Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Australian Bluegrass

By Justin Eubanks

G’day from the sunny land of Australia! After returning from our adventures in the Blue Mountains I decided it was time to start buckling down and getting ahead on my musical research project, which involves doing what I love most: meeting friendly people, seeing music, and playing music with my newfound Australian friends. In between morning lectures and our afternoon excursions, the past week has been a whirlwind of music, new friends, and jam sessions extending into the wee hours of the morning. To start my research project I got in touch last week with various musicians and music lovers through the Sydney Traditional & Old-Time Music Society, and they’ve welcomed me with open arms. The Society has been around for about thirty years, and is comprised of a very tight knit group of musicians and fans in Sydney who all perform with each other, host jam sessions, and support all the different types of bluegrass and old-time music that comes through town. On Tuesday night I met up with Jenny Shimmin, a wonderful woman who has been a thirty-year fixture in the Sydney bluegrass scene and one of the best banjo players I’ve had a chance to play with. After getting to know each other a bit and chatting about music at some length and the instruments we play we realized that we have both been struggling to learn the art of fiddling, which is no easy task to pick up. After a wonderful home-cooked meal we decided to bust out our fiddles and show off our skills (or lack thereof). After hammering away on some screechy fiddle tunes for a bit we decided to switch to our primary instruments and delve into the world of Australian bluegrass. I was instantly blown away by her playing and her level of musicianship and dedication to the banjo. It’s certainly not something you see every day, and the last thing I expected in Sydney was to find a sixty year old woman who is a world-class banjo player who has brushed shoulders and jammed with some of the greatest banjo players of the past century. Jenny invited me to come to one of her gigs two nights later, at a pub called the Green Room in a neighborhood called Enmore. It was just a few kilometers from where our Lewis & Clark group is staying but I hadn’t gotten a chance to check it out yet so I got there early and explored the neighborhood a little bit.  It was very refreshing to find a part of Sydney that wasn’t full of tourist shops and endless Chinese food restaurants. Her band, Oh WIllie Dear, is comprised of Jenny on banjo, Anna on fiddle  who recently moved back to Sydney from London, and two guitar players and singers both named Daniel. I was very impressed by their extensive repertoire of classic American bluegrass songs as well as their soulful, heartfelt original tunes, and it was clear that there is a very high level of musicianship for all the members, with each of them setting a high standard for themselves and each other.  After their set was over Jenny introduced me to some of their friends, an eclectic and delightful group of people. I met the main coordinator of the Sydney Bluegrass Society and she invited me to join them on Saturday to the Illawarra Folk Festival, located in Wollongong about 80 kilometers south of Sydney. I had no idea just what an adventure lay in store.
The soothing sounds of Oh Willie Dear
Photo by Jennifer Allyson
The festival organized a train specifically for musicians to play on the two-hour train ride south, so Saturday morning I caught the bus downtown with my fiddle and mandolin and hopped on board the music train. I ended up staying in the bluegrass train and we played for most of the train ride, with different musicians coming in and out from the other cars. The bluegrass was perfect train riding music, and there was a very captive audience of non-musicians on the train as well. We had about six or seven people playing for most of the train ride, including a full upright bass in the aisle. Before arriving at Wollongong I decided to explore the other cars and see what other jam sessions were going on. One car had more folky singer-songwriter types playing, another featured gypsy jazz with several accordion players, and another car also had bluegrass circle.
Our official train greeters
A few of the many musicians performing on the train
After arriving at Wollongong I decided to explore the town a little bit before heading to the festival grounds at the local racing track. It is truly a beautiful little seaside town, peppered with small antique shops and cafes along the main street and flanked by lush forests and hills to the east. I arrived at the festival expecting to pay $70 for a day pass, quite the strain on my student budget (hello rice and beans for the next month) but fortunately one of the organizers recognized me from playing on the train and gave me a discounted volunteer pass which I was incredibly thankful for. It’s really wonderful how playing music and meeting people in a musical community can really open doors, especially in a new place. If I hadn’t already, I quickly realized that Australians love their music and are incredibly welcoming and supportive of young musicians. It was still before noon and most of the acts across the six different stages hadn’t started yet, so I met up with Jenny and her bandmates and we quickly got a jam session going, where one person would call out a tune (usually a bluegrass standard that people are expected to know) and everybody sings and passes around solos, or takes turns playing the melody (this is popular for fiddle tunes that people arrange for the different instruments, so each instrument takes a turn playing the fiddle line while the other instruments provide rhythm). After jamming for a while and meeting heaps of musicians (including one banjo player with his six year old son who is learning to play and learning to jam-absolutely adorable) I decided to go and explore the different artists at the various stages and tents.
Melbourne-based band the Ruby Roots
Photo by Tim Dickinson
"Campbell the Swaggy," an Aboriginal storyteller regaling audiences
Mustered Courage--Young bluegrass picking sensations hailing from Melbourne

I was blown away by the range of music I got to experience, the first group I saw was called The Volatinsky Trio, and they played a beautiful mix of classical music and Russian compositions, lead by a beautiful hammered dulcimer player from Belarus. Over the course of the day I got to experience music from all over the world including a Latin fusion band, a South American drum ensemble, a cajun zydeco band, several bluegrass and country bands, several solo singer-songwriter acts, a polka accordion ensemble with the most accordions I’ve ever seen in one place, Eastern European gypsy jazz, and countless more acts that I couldn’t even categorize. In between sets I would go back to the instrument lock up and grab my mandolin and find different groups of musicians to play with and met even more wonderful people and fantastic musicians over the course of the day. Towards the end of the night a woman approached me and asked if I wanted to join her and her band for a set on stage in one of the tents and I agreed. Their set was at ten PM, and when it came time to meet up with them I couldn’t find them anywhere and couldn’t remember the name of the stage they were playing at. Right as they were about to go on stage I discovered them at one of the far corners of the festival grounds, and hopped on stage in the nick of time. We played a completely unrehearsed set of a couple jazz standards, a few rock covers and a couple folk standards, and for all the spontaneity it went over very well. After our set I met back up with the group I rode on the train with and we headed back to the train station to catch the last train back to Sydney. Luckily we got there in time or we would have been stranded for the night. The train was comprised of a mix of people returning to the festival and others who were a little taken aback to find their car suddenly overrun with musicians. Somebody produced a bottle of wine and the instruments came out of their cases and we entertained the other passengers all the way back to Central Station in Sydney. Nobody wanted the night to end so we caught a cab over to somebody’s house and continued playing music and singing until four in the morning or so when we finally decided to throw in the towel. The members of Oh WIllie Dear asked me to perform with them Sunday night for a gig over in the King’s Cross area of Sydney, and the weekend ended with a great performance at the Old Fitzroy Irish Pub, followed by another jam session lasting late into the night once again. This has been one of the most fun and most memorable weekends I’ve had, and my advice to anyone visiting Australia is to bring an instrument, and you will not be disappointed by the opportunities that provide themselves and the people that you meet. In this one weekend alone I made so many new friends and was able to meet and play with many incredibly talented and inspiring musicians.

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