Polishing up the Golden Guitars

It’s Tamworth 2013 and the Peel Street buskers now have to apply for a spot on the street before they can set up – and set up they do, with a number having sophisticated amplification systems that would rival those in many indoor venues.  And most have merchandise to sell.  There are kids not much bigger than their guitars, fresh faced and innocent, thumping out songs about heartbreak and regret for the damage that a bottle of booze has done with no hint of irony.  There are grandfathers who’ve been coming year after year, battered Akubras jammed on bald heads, strumming ancient Matons just slightly out of tune, singing Slim (Dusty and Whitman) and breaking into a yodel that never quite cuts it.  And then there are the cute young teens all blonde in bling, with push up bras, more makeup than Dolly Parton and a repertoire that veers wildly from pop to country to rap, delivered with the confident assumption that they will be noticed by an astute talent spotter and end up next year on the main stage of the biggest venues in town.

And one of them was heaving when I walked in, as it almost always is during Country Music Week, for the West Tamworth Leagues Club is one of the focal points of the festival with several of the biggest acts in country music choosing to play there.  I went to see Beccy Cole play to almost a full house.  She was, as usual, very good.  She’s a consummate professional with a gifted comic’s innate sense of timing and a well constructed act that rarely feels forced or contrived.  And she started out on Peel Street, busking, with Kasey Chambers.

But Beccy’s almost full house was, from several reports, not indicative of the average attendance figures at most performances this year.  While some of the biggest acts at the festival reported good houses, many others reported a decline in numbers, some by as much as 15%.  Committed country music fans, most of whom are probably over 45, continue to go to the festival despite the increasing cost of attending.  Accommodation in town during the week is expensive with most motels raising their prices, some, I was told, by as much as 200% and tickets to the CMAA Awards on the final Saturday night of the festival aren’t cheap – mine cost me around $120 each.  I suspect it’s the younger audience, the under 35s, who have declined in numbers in recent years and for many of them the festival has been all about having a good time, getting smashed and getting laid.  The music is simply an accompaniment to the social activity and not the principal reason they are there.

While attendance figures may have been down the diversity and quality of performances was remarkable and what constitutes music appropriate for a country music festival continues to be redefined.  In common with other genres there seems to be a quite a number of very good young female writer singers starting to make an impact.  Those I heard were remarkably mature writers and were far more impressive than their male counterparts.

The CMAA Golden Guitar Awards night was very good. Professionally stage managed, well paced, good sound, excellent performances, carefully chosen presenters and, fortunately, well briefed recipients who kept their speeches short and to the point.  Some of the “behind the scenes” cuts to the back stage area went on a bit long but these were minor issues in an otherwise enjoyable night.  Pete Denahy’s brief but very funny Instrumental of the Year acceptance speech was followed a little later by an equally humorous but touching tribute to Geoff Mack whom he brought on stage to receive his Lifetime Achievement Golden Guitar.  Geoff has lost none of his dry, quick wit despite having just turned 90 and not quite so steady on his pins these days.

In my previous essay I asked several questions to which I thought this festival might provide some answers, principal of which was the issue surrounding the relationship between the CMAA and Tamworth Regional Council. From what I understand, this year’s awards night would not have gone ahead but for the active participation and financial support of the Council.  The CMAA had a major sponsor withdraw in the lead up to the awards night ensuring that for the first time in some years the event was not televised.  Many in the audience said the evening was all the better for not having to meet the needs of a production company trying to create a TV show for a lounge room audience.  The 4,000 or so people in the audience had a great night but it does mean that the hundreds of thousands that TV can reach won’t get to see the industry’s major showcase and one of its best PR vehicles.

From the brief conversations I had with CMAA members and several local identities it is clear that there is some way to go before a productive working relationship is developed between the council and the board of the CMAA.  One former board member, and another current one, lamented the focus on matters unrelated to music and the member’s needs that consumed far too much of the board’s time.  Getting that balance right will be quite a challenge when the CMAA has such limited financial resources and is almost entirely reliant on the Council to keep it afloat.  Each has different agendas.  The Council will want to maximise the promotional opportunities inherent in the festival to drive the local economy.  The CMAA’s agenda is far broader.  It needs to grow the industry and thus its membership.  Without growth it will simply become the promotional arm of the Regional Council.

The CMAA must find a way to remain relevant to the younger country market.  The Awards will continue, the Council will see to that.  For many of the younger country performers the kudos tied to a Golden Guitar is the only reason for engaging with the CMAA at all.  And even then the music they are exploring is, in many instances, several steps removed from what that older demographic defines as “country music”.  A limited few young performers, usually no more than 22 each year, will get the opportunity to attend the Country Music Academy, (which has been deliberately accepting applicants who not more than 7 or 8 years ago might not have been considered appropriate for a country music school) but for most who profess to be country singers, they have no compelling reason to engage with the CMAA from one January to the next.

Underpinning any discussion about the future of the CMAA is the bigger question; where is country music in Australia going?  Touring is less profitable than it used to be for most country performers – even the biggest names are experiencing a drop in audience numbers.  (That said it isn’t only country acts that are finding it tougher. Everyone is.)  Where once it was possible to pull a decent audience in provincial Australia on a weeknight, now concerts focus on two or, at most, three nights of the week.  For many acts concert receipts just about cover the touring costs.  Merchandise sales provide the profit.

Ironically, venues in country towns are better than they have ever been.  There is usually a licensed club with a good entertainment room and many towns having a purpose built concert hall or refurbished old theatre with good production facilities and excellent acoustics that are versatile enough to cater for a wide range of performances.

Country music in Australia is still a minority art form – albeit with a very passionate following.  The fact remains that the biggest proportion of its audience is provincial.  Few performers pull big enough numbers in the cities to justify the costs of mounting a large-scale concert – when they do play the cities it’s usually in small, intimate venues.  I know one very good, relatively young, female singer who deliberately chooses to not use the term “country singer” in most of her promotional activity believing it might limit her work opportunities.  She sings and writes what could best be described as country music but is quite capable of genre hopping in much the same way as Linda Ronstadt did during her long and very successful career.  And I suspect that Melinda Schneider’s move into the urban market with a show built around her love of the music of Doris Day is a deliberate attempt to broaden her market in the face of a stagnant or declining “country” audience.  That it has proven to be a success is no more than confirmation of her talent as a performer.  You can put whatever tag on her you like, she’s just a very fine singer who also happens to be a good songwriter in the country idiom.  All of which suggests that in Australia, with our small market, few can afford to lock themselves into the country niche if they want a long and financially rewarding career – a willingness to expand your horizons is almost mandatory.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the genre definitions are blurring at the edges (Gram Parsons did it a long time ago). They have been for decades now.  I delight in pointing out to any who doubt the veracity of that observation that one of Slim Dusty’s most successful songs was written for him by the great Don Walker, Cold Chisel’s principal song writer and keyboard player.  In fact, along with Khe Sanh, one of my favourite songs is a stunningly sparse, haunting country song he wrote called Silos.

The music I heard at the Tamworth Festival this year was very different to the music you might have heard had you been at the first festival in the early 70s.  It’s called a country music festival but go next year and you will find everything from bluegrass to pop and everything in between.  The diversity is enormous and heartening in the willingness of so many younger performers to explore the music of many different genres and cultures.

While the Golden Guitar awards remain more conventionally “country”, there is now a category called Alternative Country Album of the Year.  While this year’s winning album was very good it was still very much within the conventional definition of what is “country music” but it does suggest an acceptance by the CMAA that the changes that have begun to take hold within the industry need to be acknowledged.  Maybe in time the winner of that award will be a much more adventurous expression of the term “country music”.  I hope so.

To conclude: country music will continue to evolve driven by the willingness and enthusiasm with which younger performers will explore wide range of genres.  They won’t feel constrained by the inherent conservatism of the older market.  Some of that evolution will be driven by purely commercial considerations, although with the continuing decline and consolidation of the large recording companies and the power of the internet that imperative has begun to disappear.  There will be many more performers who will find an audience for their music simply because they will be able to harness the power of the net.  It may not be a big audience and whether it will be large enough to sustain a financially successful, lengthy career is debatable.  I suspect there will be fewer “super stars” and many who hit the heights may find the descent happens far quicker than it might have in the past.

And for the CMAA?  It has a very difficult task. It must quickly work out how to engage with its audience and grow its membership.  At the moment it needs the Tamworth Regional Council more than the council needs the CMAA.  If it is to engage with the Council on an equal footing it must regain its credibility.  It must be seen as the genuinely active voice of country music with the power and authority to speak for a united membership.  That said it would be unwise of the Council to assume that it holds all the cards.  The Council needs a strong, financially stable CMAA capable of investing in the future of the market it represents and for which it speaks.  It will be a measure of the management skills of the mayor and those councillors tasked with building a workable relationship with the CMAA as to how successful they are in creating a mutually sustainable future for the festival and the industry.  The new chairperson and the CMAA board will be similarly judged.  I hope for the future of the industry that both parties are up to it.  I remain cautiously optimistic that they will succeed.  The music will survive, of that I have no doubt.

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Doing the Tamworth Two Step

Doing the Tamworth Two Step

I am returning to Tamworth in late January for the Country Music Festival. I have been there in early January in recent times to teach at the Country Music Academy (as it is now called) but have usually left before the festival really gets underway. This will be the first time I have played a concert there during the height of the festival for many years. I will be there for at least five days so I’ll get the chance to soak up some of the music and atmosphere that I haven’t experienced in a long time.

In common with most festivals, numbers in recent years have been down. The economy, particularly in the demographic that loves country music, has been stagnant for some time and they have not traveled as much as they might have in the past. In addition the Country Music Association of Australia (CMAA) has been through a very difficult time, struggling to maintain sponsorship funding for its Golden Guitars Award night, experiencing a decline in audiences and in membership (and consequent loss of revenue) and dismissing it’s general manager after a highly embarrassing gaff two years ago when the wrong singer was given a major award without the mistake being corrected on the night.

For all the admirable things the CMAA has achieved (the Academy being just one of many) it cannot escape criticism. I have been a member and, in common with several with whom I have spoken, let my membership lapse in the last 12 months. I have been critical of its failure to communicate with its members – in the years in which I retained my membership I was never sent a copy of its annual report (that it may not have issued one is another matter). I had no information about membership numbers, its financial situation, what it had achieved during the year, the problems it encountered or what strategies were to be adopted to address the major issues it faced.

I wasn’t asked to participate in any research into what the membership might think of its own organisation or how it might improve its services to members. Industry bodies exist only to serve the needs and interests of their membership – damned near impossible if you don’t know what they are. The failure to tangibly demonstrate care and concern for membership needs and then communicate outcomes is, I suspect, one of the principal reason why membership has declined. I should caution that on the subject of membership numbers I am speaking from anecdotal reports – I don’t have any concrete figures to back up my assertion – again another measure of the failure to communicate with the membership.

That the Awards have continued despite the serious financial state of the CMAA is due largely to the indefatigable Joan Douglas who recently retired from the board and her role as Chairperson. She has been instrumental in securing Council funding to enable the CMAA and its Awards night to continue. Council support is simply recognition of the significant income the festival generates for the town – revenue that for many businesses is the difference between making a profit and merely existing. It is also due recognition of the bond that exists in Australia between the twin brands Tamworth and country music.

And that bond will remain if for no other reason than that the CMAA doesn’t own the brand name “Golden Guitars”. It is owned by Tamworth Regional Council. Do I hear a collective intake of breath? Yep, the CMAA doesn’t own the brand name of its own awards. The brand “Golden Guitars” was ‘sold’ to the council some years ago in return for financial support to continue to grow the festival. As inexplicable as that may seem the CMAA and Tamworth are now so intertwined that it is mutually beneficial they both work together to support the short and long term interests of each other.

So, what does the future hold for the CMAA and country music? I’m not sure I know. Hopefully my trip to Tamworth in January will go some way towards answering that question. But one thing is certain, country music is changing inexorably, as is the music business in general. I have heard it said by a number of people that country music isn’t creating the stars of the past – “where are the John Williamsons, Lee Kernaghans, Gina Jeffreys, Troy Cassar Daleys and Kasey Chambers of the future?” they say somewhat despairingly. It is true that any entertainment category, irrespective of the audience it seeks to appeal to, needs “stars”. However, any preconceived notions of how you went about creating ‘stars’ has gone out the window in the digital age with the increasingly fragmented nature of the media and the entertainment environment. At the top end of the market record companies no longer simply make music and sell it. They have been forced through financial necessity to become vertically integrated businesses seeking to earn a piece of the action at every touch point between an artist and his or her audience – CD sales, downloads, merchandise, concert receipts, sponsorships, copyright royalties, endorsements, TV appearances, etc, etc. The manner in which shows such as The Voice, Australia’s Got talent, Australian Idol and The X Factor churn out instant stars who all get their 15 minutes of fame is indicative of the way in which talent is now manipulated for the financial benefit of the investors – they being the TV channels, the record companies, publishers, telecommunications companies, the production companies, etc.

How then does country music sustain itself in such an environment and how do the young aspiring stars of the future reach an audience and create a viable market?

I saw two of my past students from the Country Music Academy on The Voice this year. They sang well without ever being likely to progress much further than the first round or two. That Keith Urban was a judge probably led them to believe that they might get a sympathetic hearing. But Urban, for all his country credentials, is, in the broadest sense of the phrase, a “pop star”, albeit a slightly more sophisticated one than Justin Bieber and, given what his brief must have been from the show’s producers, was unlikely to settle for anyone who couldn’t deliver across the genre divide. That they chose to enter reflects the perception among the younger market, country or otherwise, of the road to commercial success. Country music is awash with talent quests, few of which lead anywhere and most are simply a way for the local pub or club to pull an audience without having to pay for the entertainment.

That said there is within that much maligned entertainment format a lesson to be learned. Go to any local talent quest and you will find most performers have gathered up 20 or more friends and family to come along and support them. Often it is the performer with the biggest supporter group who wins the night – grassroots fans with a personal involvement with the talent. These days it’s the performer with the biggest and most active Facebook page, website, YouTube or Twitter presence who wins. For those starting out in any genre, country, pop or rock, it’s coming down increasingly to building an audience from the ground up not from the top down for those who want to sustain a career. Building grassroots fans takes time and commitment to the process – it is a much more demanding a process than recording a killer song, getting it played on the radio and watching it rocket to the top of the charts. That helps of course but that’s a lottery few will ever win, certainly in these changing times.

And what must the CMAA do to remain relevant and not be completely subsumed by the power that the Tamworth Regional Council now commands? That’s a tough one. But it needs to be answered and the membership needs to be kept fully informed. I have just renewed my membership so hopefully I will find out.

I will continue these reflections on my return from Tamworth. Whether I will have gathered any significant insights remains to be seen, but the research will be fun.

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Stayin’ Alive

A fellow singer, who has recorded several of my songs, asked about Good Companions a little while ago. It was written quite deliberately as a concert opener many years ago and began the album Laughing In The Dark which I recorded for Alberts under the watchful eyes and astute ears of Harry Vanda and George Young. It was an attempt to provide the audience with some understanding of how I saw myself as a writer/performer – and to reveal a little personal history. When writing the lyrics for the song I created many more verses than I recorded – the original version has three verses.

In recent years I have been singing a fourth verse. It was completed some years after the original song was written but draws its inspiration from the verses I first wrote but never used. Ever since I began writing for myself I have kept all the books in which I wrote my lyrics – I still have those I wrote in from the 60s. Much of what I wrote then is pretty amateurish, self absorbed and very uninspiring, but it was a beginning. Occasionally among the dross contained in those early books will be a line or two that suggests I might have some talent for song lyrics – it’s why I’ve kept those books.

For the benefit of those who might not know the original lyrics here they are, with the chorus:

I ain’t rock’n roll, I ain’t pop or soul
country music it ain’t quite my scene
I ain’t blues or jazz, I don’t know where it’s at
I’m just somewhere in between
I’ve spent so much time out on the borderline
I don’t know which way to turn
If I ever find out what it’s all about
I might pack it all in and go home

So come all my good companions
we will sing and dance and play
we’ll forget about tomorrow
and live just for today
we’ll drink til all the wine is gone
sing til there are no more songs
dance til we have danced the night away

I ain’t no fool and I don’t play it cool
But God knows I’ve been stupid sometimes
I’ve been careless with love and I’ve lost more than once
When so little could just set it right
I start running for cover when every new lover
starts finding I’m half what I seem
I’m an innocent stranger skirting the dangers
of living his life in between

My folks said you’re crazy, some said just lazy
Music won’t keep you alive
get it out of your system then maybe you’ll listen
settle down and work nine to five
I know that I started a little faint hearted
uncertain that I could survive
but I’m still wide eyed and breathless, still feeling reckless
going along for the ride

When seeking a way to keep Good Companions relevant and fresh, (it still works well as an opener), I went back to my original lyrics and was struck by a line I had written which opened up a theme I could pursue to create a fourth verse – “sort out the truth from your dreams”. So the fourth and final verse is as follows:

Now the road is no darker than it once might have been
just longer than it might have seemed
and the journey’s no harder from where we now stand
when you sort out the truth from your dreams
so you make what you can of what little you have
and you live out one day at a time
if you hold on too fast to the dreams of your past
tomorrow might never arrive

So, why write a fourth verse? Weren’t three good ones with a strong chorus enough? The answer to the latter question is usually “yes”, three is enough. But I wanted to convey the sense that, while the opening three verses are quite personal, my world is little different to that of everyone else. We’re all in this together and I wanted to find a way to say that, to draw some broader conclusions that were common to us all.

In the end it’s about acknowledging to myself that creativity is a constant process of reinvention. And as a writer you never get it just right. It is very rare that I ever complete a song and be able to say to myself, “that’s a damned near perfect song”. There is always something that will leave me slightly dissatisfied, something that I know could have been better. It’s what keeps me alive.

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Doc Watson leaves us with wonderful music

Doc Watson died last week at the age of 89 and I quietly mourned his passing, as will many around the world.  He was the single most important influence on my playing.  I can still recall the first time I heard him.  It was a recording of several live performances at the Newport Folk Festival and his speed, accuracy and exhilarating musicality was a revelation.  I went in search of everything I could find of him on vinyl and discovered a musician who seemed to embody almost the entire history of American traditional music – folk, bluegrass, country, the blues, rockabilly, even the popular music of his youth.  Yet, for all the diversity of his repertoire he was never less than utterly convincing.

If you have never heard him try and find his first two or three solo albums.  Recorded for the Vanguard label back in the 60s they are among the most important albums of that remarkable decade.  I doubt it would be an exaggeration to say that there is not a virtuoso acoustic guitarist alive today who hasn’t been profoundly influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the playing of Doc Watson.  He was that important.  And yet it is said of him that for all the accolades he gathered during his long life he remained a humble, engaging man.

I sat for hours beside the turntable in my parents house, dropping the needle on to the vinyl, slowing down the disc to try and work out what he was doing.  I was in awe of his ability to translate traditional fiddle tunes to his acoustic guitar and still retain the speed and accuracy of the best fiddle players.  I tried to learn several of them but never quite mastered the technique – at least not enough to feel comfortable performing them on stage.

His finger picking style intrigued me when I discovered that he used only his thumb and first finger.  To this day I still occasionally drop Deep River Blues into my concert sets – I have been playing it ever since I first learned it back in the late 60s.  Now when I do it will have a slightly different introduction.  I will honour his passing and quietly thank him for his inspirational music.

RIP Doc.

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There’s a song in everything you see

I am often asked where I get my inspiration for a song.  Frequently the question is accompanied by the comment (as it was after a recent song writing workshop at the National Festival in Canberra) ….”I’ve got a melody, or most of it, but can’t seem to put lyrics to it….?”

Song writers, or writers in any discipline, be they novelists, play writers or journalists are observers.  They have an almost in-built curiosity about the world they inhabit and use what they see to write.  But they don’t just record events.  They interpret them.  They want to understand.

I was sitting in the departure lounge at Melbourne Airport one Sunday night a few months ago waiting for my flight to take me home to Sydney after a weekend concert.  My plane was en route from Hobart and there was a small crowd waiting at the lounge to meet those arriving.  I glanced at them and noticed a very attractive woman standing on her own at the back of the group.  She was really quite beautiful.  Elegantly, but casually dressed she may have been 40, could have been older, it was hard to tell.

As the passengers filed through the door I began to try and guess who she might have been waiting for.  I sized up each person as they appeared – ‘umm probably not, ah maybe? ..no, definitely not him, no not her…’ and then glanced back to her to see if she had reacted.

As the last few passengers emerged and the crew began to appear I thought, ‘It’ll probably be the Captain.’  But it wasn’t.  Whomever she was waiting for wasn’t on the plane.  Crest fallen and silent she reached into her bag and pulled out her mobile, making a call as she walked away.

In that moment I began to write a song.  I wondered who it was that she had been expecting (secretly thinking as she walked away how I would have liked to have had her waiting for me at the end of my journey) and wondering why he, or she, hadn’t arrived.

My title – which is where a lot of good songs start – was simple “I Wonder Who You’re Waiting For?”  That would be my hook line.  Sitting on the plane that night I wrote the chorus, lyrics and music (I had the melody in my head), and most of the verse lyrics.  The melody for the verses would come later, as would the bridge.

I knew before I had even started writing that I would need to leave the revelation that whomever she was waiting for didn’t arrive until near the end of the song.  I also knew that I wanted to do in the song exactly what I had done as I watched her in the airport lounge – size up the passengers as they came through the door and eliminate them one by one.  In other words I had mapped out the plot, I knew where the song was going to go before I started.  I had also concluded that it was probably going to be in the bridge where I would reveal her disappointment.  A good bridge almost always changes the direction of the song both melodically and lyrically.

During the next few days I worked on the song, completing the lyrics and most of the  melody.  The bridge melody took me longer to get right and even now, some months after finishing the song and beginning to perform it, I’m not entirely sure that it’s the best melodic solution that I could come up with.  I might change it before recording it – but, then again, I might not.  Most writers I know are never convinced that what they have come up with couldn’t be better – it’s what keeps us working at it.

The lesson in all of this is simple – inspiration comes from what is around you.  Sometimes that inspiration might be translated into a song almost literally, as I have done with this one.  More often than not the things you observe become the starting point for a song which then takes on a life of its own as you write and might end up being quite removed from the original inspiration.  The worth of a good song is what you do with the initial inspiration, what fresh insights you bring to it, what meaning you are able to find that illuminates the subject matter for the listener.  That’s the craft of good writing, finding just the right words to express your thoughts succinctly and with clarity, painting pictures that engage your audience, encouraging them to seek understanding in what you have written.  And for all but the very gifted that’s just plain hard work.

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What a Buzz!

To borrow a line from Mental as Anything – the gigs are getting bigger.  I played the National Folk Festival over the Easter weekend.  There must have been 60,000 or more through the site over the four days and the music was wonderful.  It was my first National in several decades, since well before it found a permanent home in Canberra.  I had played many when it was rotated from state to state and have many fond memories of festivals in Melbourne, Sydney and particularly Alice Springs.

Among a host of great performers Battlefield Band were brilliant, as was April Verch.  But the highlights for me were Harry Manx and my old friend Glenn Cardier.  Harry was mesmerizing.  He makes music that is deeply rooted in the blues with an eastern influence that at once seems both ancient yet contemporary.  He had a wonderful young keyboard player with him who’s choice of sounds and solos were a perfect compliment to Harry’s playing, singing and writing.  In addition he’s a consummate interpreter of other people’s songs. I walked out of the concert immensely satisfied.

Glenn Cardier is a very special talent.  I saw him twice and each time came away deeply moved by the depth and clarity of his writing.  He may well be the best lyricist currently writing in Australia.  His songs, even when he takes a lighthearted approach, are insightful and illuminating.  His humour, which is never far from the surface, is warm and beguiling and when he chooses to let go he can be powerfully energetic both in his writing and delivery.

I remember hearing an early song of his called Until the Fire Dies back in the 70s and thinking, “that’s a great song”.  There are new songs now that surpass even the best of those he wrote back then and only hint at what is yet to come.  If you get the chance go and see him work.  You won’t be disappointed.  He’s quite unique and one of the most remarkable talents this country has produced.  He deserves to be heard by a wide audience.

I played three concerts, held a song writing workshop and did an interview for the national archives – and had a great time.  The audience responses took my breath away.  I had gone with some trepidation and came away feeling deeply humbled by the warmth with which I had been received.  Many came up to me as I was signing CDs after the concerts and asked “where have you been?” – one bloke even said “someone told me you had died”.  (I think he left reassured that I was still very much alive.)  We sold virtually every CD I took with me after the first two concerts (I was kicking myself that I had seriously underestimated how many I would sell) and hearing a thousand or more people sing lustily when given the opportunity was heartwarming.

The sheer diversity of this festival is remarkable.  The modern definition of a “folk festival” is infinitely more progressive than it used to be and there is something for almost everyone to enjoy – Lady Gaga fans and heavy metal freaks mightn’t find it to their taste.

A number of programmers and artistic directors from other festivals around the country came to Canberra (The Folk Alliance had it’s AGM there) and I have been approached about my availability for several over the next 12 months.   It just gets better.


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One Guitar, a Keyboard and a Sore Throat!

The Burning Log on Feb 4 was the first time that my producer/keyboard player Stefan Nowak and I have played a concert without the rest of the band. What a treat to have him there. He’s a glorious player.

We had a full house, which was great as it was the first time I have played there. The new management has invested in revitalising a venue that has been a Dural institution for decades but needed work. They have made a great start. Still things to be done but the commitment and enthusiasm is very evident. The room ‘feels’ good, the food is excellent and the service inviting.

I must admit as Saturday progressed I was getting increasingly concerned about my throat. I rarely get problems in that regard (just lucky I guess) but by the two encores I was really struggling. Sunday morning and it felt like someone had lit a fire in my throat and I couldn’t talk for two days. Just getting over the virus now, a week later. Thankfully no gigs before early March when I’m off to Phillip Island for their Music Festival. Should be a buzz. I haven’t played there in many years and the last time I did I think it rained incessantly. Hopefully that won’t happen this time.

I have been listening to Sharon Robinson’s solo album (Invisible Tattoo) while writing this. She sings, writes, produces and tours with Leonard Cohen and has one of the most exquisitely seductive voices I have ever heard. If you saw Leonard’s recent concerts in Australia you would have heard her. The album is lovely. Beautiful songs, lots of space for her voice. Layed back R’nB and Soul, late night listening over a glass of good champagne.

Speaking of listening, Stefan introduced me to a recent album by guitarist John Scofield. Recorded with Vince Mendoza and the Metropole Orkest in Holland it has some of the most adventurous music I have heard in many years. This is jazz with a large orchestra, 50 players, some stunning arrangements and Scofield’s adventurous take on electric guitar that ranges across all his many influences. Vince Mendoza wrote the arrangements on one of my favourite Joni Mitchell albums of recent years (released 2000) called Both Sides Now. On it she re-interprets some of the classic songs from the first half of the 20th century, returning to just two of her own – A Case of You and Both Sides Now. Her version of A Case of You is breathtaking and the whole album contains some of the most beautiful vocals she has ever recorded, not to mention the arrangements, which are stunning. Recorded at Air Studios in London with Herbie Hancock on piano, Wayne Shorter, sax, Peter Erskine, drums and Chuck Berghofer on bass and a 90 piece orchestra (yes 90 players!) it’s a revelation to hear Joni so completely master these songs.

And oh what a joy to hear a real orchestra outside of a purely classical context!

Finally another singer songwriter whose work I have admired for many years – John Gorka. I have been going back and listening again to several of his albums recently. He’s an exceptional wordsmith – concise, heartfelt and poignant. Early songs like I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair and Armed with a Broken Heart still get me every time and his recent work is just as impressive. Simply recorded with his acoustic guitar and subtle additional instrumentation supporting his rich, deep voice he remains pretty much unknown here, which is a shame. He deserves a wider audience.

Okay, that’ll do it for now. Keep listening. In among the noise there’s a lot of great music out there.

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The future is back where I started

I remember so clearly going to the annual National Folk Festival.  It didn’t have a permanent home, moving from state to state, usually on rotation.  Sydney on several occasions, Melbourne, Adelaide, even Alice Springs.  And now I’m going back again, for the first time in many years, to Canberra where it now has a permanent home.

I’ve played other festivals in the past: Maleny for several years in succession before Bill Hauritz and his crew jumped off the deep end and bought land at Woodford.  I watched as it grew into the most ambitious, sprawling festival of its type in Australia and marveled at the organizational skill of its leader as he marshaled his forces, lobbied politicians – and nearly drove himself into the ground.  I sang at Port Fairy, many years ago now, and on several occasions with my old friend Doug Ashdown.

I’ve watched as the folk movement of the 60s, which spawned most of the surviving festivals, has struggled to sustain a commitment to the idealism of its youth with the need to embrace commercial reality if it is to survive and prosper.  It is a delicate balancing act that I have confronted for most of my creative life – and still do.

So now I’m back doing concerts, playing festivals and trying to sell a CD of new songs.  Much has changed and yet much remains the same.  Digital technology has revolutionized the way we market, distribute and listen to music.  The return on investment for the artist is now a more complex game of managing many different environments to ensure that you receive all you are due for your creative endeavours. Your capacity to communicate with your audience, directly, as this blog is doing, is now so much easier.  But with that ease comes a responsibility to ensure you use the technology wisely and sustain the communication in order to build an audience for what you do.

But for all the changes that are evident in the manner in which we as artists make and sell our music the fundamentals remain the same – it’s still about talent if you are to sustain a career and build an audience for the future.  It still comes back to the song.  Without it you are just another performer, and there are millions out there.

This blog will be about “the song”.  It may veer off occasionally on related topics that strike me as worth writing about, but essentially it will be about what has sustained me through my life – finding a way to express through music the things that have been, and still are, important to me as a writer.  The irony of course is that what is important to me, what drives me, what worries me, what engages me and what moves me, is no different to the things that all of us deal with every day.  I find a way to write about them.  More often than not it’s how I process what is going on around me.  That I do it through my writing is both a blessing and curse.  It’s bloody hard work, particularly as I age and get more critical of my writing.  But when it works, when I finally have a new song to sing that I am happy with, the sense of accomplishment is exhilarating and immensely fulfilling.

So, I’m going to play some of the new songs in Canberra at the National Festival over Easter – and some of the old ones, of which there are a few that I cannot avoid doing.  I’ll be nervous.  No, that’s not quite right – apprehensive.  I’ll be excited to be there for the first time in many years and apprehensive that what I have to offer will still be relevant to the audiences, most of whom probably won’t know who the hell I am and may care even less.  When you get to my age and have been doing it for as long as I have you run the real risk of being seen, or worse, seeing yourself, as a dinosaur, a relic of the past with nothing of value to offer contemporary audiences.  There will be a few who will come out of curiosity, not sure that I was even still alive.  There will be those who will know of my commercial life in the advertising and marketing industries and want to see if I have retained any integrity since “selling out”, as someone once remarked.  And I hope there will be those who will see me in a concert, wonder who he is and go away having enjoyed and been moved by the songs, bought a CD and convinced that I deserved my place on the bill.

In the end I want to walk away having convinced myself that I deserve to be on the bill.  I am, and always have been, my harshest critic.  But that’s what drives most writers; the belief that their best song is still ahead of them, that the next CD will be even better than the last, that the next performance will make the connection with the audience that they need, to confirm that what they work so hard at is worthwhile, even valuable, if only to one person.


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