Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Live Review - Splendour 2012

To be published in Tsunami Magazine.

Splendour In The Grass 2012
Belongil Fields, Byron Bay

I am a few months shy of turning 32 and I am old, basically ancient, on unfamiliar ground as I wallow with the rest of them, wondering what happened to rock ‘n’ roll – both the music and the ideals behind it – stuck in some sort of ‘other’ dimension from which I can see no exit, no way out, no way to turn, no way to assimilate or survive. 

Pounded from above by hail and rain, assaulted from below, torrents of thick, stinking mud and shit from leaking toilets, buffeted by the ill winds of change and turn – “Hey, Jack White,” someone yells at me before realising their mistake and slogging onward towards the next in a long, long line of bands and music and artists from which there is little respite. 

Gaggles of tiny whores abound, their own bared flesh their watchword; gangs of thuggish males, dorks hanging low to the ground, follow, snuffling the scent like the dogs they are and yet we’re all one, whether we care to admit as much or not, here for likeminded reasons and to hell with the consequences, the dignity, the mundane realities of life outside these chain-link fences, the rows of security and police, the dogs and the confiscated drugs, which we needed in abundance but left at the gate in the care of The Man.

SJF looking slightly perturbed...
Pond – the Beatles gang-raped by Iggy Pop and The Stems, with the Rolling Stones coming in for sloppy thirds.  DZ Deathrays – noise for the pure sake of it and then some more on top, buzz and grind, sheltered from the raging storm outside by the sonic storm inside.  Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – horn-laden grooves in spades, gangsta rap shoved rudely in between, lubed up sweat and slime set to a primal beat.

One needs, in order to survive, to adjust and make the best of a bad situation, and to be honest, the situation was hardly bad per se, more alien and surreal.  A Splendour crowd isn’t, at first glance, a friendly and caring crowd, it’s a selfish crowd hell-bent on its own demise where music, or the love of, is a coincidental occurrence and cool is the currency of the day and people acquire more based on what they wear and who they see.  As the weekend rolls on though, people mellow and more easily fit into the fact they’re one of many, not just one, and so an odd sort of camaraderie settles over the site and a calm, of sorts, inadvertently rules.

I drink a lot on the first day, mid-strength beer from the myriad bars scattered around the site, full-strength beer from the teeming ‘VIP’ bar where people pay almost a grand to mingle with, “artists, media and industry insiders”, the former of which wouldn’t be seen dead in there, the second of which only access for the toilets and strong drink, the latter of which thrive in this particular environment, a strange mix of cashed up and wanting to be seen, being seen.  Indeed.  At some point I end up in the Jager Bar, the Hunting Lodge, which plays bad beats and serves watered-down Jager in paper cups for six bucks a pop but has a beergarden where you can sit and smoke in relative comfort.  I keep drinking, and all seems well for a while.

Post-hailstorm, outside, at some point...
Mudhoney – reviving the ‘90s with scruffy aplomb, squalls of feedback and rumbling, jangling guitars fighting with each other for the limelight, the thunder of rock ‘n’ roll apparent in every note, every bar, every song, a veritable clusterfuck of dirt and angst set amongst three days of pop and pish-posh, a diamond in the rough and the standout thus far.

Tame Impala – big, building sound-scapes blunted by poor sound outside the tent (certainly no way to get inside), epic potential but not really fulfilling what I was hoping they were capable of, but a decent set none the less, indeed.

I enter a time portal where it all stands still for an hour and so I go to get pizza and am accosted by Zander who has seats and coffee and cigarettes and conversation which serves to drag me from said portal and some woman asks if they can go into the Berocca tent, which is closed, and Zander says there’s an orgy in there – “You most likely don’t wanna go in,” I say – and she says she definitely does, whilst her partner looks on with alarm and amusement, behind slightly glazed eyes, ruffled hair and dirty hands.

I am a wild-eyed fiend.  My beard is long and rangy, my hair hangs from under my hat and my jacket is specked with mud.  My black boots are now brown and there are many unused drink tickets in my pocket which I will swap for weak beer before the night is through, for the night is not yet over, not by a long shot, for it is around now that I find the Gold, that on the inside I dance like a drug-addled shaman, the likes of which the western world has yet to discover, living deep within an impenetrable forest of inhibitions and the like, for it is now that I realise what a fucker Warren Ellis is, what a teeming pot of brilliantly psychotic sonic stew this man is capable of cooking up and I will never be the same again.

Mudhoney.  Possibly...
Dirty Three – I wasn’t punched in the face by a punter, nor a policeman or security guard, but I was punched in the face by three unlikely looking fellows whose job it is, it seems, to meld together sounds that are more akin to a rollercoaster ride through the lower caverns of hell than they are to something as mundane as a stage at a festival in a town by a beach.  Shrieks and wails, thumps and bangs, the energy that leaps from the four strings on Ellis’ violin is stronger than everything else I’ve heard thus far, put together and multiplied by a number these kids cannot comprehend.  And this is just what they do on a regular basis, and so we looked on with unrestrained, slack-jawed awe, and were satisfied, really, for the first time, and I felt things weren’t too bad.  Not that they really were to begin with.

I bounce from one band to the next – Father John Misty (acoustic guitar, first of the weekend), Ball Park Music (uplifting pop-tinged rock for the masses), San Cisco (who should be made to sit, eyes forced open a la A Clockwork Orange, listening to The Dirty Three, just to see how it’s supposed to be done, despite the fact they’re not alike at all) – and finally crash and burn on the Sunday afternoon, a stained rag on a sticky barroom floor, bundled up and driven home to recover and remember (or not) and wonder if I’ve lost touch with rock ‘n’ roll, or if it’s more alive now than ever before, just set to a different beat with a different set of ideals, still the Kids vs The Man, the sweat and energy still there in heaps and piles, indeed – it was solid, and we were there, and that’s really all that matters, that’s just how it is.

Samuel J. Fell

Monday, 30 July 2012

Comment - The NCP... Or Lack Thereof

On The National Cultural Policy - Initial Thoughts

Certain People are dragging their feet.  While the rest of us sit, drumming our fingers impatiently on the table-top, Certain People seem to have stopped, any momentum they once had lost in a languid flurry of not-a-great-deal.  Talk is cheap, so Certain People prefer it to action, which costs money, and plenty of it.  Finger drumming, if Certain People are not careful, will soon turn to finger pointing, and They don’t want that.  No.  That would mean they’d have to speed up.  And time, it seems, is most certainly not of the essence.

This country doesn’t actually have a dedicated federal Arts Minister.  No, that under-appreciated portfolio has been lumped onto Simon Crean’s plate, seemingly lost under lashings of Regional Development and a side of Local Government.  Despite this, Certain People claim the Arts is incredibly important, that it needs to be nurtured and supported and encouraged in order to grow and prosper, well into coming centuries.  And so they whipped out the cheap talk, and now, more than four years later, it’s time to point fingers.  Where, oh where, is our National Cultural Policy?  

Back in April of 2008, at the Twenty20 Summit, the idea for such a policy was first mooted, the first since Keating’s Creative Nation, back in the early ‘90s.  Arts Minister at the time Peter Garrett, dabbled with it but nothing stuck and so when Crean took up the ball in 2010, any notion of a long-term Arts policy was effectively dead in the water, floating belly up, much like the future of the Arts itself.  Crean however, vowed to make it his “number one priority as Arts Minister”.  Indeed.

Oh yes, there has been movement here and there – an internet forum, a research paper by a philanthropist, a bringing together of Minds (sans many actual artists), a vague call on the public, the odd bit of rhetoric, a discussion paper into what the Australia Council could be doing better (pushing Certain People along, would be one thing), along with the expected bit of Coalition backlash (even that was somewhat half-hearted).  But what else of this groundbreaking policy, this plan which will ensure the Arts strides forth into the creative sunset, our culture sound in the knowledge it’ll be backed to the hilt and beyond?

It’s at the point now, that if Certain People do get around to releasing a National Cultural Policy any time soon, it won’t be taken seriously, mainly because they’ve not been seen to be taking it seriously themselves.  If we’d been seeing a hive of activity over the past few years – focus groups incorporating not just the Arts agencies with the highest profile or that necessarily bring in the most revenue; a concerted effort to engage the public at every opportunity; a revamp of the Australia Council before anything else – then we could forgive the late nature of official implementation, if and when it occurs.  

But given we’ve seen naught but the odd, almost token, gesture amongst the vague talk, there’s doubt this will be anywhere close to the monstrous, chest-beating policy, stomping on the creative terra, it needs to be.  I mean, if one says things like, “If I had the money, it’d be out now”, you can hardly then take it (not to mention Certain People) seriously.

We in this country enjoy, at this point in time, a vibrant culture and a strong arts scene, across the board, whether it be music, visual arts, theatre, literature or anything else you care to name.  Without a viable Cultural Policy however – one which provides for the long term viability of the Arts (funding opportunities, mentorships, residencies, education, support networks, international opportunities, overall ongoing nurturing and encouragement), as opposed to focusing on single projects which are wont to come and go – this culture, this scene, will likely wither and die.

People will always create, but without a definite plan (in a world rapidly desensitising and relying on an increasingly digital model), these creations won’t be afforded the stature and the focus they need, in order to become part of the national consciousness, which is of course, paramount.

For it is culture and the Arts which contributes to tourism, to the economy, to the long-term happiness of a country’s people.  Without the Arts, we are doomed to a future of Bland and Unexciting, of Monotony and Boredom, a future with no future, a chill, dull wind whipping across a once proud and creative landscape, nowhere to turn, nothing to inspire innovation and change.

As such, Certain People need to stop dragging their feet.  They need to realise that time is of the essence and that they need to act, decisively and effectively.  We need a National Cultural Policy, and we need it now.  If one is to be released in the near future though, Certain People had best be prepared for it to go under the microscope – the Arts community in this country is waiting.  Impatiently.

Samuel J. Fell

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Record Review - Mia Dyson

To be published in the August issue of Rhythms.

Mia Dyson
The Moment
Black Door Records / MGM

It’s been five long years since Mia Dyson last released an album, five years which, for her, have yielded much and taken same, the tribulations of life in general wreaking havoc and yet, concurrently, offering much from which to draw, from which to take and create.  The five years past have changed the field of play then, and presented Dyson with a blank canvas, and given she’s the artist of such considerable depth we’ve come to know and love in this country, she’s painted upon said canvas The Moment, and it’s nigh on a masterpiece.

It begins with ‘When The Moment Comes’, which starts with a single acoustic guitar before building into a lush sonic behemoth that rumbles across the soundscape like a great, big, jangly thing, as graceful and elegant as it is booming and large.  From there, Dyson strips it back somewhat and what follows is a collection of songs, each of which seem to tap into a different emotion, a different element of American life and music (the US being where Dyson has been based for the past three years), laying bare for all to see not only her struggles and triumphs, but her growth as a musician and as a songwriter, as a person perhaps.

For me, there are two particular standout tracks – the long, slow stretch of ‘Tell Me’, stamped from top to bottom with Dyson’s earthy, visceral, whiskey-smooth vocal, a song which breaks your heart before stitching it back together, her voice rising and swelling before settling once more.

And then there’s the slow burn of ‘Cigarettes’, with that unmistakable Dyson guitar tone, the building shimmer of Lee Pardini’s organ, it shuffles along at the pace of an old man on his way back to the bar, so reminiscent of Lucinda Williams (more so than anything Dyson has crafted before), an absolute gem of a song which burns with intensity, “…a mighty fire”, as Dyson herself sings.

In fact, this whole record is a mighty fire.  For while Dyson has always delivered the goods, with The Moment she’s defined herself as an artist, as a person and as a musician to be truly reckoned with, on a global scale.  An epic piece of work.

Samuel J. Fell

Friday, 13 July 2012

Record Review - Blues Traveler

Published in the August issue of Rolling Stone.

Blues Traveler
Suzie Cracks The Whip
429 Records / Universal

Over the past 25 years, Blues Traveler have traversed almost every genre imaginable, all whilst rooted in a happy, sing-a-long variety of ‘90s acoustic guitar-laced pop, which has been nice.

With their 11th studio record though, it seems they’ve been side-swiped and so have descended into the mire of 2012 pop, courtesy, methinks, of S*A*M & Sluggo, producers here, who have sandpapered the ragged corners and reduced a solid, rough-around-the-edges band to the same level as the rest of the great unwashed.  Despite the band’s dalliances with reggae, country and blues here, it’s not enough to cut through the sheen, it’s just not Blues Traveler.  And that’s not nice.

Samuel J. Fell

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Record Review - Bustamento

Published in the Metro Section of the Sydney Morning Herald, July 6.

Intrepid Adventures To The Lost Riddim Islands
Three and a half out of five

The intrepid musical adventurer within Nicky Bomba knows no bounds, as is evidenced here with his latest in a long line of projects, Bustamento.  Not content to merely thump the tubs with brother-in-law John Butler or front the expansive Melbourne Ska Orchestra, Bomba has delved deep into the mystical, sunny sounds of 1950s Jamaican folk (mento), combining it with his own Maltese musical heritage, not to mention his love of reggae and ska, to come up with this tropical gem.

What at first seems like children’s music for adults (prominent vocals; easy-going rhythms), soon seeps its way into your heart, its cheeky lyrics a nod and a wink to the fun contained within.  Heavy on the horns with lashing of keys, this is a musical adventure, a winter warmer to be sure.

Samuel J. Fell