DEEP DOWN SOUTH – ISSUE 86

This quarter’s Notes from Deep Down South come to you from a little further north – about two hours flight (and 10 degrees Celcius) to be precise. It’s late July and my band and I find ourselves on the Gold Coast for our second consecutive Broadbeach Country Music Festival – alongside fellow Victorians The Weeping Willows, Jetty Road and some of The Wilson Pickers. Joining this strong southern representation and making her Broadbeach debut is Ballarat’s Freya Josephine Hollick – a new face on the country circuit whose voice and musical leanings are just about as classic country as it gets.

With a set list that includes ‘The Tennessee Waltz’, ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Do I Ever Cross Your Mind’, you might expect Freya to be sixty years old and lining up for her twelfth Mildura Country Music Festival, but in reality she’s about half that age and more at home in Melbourne’s hipster dive bars or on the lineup of fashionable new festivals like Boogie or Dashville Skyline (where she’ll be appearing in October). Freya was first brought to my attention by my friend Henry Wagons, who has supported her through his popular Tower of Song program on digital radio station Double J. The production on her records in sparse but authentic, whilst her distinctive voice channels Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and other female 70’s country superstars. On stage, she looks the part, resplendent in red or green velvet jumpsuits and aviator sunglasses and, whilst she has in fact been plying her trade for around a decade, Freya’s recent breakthrough EP (which includes several lovely self-penned songs) has established her as both a recording and touring artist, seemingly overnight.

Freya’s success is testament to the continued popularity of ‘classic country’ down here in Melbourne. Acts like Bakersfield Glee Club and The Moonee Valley Drifters have been keeping the flame alive for quite some time now – and the latter have just been announced as part of the line-up for ‘Out on The Weekend’, a festival (happening at Williamstown’s Seaworks in mid October) that celebrates what’s now labelled ‘alt-country’ or ‘Americana’ and is returning to Melbourne for the third consecutive year. A spot on this exclusive lineup (which includes the likes of Son Volt and Justin Townes Earle) is a well-earned reward for ‘the drifters’, who’ve plied their trade at venues such as The Retreat and The Post Office for years, earning legions of dedicated local followers. I for one am rapt to see them included as part of such a high profile event.

I’ve always felt that one of the best things about of the Melbourne music scene is that older and younger acts often perform on the same stages at the same venues, sometimes even side by side. At The Retreat in Brunswick, the Dave Holmes Gang, led by one of Melbourne’s most experienced singer-songwriters, recently launched their new album Rock n Roll Pub – which was inspired by the demolition of some iconic pubs in Melbourne over the past couple of years. The band had a huge turnout for an afternoon show, which was later followed by the honky-tonk of Robyn and the Rancheros. It was a fairly typical Sunday in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, where country music (or at the very least some variation on it) was happening simultaneously at about eight other venues across the north side of town. Acts like The Prairie Oysters, Mr Alford Country, Mitch Power and Dan Parsons (just to name a handful) have been kicking plenty of goals recently, and the country music scene feels even healthier than it was when I was first compelled to write this column four or five years ago.

But it isn’t all good news. Last week we learned that The Caravan Music Club – a venue which I consider a home ground and many consider Australia’s finest supporter of great music, will vacate its’ current location at The Oakleigh RSL by Christmas time. This is terribly sad – particularly as the future of the club is by no means guaranteed. Reading between the lines, it appears that The Caravan was squeezed out by a backwards-thinking RSL committee. It will be heartbreaking to see this beautiful theatre-style space abandoned, worse still if it becomes some kind of pokies joint (which it might have to, if the RSL plans to survive). I think I speak on behalf of the entire music community when I say that I hope The Caravan finds a new venue and quickly – or better still that the RSL has a change of heart and the club can stay in the great sounding (and looking) room that we’ve been enjoying for the past eight years.

I don’t want to end on a negative, so let’s move on to new record releases – of which there are some standouts worthy of discussion. Gretta Ziller’s ‘Queen of Boomtown’ seems like a pretty good place to start – the singer songwriter having made a name for herself with her Matt Fell-produced EP a couple of years back. For her debut album, Gretta has chosen to keep it local, recording at Woodstock Studios in Balaclava with the excellent Paul Ruske. The result is a fantastic sounding record that surrounds Gretta’s huge vocal with great arrangements, pop-sensibility and roots-credibility. As it should be, this is Gretta’s finest work to date – for me, first single ‘Slaughterhouse Blues’ and the title track are the standouts.

Mat Black’s EP is also very strong, recorded out at Hello Studio in Croydon but mixed by my good friend and bandmate Damian Cafarella at EoR studios in Edithvale. I once described Mat’s sound as being like ‘REM doing country’ and I stand by that. His is another powerful voice backed up by good songs – as well as some pretty traditional (and very welcome) country rock production. Whilst Gretta will launch her record in late August through Social Family, Black’s is due in September. Both are well worth looking out for!