Crooked Still Shines in Blue Mountains Rain
Blue Mountains Music Festival
Katoomba, NSW, Australia
March 18th-20th 2011
The 2011 Blue Mountains Music Fest was the wettest in the 16 years of the event. How wet? Damn wet. Even getting to the bar was an adventure of sorts. Although all the main performance spaces are under cover, access became difficult. Clothes got damp. Boots got muddy.
If you’d been doing something other than soaking up brilliant, diverse, joyous music (and a glass or two of Guinness), you would have been miserable. But such is the vibe of this good-natured festival that nobody (certainly nobody on stage) let the rain get them down. 2011 may be remembered as the wettest festival, but will also be recalled as one of the best.
For me, 2011 belonged to Crooked Still. And the festival MVP was their vocalist, the charming anti-diva of nu-folk, Aoife O’Donovan.
It’s not that Crooked Still are Aoife (pronounced EE-fa) and backing band – far from it, these are seriously good musicians. But I just love Aoife’s singing, combining the honeyed sound of Alison Krauss with a little of the breathy ease of Norah Jones. She had me from the get-go, singing a line or two from Bartender’s Blues during their Friday night sound check. I saw every minute of their three festival sets. The song-lists were varied, and they managed to get through most of Still Crooked (2008) and Some Strange Country (2010).
Crooked Still are young enough (mostly late 20s) to be fresh and vital, but have the polish and stagecraft that comes from years of experience. The core of the band – O’Donovan, bassist Corey DiMario and banjo man Greg Liszt – has been together since 2001, when all three were students in Boston. Cellist Tristan Clarridge and fiddler Brittany Haas joined in 2008.
Although the Alison Krauss/Union Station influence is obvious (especially on Lennon-McCartney’s We Can Work It Out), Crooked Still have their own sound, largely down to the instrumental lineup – substituting cello for mandolin or flat-picked guitar (or dobro, in Union Station’s case). Rather than the ensemble interplay of pickers you hear in regular bluegrass bands, this combination places Greg Liszt’s banjo over a virtual chamber group.
Crooked Still were a huge breath of fresh mountain air. I hope they return soon.
Overall, this was a stronger program than last year, bolstered for me by having more emerging artists high on the bill.
The hit-and-run headliner was 29-year-old Justin Townes Earle, whose only appearance closed the main stage on Sunday evening. He’s the real deal – awkward, gangly, feisty, edgy, exploding with talent. He is a magnetic presence, all bravado and noisy desperation.
He’s a poetic songwriter, an expressive singer and an excellent guitarist. It’s a unique guitar style – loud, metallic, percussive – based, he says, on claw hammer banjo technique. The fact that he’s no mere strummer gives him an edge as someone who performs solo much of the time. That said, Josh Hedley was a welcome addition on fiddle and vocal harmonies.
Earle’s set drew heavily on Harlem River Blues, one of the best albums of 2010.
(I watched the show with my friend, Tom, who had flown up from Hobart. Like me, Tom is a major, long-time Steve Earle fan. We’d both been blown away by JTE on his previous tour, just twelve months back. It’s an indication of how far Justin has come that Steve’s name didn’t come up at all in our conversations over the weekend. )
Justin Townes Earle
At the other end of Sunday were Band of Brothers, an Australian group fusing two duos – guitarists Slava and Leonard Grigoryan, and the Tawadros brothers; Joseph and James, playing oud and riq, respectively.
I’ve recently become a big fan of the Tunisian oud master, Anouar Brahem, so it was a thrill to see the instrument played live for the first time.
The riq is an Egyptian tambourine which, in the hands of a skilled player (and with the benefit of amplification) makes amazing sounds.
The Grigoryan brothers are at home with both classical repertoire and Windham Hill-like excursions.
The program was varied, ranging from traditional-sounding Arabic music to a delightful arrangement of The Beatles’ Blackbird. Band of Brothers is greater than the sum of its considerable parts, and I hope they continue to work together.
Slava Grigoryan and Joseph Tawadros
Another standout for me was Tim O’Brien, ex of Hot Rize, enjoying his first trip down under in a quarter of a century. Great tenor voice, great player, wonderful story teller – one of those guys who make it look easy because they work so hard.
Crooked Still’s Corey DiMario had been pinch-hitting in his trio on the Oz tour and, happily, the rest of Crooked Still joined O’Brien for much of his Sunday show. It was relaxed celebration on their last afternoon on the Australian festival circuit.
Aoife O’Donovan and Gerry Paul
Others to impress included two sublime folk guitarists – Tony McManus and Martin Simpson. Scots-born McManus draws tunes from many cultures and from jazz, and plays with the lightest touch. Englishman Simpson is a truly great slide guitarist, although his show was more about song and story-telling. He was joined by McManus for his encore, a delicate duet on the sea shanty Shallow Brown. It was a highlight of the weekend.
Others folkies included the Alan Kelly Quartet, an Irish traditonal group led by accordionist Kelly, and The Cottars from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The Cottars moved between traditonal celtic music and effective folk-pop of (brother and sister) Ciaran and Fiona MacGillivray.
Mama Kin’s show was a revelation. I last saw Danielle Caruana perform at a low key afternoon show with husband John Butler at Bluefest several years ago. She was clearly talented, but a tentative performer. Not so now. With big brother Michael on keys and George Servanis on drums, she turned in an energetic, crowd-pleasing performance. But it was a pub-sized group on a big stage. I’d love to see her with a full (Cat Empire-sized) band.
As always, I missed a few acts I had pencilled in – including Luka Bloom, Katie Noonan, David Bridie, and The Waifs – but that’s the nature of festivals. If there’s a heaven and I’m eligible for entry, my first wish will be to see all those festival acts I missed over the years because of poor planning, peer pressure and the odd gale force hangover.
(Next year’s festival is over the weekend of 16th-18th March. Wear something green.)