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Fremantle Park 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The 12th annual West Coast Blues N’ Roots festival got off to a raucous start with ‘Breakthrough to Blues & Roots’ artist Old Blood impressing early starters with some of the most authentic blues on this year’s bill. Edo Ekic’s fluid guitar work and Tony Papa-Adams’ gravelly growl lent grit to a howling set before the more polished acts to follow.

Fast becoming a stalwart of such events, talented local multi-instrumentalist Morgan Bain wasted no time in showing why he’s so highly respected. Possessing a mighty big voice for a wee fella, Bain played a blinder of a set, hitting tracks new and old. Local radio favourite I Think I Got You was an early highlight with its ‘woo-ohh-oohoohoooh’ refrain, whilst his forthcoming single, Lost In The Moment, ended his set on a quieter but solid note.

Lanie Lane’s voice has an ethereal quality – think Heart’s Ann Wilson or Ambrosia Parsley of Shivaree – and she wields it like a bouquet of flowers, her delicate tunes a beautiful way to ease gently into a long, sun-drenched day. Playing ‘probably my most well-known song’ What Do I Do, followed by ‘definitely my least well known song, because I only wrote it three nights ago’, One Day Closer – which included a wonderfully ad-hoc a Capella section – her delicate touch and gentle genius shone like sun glittering on a pond. Hopefully Lane’s retirement won’t take her from the spotlight completely for too long.

Kim Churchill, shaggy surfer-blonde moptop bouncing in the breeze, does the one-man-band thing better than most. Strumming a guitar, drums clamouring as he keeps the beat with his foot pedals, harmonica harping and chimes jangling, his style may not be unique, but it is heartfelt and instantly engaging, with songs like Canopy getting plenty of people on their feet and dancing in the midday sun. His cover of Led Zeppelin’s Lemon Song is a force of nature that must be heard to be believed.

She may have demons lurking in her dark corners, but onstage Beth Hart is never less than completely commanding and a riveting frontwoman. Possessing an enormous voice full of soulful blues and backed by a band on fire, hers is one of the standout sets of the day. At times reminiscent of the ‘60s greats like Darlene Love or Mavis Staples, Hart’s Bang Bang Boom Boom, the title track of her released-in-two-weeks new album Better Than Home, Sister Heroin and Zeppelinesque blues stomper, Sinner’s Prayer made for a great hour under the Big Top Tent, before she finished up with My California, dedicated with love and pride to husband Scott, who is never far from her side.

Charles Bradley brought his Extraordinaires and a very welcome dose of soul power to Fremantle, channelling ‘60s Booker T & The MGs R&B and early James Brown in equal measure, not to mention some funky dance moves. ‘The screaming eagle of soul’ and his band were in the pocket from the moment they took the stage and by the way he flirts with the crowd like a cat playing with a mouse, you know he’s having as much fun as we are listening, especially through If You Aren’t Gonna Do Me Right… I Might Just Do You In and Lovin’ You Baby.

What can one write about Mavis Staples to do her justice? The 75 year-old legendary gospel soul singer still has the vocal power to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, and she works the crowd like a master, coaxing roars of approving crowd participation. The Staples Singers 1971 classic, I’ll Take You There, is astonishingly moving: a testament to the spiritual power of great music.

We’re more used to seeing Xavier Rudd in his one-man-band configuration, but he was in Freo with an uber-multicultural troupe called the United Nations. Rudd’s new band adds textured beats and a groove to his rootsy reggae-folk songs to get the hippies on their feet shaking their moneymakers, while we found Food In The Belly and Follow The Sun to be a perfectly mellow soundtrack for an interlude in the brand spanking new Blues N’ Roots Wine & Tapas Tent Bar. (Our tip for next year: barramundi and dill croquettes, freshly shucked oysters and champagne)

At 63 Keb’ Mo’ has the handsome features of a 40 year-old, but his music rings with much more life experience indeed. Blues tunes flecked with soul and country are his stock-in-trade, and he delighted the Big Top Tent with a masterful set that sizzled with the power of his highly emotive guitar playing.

Paul Kelly brought the full Merri Soul Sessions shebang to Fremantle, with no less than six singers rotating through a set of new and old hits. Australia’s finest storyteller took the mic for his own How To Make Gravy, while Dan Sultan lent an stomping R&B groove to Looks So Fine, Feel So Low. With singers the calibre of Kelly, Sultan, Clairy Browne, Vika & Linda Bull and Kira Puru, there’s no way his set was going to be any less than awesome, and a bouncy Dumb Things and the joyous spiritual Hasn’t It Rained – featuring all the aforementioned vocalists – had young and old dancing and singing the afternoon away.

Rodrigo y Gabriela’s technical artistry is astonishing – they are unofficial leaders of the new-flamenco movement – and they combine that with such melodic and percussive magic that their set is a joyous occasion. Just two acoustic guitars – that’s it! – yet their sound is the equivalent of any full band, and the capacity crowd under the Big Top Tent were transfixed and/or dancing throughout – which is more than you can say about most acoustic duos (or rock bands, for that matter). Mind you – very few acoustic duos can claim Metallica, Slayer and Led Zeppelin as primary influences, not to mention some of their members as friends.

David Gray seemed to engender a strong reaction from the main stage, delivering a set of folky pop that many danced and sung along to. Even so, it’s hard not to find Gray’s dreamy soundscapes a bit bland, without much to distinguish them from each other, but his fans – and there were plenty of them – obviously enjoyed themselves.

Arguably more than any act on the bill today, Jimmy Cliff embodies the spirit of the Blues N’ Roots Festival. The greatest reggae artist alive, Cliff’s shows are a celebration of music, peace, love and joy – all the messages that the Festival embodies.  Cliff burst onto the stage exuding pure joy. His set started off with Rasta Nyabingi drumming, with a seven-piece drum ensemble including Cliff on Bongos. He ran through all his hits, You Can Get It If You Really Want, Wild World, I Can See Clearly Now, The Harder They Come and Many Rivers To Cross as was to be expected. The real surprise was how he referenced dancehall in his set, not only by jumping into ragga riddims , but by demonstrating some dancehall moves with the help of his backing singers – Tek weh yuhself, Scooby Doo, Signal Di Plane and more dances were showcased with Cliff’s trademark energy and enthusiasm. At 67 years-old, he moved effortlessly through five decades of music from ska through reggae to dancehall.  As he said onstage ‘This is a labour of love for me’, and his performance was delightful as ever.

Scotsman Paolo Nutini won over legions of new fans with a set of soulful rock’n’roll that revolved around his sultry vocals, not to mention a charismatic presence that ensured plenty of young females in front of the stage.

Jurassic 5’s hip hop stood out from the rest of the bluesy, rootsy, reggae and soul acts on the bill, but the tent was filled with people chasing a slice of the less ordinary, and these veterans delivered with some of the sick beats they’re reknowned for in polished and dynamic performance that was high on crowd participation. Amazing.

Any return of The John Butler Trio to their old stomping ground of Fremantle is met with a special kind of parochial fervour . Any Butler set is likely to follow a similar theme, so there was jamming, there was some anti-political sloganeering, and then there was a slew of favourites such as Better Than, Used To Get High and Zebra. With Byron Luiters on bass and Grant Gerathy on drums they are an incredibly tight and funky unit, with Butler’s lead guitar playing very much displaying a love of the likes of Page and Hendrix. Even so, when he was alone on the stage, running his hands through the solo instrumental, Oceans, the intensity did not drop off one bit.

George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic took 2015’s West Coast Blues N’ Roots to the finish line with a set of psych funk from the 73-year-old madcat and his enormous troupe of musicians, dancers, backing singers and whoever else was up there on the crowded stage (hello Dixie!). The man who has done more than just about anyone to extend the realms of funk into rock and rap and more over 40 years delivered a set that was as mind-melting visually as it was musically.

And so there goes another West Coast Blues N’ Roots festival. It wasn’t its most iconic line-up, but the day always delivers with world class music and funky seaside vibrations. It makes you feel good to be alive.


Photography by Elspeth Erickson

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