Roots & All

78-ROOTS_1

With Kim Cheshire.

The Bello Winter Music Festival

Since moving to the North Coast of NSW, one of my favourite discoveries has been the Mullumbimby Music Festival, a community styled gathering that takes over the theatres, pubs, clubs and cafes of the town for three days of musical and cultural celebration, run by Mullumbimby resident andv Vitamin Records honcho Glen Wright. Wright having familiarised himself with the Bellingen musical community over that last few years, decided that his Mullum event could be a template for a winter style version there in that beautiful historic town on the mid north coast of NSW, and the Bello Winter Music Festival was born.

Much like the Mullum festival, the inaugural Bello festival was a three day event utilising the town’s numerous venues along with street theatre, workshops, free events, walking tours and featuring a wide variety of new and established folk, alt country, blues, funk and world music performers, young and old. Headliners US Grammy-nominated folk harmony duo The Milk Carton Kids, North Coast resident blues rocker Ash Grunwald and Melbourne’s folk/pop phenomenon Tin Pan Orange were ably supported by a wealth of vibrant and varied Australian musical talent. I hadn’t visited Bellingen since 1980; it remains as beautiful as the day I first laid eyes on it. I wandered the streets exploring the place and discovering many changes since that time.  My music experience began with a rousing performance from local favourites The Mid North and was just what I needed to get me into the groove. Hyperventilating frontman and chief songwriter Scott Collins led the band through a blistering collection of Bellingen bluegrass originals to a salivating crowd that felt more like a Clash gig than anything to do with a Kentucky bluegrass convention. Next up was a stellar performance by North Coast locals Starboard Cannons out at the Golf Club. Their combination of alt folk/Australiana was as always, warm hearted, skilfully utilising both the understated and the rousing to great effect with the help of solid songwriting and the unique voice of frontman/songwriter Ashley Bell. Folk singer/poet and sonic wrangler Lucie Thorne and drummer/rhythmic collaborator Hamish Stuart beckoned and I wandered over for a healthy dose of evocative textures and poetic ramblings that is the palette for their wonderfully moody and atmospheric collaborations. By the time I returned to Cafe No5, veteran Blues/Soul/Funk/Jazz singer Jo Jo Smith was just getting into gear with her nylon string acoustic guitar, a voice from the heavens and more heart than a coronary unit. She had us all clapping and singing along to her original songs and choice covers with a little assistance from master drummer/percussionist Greg Sheehan….I was flabbergasted that having lived in Australia since 1979 I could have missed this enormously talented woman. I wandered back to my lodgings in a musical reverie. There was a lot to take in on Saturday and I tried to pace myself, I checked out Bellingen born now Brisbane based singer/songwriter Jack Carty and was impressed, great folk/pop songs, relaxed performance style and evocative heartfelt singing! It’s shameful to admit that without hearing them I’d assumed that folk/pop trio Tin Pan Orange were some Melbourne indie act that was probably not my cup of tea. I am pleased to inform you that I found them thoroughly captivating. Front woman and songwriter Emily Lubitz and guitarist brother Jesse along with multi-instrumentalist Alex Burkoy were my second big surprise of the festival, great songs beautifully played and delivered with charm, humour and lots of class. An elegantly dishevelled Wilson Pickers were next up; it’s been a few years since I’ve seen them live but they didn’t disappoint, they took us through their finest moments from their Land of The Powerful Owl and Shake it Down albums with energy, wit and those gorgeous five part harmonies as if it were 2008…ragged but right! I was alerted to the fact that if I wanted to get in to the Memorial Hall for Californian headliners The Milk Carton Kids I would have to get there early. I arrived pleased to discover a friend had kept me a great seat. These guys were musically unique and completely mesmerising. Standing around one microphone with just two unamplified acoustic guitars and one lead and one vocal harmony, they managed to completely captivate a packed house with their delicate Simon and Garfunkel like harmony structures and David Rawlings like guitar sojourns. Their lyrically imaginative and melodically exquisite song constructions came to life in this natural setting only to be broken up by the ironic dry wit that dominates their endearing stage patter. There were times it felt like a stand up routine but never enough to detract from the musical ambience.

On Sunday “Songs of the River,” a concept put together by Mary Canon, Byron Bay’s premier roots music DJ and promoter, featuring songs about rivers by a selection of the festival’s local and featured artists, turned out to be a huge success. A packed Memorial Hall was host to what turned out to be a festival highlight with inspired performances from Lucy Thorne, Ashley Bell, Sara Tindley Emily Lubitz, Emma Donovan, and more, including myself. The Bellingen Brewery was host to the lovely Sara Tindley in what was another delightful session with one of the North Coast’s finest singer songwriters. The festival gossip had New Zealander Marlon Williams and the Yarra Benders being touted as contenders for the festival’s concluding highpoint and their sold out Sunday concert certainly didn’t disappoint. Having cranked it up a notch or two since seeing his solo show here last year and having put together a band that can play and sing really well to showcase his unique voice in a hip “alt country meets old time retro country” category they managed to deliver the kind of impressive performance that should see him fast becoming a real contender for international attention. I awoke the following morning to find the town silent and practically deserted, the whole place most likely exhausted from the weekend’s revelry was still sleeping it off as I ate breakfast then headed home.

Lucie Thorne and Hamish Stuart

Being at the Bellingen festival provided the opportunity to catch up with eclectic Tasmanian folk singer Lucie Thorne. We met mid festival in a park in town for a chat about her beautiful new album Everything Sings Tonight and her extensive upcoming Australian tour with (her band) long time collaborator drummer/percussionist Hamish Stuart. Following on from her previous six solo albums and duo collaboration Love Over Gold with American songstress Pieta Brown (daughter of singer songwriter/poet Greg Brown) comes her most fully realised work yet. Everything Sings Tonight is a translucent foray into texture, nuance and mood, a beguiling collection of aural paintings where impressionistic lyrical content and textural minimalist electric guitar rides the wave of Stuart’s masterful percussive ebb and flow. She’s carving out her own territory, an admirable approach in this period of musical conformity.

I note the album was recorded in a variety of locations from Berlin to Ohio?

We were doing some shows in Europe towards the end of last year and we had a few day’s off in Germany and as I’ve got a few great friends in Berlin and we thought maybe we should look at what our options are there. We booked a studio after meeting a engineer there, he was like the German version of our guy back home.

We said, let’s just spend two days and see what we get done, hopefully it’ll sound good. At the end of two days we had the guitar drums and vocals down for ten songs and it was starting to sound like a record.

Along with contributions from a few of your Aussie favourites I see you managed to recruit not only your Dad (award winning contemporary Australian poet) but Greg Brown, Pieta Brown and husband guitarist Bo Ramsey, how did this come about?

I’d been doing some shows with Pieta in Iowa and after listening to the roughs we’d done in Germany I decided I wanted to ask Pieta and Bo if they’ll do me the honour of joining in a bit. Pieta got pretty excited after hearing what I had, and I asked her if she thought Bo would be interested, she said “just ask him, it’s hallowed ground for him, he wouldn’t do it if he didn’t think he could add something worthwhile” he listened, he loved it and they both added their parts.

So what about Greg and your Dad? (both recite the same piece of TS Elliot’s epic poem “The Wasteland” as part of the album’s centrepiece “Everything Sings”, Tim Thorne in Romanian and Greg Brown in English.

Well it’s kind of two stories, the poem had been rattling around my brain and I decided I’d leave a space in the recording in case I could include a spoken word part, and because I was in Romania playing gigs at the time, I asked a friend if he could source a Romanian translation for me as I thought using it in English might put too much emphasis on the text. Meanwhile back in Iowa during a Ramsey/Brown family gathering, I was smoking cigarettes on the porch with Greg and I told him I was making a new record when he said “if I need any crazy low harmonies, you know who to call” I quietly thought to myself “I think Greg Brown is asking if he can be on my album” I quietly, yet  excitedly filed it away and came back to Australia. Now I had the two choices, I decided I would ask my Dad re the Romanian version and I wrote to Greg who was more than happy to contribute the English version and I loved them so much I included both. 

Catch them on their (8 state) Australian winter tour through June/July/Aug