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Crowded House, Jeff Beck, Matisyahu, Taj Mahal, John Mayall, Angus and Julia Stone, Newton Faulkner, Red Shoes Boy, Mary Gauthier

Posted by craigz , 12 July 2011 · 2765 views

Date: Sunday, 28th Mar 2010
Venue: West Coast Blues and Roots
Reviewer: Cissi Of The Fairies

Going down to Fremantle on Sunday, I noticed it was a lovely day for a festival – a mild sunny day and with barely a cloud to blemish the bright blue sky. This year, the West Coast Blues and Roots festival changed locations from the Esplanade to Fremantle Park, and it was touted by Sunset as being a change for the better, being a more spacious venue. However, I quickly developed doubts about the benefits of changing the venue as I joined the throng of lost festival-goers wandering around the port city with blank looks on their faces, wondering where Fremantle Park was located. “You’re about the 50th person who has asked me - no-one knows where this place is!” said a local shopowner as he gave out directions to yet another group.


Once inside Fremantle Park, my impression of the venue dropped further. A maze-like layout with narrow pathways awaited patrons and it was a battle to navigate from stage to stage. The stalls, food court, merchandise stand and three stages were squashed into the back of the venue, creating bottlenecks everywhere. To make things worse, the picnic zone (this year, people were allowed to picnic) on the hill facing the main stage spilled downhill, with people turning themselves into path hazards as they set up picnic rugs in the standing area.


Thankfully, the music this year was top notch and made up for the frustration of being caught in the crushing crowd. Mary Gauthier’s spare-sounding folk floated through the Theatre Stage to a very receptive seated audience, with her strong alto voice singing about love and redemption while never diving into maudlin sentimentality. A woman with an interesting past – having overcome drugs, alcohol and homelessness as a teenager to open up a restaurant, before writing her first song at age 35 – she was a captivating presence.


Over on the Market Stage, local act Red Shoes Boy rocked out with some raucous 60s blues. They quickly got the crowd thumping with an inspired set of raw, groove-based rock punctuated with raspy vocals, slide guitar and a wailing harmonica. Definitely a band to look out for at local traps.


Newton Faulker showed that one man and a guitar could indeed rock out alone on a large stage. Swinging his substantial trademark red dreadlocks from side to side, he belted out rootsy folk and quickly got the large crowd dancing with his hard, percussive strumming style. The barefooted troubadour then sat down in front of a large foot-powered organ to show a more mellow side to his playing, which unfortunately sapped away the energy he had built up earlier.


The prize for the most beautiful set design at this year’s Blues and Roots goes to Angus and Julia Stone, with a whimsically decorated stage filled with crooked paintings hanging off a yellow-and-brown pinstripe backdrop, old lamps and various bric-a-brac (the model ship on a guitar amp and the old food tins on the keyboard were highlights). Unfortunately, technical issues delayed the start by over 20mins and when the band finally hit the stage, they seemed somewhat perturbed by the delay and gave a dull, disappointing performance. Angus, in particular, seemed disinterested with the proceedings, but at least Julia attempted to liven the band's presence with some charming dancing.


John Mayall was in trailblazing form on the Theatre Stage, which was now devoid of chairs and was standing room only, with blurry men in flannel competing for a place up the front. The 76 year old Mayall belied his age and made the harmonica bend and scream to his will, as well as tinkling away on the keyboards. Backed by a great band (including an amazing virtuoso keyboardist), he tore through some new material as well as songs from his legendary Bluesbreaker era.


“The blues don’t have to be sad to be good”, announced bluesman Taj Mahal at the Big Top stage and he was right. Starting his set with some great instrumental blues where he made his vintage passionately guitar scream and wail, he then launched into a song about dancing women and how he enjoyed watching gyrating hips.


Hasidic Jew reggae and hip-hop artist Matisyahu was an interesting choice for a blues and roots festival. Despite that, he proved to be one of the best performers of the day with a joyous set, with Matisyahu dancing and jumping around on the stage like a whirling dervish, ear curls and prayer tassels flying. In between his whirling dance moves, Matisyahu sang about spirtuality, peace and love like a tall, gangly, charismatic preacher, and the crowd lapped up the words and the beats. Big kudos goes out to his drummer for some fantastic work. Matisyahu ended his set by launching himself several times into the crowd, who lifted him up and carried him back over the barrier – overall, an inspiring set.


There was yet another delay at the Bigtop Stage, causing the restless audience to chant Jeff Beck’s name repeatedly as roadies wheeled out massive Mesa/Boogie cabinents and constantly checked the foldbacks. The audience at Jeff Beck was a great example of the diversity of the crowd at this year’s Blues and Roots, with 60-something grandparents pushing their way up to the front of the barrier alongside hipster 20-somethings. After a 15min delay, the man with the trademark white Stratocaster appeared on stage and Beck (decked out in a white caveat and a silver armband) launched into some guitar pyrotechnics, whammy bar slamming and double-hand tapping in tow. Featuring an outstanding bassist who did some eye-popping four-string slapping, Beck and his band dazzled with the highlight being an electrifying version of Day In The Life.


On the main stage, a large crowd had gathered to see the festival's headliners – the iconic Crowded House. The lights, which were glaringly bright as the roadies set up the stage, suddenly dimmed and Neil Finn (complete with a questionable mo') charged up to the microphone like a man on a mission, sending the crowd into a frenzy.


Listening to Crowded House was like being taken back to breezy summer days of the 80s-90s, as Finn’s plaintive tenor vocals soared through classics like Fall At Your Feet (including a short boogie-woogie interlude where the band at least tried to sound bluesy) Four Seasons In One Day, and It’s Only Natural. Also thrown into the mix were two new songs – Saturday Sun and Twice If You're Lucky, from their new album Intriguier. Don't Dream It's Over prompted a stirring singalong from the crowd with Finn noting with approval, “It's great to see you've brought your singing voices along.”


The musical highlight of Crowded House’s set was Private Universe, with the rest of the band providing a pulsating rhythmic backdrop (including some fantastic percussion) while Finn dove into an ocean of esoteric guitar experimentation. In between all these classic songs was some relaxed banter by Finn acknowledging that maybe Crowded House was not a band expected at a blues and roots festival, but he ended his thoughts on an upbeat note - “but God knows we've had some good roots in our time."


Midway through the set was an amusing interlude. Finn called out to some people who had climbed on top of a building on the hill opposite the stage, prompting larger-than-life promoter Michael Chugg to emerge from backstage like an enraged bear to tell them, “Get the fuck down from there you bunch of wankers!” As Chugg stormed off again, Finn proceeded to say in his mild-mannered voice, “I would have put it in more polite terms but please come down for your own safety. We're not insured if you hurt yourself.” After that call fell onto deaf ears, Finn told the crowd that bassist Nick Seymour would pay a thousand dollars if someone could get a paper plane from hill onto the stage, prompting a flurry of paper planes to be thrown from all over the crowd.


Towards the end, Crowded House treated the audience with more classics, like Distant Sun and Weather With You, with the latter prompting another loud singalong. Then it was all over, and it was time to pack up the picnic rugs, leave behind the disposable, low-slung cardboard chairs distributed courtesy of Murdoch University and go home with a head swimming from a day of satisfying music.


This year, the promoters have done a great job in finding stellar acts. While not all the acts would have fitted the mould of blues or roots, what matters most is the quality of music which the promoters for the Blues and Roots festival have consistently kept up. Here's eagerly awaiting next year – hopefully back at the Esplanade.