Thursday, July 24, 2008

Torchsong Country Soul Band

Last Sunday I saw a divine (relatively) new country band at the Botany View Hotel in Newtown, Sydney. The Torchsong Country Soul Band are a six-piece outfit - five men and one lovely girl singer, Maree Byrne - and they are doing a very nice line in country, bluegrass, blues and folk. It's clear that this is a 'musician's band'. All players were accomplished and obviously serious about what they do. It showed in the quality of their music, which was better than most acts I've seen at Tamworth or, for that matter, at the Botany View. They're not playing many gigs at the moment - hopefully they'll get a guernsey at next year's Tamworth Festival - but it would be so worth your time to check them out.
Or on Myspace

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Chambers-Nicholson roadshow at Penrith Panthers

I don't live anywhere near Penrith Panthers, but I was prepared to take the trip in order to see Kasey Chambers play with her husband, Shane Nicholson, and father, Bill Chambers, on Saturday 14 June. It was so very, very worth it - starting with the fact that I'd somehow ended up with front-row seats!

Shane and Bill opened the evening as a duo, alternating the lead role - Shane sang one of his songs, Bill did one of his own, and so on. My band buddy loved Bill; I preferred Shane's stuff. But the band buddy is a folkie - she appreciated Bill's grizzled ol' troubadour style.

After a short break they reappeared with Kasey, who was recovering from a cold but singing beautifully regardless. It was a real treat to have an all-acoustic show featuring Bill's array of stringed and steeled instruments as well as Kasey's trusty guitar - the beauty of Kasey's songwriting was exposed. I've long felt that Kasey is one of Australia's greatest songwriters; the test of a good song is usually when it's played in a stripped-down fashion, and her songs were all revealed as very good indeed.

Kasey likes to chat between songs, and she is endearing and funny and warm. At one stage she made a remark about how her voice must be very hard to put up with for audience members who'd been dragged along to the show. It didn't seem like a disingenuous remark - she obviously knows that some people don't like her voice (I know a few) and is at ease enough with herself to not care. What was most interesting about the show - for me, at least - was how the lack of instrumental adornment allowed her to really push that voice and showcase its range. Her voice is fundamentally a very powerful instrument with beautiful timbre, propelled by a mighty set of lungs.

The absolute highlight of the show was an impromptu version of 'Paper Aeroplane' (from Wayward Angel). The recorded version of the song features only Kasey and a guitar. On this night Kasey announced that they'd found a piano backstage, which meant she could perform the song in its original form - something she doesn't often get to do. Shane played the piano; Kasey stood, so still and without her guitar, and sang. The song tells the story of an elderly man whose wife of 62 years has died; the lyrics alone are enough to touch any listener. But it wouldn't have mattered what Kasey was singing about - I've rarely seen anyone sing so directly from the heart, and the notes that welled up from her seemed to have every single person in the audience in tears. Just a girl and piano, but what an extraordinary musical event.

Other high points were a song performed by the Dead Ringer Band - Kasey's mum and brother, Nash, appeared as Shane exited stage left - and the opportunity for the audience to request tracks from Rattlin' Bones, and actually have the requests played. But I was one of the successful requesters (asking for 'Wildflower') so maybe it was only a highlight for me ...

Kasey said that the Sydney State Theatre show in August will be half acoustic and half a band show - if it's half as good as the Panthers show, it will be an amazing night.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Kasey and Shane: there aren't enough words

I've been slack on the posting front, mainly due to the fact that I spent the month of May just working working working. I missed the Orphanage sessions for the month, and I'll miss this month's too. But I have been in raptures since I took delivery of my signed copy of Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson's Rattlin' Bones. This is one hell of an album and it just gets better and better with each listening. Kasey and Shane's voices sound like they were made for each other, although I imagine they get a lot of chances to practise their harmonies!

The balance of tracks - rough and smooth, sad and happy, rip roaring and mellow - is just right. It's hard to think of a way they could improve on it, really. Even better, they're hitting the road and I've got my ticket to the Penrith Panthers show ...

Now, can EMI explain why Shane's solo CDs are no longer available in this country? Anyone who wants them has to order them from Amazon.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bits and pieces: Dan Sultan, Tift Merritt, Nina Gordon

I’ve been slow to pick up on the many talents of Melburnian Dan Sultan ( but ever since I first heard the first song – ‘Your Love is Like a Song’ - of his first album (Homemade Biscuits) I’ve been hooked. This is one of the best songs of all time, from Sultan’s gorgeous, rough-edged, expressive vocals to the musical arrangement backing him up. The act that is ‘Dan Sultan’ appears to be a combined effort of Sultan himself and collaborator Scott Wilson; the band behind them contains horns and seems capable of playing country, rock and soul – thankfully, not all in the same song. Homemade Biscuits isn’t perfect but I’d dare suggest it’s iconic, for it marks the start of what is surely a long, illustrious career from a very talented singer-songwriter.

American Tift Merritt ( has followed up her 2004 country album, Tambourine, with the more eclectic – and, for this listener, more beautiful – Another Country. Written largely on a piano while Merritt lived in Paris, this album is quite a different journey to Tambourine but it’s worth taking it. Expect to have the CD on high rotation after about five listens.

Nina Gordon ( isn’t strictly country but she had two kind-of-country tracks on her 2000 release, Tonight and the Rest of Your Life. So I’m using that long bow to mention her latest effort, Bleeding Heart Graffiti. Okay, it’s pop. It’s pop rock, even. There’s no country music on it. But she does pop rock so well – and producer Bob Rock does such a good job bringing her pop rock to its fullest potential – that I can’t resist anything she does, and after the long wait between albums I was delighted to find that this one was even better than the last, and I’ve barely been able to stop listening to it. If you love great melodies, unthreatening but comforting lyrics and a completely satisfying, air-punching kind of CD, get it now.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Orphans: Coming into the light

No matter how many – or how few – gigs you see in a life, very few of them will move you to tears. At The Orphans’ show in Parramatta last Saturday night, the 22nd of March, I cried twice, in two different songs. Both songs were about grief, so there was a natural sniffle-inducing narrative framework, but that wasn’t the reason – it was the way the songs were played and sung.

I often think it’s the test of a songwriter’s mettle to have songs played acoustically – there’s really nowhere to hide when it’s just a guitar and a voice. On that measure, Lyn Taylor and Nick Payne of The Orphans have plenty to be proud of. These are simple songs – there are no fancy time signatures or key changes. Perhaps both songwriters know that it’s best to leave strong emotions and words unadorned, so the listener can appreciate them better. It certainly worked for me and everyone else in the audience.

At the first show for the Orphanage Sessions, in February, The Orphans were joined by pedal steel virtuoso Mike Kirkley. Clearly they’d all been rehearsing together since, for Kirkley was a seamless addition to the set for this show and really enhanced the whole experience. Ultimately, though, what made this show special was the band’s connection to their songs and to the audience. The setting made that possible – the space at the Mars Hills CafĂ© is ideal for an acoustic gig – but it also seemed as though the band members wanted to sing straight to their audience, and that meant we were all involved in making it a good show.

At one point in the night Nick said that The Orphans have paid their dues in dingy pubs across Sydney, playing to one drunk old man in the back bar or something like that. Now that they have a better venue they also deserve a bigger audience, so make sure you get along to the next show in the Orphanage Sessions (these shows are a great initiative on the part of the band and the venue). As my band buddy said on the night, ‘I don’t like many country gigs, but I REALLY liked that one.’

The Orphanage Sessions are on for the next handful of months. Details at

Friday, February 29, 2008

Caitlin Harnett at the Orphanage

The Orphanage Sessions kicked off on Saturday 23 February with a simply stunning set by Caitlin Harnett. Caitlin is 17 years old and hails from Richmond, on the northern outskirts of Sydney. It is worth mentioning her age only because it's almost impossible to believe that she hasn't been alive longer than that - her songwriting and live skills would put many older singer-songwriters to shame.

Caitlin's set was a mixture of original songs - several of which can be heard on her website and MySpace page - and nicely chosen covers; there was a gorgeous version of Patty Griffin's 'Oh Heavenly Day'. She's a quietly confident performer - not showy, but already relaxed enough to get the audience laughing when she chats in between songs. She's a star in the making, of the Kasey Chambers order.

The venue - upstairs at the Mars Hill Cafe in Parramatta - was an excellent setting for the songs: cosy, with tables and chairs and couches, coffee and food at hand and no real time pressures. Caitlin's set came first and then The Orphans got up. Although I couldn't stay for much of their set, I saw enough to know I'll definitely hang around for the rest of it next time.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Madviolet: not really country, but country enough

A few weeks ago I attended a cosy little gig at the Hornsby Ku-ring-gai Folk Club. The drawcard was Madviolet, a duo from the Maritime Provinces of Canada who have produced two albums (Worry the Jury and Caravan) of folk-type music with a chaser of country. Lisa MacIsaac plays fiddle and acoustic guitar, Brenley MacEachern sticks to the guitar, and both sing. And oh what a treat it was - so much so that I bought both their albums and drove to Canberra to see them last weekend, converting two friends in the process (they swooned at the live performance, then bought CDs).

Madviolet have been touring Australia since the new year, playing at the odd festival. For some reason Hornsby was their only Sydney gig, and that's a shame for Sydneysiders, because those who weren't there missed out on delicate, beautifully balanced playing, good on-stage repartee, wonderful musicianship and joy. These two gals clearly love what they do. I can't even really describe how their sound works, because they can play their instruments so gently that it sounds like the guitars are whispering, yet Lisa really gets stuck into the fiddle in an old-fashioned Cape Breton shindig way. They're also no slouches in the singing department - their harmonies work a treat, and they have lovely clear, strong voices.

So if you're in Melbourne or the south coast of NSW in the next week or so, go and see them. If you're in the Blue Mountains, they're doing a little house concert this Thursday, the 21st of February. If you're not able to see them this time around, cross your fingers for a return visit. I don't know why they didn't play at Tamworth, since they were in the country at the time, but they should be invited for next year. Please!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sydneysiders, take heed: The Orphanage Sessions are coming!

While in Tamworth I was given a postcard-sized flyer for something called The Orphanage Sessions, a new series of gigs organised by Sydney duo The Orphans, to take place at the Mars Hill Cafe in Parramatta, aiming to showcase the talents of country/roots musicians (including them!). It's a great line-up and any Sydney country/roots/folk fan worth their salt should get along, because the featured musos include Caitlin Harnett, Dave Walls and the inimitable Karl Broadie. The list of dates is:

23/02 Caitlin Harnett
22/03 Sam Hawksley
26/04 Jessica Belle
24/05 Dave Walls
28/06 Karl Broadie

Sounds like a civilised evening - punters can sit at tables and order food and beverages, and the nana within me loves the sound of that. So hopefully I'll see you there ...

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tamworth report: Up-and-comers

Country music – Australian country music, at least - is unique in the amount of opportunities it affords young people to get a musical education and get some experience playing live. The Starmaker and Telstra Road to Tamworth competitions are loaded with talented under-25s, some of whom I was lucky to see play at this year’s festival. Here’s a short round-up:

Caitlin Harnett: The buzz is big for this Sydneysider, who has attended Camerata, the Country Music School. Although she had a cold the day I saw her and wasn’t feeling her best, her lovely voice and engaging stage manner were still evident. She was playing with …

Olivia Hally: I was impressed with this Victorian’s singing and guitar playing (she's also a Camerata graduate). She had a nicely different take on some country standards, including ‘Jolene’.

Adam James: This Starmaker finalist launched his CD, Messages & Memories, at the Tamworth Hotel. He’s in the Troy Cassar-Daley songwriting vein, which is good – anyone who emulates Troy is good!

Claye Middleton: A quiet performer with a lovely singing voice – great pitch and timbre. I expect to see him back for many years to come.

Chad Shuttleworth: Caught him busking outside Tamworth Shopping World, and his cheeky charm had attracted quite a crowd. He was definitely in the ‘entertainer’ branch of the country music family (where Beccy Cole and Adam Harvey are ‘entertainers’, and Kasey Chambers and Troy Cassar-Daley are ‘singer-songwriters’ – this is a loose division of my own creation, and subsets do occur). I would have paid money to see him, so I put some in his guitar case.

Tamworth report: Danny Widdicombe

The Tamworth Hotel, 25 January

When he arrived in Tamworth Danny Widdicombe had no idea he was going to play the afternoon slot at the Tamworth Hotel, where he was appearing in Karl Broadie’s band at night. But when the band that had been performing from 2 till 5 had to abandon ship, Widdicombe stepped in and gave everyone present a delightful afternoon of music, all the more special because it had been unexpected.

As rain pelted down on the garden stage, the instruments and equipment were moved into the front bar, allowing everyone to get cosy next to the pool tables. Accompanied by Fiddleboy a.k.a. Luke Moller a.k.a. ‘The Champ’ (for he had won the national bluegrass fiddling championships), Widdicombe plunged into over two hours of songs from his album The Transplant Tapes, as well as Beatles and Neil Young covers; the highlight was a sublime version of 'Dear Prudence'. Having seen this duo play, and on other occasions seeing Karl Broadie and Johnny Kendall play together without accompaniment, I’ve decided that a guitar-and-fiddle duo is a wondrous thing (of course, you need the right guitarist and the right fiddler, but I’m not ruining a good theory over detail thanksverymuch).

After not even drawing breath for a set break, Widdicombe eventually stepped aside to give The Falls some time at the microphone, then regrouped with The Champ and brought in, separately, Kevin Bennett from The Flood, Michael Roberts from Karl Broadie’s band and the mighty Den Hanrahan - as well as a dude called Dax whose full name I don’t know - for a couple of songs each. It was the best kind of free-form musical love-in and you could tell that the punters felt they’d been treated to something very special. It’s again a mark of the kind of festival Tamworth is, that musicians of this calibre could all be found in one place and with enough time to take up this sort of opportunity and make something unique for everyone in the room. It was like the best kind of Christmas present.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Tamworth report: The McClymonts

West Tamworth League Club, 25 January

The McClymonts’ first ‘big’ Tamworth show (they have busked and played support for other acts in the past) was in itself a big ticket – it sold out several days in advance. So I was feeling pretty smug – despite some ribbing from others – about taking my place in the audience at Wests. I’d even caught the sisters’ Big W in-store earlier in the day to get in the mood.

As noted elsewhere in this blog, I love the McClymonts. I love it all – the fact that they’re sisters, that they glam it up, that they play instruments, that they have great harmonies. I wasn’t disappointed in the show. It was like reading 10 women’s magazines all at once – it was that satisfying in a pop-cultural way. From squealing small children to overexcited grey nomads to even one Guy Sebastian hanging near the back, this show had oomph. Much to my delight, they played my two favourite tracks from their 2006 EP, as well as almost every track from their long-player, Chaos and Bright Lights. There was no revolutionary musicality going on – it was pure entertainment, of the sort that Australian country music stars do so well. And at 20 bucks a ticket, it was a bargain. I would go again, although perhaps not for a while – they don’t have enough material yet to create a diverse string of shows. But they have stage presence and lovely voices and I’m glad they’re around.

Oh yeah, Morgan Evans and Nick Kingswell supported. Both pretty good. But they weren’t wearing dresses and they weren’t sisters, so I wasn’t really paying attention. Sorry, lads.

Tamworth report: Karl Broadie

The Tamworth Hotel, various dates

I first saw the Scotland-born Broadie playing at the festival in 2005, and fell in love with his music almost straightaway. The first song on his first album, Nowhere Now Here, sealed the deal. Since then I’ve seen him play several times and the lustre has never worn off. Broadie is one of Australia’s greatest singer-songwriters and live performers, and his popularity at the festival increases each year for very good reasons: he’s exceptionally good live, whether he’s playing with a band or on his own (as he appeared with the Like Minded Felons, James Blundell and Nik Phillips, at the Southgate Inn) and, as one fellow punter told me in the ladies’ loo, ‘He’s so entertaining’. Broadie’s on-stage ease makes his audience feel relaxed, so we’re more inclined to settle in for a few sets, knowing we’re in good hands. And, as he is now the proud papa of three full-length albums and an EP, he has more than enough material for a few hours on stage.

Most of Broadie’s 2007 Tamworth band – not his usual touring outfit – were back, and the calibre of their playing only increased the value for punters. Danny Widdicombe from Brisbane took on lead guitar duties with aplomb; Victorian Johnny Kendall added his sublime fiddle skills to the mix. Kendall is perhaps Broadie’s greatest live collaborator – an intuitive, versatile musician who reads between the musical lines of the songs and finds all sorts of delightful nuances (he was also much in demand to play with other acts during the festival). Michael Roberts – who produced Nowhere Now Here – took keyboards and about twenty other instruments; every time I looked he was playing something new and it all added to the layering of the songs. Wrangling all these talents together was the very solid rhythm section of Greg Gillett on drums and Stevie JB (full name unknown). I should also mention that everyone except Stevie contributed to backing vocals. At one time I thought that if anything blew up on the stage Australian music – let alone country music – would never recover from the loss of all these talented folks.

Karl Broadie’s gigs are always a highlight of my Tamworth and it was wonderful to see lots more people this year enjoying this divine music. It is too easy to take a performer like Broadie for granted – he doesn’t demand attention in the way of some ego-challenged musicians; he allows his music to speak for him, and it’s also too easy to take this music for granted when it seems to pour out of him so effortlessly. But it’s harder than it looks, and from some of the comments I overheard it seems like lots of people are starting to appreciate the effort he goes to. It couldn't happen to a more worthy fellow.

Tamworth report: The Huckleberry Swedes

The Family Hotel, 23 January

The Huckleberry Swedes’ gig was my first stop upon arriving in the country music capital. I’d already previewed their music on their MySpace page; they’d also received a recommendation on Wendy’s Choice Picks. So I knew they’d be better than average, but anything can happen at a gig – a bad PA, for example.

The nature of Tamworth is that you can meander around from venue to venue, and there’s so much on that staying for three sets of one band is not always the best use of your time. But once the Huck Swedes started playing, I lost any inclination to go anywhere else. What a seductive sound – delicately balanced instrumentation and vocals, plus great stage get-up (late 19th century--looking britches and caps, shirts and a tie that was literally a bow). Their original songs were beautiful and clever, and they do a few very nice covers, including Patty Griffin’s ‘Making Pies’.

Spending three hours in the company of this Adelaide gang of five was the best possible way to start festival activities. While they’re not strictly country – ‘alt country’ possibly applies, but they cross a lot of genres – they exemplified one of the best things about the festival: categories don’t matter, just music, and if you’re playing music then you’re welcome.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

CD Review: Live at Lizotte's by Beccy Cole

Beccy Cole is one of Australian music’s great entertainers and, as such, highly underrated – I always wonder why she isn’t better known, because she has a wonderful voice and an extraordinary stage presence (yes, the superlatives are flying thick and fast – she deserves them).

Perhaps Live at Lizotte’s will enable more people to understand this live-performance powerhouse, because (unlike some live CDs) it is representative of what a Beccy Cole gig is really like: a range of musical moods and a great deal of genuinely funny on-stage banter - even after several spins round my CD player, I was still holding my sides laughing at some of her lines. It’s also a chance for fans like me to get their hands on some new songs, including ‘Lifeboat’ and ‘Opposite Prayers’, plus some covers – Carole King’s ‘Natural Woman’, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Say You Love Me’ and 4 Non Blondes’ ‘What’s Up’. There’s also tested Beccy favourites such as ‘Blackwood Hill’, ‘Men Don’t Dance’, the always-funny ‘Sorry I Asked’ and what I think is one the cleverest songs ever written (and she wrote it): ‘Lazy Bones’. Those who have seen Beccy live will know what she does in the coda of this song – recorded on this CD for repeat-play entertainment.

Beccy is joined by Kasey Chambers for a truly lovely rendering of ‘Those Memories of You’ , and by Gina Jefferies and Sara Storer for a cover of John Williamson’s ‘Galleries of Pink Galahs’. The latter is probably the only song that I didn’t out-and-out love but this album really is a worthwhile purchase for Beccy’s existing fans – in true country-music fan-friendly style, she has included enough old and new material to keep them happy. Live at Lizotte’s is also the best possible introduction to the Central Coast songstress for those who have heard the odd song – probably ‘Poster Girl’ – and are wondering whether the rest of her work is any good. It is. She is fabulous, and one of the best assets to the Australian music industry (not just country music). Now – where is her ARIA?

Beccy Cole: Live at Lizotte's (ABC/Warner Music)