Blue Mountains Music Festival, Katoomba NSW, Australia - 16th to 18th March 2012
This was my eighth year at the Blue Mountains Music Festival, and familiarity has bred deep and lasting affection. It’s a gem of an event. Not the biggest, the flashiest, the longest, or the best known. But it’s so good natured, so well organised and so audience-friendly.
Can we mention Katoomba without discussing the weather? Last year was relentlessly, hysterically wet. There was major sloshing and minor flooding. This year (in the context of eastern Australia’s cool and wet La Niña summer) was just rainy and misty. The rain failed to dampen anyone's spirits and, hey, what are mountains without mist?
Canada’s April Verchopened the festival on the Pavilion stage and set the tone for a great weekend. Diminutive and girlish, she doesn’t look anything like her age (34 on Easter Saturday) but she’s eight albums into her career. She’s a demon fiddler, a very good singer, songwriter, interpreter and – not least – she does that Ottawa Valley step dancing. It's no surprise that April Verch was winning dancing contests as a pre-schooler. The first impression is impossibly cute. The lasting impression is prodigiously talented.
Fellow Canadian Harry Manxis a very regular visitor to Katoomba, and a crowd favourite. He played a laid-back set of his smooth east-west blues, teamed with Sydney session ace Clayton Doley on organ. (Doley’s instrument was actually a Nord Stage keyboard, producing a very convincing B3 sound.)
My Friend the Chocolate Cakeclosed the evening. I’d been very much looking forward to seeing these Australian chamber pop veterans for the first time. They won the first night audience over, and the combination of David Bridie’s piano (again, a Nord Stage), Helen Mountfort’s cello and Hope Csutoros's violin is enchanting. But there were a few too many production glitches and ragged musical moments for it to be the show I wanted to see.
Nordgrass. Who knew? Friggis a seven-piece Finnish-Norwegian band, with a four fiddle front line. They kicked butt. Like Crooked Still in 2011, they came across as schooled musicians with a deep understanding of traditional music, plus the flare and musical vocabulary to easily transcend boundaries. They were good fun.
I have been a fan of Pierre Bensusan for more than 20 years and his 'Musiques' is one of my most-played folk albums. I was like a kid at Christmas with anticipation, and grabbed a front row seat. He didn’t let me down. Bensusan blends folk, world and jazz, putting passion and inventiveness into every note. He can make you smile, he can pierce your heart, and he make you gape with astonishment, all within a few bars.
Abigail Washburn and Kai Welch are more than capable of holding an audience on their own. They make a formidable duo, with Washburn taking the lead. They put me a mind of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – old time American music as the basis for fresh and highly
personal modern songs.
The relatively intimate setting of the Blue Mountains suited the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Bandmuch better than Bluesfest, where I saw them last year. The crowd lapped up their authentic bluegrass sound, all close harmonies and tight ensemble playing. But they weren’t straightjacketed by tradition. Their take on Robert Johnson’s 'Love in Vain' ("putting the blues in bluegrass") was a highlight.
I ventured for the first time to the Big Top to catch the second half of My Friend the Chocolate Cake’s Saturday set. The Big Top is bigger than the Pavilion, but more closed to the elements, and has more the atmosphere of a concert space. The band was in sizzling form. Their cover of Magazine’s ‘Song from Under the Floorboards’ was a highlight.
I confess to having misgivings about seeing Judy Collins. Her 'Wildflowers' LP was one of the first in my collection (more than 40 years ago), and I adored her interpretations of Leonard Cohen’s and Joni Mitchell’s songs. But her signature was that pure, bell-like voice. Could she, at 72, do herself justice? Yes, she could. She doesn’t quite have that purity of tone, but she still sings wonderfully well. And she still proudly thumbs her nose at those who would pigeon-hole her, and mixes folk with cabaret, or whatever takes her fancy. She is also a marvellous raconteur, with a cache of first hand tales of Dylan, Cohen and others. The high point, for me, was 'Since You've Asked' – the first song she ever wrote, and recorded for 'Wildflowers'.
What I saw of Ben Sollee was very promising, but his Pavilion show clashed with Pierre Bensusan at the Big Top. I’d waited a long time to see Bensusan, and didn’t want to miss a minute. The second show was, perhaps, even better than the first. (And for the first time in all my years of festivals, I stood in line to get an autographed CD.)
I stayed for Harry Manxand he delivered a harder edged, bluesier set than on the Friday night, and all the better for it. Clayton Doley got some well used solo space, and Harry played a little of everything. His encore was his great version of 'Crazy Love, playing the Mohan Veena.
Krystle Warren’sfirst Australian appearances were late last year for the Nick Drake tribute show, 'Way to Blue'. She was a standout on that tour. She charmed an increasingly enthusiastic festival audience, who demanded an encore. ('Eleanor Rigby.') Warren has a wonderful smoky voice and classy way of reading a song, but she would benefit from more backing than her own spare guitar playing, particularly in a big space.
Eric Bibbis another regular on the Australian festival circuit and, for the second year running, he brought with him Swedish guitarist Staffan Astner. The pair have developed a very close musical understanding and with Astner’s mastery of so many styles, his Telecaster makes a band superfluous.
I left a little early to catch some of England’s ahab who were playing to a relatively but enthusiastic small audience at the Pavilion, where it felt cold and wet. They shrugged off the conditions and put in an excellent set, proving there is no studio trickery in their tight sound or their four part harmonies. To me, the music is more 70s-style country rock (think Poco) than Americana or alt country, and they do it really well.
I didn't see everything I wanted to see, but that's the smorgasbord nature of festivals. On the other hand, I went home very satisfied. Perhaps it's the singular perspective of a Pierre Bensusan fan, but I thought this was the best ever Blue Mountains festival.