I might have gushed a little last year about Canadian guitarist-singer-songwriter Scott Cook, so when I heard he was back I went along to make sure. In 2014 he was a last-minute entry and they stuffed him into the tiny Narira shed up the back, where a heads-upped crowd sweltered through a heart-on-sleeve set of blues, folk and country, more than tinged with sardonic enviro-politics. We loved him then, and we loved him again in 2015, when the organisers got wise and put him on the main Gulaga stage. At least it was a lot cooler.
He set off with Fish Jumpin’, a highlight (for me at least). Highlight No. 2 – Darkside, a hilarious parody of over-sung, classic songs he hears at folk festivals much too often. He concedes that they’re great, but he’d rather hear “all the really great songs I haven’t heard yet”. No. 3 – a neo-creationist fable by Trevor Mills, The Kid with a Comic Book. There’s “an ad for a planet with a species on the brink of developing intelligence that could be shipped in a cellophane wrapper” and the kid has a school project due (in 100,000 years), and the rest is, well, history. Then there was Alberta, you’re breaking my heart, a lament for Cook’s home state, riding high on tar-sand oil royalties. A big Canadian bank was holding a national song contest. This, said Cook, was ‘the perfect song to lose the contest’.
I was right the first time. This time I bought the CD.
Later in Mumbulla I saw singer-songwriter-guitarist Michael Menager again. In the meantime he has released an album, Clean Exit, and I appreciated hearing some backstory for the tracks. Sanctuary is a favourite of mine. It’s about having a safe, quiet place to retreat to when needed. Michael’s lyrics are personal, thought-provoking and touching. He’s a writer too, a published author, and his minimalist fingerstyle accompaniment is a backdrop to his poems.
Then I wandered through a happy melee of folkie clothes, folkie food and folkie conversations to Magpie tent for the Jim Lay Memorial Songwriters Concert. Amongst others were ex-Brogo lad Daniel Champagne, visiting from the US with his guitar and his sweet voice and lyrics; Tracey Bunn from Darwin with her low and sultry rodeo-inspired ballads; Heath Cullen inimitably drawing all he can from the silence between the chords.
I arrived late and just caught the end of Scottish guitarist Innes Campbell, who played a high-energy finger-picking and strumming dang-a-lang piece which made me wish I’d heard more, even if he did pause to adjust his laptop-driven sampler thingy for quite a long, foot-tapping while in the middle of the piece.
In Mumbulla, I saw Margaret and Bob Fagan, who’ve been singing together for 45 years. Their mix is Anglo-Celtic and Australian, traditional and contemporary, Margaret with her sweet, high vibrato and squeezebox and Bob with his gentle ballads and guitar. They also get political, and the perfect harmonies of their original, a capella Profits belied its kick.
Still on harmonies, later in Gulaga Kate Burke and Ruth Hazleton entranced a packed house. Kate and Ruth met at the Cobargo Folk Festival in 1997 and have been joining their lilting voices in song ever since.
Wherever I was, faint, intermittent bouts of clapping and whistling in other venues punctuated every act, a constant reminder of the concentrated wealth of music and talent at the Showground this weekend.
A capacity crowd squeezed into Gulaga at noon for an event called Blues and Blessings. The MC, saxophonist Reverend Steve Clark, is married to blues guitarist Fiona Boyes, who delivered one of the louder, raunchier sets of the Festival with her Hammond Trio (“She confuses people in church,” said Steve, “I confuse people in bars”).
At the time I thought, what is it with Hammond organ players? Such an ethereal lot. Twenty years ago I used to go to see one at the Rainbow Hotel in Fitzroy, Melbourne. He played three sets every Thursday night with his eyes closed, mouthing the lyrics to a song – some song, but never the one being played by the band. And now here was this one, gazing in a kind of trance at Fiona Boyes, then later at Archie Roach, his mouth a soft o. But later I checked the program. Yep, Tim Neal – same guy.
Forty members of Dan Scollay’s choir had trooped down the aisle earlier humming Just a closer walk and filled the area below the stage to deliver a rousing version of All the time, later accompanying Fiona Boyes on Canaan Land.
Archie Roach came on for two gravelly numbers for the delighted crowd. Outside, Country responded with rolling thunder and pelting rain. My notes indicate that this was when I realised I had left the car window open, but what to do? And who cares, when Archie’s channelling Louis Armstrong, the organ player’s in raptures and Fiona’s strutting the stage and belting them out. Anyway, the crowd was probably breaking all kinds of fire regulations, packed into every corner, up against the stage, in the doorways; I couldn’t have got out if I’d tried.
Steve Clark brought proceedings to a close with a quick sermon that wasn’t, and the choir receded up the aisle to Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, Since I Laid My Burden Down. All that was missing was a collection plate.
First published in The Triangle community newspaper, April 2015