Blues ‘n’ Roots 2009 @ Fremantle Esplanade
Every year, the Blues ‘n’ Roots festival makes its own unique demands upon music lovers. Chiefly, the complex logistics involved in AVOIDING some of the god-awful acts that play there. The John Butler Trio (Christ! Three times as bad as John Butler)? Missy Higgins (Jesus! Is she still barefoot?)? LABJACD (the notion that exuberance somehow creates good music)? Paul Kelly (pass the Nembutal)? Luka Bloom (what is Luka Bloom? Man? Woman? Algae?)?
Luckily most of those acts were confined to the main stage – which we gave a wide berth, apart from a cursory inspection of the adjacent “VIP” area for anything blogworthy. No such luck. The VIP area more resembled a school P&C meeting. Tables and chairs were neatly laid out in rows and you were asked not to stand in the way of people seated. RIP rock ‘n’ roll.
We got out of earshot of Paul Kelly as quickly as humanly possible and went to check out the mung-bean food stalls. They were doing brisk business thanks to the mainly weed-smoking crowd. Crowd watching is always fun at these ropehead knees-ups. We saw a few lobbers but they looked hopelessly out of place. Their incongruously ecstatic contortions and gurnings to Paul Kelly’s “From Little Things” provided some light relief in a festival that was otherwise mostly devoid of humor.
The predominately shoeless stoner crowd also gave a gentle edge to the day – a nice change from summer’s other festivals which seemed to be filled with intense, badly tattooed, wild-eyed young people determinedly assaulting their frontal lobes with noxious chemicals.
And the joints were lit-up bigtime for reggae topliners the Easy Star All Stars in the JJJ tent. These guys had previously recorded a reggae version of Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon (Dub Side of the Moon) which received quite a warm critical reception at the time. They also did a reggae version of Radiohead’s OK Computer album.
Anyway, they kicked off with Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” (from Dark Side of the Moon) and it was fantastic. “Wow,” I thought. But after this stellar start they proceed to do half-a-dozen Beatles’ covers which were atrocious. I’m sorry, but they sounded awful. Irony doesn’t work that way. The only Beatles’ number that vaguely worked for them was “When I’m Sixty-Four” (don’t ask me why). The crowd didn’t seem to mind too much, though, they were baked.
The band finally got around to doing some more Pink Floyd with an audacious attempt at “The Great Gig in the Sky.” They shouldn’t have bothered, it was shocking. A clumsy and annoyingly dischordant reggae “beat” demolished the subtleties of any melody while the lass putting her voice through its paces had her voice so overly electronicized and digitally altered by the mixing desk (presumably to give it the oomph necessary) that it was a little embarrassing to be in the audience listening to it.
After the jolly japes of the JJJ smoking room, oops, sorry, tent, we headed off to inspect party band LABJACD. I have a theory that these guys and others like them (think Cat Empire) spend their lives tripping around the world from festival to festival. Cleverly, I believe, these guys have bypassed the usually obligatory “starting at the bottom” tenet of rock ‘n’ roll. They have shunned the traditional live music business model of local pubs and clubs and gone straight for the jugular – the festival/world music circuit. The Perth Festival, Womadelaide, Byron Bay, Montreux – on any given day there’s going to be some freakin’ festival happening SOMEWHERE in the world.
I don’t know what the festival circuit pays but I’d bet that playing a Festival of Perth Beck’s gig pays a hell of a lot more than the Railway Hotel on a Friday night.
And once you’re on the festival circuit, it’s probably an easy, self-reinforcing ride. If you’re the organizer of a music festival the last thing you want to be wasting your time doing is assessing the actual musical worth of the artist you’re contemplating booking.
“Hey, Sarah, what have we got for Friday the 12th?”
“Well, how about these guys LABJACD?”
“Hmm, they look cool. Wow, a turntable connected to a computer and some bongos. I love the Latino ‘tashes on those two! Are there any black guys in the band? Where have they played?”
“They did Womadelaide last summer.”
“Great, book ‘em.”
We only got to hear one LABJACD song. It was tight and competent but strangely devoid of musical passion. These guys make all the right moves and look like they’re having a good time but I don’t buy it. It looks like “a show” rather than a bunch of musicians creating something more than the sum of their musical parts. Cat Empire have this problem too. It all seems too calculated and designed around that tired cliché of “infectious latin rhythms” p-a-r-t-a-y time high jinx which CAN work (a la The Avalanches), but it has to have some authenticity in it, you’ve got to have SOME belief in what you do.
Time to go back to the JJJ tent to see Tony Joe White. He’s 66 and looks it, performing the entire gig seated in a plastic garden chair. He had a drummer and an Elton John clone on keyboards to back him up. He should’ve left them at home. The keyboard player’s weird electronic noodlings and samples did nothing to enhance The Swamp Fox’s dark tunes. There were some instances where you caught a glimpse of the man’s talent but he looked completely shagged and like he wanted to be somewhere else. Maybe it was the dope smoke leftover from the Easy Star All Stars set. The venue didn’t work for the man either, with booming noises crashing in from the LABJACD gig over the way. The Ellington jazz club should have booked this guy and it probably would have been a superb gig.
We didn’t hang around for Dweezil Zappa playing his dad’s songs.