Set in the Depression-era American South, the Coen Brothers’ celebrated caper O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) is one of those rare, two-headed beasts: a film that is at least as worthy of attention for its score as it is for its cinematic charms. The official motion picture soundtrack to the film was, and remains, a high point in the movie soundtrack game. In 2013, Rolling Stone ranked the compilation No. 10 on its list of the ‘25 Greatest Soundtracks of All Time’, saying:
Credit for this…old-time-music revival salvo goes not just to the soundtrack-savvy Coen brothers, but also T Bone Burnett: it’s one of his greatest moments as an album producer. With lean accompaniment, Alison Krauss makes her most high-profile bid for the title of Country Music’s Sweetest Voice, alongside fellow contenders Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. But the show-stealer is bluegrass pater familias Ralph Stanley, whose a cappella rendition of the spiritual ‘O Death’ is downright bone-chilling.
On either 7 or 8 May, the discerning punter might have caught ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ at Newtown’s The Vanguard. A tribute to the music of O Brother, the evening featured performances from The Morrisons, Ngaiire, Elana Stone, Tommy Dean, Brian Campeau (Green Mohair Suits), All Our Exes Live in Texas, and Lucky Luke (And His Shooting Stars). The Vanguard is known for staging events of this kind, celebrating the work of artists from Tom Waits to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
The “theme” or “variety” night format–of which the “tribute” show is perhaps the most conspicuous example–is an increasingly popular and enjoyable format in which to see live country music. The experience can, of course, be bittersweet. Such events are often elegiac in tone, being staged in posthumous celebration of an artist recently departed. Still, there are plenty of events such as ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ to choose from – evenings that are neither prompted nor overshadowed by the death of the artist or artists they celebrate (cf. the recent spate of Lou Reed tribute shows).
Sydney presently offers a rich vein to tap in this regard. Rock’n’roll theatre event Sons of Sun – Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny and Me (The Sam Phillips Story)–a musical exploration of the golden age of Sun Records–has been doing the rounds of late, playing venues from Cronulla’s Brass Monkey to the Petersham Bowling Club. The show is at Camelot Lounge on 30 May, and at the Clarendon in Katoomba on 31 May.
The Inner West continues to be something of a hub for the tribute show. May 15 saw Narelle Evans and her band stage their dedication to the pioneering rockabilly femme fatales of the 1950s–Wanda Jackson included–at Marrickville’s Django Bar. The Petersham Bowling Club, too, is always worth a look. Keep a special eye out for the venue’s ‘Porch Light Sessions’ on the second Thursday of every month, showcasing local country, folk and bluegrass artists. Recent performers have included old-time junk band The Rusty Spring Syncopators and the ever-charming Emma Swift. Also worth keeping an eye on is the (very) loosely themed country, roots, and rockabilly event that is Frankie’s semi-regular Sunday Swillfest.
Beachside, The Brass Monkey in Cronulla will host Ray Beadle & Stuie French on 21 June, and the Cash Johnny Cash show (featuring Stuart French, Daniel Thompson and Tamara Stewart) on 25 and 26 June. In Coogee, Karl Broadie–inimitable host of Tuesday night Songwriter Sessions at Diggers–staged the venue’s first regular bluegrass evening back in March. Now a semi-regular Thursday night fixture, Bluegrass at the Bunker has so far featured the likes of String Theories, Burnt Creek Deviation, and The Sweet Jelly Rolls.
Now into its fourth year, Tamara Stewart’s ‘Song Factory’ songwriter evening is held Wednesday nights at the Royal Cricketer’s Arms in Prospect. To the North, Steve Passfield’s Jam Nights are staged at the Berowra RSL on the first and third Thursdays of the month. The second Thursday of the month finds Bob Howe hosting Canterbury Country at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL, which has itself been known to adopt the “theme night” format, including a recent ‘Back to the Bush’ evening featuring Simply Bushed. Also on every second Thursday of the month is Bill Chambers’ Hillbilly Jam at Rooty Hill RSL – a free event that is well worth checking out.
As ever, there’s plenty to see and do at Rooty Hill RSL. The venue hosts special fundraiser event Total Country Jamm for Genes on 24 May, with all proceeds going to support The Children’s Medical Research Institute. The event will feature Catherine Britt, Mike Carr, Buddy Goode, Jason Owen, The Viper Creek Band, and Seleen McAlister.
Then, on 12 June, the Club will hold its second annual ‘Slim Dusty Birthday Bash’. Performers are Lee Kernaghan, Troy Cassar-Daley, Adam Harvey, Amber Lawrence, Aleyce Simmonds, Luke O’Shea, Jared Porter, Anne and David Kirkpatrick.
Album tours are also afoot in the Harbour City. The Audreys are at the Factory Theatre in Marrickville on 8 June (in support of forthcoming LP ‘Til My Tears Roll Away), as are the irrepressible Wagons (touring behind their latest stylish offering, Acid Rain and Sugarcane) on 14 June. Another show not to miss at the Factory is rockabilly legend Wayne “The Train” Hancock on 8 August, with support from Sydney’s own king of classic country and proto-rock’n’roll, Lucky Luke.
Mustered Courage are at the Vanguard on 16 May with guests Green Mohair Suits, as is Jo Meares on 5 June. Punters are also advised to check out online gig listings for the Marrickville Bowling Club’s regular Sunday country fixtures. Upcoming gigs include rockabilly stalwarts Satellite V, and Hunter & Suzy Owens.
Another venue known for staging tribute shows of the highest calibre is Lizotte’s. The Audreys are at Lizotte’s Newcastle on 7 June, as are Wagons on 14 June, Lyn Bowtell on 10 July (Lyn is at the Central Coast venue on 11 July), The Last Waltz Revival Show on 25 July (also at the Sydney venue on 26 July), and Monique Montez’s tribute to Dusty Springfield: Dusty the Concert on 9 August. Christie Lamb and Viper Creek Band are at Lizotte’s Sydney on 25 May, while the Central Coast venue will host Kevin Bennett & The Flood on 23 May. Also at the Central Coast venue–and a novel twist on the “theme” event format–is Buddy Goode’s Christmas in July show on 20 July.
Be it a musical time capsule, memorial service, or unabashed celebration of a contemporary artist’s musical heroes, the theme-and-or-tribute show is a frequently worthy format – though discretion is advised all the same. After all, imitation is frequently poor flattery. A generation only gets one Bjorn Again or Acca Dacca.