Southern Fried. Perth. Friday 29th - Sunday 31st July 2016
Southern Fried. Perth. Friday 29th - Sunday 31st July 2016
Southern Fried, the annual celebration of American roots music held in the fair city of Perth goes from strength to strength, this year adding more venues and introducing an indoor acoustic stage to complement the outdoor stage (which was introduced two years ago). Over the three days of the festival these two stages hosted a total of 24 acts, an incredible opportunity to see artists from the States, Europe and the UK up close and for free. And while the major names were to be found at the paid for gigs there was a fair dollop of well known acts dotted around these three days including Appalachian archaeologists Anna & Elizabeth, UK Americana Award nominees The Dreaming Spires, singer-songwriter Norrie McCulloch and ex Thrum duo Monica Queen and Johnnie Smillie. For most folk attending however their abiding memory will be the debut performance from Texas Martha and her band of expert pickers, all French, The House of Twang. With telecaster twang, Dobro and banjo picking and Martha's joi de vivre they blew away the clouds that shadowed the opening act Shady Pete & The Blues Concessions.
With the two free stages running concurrently inevitably there are choices to be made as to which band or artist to see and to be honest I spent most of the time at the indoor acoustic stage as the quality of the acts here was just so good. However there was time to catch some of the opening act on both Saturday and Sunday's outdoor stage, all youngsters (between 13 and 17) who had spent the previous week at The Southern Fried Workshop with musicians (including Yolanda carter) preparing for the shows. The workshops are a fine example of Southern Fried's commitment to nurture and promote local talent and the variety of performances (rock, country and folk included) with nary a sign of stage fright were a perfect start to the days' entertainment. I did catch some of the set from The Strange Blue Dreams, eager to see their how their unique take on retro rock, a sound that to me is noirish, made for smoky nightclubs would come over in the cold light of day. Happy to say that the band didn't combust when hit by the rays and maintained an effortless cool throughout. A band to check out if they come your way.
One act on the outdoor stage I couldn't miss was Oxfords The Dreaming Spires who closed the session on Sunday. Clouds were gathering just before they came on but their sun spangled jangle rock blew them away allowing the sun to shine on the audience. The Road Less Travelled (from their latest EP, Paisley Overground), Dusty In Memphis and Searching For The Supertruth among others blew me away, the band at times mellow, gliding on a lap steel current, at others riding a sonic boom with thunderous guitars to the fore. Excellent.
Saturday's Acoustic stage was an embarrassment of delights. Host Findlay Napier had his opportunity halfway through the afternoon to perform his songs, many plucked from his excellent album Very Important People. Napier is a big man with a big personality and a big voice and his songs ranged in subject from Hedy Lamarr in Hollywood to cheap wine drinking in Dunfermline. Assisted on some songs by the ubiquitous Iain Sloan (from Edinburgh's Wynntown Marshals) on pedal steel he was tender and then raucous and also incredibly funny. The afternoon had opened with the walking talking and singing history lesson that is Skip Gorman. A man steeped in country folklore, in particular cowboy songs of the 19th Century, Gorman is as close to the real thing you can get these days, his guitar playing superb, his fiddle rasping away (bringing to mind John Hartford's wonderful recordings of Mississippi music) and his voice whoopin', hollerin' and yodelling. His song introductions were an invitation to enter a sepia world of bygone times as he explained the cowboy argot, told tales about Alan Lomax capturing the last of these frontiersmen on tape and why they sang to their cattle at night.
Aside from Gorman this was an afternoon showcasing home grown talent. He was followed by the latest venture from Monica Queen and Johnny Smillie which they have called Tenement & Temple. An acoustic duo the setting allows Queen's magnificent voice to shine while Smillie harmonised although his guitar skills are an integral part of the unit with his Neil Young affections still evident even on acoustic guitar on the closing moments of their single, Berlin. There was a beautiful moment as Queen introduced "the song that started it all" before delivering a spine chilling Blue Moon. The mood continued as Scotsman Norrie McCulloch beguiled the crowd with his heartfelt songs, some new, some from his excellent album, Those Mountain Blues as he played solo and accompanied by the selfsame Iain Sloan we mentioned earlier. His tribute to the late Guy Clark on Stuff That Works was delivered with some emotion but it was his own Black Dust, introduced with his memories of his coal mining town upbringing that was spellbinding. Closing the afternoon's proceedings was Lochaber based Mairi Orr accompanied by Nico Bruce on double bass and Dave Currie on Dobro. with her roots in traditional Scots folk evident in her singing she successfully weaves country and American folk into the mix with her Don't you wed another man, Maggie sounding like an Appalachian band playing in an Edinburgh folk club.
There was an equally good line up for Sunday's acoustic stage, again hosted by Findlay Napier but we had to forego this as the lure of a matinee double bill of two of Scotland's premier acts at The Salutation Hotel was irresistible, Dean Owens and Daniel Meade in the same room (although not at the same time). Owens opened with his bespoke show Settin' The Woods On Fire (Songs of Hank Williams), a tribute to, yes, Hank Williams. With his Celtabilly Allstars (Stuart Nisbet on lap steel and guitar and his old Felsons' buddy, Kevin McGuire, on double base) Owens rambled his way wonderfully through a slew of Williams' songs, honky tonkin' or crying into his beer as the songs demanded. Excellent as they were the highlight was Owens' closing solo rendition of I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. Owens was followed by the whirlwind that is Daniel Meade and The Flying Mules. Riding high on the praise for their recent album Let Me Off At The Bottom and road hardened after continuous gigging over the past few months including slots in Ireland and a tour with Sturgill Simpson Meade and The Mules are at the top of their game right now. They barnstormed through a set that had folk dancing at the front to the rockabilly and honky tonk songs that Meade seems to be able to toss out at the flick of a switch. Raucous as they were there they reined it in for a fine rendition of Goodnight Irene which the audience loved but it was the bass slapping guitar fuelled stompers such as Please Louise that set the stage alight.
As always the headline acts at Southern Fried appeared on three consecutive nights at the concert hall, their pulling power proved by the sold out notices which had appeared a few weeks earlier. Friday night saw five time Grammy winner Mary Chapin Carpenter make her Southern Fried debut. While her most recent album The Things We Are Made Of supplied several of the songs tonight including a magnificent Oh Rosetta and a stirring Map Of My Heart Carpenter reminded us that she has had a lengthy career, indeed she remarked several times that "this song is from the last century." Stones In The Road and He Thinks He'll Keep Her were applauded from the opening notes while an audience request for Halley Came To Jackson was rewarded with Chapin taking a few moments to recall the lyrics. Her cover of Lucinda Williams' Passionate Kisses was a winner as Chapin recalled a song circle both writers were involved with, again, back in the last century. She may have had her hits some years ago but her concluding Things We Are Made Of proved that she still has a killer touch. Probably the toughest gig of the weekend was that of opening for Carpenter but Ross Wilson of Blue Rose Code not only held the audience's attention but he damn near stole the show. Appearing as a trio (with Nico Bruce on bass and Iain Sloan (him again) on pedal steel and guitar) Wilson proved yet again that he is a passionate performer while his songs are second to none. The devastating Pokesdown Waltz, Grateful and Edina spilled gracefully over the auditorium while his adaptation of Robert Frost's poem; Acquainted with the Night was magisterial.
Normally Perth's concert hall is a formal affair, all seated, attendants eagle eyed for anyone trying to snatch a picture. For Saturday's show, featuring Imelda May the stall seating was removed transforming the space, in expectation I presume of dancing. However, it was so tightly packed that one barely had room to shimmy never mind try out their moves. May, the Irish rockabilly queen has had a makeover, gone is the fifties retro gear, instead she's all dressed in black rock chick, not unlike a younger Chrissie Hinds. She and her band powered their way through her most popular songs including The Hellfire Club and Johnny’s Got A Boom Boom, songs that had the audience going although I felt at times as if I were watching a rather poor Cramps substitute. May mentioned her early years singing in Dublin's blues clubs before leading the band into a leaden performance of Howlin' Wolf's Spoonful that lumbered along with little grace while some newer songs showed that she may be trying to ditch her musical persona as well as she moved into a ballad style. Apparently she's been recording in Nashville with T-Bone Burnett so perhaps she's onto something. Meanwhile as I anticipated moving on to the late show May had the audience in the palm of her hand leading them in a communal singsong that counterpointed Lou Reed's walk On The Wild Side with The Stone's You Can't Always Get What You Want. May's support act was the Afro crowned larger than life joyous figure of Yola Carter. Carter, from Bristol, was one of the acts who had worked all week with the rock school but tonight she was with her own band previewing songs from a soon to be released EP. Carter has worked with Massive Attack and has the voice to match Gospel wails with the likes of The McCrary Sisters but following her stint in Phantom Limb she's hitched her wagon to a country style which, judging from tonight's songs bodes well for the future. Roaming from fiddle fuelled country romps that recalled the band to soulful ventures as on Room To Roam Carter is a joy to see and hear, her rapport with the audience quite magical.
Sunday's show was perhaps the most anticipated of the three with Nick Lowe appearing flanked by Andy Fairweather Low and Paul Carrack. As if they were Everly triplets (or a UK CSN) the three sages played and harmonised (with no evidence of sibling rivalry) excellently allowing each of them to sing a selection of hits from their astounding back catalogue along with several well worn pop, folk and country standards which were revitalised by the trio. Lowe introduced the band but it was Fairweather Low who was the ringmaster, his humour shining throughout with Carrack the butt of several jokes. In addition to renditions of his antediluvian pop star life (If Paradise Was Half As Nice and Bend Me Shape Me) and a splendiferous Wide Eyed & Legless Fairweather Low played several excellent solos on his acoustic guitar, a reminder that he's the man Eric Clapton goes to for guitar support on tour. The Ronnie Corbett of the trio, Carrack was able to pull out several of the hits he's been involved with also. Mike & The Mechanics Over My Shoulder was warmly welcomed by the crowd while How Long, the supreme pub rock soul song by long forgotten 70's band Ace was a personal favourite as I saw the band and Carrack sing this when it was a hit. As for Nick Lowe, what is there to say? 90 minutes of him alone wouldn't cover half of his most popular back catalogue but we were treated to I Knew The Bride, Cruel To Be Kind and as a finale What's So Wrong About Peace Love and Understanding, a song that has always been topical but never more so than these days. Three guys, three guitars and a million thrills. They only do one or two gigs a year so watch out for them. Lowe et al were supported by another act who have racked up their fair share of hits in the country charts. Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis. Texas royalty almost the pair work well together with songs from their album Our Year well aired along with some of Robison's award winning songs for other artists including what seemed to be the audience's favourite, Travellin' Soldier, popularised by The Dixie Chicks. However their down home delivery in a support slot didn't translate as well as it could have in the concert hall setting, a pity as folk who had seen them the previous night on the more intimate late night acoustic stage had raved about their show.
The late night shows. Well, this is where it gets blurry. A surfeit of songs already, some drinks perhaps and well past the proper bedtime for sensible folk, that's when it all kicks off. A wristband allows access to the acoustic songwriter sessions hosted by Dean Owens and the larger band stage with five artists playing each night until around 1:30 am. Both night (sold out) were excellent, Jeb Loy Nichols and Fred Wesley and the New JBs packing the main stage on Friday although your writer spent most of the time at the acoustic sessions hearing fine sets from Liverpudlian Robert Vincent, blues singer Jo Harman's and the magisterial Texan Chuck Hawthorne. Saturday saw local heroes The Red Pine Timber Company fire up the crowd with a great mix of their own powerful songs and strong covers of country and soul numbers. We missed Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis but Amythyst Kiah was excellent as she moaned the blues. Anna and Elizabeth, a pair of Appalachian music scholars were just spellbinding. Their authentic rendition of turn of the century songs, some illustrated using an old time gizmo called a "crankie," an illustrated roll of paper turned by a crankshaft, the subsequent images illustrating the song. finally it's fair to say that Texas Martha and her merry band of Frenchmen were the hit of the night, their twang driven honky tonk songs had the audience dancing, sometimes a little too exuberantly. The band, their chops well honed from years of experience playing on the French roots and rock circuits, excellent, Martha a perfect front, her voice commanding, herself full of fun. This was their second show of the festival and later that night a lucky few saw a third as the band on returning to their hotel found a wedding in full swing, unpacked their instruments, and played a short set for the bride and groom. Hopefully we'll be hearing and seeing more of them in the not too distant future.
There were lots we didn't see. Gretchen Peters, Doghouse Roses, Brennen Leigh & Noel McKay, the rockabilly all dayer at The Twa Tams, The New Madrids. We did catch one of the new ventures, Classic Americana Albums where folk sat and listened to Steve Young's album Renegade Picker, on vinyl, in full, in silence. The album was introduced by the founder of Perth's Goldrush Records John Thompson who knew Young and there was a lively discussion afterwards on the album, the songs and Young's career and sadly, his recent passing. A fine way to spend a couple of hours (and with free breakfast and coffee well worth getting up for) the session was repeated on Sunday when Bruce Robison chose Willis Alan Ramsay's 1972 self titled album. Unfortunately I wasn't at that one but it's an interesting concept which hopefully will be repeated.
Finally, we really must mention the glory that was the midday show on Sunday in the concert hall. Titled Sunday Morning Coming Down and featuring Joe Nisbet JR. and Yola Carter along with the Southern Fried Voices, an 80-piece choir composed of local volunteers. Nisbet Jr., an acclaimed guitarist and perennial session man for numerous bands grew up in a Gospel household, his father a preacher who on occasion toured the American South with young Joe in tow. Although he's not a believer he has a lifelong love of Gospel music recently releasing a single Judge Not. He opened the show, which was a secular Sunday service of sorts with his rendition of Kris Kristofferson's Sunday Morning Coming Down before playing his new single. Joined by Yola Carter the pair delivered a sensational set of songs including Jolene, The Weight, Peace In The Valley, Seek and You Will Find and finally that song again, What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding. With the choir's voices swelling, the songs were majestic, Carter in full soul queen mode, Nisbett Jr. and band riding the rhythm like Motown's house band the Funk Brothers.
Depending on your itinerary Southern Fried can be a jam packed three day foray, exhaustive and exhausting, or a fairly relaxed pic'n'mix of some of the best acts in the Americana roots field. In any respect, it's highly recommended.