Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Profile - Peter Rowan

Published in the March/April issue of Rhythms magazine.

This year marks sixty years since bluegrass master PETER ROWAN formed his first band, and he ain’t done yet, writes SAMUEL J. FELL.

If Bill Monroe is regarded as the father of bluegrass, then Peter Rowan is the prodigal son. Beginning his career as guitarist, vocalist and songwriter in Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, Rowan has gone on to forge a career that’s lasted a little over fifty years, himself now a legend of genre.

This month, as part of the National Folk Festival’s 50th anniversary event, Rowan and his Bluegrass Band will return to Australian shores, a place they’ve been welcomed many times over the years, keeping alive the traditions of this exalted American roots music.

While the National Folkie celebrates their gold anniversary though, it’s worth noting that Rowan has been playing for longer, for it was in 1956 that he formed his first band, The Cupids, while still at high school – sixty years playing music is an incredible accomplishment. “Well, I’m not sure if it’s incredible accomplishment, or incredible folly,” Rowan chuckles down a crackly phone line.

Most would regard it as accomplishment – he joined Monroe’s band in 1963, not long after leaving college. “One thing I started to like about the Monroe style was that there was a lot more blues in it than other styles of bluegrass,” he’s been quoted as saying.  “It was darker. It had more of an edge to it. And yet it still had the ballad tradition in it, and I loved that.”

It’s this approach Rowan then took to his own projects – Earth Opera, Sea Train, Muleskinner, The Rowans (with brothers Chris and Lorin), Old & In The Way (with Jerry Garcia, amongst others), Twang An’ Groove, The Free Mexican Airforce and The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. He’s been there and done it, taking his chosen genre to the world – bluegrass wouldn’t be the same without the contributions of, firstly, Bill Monroe, but also his musical son, Rowan.

“Inspiration, the possibility of finding something new,” he says, after a little thought, on what keeps him going after fifty-odd years, what gets him out of bed in the mornings. “You know, to find the songs I haven’t written yet. And also, to keep the music moving forward a little bit. It’s a challenge to keep it fresh, but I like playing with the younger players.”

This leads the conversation towards the future of the genre – I ask Rowan how important he sees it that the style evolves in order to survive, to remain (or become) relevant to a new generation. “My approach is different to other people’s I think,” he says. “There are some people who just work on the musical side of it, because bluegrass is such an instrumental-oriented thing. My whole thing is working on vocals and vocal harmonies and kind of leaving the music to take care of itself.”

The evolution of bluegrass is obvious, the rise of the nu-grass set (Mumford, Punch Brothers, Mustered Courage et al) seeing to that. For Rowan though, at this point in his storied career, it is as he says, about keeping it fresh, something you’d imagine wouldn’t be too hard given how many combos he’s a part of.

“There’s always a key player in any of the variations I do,” he explains. “The key player in this ensemble would be my collaboration with Chris Henry, he’s a great singer and mandolin player, he’s kinda like I was at his age. So there’s always a key player, like Jerry Douglas or Jerry Garcia, Tony Rice, there’s always somebody that I have a spark with.”

This has been a key element to Rowan’s growth as a musician over the years, something he obviously still finds important, and something which brings to his music an electricity. Talk turns to albums, Rowan looking a little further afield with his next release.

“I’ve been recording in Hawaii,” he explains, “pretty much love songs. It’s starting to get a little bit of an edge to it, but I’ve always wanted to make an album that’s just about pure feeling towards another person. And Hawaiian music gives me that opportunity. I’m also doing some more Twang An’ Groove stuff in Texas.”

Sixty years since forming his first band, and Peter Rowan is talking about two more albums he’s got on the go, two more to add to an already incredibly impressive catalogue. I’ve talked elsewhere in this issue about the blues being in good hands, but it seems the future of bluegrass is completely assured – Peter Rowan will see to that.

The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band plays the National Folk Festival, March 24-28. For other dates, head here.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Profile - Lucky Peterson

Published in the March/April issue of Rhythms magazine.

Releasing his debut at five years of age, LUCKY PETERSON has been in the blues game for a long time, a game which chose him, as he tells SAMUEL J. FELL.

There aren’t many artists around today who can claim to have recorded their debut album at five years of age. There are even fewer who can then go on to say they were discovered by the great Willie Dixon a few months earlier, whilst playing in their father’s blues club. In fact, there’s probably only one who can say that – Judge Kenneth ‘Lucky’ Peterson.

Peterson is indeed lucky, although if you’ve heard this 51-year-old play before, then you know there’s a good deal of talent in there too; he’d not still be plying his trade today if not. Based heavily in the blues, but employing in healthy doses R&B, soul and rock ‘n’ roll, Peterson is a living embodiment of this music whose organ and guitar skills are up there with the best of them – he learnt from the masters, and he’s becoming one himself.

“I remember my father coming to get me and telling me to play the organ,” he says, on that night back in the late ‘60s. “I remember Willie Dixon telling me to come outside to the backyard where there was a swing-set, but just bits and pieces, I mean I was only five years old back then.”

Indeed, too young to remember much, but it obviously had a profound effect on him, as it’s fuelled his love for the music ever since, even if his focus was elsewhere for a while. “To get myself some money,” he laughs when asked what it was about the blues that captured his young mind. “[And then later on when I was older] I was thinking more about girls. My father would say, ‘Boy, you gotta get in here and rehearse’, and I’d say, ‘I’m tryin’ to rehearse with this girl right here’. And he was like, ‘No, you gotta rehearse this organ, you’ve got things to do’.”

It was inevitable however, that his focus would eventually turn to music. “I’ve got the blues in my blood,” he says more seriously. “I’ve got no choice but to play it, it’s in my blood – I didn’t choose the blues, the blues chose me.”

After recording his debut in 1969 (Our Future – Five Year Old Lucky Peterson), Peterson continued with school, eventually learning the French Horn and playing in the school orchestra, but it was after this that his education truly began as he scored stints playing in the bands of Etta James, Little Milton and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.

“Stay humble, do your job, make sure you try and interact with the audience and just stay humble,” he says when asked what he took from those sideman years, and brought to his own solo career, which started to gain momentum in the late ‘80s. It’s stood him in good stead – Lucky Strikes! (’89) and Triple Play (’90), both albums released on the Chicago-based Alligator Records label, saw him come into his own as a solo artist, employing the lessons learnt, and from there it’s been a smooth flow – or as smooth as things can be when you’re a travellin’ bluesman.

“The only thing that changed was the money,” he says ruefully, when asked what change he’s noticed in the industry over the past thirty or so years, referencing rising inflation and stagnant wages and gig fees. “But I love what I do, and I’m around good people, my management team, they’re down for me. So I’m down for them, so we just try to be down for each other and keep the music alive.”

This he’s doing. His latest album, released in 2014, is Son Of A Bluesman, a tribute to his father who died in 2010. It showcases an artist who, as he said, has the blues in his blood, and one who isn’t finished yet. “When we’re back from Australia, I’m not doing anything but going into the studio and start coming up with things.”

And so another album, to add to the seventeen he’s recorded over a career spanning the vast majority of his life. Lucky Peterson isn’t a household name when it comes to the blues, but as with so many artists of his ilk, this is not really a concern. The focus here is playing this music that chose him, which is something he’ll do until the day he dies. In that regard, Peterson is indeed lucky, as are we, the broader blues-listening community, because through artists like him, the blues lives on.

Lucky Peterson plays the Byron Bay Bluesfest, March 24-28. For other dates, see website here.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Record Review - Jimmy Dowling

Published in the Shortlist section of The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 4

Jimmy Dowling
Blessing & Cursing
Stovepipe Records

A woozy balladeer is how north coaster Jimmy Dowling has been described, and it’s a tag not far wrong. Gorgeously mournful, Dowling’s newest cut brings to the fore this wooze, 15 tracks that shuffle shambolically along, a quiet beauty inherent to all, his strength as a songwriter marrying with his husky, downturned voice to create something truly special.

Based deep within the tangled briar of country music, Dowling takes inspiration from the sea on Blessing & Cursing, continuously referencing surfing, fishing, “plumes of white spray ripped off the tops of swell in the wind”. Song titles like ‘Beachcomber’, ‘Trawler’ and ‘Deckhand’ highlight this inspiration, the latter a haunting spoken-word piece with just a smattering of eerie guitar.

Dowling brings with him a troupe of exquisite players in Matt Walker (who in addition to adding guitars and mandolin, produces the album), bassist Grant Cummerford, Shane Reilly on pedal steel and the extremely subtle Hamish Stuart on drums. Liz Stringer, Van Walker and Lucie Thorne add backing vocals throughout. As well, the late and great James Cruickshank adds guitars, percussion and pipe organ on a couple of numbers, recorded before his death last year. Blessing & Cursing is sublime in its poetic nature, a fantastic record.

Samuel J. Fell

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

TRAVEL - The Broken Spoke

Published in The Saturday Paper, February 20

At Austin's Broken Spoke, 'the last of the true Texas dance halls', patrons dance the night away, no excuses, writes Samuel J. Fell.

She’s only about five foot tall, but Terri White isn’t one to be trifled with. She stands in the middle of the polished concrete dancefloor, in the large back room of legendary Austin honky tonk The Broken Spoke, hands on her hips and looks at us all through narrowed eyes.

The men, around 20 of us, are lined up down one side, female partners opposite on the other. White is barking orders, and tells the women to step right. My wife, Claire, accidentally steps left, the only one to do so, like in a Three Stooges film. White’s eyes narrow further. “You’re going to be my troublemaker, aren’t you,” she says to Claire, who turns bright red and tries not to laugh.

White has been teaching novices like us the Texas two-step for years. It’s a southern tradition, and people travel from miles around to learn from the little master, who four nights a week bullies, cajoles, snaps at and occasionally encourages any and all willing to slide their two left feet across the floor.

The lesson runs for an hour or so, with the house band providing the music and the dancers themselves the entertainment – for a seasoned two-stepper, it can’t be a pretty sight.

After an hour or so however, White has us more or less dancing under our own steam. Her job is done, so the billed band – led by Austin mainstay James Hand – step up and start their set, and from the low-lit areas surrounding the floor, the regular crowd materialise. They’re the locals who know the step and come out to the Spoke on a Friday night to dance. A lot of them are good – really good.

Texas has a reputation around the world as being a rough, gruff, outdoorsy kind of place – don’t mess with us. Which makes it all the more fascinating watching these rough, gruff types gliding expertly around the dancefloor – it quickly becomes apparent that this is a normal Friday night out for them. It’s a welcome time spent in a true dance hall where the gents ask the ladies to dance, a few beers are put away and a damn fine time is had by all. It’s enchanting in a way, a glimpse of that fabled southern hospitality, where being a gentleman is key and dancing is an acceptable – even expected – pleasure.

This year, the Spoke celebrates its 52nd anniversary. Opened in 1964 by James White, Terri’s father, it’s now an institution, the “last of the true Texas dance halls”. From the outside it looks to be on its last legs, leaning slightly to the left, a relic from a bygone era. Inside, holes in the low ceiling have been patched with bits of wood or tin, nailed on, a quick patch job. It smells a little odd too, a mixture of stale beer, fried meat and Texas sweat.

But it’s the real thing, a genuine tonk toward the outer edge of Austin on Sth Lamar Boulevard, the big through-road that runs straight and true down to the river and across to downtown. The Spoke used to be outside the city limits, but as Austin’s population has swelled, the developers have swooped in and so it’s now sandwiched between two high-rise apartment blocks, its low-set build and dusty parking lot in stark contrast to its surrounds. That’s part of its appeal – no matter how steady the march of progress, the Spoke has remained as it began, a getaway from the pressures and realities of life, a little shack where you can dance, drink and have a good ol’ time.

Virtually nothing has changed at the Spoke since the early days, when Willie Nelson would perform, prior to becoming famous, when Bob Wills would drop in for chicken-fried steak, when Dolly Parton, Roy Acuff and George Strait would turn up to either play or just listen.

Having spent an hour sliding around the polished concrete, I’m in need of some respite and so head out the front where I find a quiet spot in the carpark amongst the pick-up trucks to roll a cigarette and generally soak in the old country ambience. It’s around this time that Tom the Texan walks up to me, tells me he’s lost his smokes and can he bot one of mine. Fine with me. He rolls a skinny one quickly, no filter, sticks it between his lips and pulls a box of matches from his pocket.

Tom is at least six and a half feet tall, bull necked, with a big hat and a hanging gut. He leans back against the hood of the closest truck and gets to talking. He tells me he works for the Texas something-or-other – I don’t quite catch it – but he emphasises his narrative by pulling out from under his shirt a large gold badge on black leather, hanging from his neck like some sort of ominous good luck charm.

It turns out Tom the Texan is a bodyguard of some sort, in town to look after one of the bigger acts playing the Austin City Limits music festival, down by the river at Zilker Park. He tells me it’s his night off, hence the visit to the Spoke, somewhere he comes whenever he’s in town – but he won’t tell me which artist he’s charged with. Later on I look at the festival program and figure it’s either Deadmau5 or Drake, The Weekend or Florence & The Machine.

He tells me he worked for eight years for an Iranian businessman who owned a couple of clubs up in Dallas, and that he looked after one of the cast of Jersey Shore when he came to Texas. “I thought, don’t bring that Yankee down here,” Tom says, “but he was all right. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

He finishes his smoke and shakes my hand, tells me to call him Tom and that his close friends call him TFT. “Trick Fuckin’ Tom,” he elaborates with a big laugh. I’m not sure if that’s because he’s a tricky fella, or because he’s partial to bordellos, but he’s off into the bar before I can ask, leaving me by myself to wonder in silence.

Back inside, owner James White has jumped up on stage and is singing with the band. He’s decked out in cowboy bling – 10-gallon hat, shining belt buckle, outrageous red western shirt, and what look like snakeskin boots. White used to be in the army, but now he’s living the honky-tonk dream. The word is he writes a mean country song to boot, and loves to get up with the band to sing.

I shake his hand as we leave, a little later on, and tell him we came a long way to be here. His hands are surprisingly soft for one who looks like they’ve done it all. He has a twinkle in his eye – you can tell he likes hearing how far people have come to see his place.

We walk out into the carpark and order an Uber, which seems far more in step with the towering, gleaming apartment blocks on either side of us than where we’ve just come from. It’s testament to its history and derelict elegance though, that the Spoke is still standing. Albeit with a slight lean.