consciously, when I ask her to list for me, the five main influences upon her music.  “He’s been writing songs forever, and when I was growing up, he wanted someone in the family to write songs with him, to be like a sounding board… that’s what made me fall in love with writing.  He was very passionate about telling stories about things that were around, because I think he feels that without these songs, some of our history will get lost.  He’s very passionate about it, when I show him a song, he’ll be like, ‘What is that about?  Can you relate to that?’  He’s very honest with me.

“And probably James Taylor, I really like his stage presence, especially when he was really young, he was really humble, and his voice is flawless, I love it,” she goes on.  “When I was young, probably The Waifs, although the past few years, I haven’t bought their recent albums… but when was 14 and 15, I was pretty obsessed.  And Lucinda Williams, I’m a massive Lucinda fan, I love her, I love how kooky she is, she’s probably my favourite artist.  And then probably Bonnie Raitt, yeah.  Tasty, tasty guitar.  Sometimes her songwriting is a bit cheesy, but I like it… I sing along to her all the time.”

Kimber grew up in regional Victoria before relocating to Melbourne around five years ago.  She released a self-titled EP in 2005, and her debut LP, Sounds Like Thunder, in 2008.  Shortly after that, she assembled her current band, The Rollin’ Wheel (which comprises of sister Buffy on keys and accordion, Cat Leahy on drums, guitarist Jacob Cole and bassist Trent McKenzie), and it’s been on the up and up ever since.  Kimber has won The Young Artist’s Award at the Port Fairy folky, the Acoustic Jazz Award at the Wangaratta Jazz & Blues Festival and the APRA Darebin Songwriting Award.  Sal Kimber is a serious, underground songwriting talent in the vein of Mia Dyson and Clare Bowditch, and this new eponymous LP, proves that beyond a doubt.
Samuel J. Fell

Sal Kimber & The Rollin' Wheel is available October 14 through Vitamin Records.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Arts In Australia

An abridged version of this story was published in the October 2011 issue of Rolling Stone, the original version being cut due to the " dept needing more pages."  Here, the original is printed in full.

Illustration - which appeared with the abridged version in
the October issue of Rolling Stone - by Rocco Fazzari

In early May this year, Treasurer Wayne Swan handed down his fourth federal budget, one which included, amongst other things, “sweeping funding cuts” designed to bring the deficit back to surplus by the year 2013, a bold move and one which was met, predictably, with both praise and strong opposition.  2007’s Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was the catalyst for this tactical decision, and as such, despite the fact Australia was the only western country to avoid the crippling effects of the GFC, these cuts will be felt across the board, at least in the short term.

One area which escaped relatively lightly however was the Arts, even receiving a modest increase according to Federal Minister for the Arts, Simon Crean.  Conceivably, this suggests that Arts funding was never that high to begin with, but regardless (and perhaps surprisingly), the Arts is looking comparatively solid, particularly with the imminent release of some potentially compelling policy.  “The GFC did have a huge impact,” Crean concurs.  “But you’ve got to keep building, and that’s what we do.”

Building is indeed what the current Labor government is looking to do, an outcome (albeit a belated one) of the 2020 Summit held in April 2008, being as Crean says, “to develop a cultural policy”.  This comes at a time that, according to Kathy Keele – CEO of peak Arts funding body, the Australia Council – is crucial to Arts in Australia.  “Over the past ten years, there’s been an awful lot of work finding out whether artists are making a living, identifying what organisations we have and how healthy they are,” she says.

“Now that we’ve done that, we do need to look forward and say, ‘Look, I think most people do read and attend music, they’re well educated and there’s a lot more Arts in their education, so lets talk now about how the Arts are embedded in our society and how they help us develop communities’.” 

The result here, of the 2020 Summit and subsequent “ongoing discussions” with “cultural institutions”, is the proposed National Cultural Policy (NCP), something Crean has been quoted as saying is his “number one priority as Arts Minister”.

Federal Minister for the Arts, Simon
“The National Cultural Policy is the opportunity to define the importance of a Creative Arts to the development of a stronger, more sustainable, more self-confident nation,” he explains.  “The Arts and the creative industries are fundamental to a nation continuing to develop that innovative, creative edge. 

“So I want the Cultural Policy to be a statement about us, to define us as a proud, confident and expressive nation,” he adds.  “And also a nation that because of its innovation and creative drive, can match it with anyone in the world.  Not only match it, but better it.”

Executive Director of the Australian Major Performing Arts Groups (AMPAG) Sue Donnelly, along with Keele, is very supportive of an NCP, but she brings up a very pertinent point: “We haven’t heard very much at all in terms of what’s going to be in there,” she told me early in August, and this is indeed a very telling statement – not many people have been told what the NCP will entail exactly.  This is made all the more alarming when you take into account the fact Minister Crean has stated that the government is looking to implement this policy “by year’s end”.

When pressed to expand further, to explain what, exactly, the policy will entail then, (is it a charter that will provide specific funding to certain groups? Will it create support networks for the arts? Or is it just a statement of intent to support certain organisations and areas within the arts?), Crean’s office said (amongst other things), “A renewed National Cultural Policy will ensure Australia doesn’t miss important opportunities to tell our stories, educate and skill our workforce and enable our culture to connect with the rest of the world.”  This does not answer the question, and despite the fact Crean’s office has been given several chances to aptly explain, no viable answer has been forthcoming, not even in the Senate.

“I wanted to ask about the National Cultural Policy that the government announced it was going to develop at the last election, which no one seems to know much about in subsequent estimates hearings,” Senator Gary Humphries, the Liberal Senator for the ACT asked, quite pertinently, during the May Senate Estimate Hearings, and there were more than just a few people quietly agreeing with him. 

The idea for this particular National Cultural Policy (the first since the Keating government’s Creative Nation in 1994) was first raised at the 2020 Summit over three years ago.  The resulting report had the proposed NCP as something “… the government will further consider”.  From there, the idea was taken up by now ex-Arts Minister Peter Garrett, but reading now through Hansard, the official record of parliament, it would seem not a great deal more has happened since. 

I asked about this in the October estimates last year and was told that work was going on,” Senator Humphries again noted during the May Senate Estimate Hearings.  “I asked again in February and they said more work is going on. I am told now that even in May of this year, there is no formal role for involving the Australia Council… We are cutting it a bit fine, are we not, to start the formal process of work on this, presumably by some sort of consultative process with formal input from agencies, in the middle of the year?”

A very good question indeed, and one which Minister Crean’s office was again unable to answer specifically.  It almost seems Labor are looking to quickly capitalise on an election promise, favouring speed over quality – talk is cheap after all, and even then, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of it, not in the public arena anyway. 

In an effort to rectify this then, the government released a discussion paper in early August, which the accompanying media release explained was, “The next step… taking all previous submissions into account, and is consulting widely to ensure that the National Cultural Policy reflects the interests and aspirations of all Australians.” 

It is this paper, along with the Mitchell Report (a report being put together by philanthropist Harold Mitchell, investigating corporate sponsorship of the Arts), that will no doubt inform the eventual NCP, but is it coming a little too late? Deputy Opposition Leader for the Senate (and Shadow Arts Minister) George Brandis’ office says, “...the arts community should view the instrumentalist approach which underlies the discussion paper with skepticism and alarm.”  I would view it as a good idea which at this point, seems to have no structure, it seems to be rushed, and this is folly indeed.

Added to this is the fact Minister Crean cannot outline any specific outcomes of the NCP, and this is quite alarming.  For what good is a cultural policy that this late in the game, has no specific outcomes, and indeed, no specific outline? The NCP must be one of the most thought through, thorough and deeply considered pieces of policy in recent times; this is not the time to hastily fulfil a promise, this is surely a time to think carefully before we act – the NCP must reach the high standard all Australians demand, and deserve.

Samuel J. Fell

Monday, 5 September 2011

Soldiering On

Glenn Richards

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of Augie March.  Although I wholly appreciate the importance and the strength of their work, it’s never really hit a chord with me and whenever their music comes on the radio or whatnot, I’m wont to switch stations, or indeed, turn the damn thing off.  Having said that however, I am an admirer of Augie frontman and songwriter, Glenn Richards, a man who has proven beyond a doubt that he’s worthy of consideration for inclusion in the canon of Fine Australian Songwriters.

 Of course, perhaps this is a contradiction – how can one like a man and his musical nous, but not the band he’s used, mainly, to convey such?  Indeed, but it goes a bit deeper than that; what I admire most about Richards, is his ability to convey a story through song, and this is no easy task.  A good songwriter, a great one, is able to do this seemingly effortlessly, and no matter how they do it – whether it be singing opera, thrashing some metal or writing children’s music, it doesn’t matter – it’s still a great song, and Richards is a dab hand at this to be sure.

Late last year, he proved this – outside of the ‘safe’ confines of Augie March – by releasing Glimjack, his debut ‘solo’ release, and one which whilst it didn’t set the charts alight, proved that this was a man who was, at his core, a songwriter, and not just the frontman for a long-serving Australian indie/rock band.  By all accounts, Glimjack was a learning curve for Richards as you’d expect, and now that it’s been out and about for almost a year, he’s philosophical about its impact, about the process in general.

“Yeah, we weren’t really able to get any of the songs out there, to really build a tour around even,” Richards muses.  “But I can only be honest about it, and it’s not something that greatly worries me now… it was just an unfortunate situation, and was almost a carbon copy of the experience we had with the last Augie March record (Watch Me Disappear, 2008) where everyone working on the record [at the record company] was fired or quit within the first couple of months.

“When that happens at a label, generally that means the death of an album,” he goes on.  “So it got to the point [with Glimjack] that it was impossible to get a single out… radio weren’t just gonna play your songs – you’d hope they would, but they won’t – so it kinda died a pretty swift death.”  It seems it did, in all but a few diehard’s collections, destined to become a cult record, the first ‘solo’ release from Augie March frontman, Glenn Richards.

Samuel J. Fell