Melbourne Country

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I pen my column for this issue at a sticky bench-top amid the dingy surrounds of Melbourne’s infamous Tote Hotel. It’s an iconic music venue – known mostly as a home to rock, metal and punk music – but it hit the national spotlight back in 2010 when the prospect of it’s closure (due to conservative liquor licensing and security laws) prompted the SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) Rally where up to 20,000 people took to Melbourne’s streets to demand greater protection for our live music industry.  On first impressions, few would pick The Tote as a potential country music venue, but this author performed one of his first country gigs in the band room of this very hotel, supporting alt-country pioneers The Re-mains back in 2009.

I’m actually in the front bar today, watching Jemma Nicole grind out her slow, electric country with her band, none of whom are wearing the checked shirts and cowboy hats you so often see in Melbourne pubs these days. Instead, Jemma wears all black, as do her fiddle player Lucy and drummer Dylan, whilst guitarist Jack dons grey shorts and a black T-shirt, his long blonde hair clinging to his face (I should mention it’s about 40C degrees in here) as he emphatically plucks and strums dissonant chords, sent through an array of effects pedals to create an ethereal, almost ‘circus’ sound that feels like something Tom Waits would preside over. It’s all rather excellent.

Jemma, with her unique take on country, was part of the Deep Down South group that joined me on a trek to Tamworth this year for the festival (a tour that was kindly supported by this very publication). There were eight of us in total, all very different to each other, but all united by a love of this broad and ever-evolving genre. It was a real pleasure to spend my seventh Tamworth (I start to feel like a veteran until I remember that some folks like Aleyce Simmonds have attended the festival almost every year of their lives so far) around a group of relative newcomers – it really made the festival feel new all over again to me (not least of all because I elected to camp with the group rather than enjoy the luxuries of a comfy house as I’ve been fortunate enough to do for the last four or five years).

So what sort of impression did Tamworth 2016 make on a bunch of Melbournites? The leader of our group – Joy Fm Radio Broadcaster Chris Snow, found his first ever Tamworth to be “the most inclusive” music festival that he’s attended – noting that the town was welcoming, as were the audiences. Another first timer, singer-songwriter Les Thomas, described the week as “nothing short of a blast”. Les, who’s been an important figure in the Melbourne country and roots scene for years (particularly through his website www.unpaved.com), went on to say  that “for any music fans and artists who’ve hesitated to venture to the traditional home of Australian country music, (he would) highly recommend making the trip and seeing what it’s all about first hand”.

It has to be said, of course, that the festival itself put on a very good showing in 2016. For me, this was a real stand-out year. Whilst I first journeyed to the festival as an ‘outsider’ – an ‘alt-country’ artist trying to find a few listeners – I now feel like the barriers between what’s ‘alt’ and what’s ‘mainstream’ or ‘popular’ are disintegrating. I think this is great news. Whilst the ‘Late Night Alt Sessions’ at The Tudor were again a festival highlight, the range of audience at these shows, and the presence of many well known industry-figures, suggests to me that this strand of country has gained real acceptance. Similarly, the quality of performances by the established country stars that I witnessed were very strong this year, with the likes of Troy, Catherine, Kevin Bennett and others reminding us again that good music is good music – categorization is redundant.

Outside of our group, there were plenty of other Melbournians around. My old pals The Weeping Willows were seen everywhere, ahead of the release of their second album (available March 4). The Bakersfield Glee Club were up there too, performing at Americana in the Park (which was excellent again and will surely attract many more artists from the Melbourne scene). Henry Wagons was notably absent this year, but he did cover the festival on his Double J radio program Tower of Song. I chatted to Henry over the phone, and he sent me a link to listen to his new album  After What I did Last Night (see Gareth’s review Reviews) recorded in Nashville last year. This is Henry’s first solo disc in a while, and his first for ABC/Universal. Having given the tracks a good spin since getting home, I also have to say this could be his finest work to date. As always, Henry’s tongue is firmly in his cheek – but the songwriting and the performances here are very strong.

Back home now, I’m still feeling the buzz of this year’s Tamworth – and I’m still convinced that country music in Melbourne is stronger than ever. There’s plenty of interstate artists heading down here to perform, record and write – including Jen Mize, Allan Caswell, Ruby Boots and James Thomson – the latter I am looking forward to having join The Wildes and I on March 3rd as part of our monthly residency at The Retreat Hotel. Just like in Tamworth, the crowds are up and the vibes are good.

Before I go I should mention a handful of releases from down this way to look out for online or at your local record store. Little Rabbit – made up of stellar musicians Pete Fidler, Kat Mear and Kimberley Wheeler – have released a great little album called Watching Over Joan. They launched it at The Spotted Mallard recently and received a great response. Column-favourite Cat Canteri has a new EP – Late at Night – which is out now and is also worth picking up. Finally, Lost Ragas, featuring Matt Walker, Shane Reilly, Roger Bergodaz and Simon Burke, have a disc (and vinyl) out called Trans Atlantic Highway. Now that’s one you really have to hear.

Til next time.