Getting High: Blue Mountains Music Festival 2014
Just a couple of hours out of Sydney, Katoomba – with its postcard views and quaint, yesteryear appeal – is an ideal spot for a festival. And the Blue Mountains Music Festival gets it just right, year after year.
It’s a compact event, in both space and time. The festival happens in a block on the East side of Lurline Street, taking in the public school, the Returned Services League club and the Clarendon Hotel. It’s all over in a little over 48 hours, from Friday evening to Sunday evening.
The main stage (The Bigtop) is in a large tent on the school sports field. The second is another marquee (The Pavillion) on the RSL club car park. The third stage (Guinness) is in the school square. There are indoor stages in the Clarendon, the RSL Club, and the school’s Shed. A new minor space on the school grounds (Tantric Turtle – really) was added this year. All these stages are within a couple of minutes walk of each other. (But carry an umbrella!)
I do the loop between the Pavillion, Big Top and Guinness stages. They are the most accessible, and it’s generally where the best artists play.
The standouts, for me, this year were an all-girl harmony trio from Canada, two classical guitarists – brothers born in Kazakhstan of Armenian ancestry and raised in Australia – and a Mongolian-Chinese folk-rock group.
That’s what festivals are about. Apart from the opportunity to escape the daily grind, soak up the good vibes, enjoy good food and coffee, and whatever else gets you through the day – it’s about a smorgasbord of music. A chance to see some favorites, with luck, and to try new and different sounds.
The Blue Mountains Music Festival covers a lot of bases but is still a low key event and, in essence, a folk festival. (You know it’s a folk fest because upright basses outnumber bass guitars by two to one.)
It was my tenth year, and the festival still feels lovingly hand-crafted and has changed only in increments. The music mix and the quality of the roster hasn’t altered much, but the quality of the staging is continually more professional. The sound this year – at least on the three main stages – was just brilliant.
The Big Top has a large stage, screens to the left and right, good lighting – and truly excellent audio.
This was apparent from the first act on Friday night. I was still getting my bearings when Melbourne’s four piece Mustered Courage kicked things off. I didn’t catch all their set, but saw enough to confirm they they live up to the considerable hype.
They describe themselves as “bridging the gap between traditional bluegrass and modern roots music”. The stage patter was, um, random, but they are very good players, never slipping – as far as I could see – into the trap of parodying the very music whose tradition they are mining.
I took in a little of English folkie Rory McLeod (a top notch harmonica player – he could play more and talk a little less) at Guinness before heading back to the Big Top for Canada’s Good Lovelies (pictured) whose three-part harmonies had immediate appeal. Formed in 2006 in Toronto, they do a breezy kind of folk-pop, underpinned by 40’s swing. Their version of the Boswell Sisters’ “Heebie Jeebies” was a highlight.
Each of the members writes, sings and plays guitar. Caroline Brooks (pictured left) also plays mandolin and banjo. Even their speaking voices suggest who’s singing which part of the harmonies. Caroline has a sweet, girlish voice, Sue Passmore (right) has an earthy huskiness, and Kerri Ough is somewhere in between.
The trio is finely balanced, and more than the sum of its parts.
Beyond the music, they are just delightful characters, as down-to-earth as they are talented. Bassist Steve Zsirai did a great job of rounding out their sound.
(Festival director Bob Charters is Canadian, which might explain the rollcall of outstanding artists from Canada over the years, including Ron Sexsmith, James Keelaghan, David Francy, Tony McManus, April Verch, The Cottars, Harry Manx and Quebec’s Genticorum.)
After watching part of the sets by Scottish-born folk legend Eric Bogle and slide guitarist Jeff Lang, both top performers, both of whom I’ve seen several times, I chose Melbourne band Flap! as the last show of the night.
Flap! are led by seriously gifted jazz trumpeter Eamon McNelis. Influenced by fellow Melbourne group The Hoodangers, they play hot jazz with a casual, street party feel and a distinctly Australian flavour. Flap! have been together six years, and it shows. The sound is superficially loose, but never sloppy.
They kept an enthusiastic Friday crowd in The Pavilion on their feet until midnight.
For me, Saturday began in the Big Top with the blues guitar circle, led by relative veteran Jeff Lang, and including Japan’s George Kamikawa, New Zealander Jesse Valach, and young Indigenous Australian, Benny Walker. Lang did a fine job of coaxing the younger men to explain their influences and approach to music. It ended up being a good-natured, casual jam session.
Equus followed in the Big Top, and they were a very pleasant surprise. The group focuses on Mongolian throat singer and morin khurr player, Bukhu, and oud player/guitarist John Robinson. (The pair also perform as a duo called Horse and Wood.) They were joined by jazz sax/wind player Andy Bussutil, bassist Bertie McMahon and – for this gig – percussionist Peter Kennard. The effect was stylish jazz-world fusion. Their closing song was a unique, swinging version of “Summertime”, complete with a throat-sung verse. Uplifting.
Over at Guinness we caught the last part of The BordererS, a rollicking good-time band formed in Adelaide, with members from various parts of the British Isles and the US. It’s an unusual combination of folk, schmaltz and rock’n’roll, all aimed at getting people on their feet – or at least tapping their toes .
The Good Lovelies followed at Guinness and they easily won over a big crowd once again. The set was a little different to Friday’s, and included a splendid version of Springsteen’s “State Trooper”. (There was a bit of a giggle when Kerri announced they were doing a Springsteen song, and I wondered why. I suspect many in the crowd only know Springsteen from the Born in the USA era.)
Yet another Melbourne band, The Tiger and Me played The Pavilion. Described as “Cabaret/Circus/Euro Indie Folk-Pop Wunderkinds”, the quintet drew on a number of influences, but came across as an indie rock band. They were good fun.
Englishman Blair Dunlop, just 21, looks set for a long and successful future as a singer-sonwriter and guitarist. The son of bassist Ashley Hutchings (Fairports/Steeleye Span/Albion Band), Dunlop is no stranger to show business, having played the part of the young Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s 2005 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dunlop has, dare I say, an X-factor, a subtle something that makes you lean in and listen. He is already a very good guitarist, finishing his solo Guinness set with an excellent version of Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lightning 1952” – a genuine “don’t try this at home” song.
Veteran Peter Rowan is a regular visitor to Australia, and to this festival, and always draws a crowd. Billed as the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Trio, he was joined by Virginian Chris Henry (a band leader in his own right) and New Zealand-born, Australian-based fiddler George Jackson. Not one to rest on his laurels, Rowans drew material from his 2013 album The Old School, which includes ten new originals. As for the entire weekend, Rowan was blessed by concert grade sound in The Bigtop.
(Only after the event did I realise how few American artists there were. Last year my faves included Natalie Haas/Alasdair Fraser, Arlo Guthie, Red Molly and Chris Smither. The Peter Rowan Trio and Pieta Brown of Love Over Gold were the only guests from the USA this year.)
Local heroes The Stray Sisters (The Waifs minus Josh Cunningham) were next in The Big Top, but I opted for Love Over Gold, the trans-Pacific duo of Pieta Brown and Lucy Thorne. They played to a small audience in a cold Pavilion, following the passing of a storm. The duo, Brown from Iowa and Thorne from Melbourne, met during Brown’s first Australian tour in 2011 and soon struck up a friendship and musical partnrship. They were joined by one of Australia’s finest drummer/percussionists, Hamish Stuart. For me, it just didn’t work. It’s all hushed tones, one tempo and minimalist guitar – Thorne playing a Guild electric and Brown strumming an acoustic. It works well on CD – great late night, fireside music – but seemed to lack the dynamics for a festival gig. To be fair, I was unfamiliar with their material and I was taking it all in with untrained ears.
Lior, along with The Stray Sisters before him, attracted the biggest audience of the weekend to The Big Top. Born in Israel and raised in Australia, Lior came to prominence through his debut sleeper, Autumn Flow, in 2005. Recorded independently, it eventually went platinum. He remains something of a pop star while following his own instincts, having recently recorded a project with contemporary classical composer Nigel Westlake. I thought his music more pleasant than exciting, but he is a warm and engaging presence, and had the support of a packed house. It was a nice place to be.
The crowd thinned considerably for the final act of the night, China’s Hanggai, which is a pity – those who left missed something special. (Neko Case, who was on the Womadelaide bill with them the previous weekend, tweeted that Hanggai gave her “a musical boner that will last for months”.)
Usually described as having a “punk” element, I thought them more like an Asian version of 70’s folk-rock, a la Steeleye Span. Singer Yiliqi (or Ilchi) looks more heavy metal outcast than punk.
The music is all based on Mongolian folk songs, ranging from traditional morin khurr (horse head fiddle) and throat singing from Batubagen (pictured right), to a full band sound combining electric guitar, bass and drums with morin khurr and tobushuur (a kind of lute). As shown by any number of ‘world music’ groups (I’m thinking of Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra, from west Africa), you can put these basic looking instruments though a PA and, in the hands of master players, make them part of a rocking band.
I was keen to see more of Equus on Sunday, but the Shed was packed, so I opted for Love Over Gold at the Big Top, thinking the closed space and superior sound (and lighting) would be kinder to their music than the Pavilion. That was true to an extent, but I still felt they needed a more intimate space and more musical textures – a bass player at the very least. (Still, I got enough from the show to encourage exploration of their music. As I write, I’m listening to Pieta Brown’s excellent One and All.)
Half way through the set I went to Guinness for a third helping of the Good Lovelies. Although they mostly reprised material from the previous two shows, it was again thoroughly enjoyable. Word had obviously got around. For the third time, they played to a near capacity crowd.
By the time Slava and Leonard Grigoryan played the Big Top, a heavy storm had passed and the sky was blue, but a cool wind persisted. The big tent billowed and flapped, disconcertingly at times, serving to remind us this was a festival and not a recital. It really didn’t detract too much, and this was the musical high point of the weekend for me.
The Grigoryan brothers are simply world class, combining standard classical guitar repertoire with Tchaikovshy, Astor Piazzolla’s tango, Brazillian guitar music, and originals..
The highlights included Leonard’s “Distance” and a Ralph Towner piece. (Slava, pictured, shares two trio albums with Towner and Austrian Wolfgang Muthspiel. The brothers are performing a series of concerts with Towner and Muthspiel later this year.)
By now, my friend Tom and I thought we’d seen everything we wanted to see. Despite last night’s full house neither of us was very interested in the Stray Sisters, and we stayed for their show as much through inertia as curiosity. It turned out to be one of the better sets of the festival, with both Donna and Vikki in great voice, Vikki playing some excellent mouth harp, and Ben Franz anchoring the sound in fine style. Ruby Boots (aka Bex Chilcott) made a welcome cameo appearance, singing duet with Vikki.
From there we caught the end of Peter Rowan at Guinness, then it was on to sample a little of the popular Xavier Rudd, playing the final show at the Pavilion.
By then, though, we were done in, and made our way home.
After sampling festival artists on Spotify during our morning trip up from the lower mountains, we turned to the radio news channel on the trip back down, chatting about what a good day it was, how the weather gods were mostly kind, and who we’d like to see next year.
Ticket value for money 5/5
Food value for money 3/5
Photography © 2014 Steve Ford except Three Sisters reproduced under Creative Commons Licence and Jamison Valley panorama reproduced under Creative Commons Licence. First picture: Caroline Brooks of Good Lovelies.