Last week, Melbourne once again played host to three days of concerts and conferences when the annual Australasian Worldwide Music Expo (AWME) came to town.
Despite a plethora of insightful industry conferences with some of the best and brightest in the biz, the evenings were always going to be the highlight. Showing off the finest veterans and up-and-comers in blues, roots, country, pop and soul, premier music venues across the city held showcase nights – grouping together the best examples of Australian artists from a specific genre.
Artists of varying abilities and experiences shared the bill every night, and watching on, delegates representing record labels, media, websites, festivals and booking agents, as well as eager fans.
This year’s AWME boasted a particularly strong alt-country field. From big bluesy pub bands to haunting slide guitars and gothic-folk storytelling, the alternative performers captivated their sold-out crowds. A couple of very contemporary musicians were stand-outs too, with the pop stars of this year’s event throwing a big party to play out the festival on the final night.
Below is a selection of my personal favourites from AWME 2015…
Raised By Eagles:
Melbourne’s alt-country four piece Raised By Eagles were a laid-back but tight outfit to kick off night two of AWME. Raw and real, their interpretation of rock n’ roll Americana is best heard live. Scruffy frontman Luke Sinclair got the road tripping storytelling underway, supported musically by drummer Johnny Gibson, bassist Luke Richardson and co-vocalist Nick O’Mara on stunning lead Fender and slide guitars. Their relaxing set lent heavily on their latest LP release, Diamonds In the Bloodstream, a excellent alternative album that just won two gongs at the recent Age Music Victoria Awards (if you weren’t already convinced). Their setlist – a collection of tales covering themes of regret, hope, home and distance including highlights ‘Sugar Cane’ and ‘Waterline’ – encapsulated the art of storytelling at its heartfelt finest. “So far away from home,” Sinclair sung with effortless authenticity, “holding the wrong side of the wishing bone”. The local lads played to a sparse but attentive crowd at Max Watt’s (formerly the Hi-Fi Bar), setting the bar incredibly high so early on in the night.
From a boat out West to a bar in trendy Melbourne, flame-haired sassy songwriter Ruby Boots has certainly come a long way. For Bex Chilcott – the frontwoman of the band – it’s all about taping into her gypsy heart and telling it like it is. Her latest album Solitude features stunning singles such as ‘Middle of Nowhere’, ‘Wrap Me In A Fever’ and ‘Ruby Blue’, all of which translated effortlessly live. A sound reminiscent of old country swagger with a modern day edge, soaring and upfront vocals and classy hooks, Boots has been adding flair to the Australian alt-country scene for some years now, and with a tight band in tow, this night was no exception. “Thank-you Melbourne for adopting me” she shouted sweetly. “I love you”. Strapping on a bulky acoustic, boot-scooting Boots and band strummed their way through a set of originals to a fairly full crowd. Flanked by twangy slide guitarists, the sound was a feminine take on the classic country tropes and a perfect follow-up to the boys in Raised By Eagles.
Cash Savage and the Last Drinks:
Fiery, unlikely frontwoman Cash Savage stalked the Max Watt’s stage. Head-to-toe in black, her angry eyes scanned the audience as she paced back and forth before a six-piece band. Pub band sound on steroids, the Last Drinks are a musical juggernaut live, shaking and breaking the floorboards with their heavy riffs and fiddle eruptions. Hypnotising with her signature brand of country, blues and authenticity, Savage put on a growling and enigmatic vocal performance. Although her lyrics were difficult to decipher live, it was her presence that took centre stage. ‘Bareknuckle Boogie’ and ‘Howling for Me’ saw Savage’s voice soar full of grit and gravel over a foot-stomping beat, whilst ‘I’m In Love’ provided a brief breather from behind a guitar. She seemed fidgety and restless, unable to stand still except with a guitar (albeit briefly) strapped one, and even then her feet threatened to wander. She ended on a few belters before a quick and quiet thanks and poof! – she was gone.
Henry Wagons & The Only Children:
Charismatic cowboy Henry Wagons can’t help but make you smile. From his leopard print jacket and chopped bob to his tinted sunnies and cheeky smile, Wagons is a bona fide frontman. Semi-solo with a new band in tow, The Only Children, the shaggy showman was in his element at the end of the night. His new body of work was recorded extremely recently in Nashville, and Wagons was keen to show off his latest tunes. Balancing somewhere between blues and country rock n’ roll, songs like new single ‘Cold Burger, Cold Fries’ are baritone odes to his misspent youth. With savvy songwriting traversing the years from “young, drunk stupid Henry” to “more settled, father, older stupid Henry”, Wagons’ material is lap steel laden and reverberating. It was an energetic gig, with Wagons losing his glasses and breaking a string all in one song (but thankfully local singer-songwriter Fraser A Gorman was on hand to re-string mid-performance). Towards the end of the show he entered the moshpit to serenade a young man and crazy dance with a middle-aged Asian woman – always the consummate entertainer!
The final night of AWME kicked off behind the dim, cosy curtains of The Toff In Town. Mysterious troubadour Archer got things underway with a relatively understated (perhaps underestimated) set. Perched on a stool with an old guitar, Archer mainly let his old-timey stories do the talking. Singing weathered tales of Australiana in a voice more suited to an old digger, Archer half-spoke, half-whistled folk tunes of yesteryear. Tall and tan with big blues eyes and rugged attire, it was impossible to tell just how old Archer was, especially given his setlist drew inspiration from ancient folk and blues folklore. From working on a farm to love letters from afar, Archer’s music was steeped in experience and poetry. His accompanying guitar sounded wounded and raw, violently plucked and strummed in a room that fell silent to appreciate the authenticity of what they were witnessing. He chatted random anecdotes between songs and took swigs from his glass on the floor, and we stood and listened to every sound.
The almost standing room only crowd hesitantly moved further towards the stage. “I’m shy too it’s ok,” singer-songwriter Jess Ribeiro whispered, her cheeky band on either side. Ribeiro plays intimate and haunting folk music, and it’s true, live it is a set best listened to up close and personal. Her voice is appropriately lazy and moody, especially on her melancholic single ‘Kill It Yourself’. “This song is about chickens” she said, introducing it with an air of nonchalance that perhaps didn’t quite give it justice. “Sharpen the blade, don’t make a fuss, as fast as you can, kill it yourself” she crooned crystal-clear over a sparse keyboard soundscape, suddenly and rather wonderfully turning the hot Toff band-room cold with her lyrics. The pace picked up ever so slightly with latest hit ‘Hurry Back To Love’, and her smiley guitarist unleashed some dangerous but dainty riffs. The on-stage banter was cringe-worthy but cute, as Jess and her female bass player exchanged faces and quips. They mightn’t quite know how to work a crowd yet, but their music does it for them.
We wrapped up in spectacular soul fashion. From being one-half of pop duo GL, to collaborations with Dorsal Fins, The Bamboos and sharing the stage with none other than Mark Ronson at his mammoth Splendour sideshow earlier this year, Melbourne’s own Ella Thompson has been a busy-bee. Her debut record Janus got it’s outing again here, and its singles ‘I Go Over’ and ‘Arcade’ got the crowd bopping. Luscious with 80s synth and electronica guitar riffs, Thompson’s set suited the dance-floor feel of Max Watt’s on the final night of AWME. Slick and chic in a straight black shift dress, tights and blonde bob, the glittery chameleonic chanteuse’s tracks translated relatively well live, with her lyrics and vocals alternating between husky whispers to empowered bellows. The electro-melancholy vibe added as much optimism as it could through its arcade game soundscape and synth fuzz. Although she played predominately from behind a keyboard, Thompson’s crowd were up-and-about from go to whoa.
Australian nu-soul songstress Ngaiire was obviously an artist on a lot of people’s bucket lists for this year’s AWME. With Max Watt’s at close to capacity by 11pm, the tiny soul queen emerged flamboyant and funky in a technicolour dreamcoat and black hot pants. Joined by two backing female singers and one male (the co-singer from the New Venusians, Christian Hemara), a vibrant pop-soul sound was well and truly underway. Hailing from Papa New Guinea via NZ and now based out of Sydney, the multicultural pocket rocket’s music is often compared to the likes of Solange and Erykah Badu. Cool, sexy and soulful, Ngaiire’s powerful vocals cooed on hit ‘Once’ and seduced on latest single ‘Rabbit Hole’. She grooved from behind a DJ desk, eyes closed beneath a thick mane of bronde hair. Tip-toeing across the stage in pimped-out sneakers, Ngaiire joined her backing singers for a boogie (her ballet background evident in her elegant booty shakes). Smooth and sultry over a barrage of hypnotic backbeats, an impromptu sing-a-long rendition of ‘Fall Into My Arms’ was dedicated to the shocking attacks in Paris that had just come to light, ending another successful showcase at AWME on a message to comfort us all – music brings people together.